The Greater Common Good
I stood on a hill and laughed out loud. I had crossed the Narmada
by boat from Jalsindhi and climbed the headland on the opposite
bank from where I could see, ranged across the crowns of low, bald
hills, the tribal hamlets of Sikka, Surung, Neemgavan and Domkhedi.
I could see their airy, fragile homes. I could see their fields
and the forests behind them. I could see little children with littler
goats scuttling across the landscape. I knew I was looking at a
civilisation older than Hinduism, slated - sanctioned (by the highest
court in the land) - to be drowned this monsoon when the waters
of the Sardar Sarovar reservoir will rise to submerge it.
Why did I laugh? Because I suddenly remembered the tender concern
with which the supreme court judges in Delhi (before withdrawing
the legal stay on further construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam)
had enquired whether tribal children in the resettlement colonies
would have children's parks to play in. The lawyers representing
the government assured them that indeed they would, and, what's
more, that there were seesaws and slides and swings in every park.
I looked up at the endless sky and down at the river rushing past
and for a brief moment the absurdity of it all reversed my rage
and I laughed. I meant no disrespect.
In India for 10 years, the fight against the Sardar Sarovar dam
has come to represent far more than the fight for one river. It
became a debate that captured the popular imagination. That's what
raised the stakes and changed the complexion of the battle. From
being a fight over the fate of a river valley, it began to raise
doubts about an entire political system. What is at issue now is
the very nature of our democracy. Who owns this land? Who owns its
rivers? Its forests? Its fish? These are huge questions. They are
being taken hugely seriously by the state. They are being answered
in one voice by every institution at its command. And not just answered,
but answered unambiguously, in bitter, brutal ways.
I was drawn to the valley because I sensed that the fight for the
Narmada had entered a newer, sadder phase. I went because writers
are drawn to stories the way vultures are drawn to kills. My motive
was not compassion. It was sheer greed. I was right. I found a story
And what a story it is. In the 50 years since independence, after
Nehru's famous "Dams are the temples of modern India"
speech, his foot soldiers have thrown themselves into the business
of building dams with unnatural fervour. Dam-building grew to be
equated with nation-building. Their enthusiasm alone should have
made anyone suspicious. The result is that India now boasts of being
the world's third-largest dam builder, with 3,600 dams that qualify
as big dams. Another 1,000 are under construction. Yet one-fifth
of the population - 200m people - does not have safe drinking water
and two-thirds - 600m - lack basic sanitation. India has more drought-prone
and flood-prone areas today than in 1947. Big dams started well,
but have ended badly. All over the world there is a growing movement
against them. In the first world they're being decommissioned, blown
up. The fact that they do more harm than good is no longer just
Big dams are obsolete. They're uncool. They're undemocratic. They're
a government's way of accumulating authority . They're a guaranteed
way of taking a farmer's wisdom away from him. They're a brazen
means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and
gifting it to the rich. Their reservoirs displace huge populations
of people, leaving them homeless and destitute.
Ecologically too, they are in the doghouse. They lay the earth to
waste. They cause floods, waterlogging, salinity, they spread disease.
There is mounting evidence that links big dams to earthquakes. It's
common knowledge now that big dams do the opposite of what their
publicity people say - the local pain for national gain myth has
been blown wide open.
For all these reasons, the dam-building industry in the first world
(worth more than £12bn a year) is in trouble and out of work.
So it's exported to the third world in the name of development aid,
along with their other waste like old weapons, superannuated aircraft
carriers and banned pesticides. The Indian government, every Indian
government, rails self-righteously against the first world, and
pays to receive their gift-wrapped garbage. Aid has destroyed most
of Africa. Bangladesh is reeling from its ministrations. We know
all this, in numbing detail. Yet in India our leaders welcome it
with slavish smiles (and make nuclear bombs to shore up their flagging
The government of India has detailed statistics about most things.
But it does not have a figure for the number of people displaced
by dams or sacrificed in other ways at the altars of "national
progress". How can you measure progress if you don't know what
it costs and who paid for it? How can the "market"put
a price on things when it doesn't take into account the real cost
According to a detailed study of 54 large dams done by the Indian
Institute of Public Administration, the average number of people
displaced by a large dam is 44,182. Admittedly, 54 dams out of 3,300
is not a big enough sample. But let's err on the side of abundant
caution and take an average of 10,000 per large dam: 3,300 x 10,000
= 33m. That's what it works out at - 33m people. Displaced by big
dams alone in the past 50 years.
What about those displaced by the thousands of other development
projects? At a private lecture, NC Saxena, secretary to the planning
commission, thought the number was in the region of 50m (40m displaced
by dams). We daren't say so, because it isn't official. It isn't
official because we daren't say so. You have to murmur it for fear
of being accused of hyperbole. You have to whisper it to yourself,
because it really does sound unbelievable. It can't be, I've been
telling myself. I must have got the zeroes muddled. I barely have
the courage to say it aloud. Fifty million people. I feel like someone
who's just stumbled on a mass grave.
Fifty million is more than the population of Gujarat. Almost three
times the population of Australia. More than three times the number
of refugees partition created in India. Ten times the number of
Palestinian refugees. The western world today is convulsed over
the future of 1m people who have fled from Kosovo.
A huge percentage of the displaced are tribal. Include Dalits (formerly
known as Untouchables) and the figure becomes obscene. According
to the commissioner for scheduled castes and tribes it's about 60%.
If you consider that tribal people account for only 8%, and Dalits
15%, of India's population, it opens up a whole other dimension
to the story. The ethnic "otherness" of their victims
takes some of the pressure off the nation builders. It's like having
an expense account. Someone else pays the bills. People from another
country. Another world. India's poorest people are subsidising the
lifestyles of her richest.
What has happened to all these millions? Where are they now? Nobody
really knows. They don't exist any more. When history is written,
they won't be in it. Some of them have subsequently been displaced
three and four times - a dam, an artillery range, another dam, a
uranium mine, a power project. Once they start rolling there's no
resting place. The great majority is eventually absorbed into slums
on the periphery of our great cities, where it coalesces into an
immense pool of cheap construction labour (who build more projects
that displace more people).
And still the nightmare doesn't end. They continue to be uprooted
even from their hellish hovels by government bulldozers that fan
out on clean-up missions whenever elections are comfortingly far
away and the urban rich get twitchy about hygiene. In cities like
Delhi, they run the risk of being shot by the police for shitting
in public places.
The millions of displaced people in India are nothing but refugees
of an unacknowledged war. And we are condoning it by looking away.
Why? Because we're told that it's being done for the sake of the
greater common good. That it's being done in the name of progress,
in the name of national interest. Therefore gladly, unquestioningly,
almost gratefully, we believe what we're told. We believe that it
benefits us to believe.
It's true that India has progressed. It's true that in 1947, when
colonialism formally ended, India was in food deficit. In 1950 we
produced 51m tonnes of food grain. Today we produce close to 200m
tonnes. It's true that in 1995 the state granaries were overflowing
with 30m tonnes of unsold grain. It's also true that at the same
time, 40% of India's population - more than 350 million people -
were living below the poverty line. That's more than the country's
population in 1947.
Indians are too poor to buy the food their country produces. Indians
are being forced to grow the kinds of food they can't afford to
eat themselves. Our leaders say we must have nuclear missiles to
protect us from the threat of China and Pakistan. But who will protect
us from ourselves? What kind of country is this? Who owns it? Who
runs it? What's going on?
It's time to spill a few state secrets. To puncture the myth about
the inefficient, bumbling, corrupt, but ultimately genial, essentially
democratic, Indian state. Carelessness cannot account for 50m disappeared
people. Let's not delude ourselves. There is method here, precise,
relentless and 100% man-made.
The Indian state is not a state that has failed. It is a state that
has succeeded impressively in what it set out to do. It has been
ruthlessly efficient in the way it has appropriated India's resources
and redistributed them to a favoured few (in return no doubt, for
a few favours). It is superbly accomplished in the art of protecting
the cadres of its paid-up elite. But its finest feat of all is the
way it achieves all this and emerges smelling sweet. The way it
manages to keep its secrets, to contain information that vitally
concerns the daily lives of 1bn people, in government files, accessible
only to the keepers of the flame - ministers, bureaucrats, state
engineers, defence strategists. Of course we make it easy for them,
we, its beneficiaries. We don't really want to know the grisly detail.
India lives in her villages, we're told, in every other sanctimonious
public speech. That's just another fig leaf from the government's
bulging wardrobe. India doesn't live in her villages. India dies
in her villages. India gets kicked around in her villages. India
lives in her cities. India's villages live only to serve her cities.
Her villagers are her citizens' vassals and for that reason must
be controlled and kept alive, but only just.
Its proponents boast that Narmada is the most ambitious river valley
project ever conceived. They plan to build 3,200 dams that will
reconstitute the Narmada and her 41 tributaries into a series of
step reservoirs. Of these, two of the major dams - the Sardar Sarovar
in Gujarat and the Narmada Sagar in Madhya Pradesh - will hold,
between them, more water than any other reservoir on the Indian
subcontinent. Whichever way you look at it, the Narmada Valley development
project is big. It will alter the ecology of the entire river basin
of one of India's biggest rivers. It will affect the lives of 25m
people who live in the valley.
Every single claim its proponents make about its intended benefits
has been systematically disproved. Even the World Bank, has withdrawn
from the project. Yet the government is hell-bent on seeing it built.
The Sardar Sarovar dam alone will displace about half a million
people (200,000 according to official estimates, but these are always
The government claims it is offering displaced people the best rehabilitation
package in the world. I've been to some of these "resettlement
sites". People have been dumped in rows of corrugated tin sheds
which are furnaces in summer, and fridges in winter. Some of them
are located in dry river beds which during the monsoons turn into
fast-flowing streams. Shivering children perch like birds on the
edges of charpais while swirling waters enter their tin homes. Frightened,
fevered eyes watch pots and pans carried through the doorway by
the current, floating out into the flooded fields, thin fathers
swimming after them. When the waters recede, they leave ruin. Malaria,
diarrhoea, sick cattle stranded in the slush. The ancient teak beams
dismantled from their previous homes carefully stacked away like
postponed dreams, now spongy, rotten and unusable.
And these are the lucky ones - the ones who officially qualify as
what the government calls PAPs (Project Affected Persons). The rest
are just kicked out of their homes and left to fend for themselves.
Truly, it is just not possible for a state administration, any state
administration, to carry out the rehabilitation of a people as fragile
as this, on such an immense scale. It's like using a pair of hedge-shears
to trim an infant's fingernails. You can't do it without shearing
its fingers off. How do you uproot 200,000 people (the official
estimate), of which 117,000 are tribal people, and relocate them
in a humane fashion? How do you keep their communities intact, in
a country where almost all litigation pending in courts has to do
with land disputes?
Where is all this fine, unoccupied arable land that is waiting to
receive these intact communities? The simple answer is that there
isn't any. Not even for the "officially" displaced of
this one dam. What about the rest of the dams? What about the remaining
thousands of "PAPs" earmarked for annihilation? Shall
we just put the Star of David on their doors and get it over with?
In circumstances like these, to even entertain a debate about rehabilitation
is to take the first step towards setting aside the principles of
justice. Resettling 200,000 people in order to take (or pretend
to take) drinking water to 40 million - there's something very wrong
with the scale of operations here. This is fascist maths. It strangles
stories, bludgeons detail, and manages to blind perfectly reasonable
people with its spurious, shining vision.
This July will bring the last monsoon of the 20th century. The supreme
court order that has allowed the construction of the dam to proceed
means that this year 30 of the 245 villages will be submerged. The
people have nowhere to go. They have declared that they will not
move when the waters of the Sardar Sarovar reservoir rise to claim
their lands and homes. Whether you love the dam or hate it, it is
necessary that you understand the price being paid for it. That
you have the courage to watch while the dues are cleared and the
books are squared.
Our dues. Our books. Not theirs. Be there.