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Enter their minds

The State has many experts on major national projects. But there is no one to explain to those opposing these ventures why they may be useful. Gopalkrishna Gandhi writes.

india Updated: Sep 23, 2011 23:18 IST

Parmeshwar Narayan Haksar means little or nothing to the present generation. And yet, in the late 1960s and 1970s his was a name to conjure with, to admire, to respect and, for many, to be wary of.

As prime minister Indira Gandhi's principal adviser, he masterminded the 'Garibi Hatao' programme as a counter to the 'Congress Syndicate', securing for her a formidable dominance on the political scene and a historic victory in the 1971 elections. He was himself crucial to that dominance, making the 'PMO', as the Prime Minister's Office came to be better known thereafter, the government's main powerhouse. And Haksarsahib himself was, of course, the PMO. So much so that he was held singly responsible for undermining the architecture of traditional governance, democratic institutions, constitutional mores. His direct contributions to the planning and execution of the political and military strategies that led to the creation of Bangladesh, made him a figure of defining importance to the subcontinent as a whole.

Among those who valued him were two persons both, as it happens, from Kerala, I have had the privilege of serving under - Ambassador Thomas Abraham who, at 87, remains attuned to national and international affairs, and the late president KR Narayanan. Ambassador Abraham recounts that when in the beginning of the 1950s, he joined the Indian Foreign Service and happened to be travelling with Haksarsahib on his first voyage out, he was pleasantly surprised to meet one from as far North of India as that Kashmiri Pandit who didn't regard everyone from the South of India as a 'Madrasi', and, further, knew the dynamics of that minuscule community known as Syrian Christians. President Narayanan, in a speech as President of India, recalled: "… I was sitting with him in his office one day, when prime minister Mrs Gandhi telephoned him. He was giving some advice over the telephone, and he started by saying, 'I am a fundamentalist'. A fundamentalist was to him someone who looks at the problems from the fundamental point of view".

As a junior officer in Tamil Nadu in the mid-1970s, I was 'handling' the subject of Bonded Labourers. It was part of the 'Twenty Point Programme' and, hence, deserving of the status of Gospel. I was expected to work towards the 'liberation from bondage' of the exploited Paniya tribals in the Nilgiris. At a review meeting in Delhi which Haksarsahib attended, he asked through clouds of tobacco emerging from his cigarette: "Do the Paniya know what you are liberating them from? Do they know what you are going to do for them once you have liberated them?" He pronounced the word 'liberate' softly but laceratingly. And then asked a question which I have never forgotten. "Have you tried to enter their minds?" Of course I had not. I had not even thought of doing any such thing. I came back from the meeting in something of a daze about the objects and purposes of what I was doing, and for the first time, in a very 'fundamental' way. Until then, it had all been about targets, deadlines, in short, statistics.

A moody comet tore through Haksarsahib's sky in 1974. He left the PMO with his powers evaporated, but his self-respect intact. As also his "fundamentalism".

Reading about the mass protest over the nuclear power plant at Kudankulam, in Tamil Nadu, I was powerfully reminded of Haksarsahib's question "Have you tried to enter their minds?" I doubt if those who have devised the plans for this project tried entering the minds of the people of the area. They perhaps thought a project like this has national salience, it's a high-tech project, costing crores of rupees, and so it can't really be made subject to the varying responses of a village community, much less to its veto power. Now, this is not an invalid response; but it's an impractical one. In a democracy, consultation can have different settings, but it can never be substituted by zero consultation. Project Specialists are experts in the field, the local people are experts of the site.

We have many experts in the government, many spokespersons for those experts. But we don't have enough 'fundamentalists' who can go to the roots of a scheme, its raison d'etre beyond its brochure appeal. For far too long has the 'DPR' (Detailed Project Report) approach determined decision-making, when we need, no less, to get on each project a 'PPR' as well - a Public Perceptions Report.

It's not as if the opposition of 'any odd protest group' or of a particular vested interest should be allowed to scuttle a project of national importance; not at all. But the government should put through a sieve the main perceptions of the public of the area, region, State, including what is now called 'Civil Society', about the project and see if there is indeed something in them that merits considering, re-considering. Had this been done, we would not have had Nandigram, Singur. In fact, we might even have been able to go ahead them in a modified form with a wide measure of popular acceptance. We don't have enough people who explain projects to people and people to projects. Little wonder that projects and protests have become twins, with land providing the flashpoint.

For decades, the location has been almost incidental to a project, just another 'resource'. It can't be, any longer. It was taken to be a mere 'body'. It's that, of course, but it's a 'body' with a 'mind' of its own.

Projects, especially those with high-end science and technology components gestate in relative exclusivism, if not isolation. The 'acharya-mushti' (closed fist) of the Brahmin's learning used to be regarded as un-openable except to the extent he willed. Our science policy is not a closed fist. But it tends to open partially, one finger here, another there, to close up again here, relaxing its clench there.

For the present, it would be wise to "enter the minds" of the objectors and, putting the work at places like Kudankulam (Tamil Nadu), Jaitapur (Maharashtra) and Haripur (West Bengal) on hold, ask the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board in its more autonomous and effective avatar, to engage with the objectors intensively and then, after further scientific (including seismic) studies, advise the country on them. That would be the 'Haksar way' of going about it. And, in my view, the only way forward since 'local minds' are awake now, as never before, and will contest schemes unless they have been interiorised by them and understood by them to be deserving of their support.

Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor

The views expressed by the author are personal