A great project is being held up on emotional grounds. The loss is the nation’s. Narmada has the potential to supply drinking water to the towns and cities of Gujarat, to irrigate the dry parts of Gujarat, to raise agricultural growth rates to high levels over the next decade, if not more.
The cost borne are modest in relation to the benefits, especially if the costs of delay imposed by the environment-alists are removed.
We, as a country , have interregional and inter-temporal variations in precipitation that are rivalled only by Australia. Australia, of course, has nearly ten times or more the surface storage per head that we have. India would, in the near future, need to at least double the current level of surface storage to bootstrap out of poverty even if there are substantial improvements in efficiency of water use.
Lack of surface storage and an absurd pricing of electricity as also surface water has led to vast drawal of ground water (we draw more than any other country by a very wide margin) and to ecological destruction and very large ineffici-encies including the fact that as much as 30% of the water used in irrigation is actually wasted.
So nobody except the Don Quixotes of the world can argue against the need for enhancing surface storage and especially large dams which, when correctly designed, typically store much larger amounts of water for the same inundation than do tiny dams; and certainly are superior to overdrawal of ground water.
So, the point is despite the techno-economic merits of large dams why is there so much protest against them, especially by those displaced? And, herein lies a story of an imperial state that refuses to be fair to its people by design and practice. It is not that rehabilitation has been poorly done, in this case at least. It was done as was possible under the law.
The unfair land acquisition policy and practice creates no recourse for people except protest. They become easy victims to post modernists whose agenda (while Western derived is deeply embedded in India among sections of the ‘intelligentsia’) is simple enough —stop development, in the name of the displaced. To name just a few perversities— the government defines the public purpose under eminent domain to be whatever purpose the executive of the day defines at the moment. Land is valued by the acquirer himself.
The imperial legacy does not allow the state to recognise the notion of conflict of interest when it is involved. The law allows for acquisition at market prices. But, the market prices used neither recognise the value arising out of nature’s endowment— presence of an acquifier in a dry area— nor are the market prices free of distortion. Since the government also controls the purpose to which land can be used, distortion in market prices is severe and almost always to the great loss to the land holder.
Thus, pre and post-acquisition prices in the periphery of cities could differ by as much as a factor of ten over a period of less than a year! Obviously, those parting with the land would feel cheated.
The Narmada problem is easy enough to solve. It goes without saying that rehabilitation needs to be total. To quibble on the cost is to be penny wise and pound foolish. To not keep out the parasites of the state who would wrench their rents out of petty payments to the poor would be to lose the game altogether to Ms Patkar.
Of course, if say all the fishing rights are vested with the displaced, all white water activities and say even all tourism rights emerging out of the grand reservoir are reserved for the displaced (whether or not they had land), and these rights are made assignable to contractors whom the displaced decide upon, then even the very poor among the displaced can look forward to incomes and lifestyles that are incomparably better. So large is the potential value of these rights in a growing economy.
If policy makers and government functionaries cannot work towards win-win solutions, what are they for?