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Fractured nature of our progress

The latest developments around the Sardar Sarovar project have thrown up the fractured nature of India?s development process. Full-page advertisements in leading national dailies by industrialists and ?holy men? versus news items on the protests by Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in New Delhi have drawn the lines between the two camps. Now, politicians of all hues have pitched their tents in the industrialists? camp as well.

india Updated: Apr 17, 2006 18:11 IST

The latest developments around the Sardar Sarovar project on the Narmada river have thrown up the fractured nature of India’s development process. One lobby’s development is another’s destruction.

Full-page advertisements in leading national dailies by industrialists and ‘holy men’ versus news items on the protests by Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in New Delhi have drawn the lines between the two camps.

Now, politicians of all hues have pitched their tents in the industrialists’ camp as well. The avowed champion of the dam, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has announced at 51-day fast versus Medha Patkar’s indefinite one. He wants the dam built, she wants a better deal for those displaced by the project.

Of course, as investors know by now, close-ended deals usually give better returns than open-ended schemes.

The business lobby has long clamoured for development. This means setting up factories, industrial estates, dams and power stations. Development has been equated to the generation of wealth. It has never been equated to human development, employment or equity.

Therefore, this lobby’s call, hydraulically assisted by leading industry organisations in India and abroad, has painted its version of development as the solution to India’s problems – unemployment, poverty, social inequity.

To talk of solving these in five-star hotels, in platitude-ridden speeches, is fashionable. Just one small example exposes this lobby’s sincerity of purpose. The striking workers of Hero Honda in Gurgaon wanted permanent jobs, not to be treated as daily wagers as they had been for up to 10 years. But in conference after conference across India, industrialists reiterated their commitment to increasing employment. Did they mean permanent jobs, or hiring casual labour?

No wonder, the manufacturing sector has not added any significant number of jobs for decades.

However, this performance has not stopped it for calling for construction of the dam, damning the consequences. It is this group that benefits the most from the project in terms of water and power for industries. Understandably, politicians have thrown in their lot with the big industrialists.

The displaced people are mostly from Madhya Pradesh, which isn’t Modi’s constituency.

On the other hand, a handful of the displaced have been camping in Delhi for past three weeks, eking out a living on its streets. They are here in support of Patkar’s fast braving the heat and dust of the city. True, they have been written about.

But theirs is a small voice when it comes to big money, big projects and big politics.

The media has also played its role in this polarisation, with newspapers taking strong positions for and against construction. The for-dam group argues Sardar Sarovar is essential for development. This despite overwhelming evidence that this large project will only make the rich richer and do little to reduce the misery of people at the tail-end of the project’s canal network, who desperately need water.

The anti-dam group says the hundreds of thousands people who have been uprooted to pay for this development should be rehabilitated before further construction.

It is too much to ask of proponents of development – businessmen, politicians and their bureaucrat servants – that the dispossessed get a fair deal.

Making money is a noble cause, but the marginal farmers and tribals who are being turfed out of their land need a better deal than what they are getting.

This conflict makes the Prime Minister’s talk of ‘development with a human face’ ring hollow. Those who will reap the windfall need to think seriously about the consequences of their actions in trying to push through the dam’s construction without taking care of its refugees.