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It’s My Birthday And I’ll Open A Dam If I Want To

The inauguration of the Narmada Dam on Modi’s birthday was an exercise in hubris.

19/09/2017 8:44 AM IST | Updated 19/09/2017 8:44 AM IST
Amit Dave / Reuters

On 15 September the Indian government started the process of drowning the Narmada Valley in anticipation of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's birthday. By the 17th, the dam was inaugurated by the Prime Minister with great fanfare. In his speech the Prime Minister declared the dam an "engineering miracle" that many had "conspired to stop" by creating hurdles and hurling "false accusations".

The picture painted is then that of a leader who has pressed on against anti-India, anti-development forces to finally build a monument to the Indian public and their needs. Who is this Indian public though? Are they the class that calls for development at all costs or are they also the 40,000 families (government estimates say 18,000) who are at risk of mass inundation?

Apart from the fact that 17 September was the PM's birthday, there was no compulsion to flood the valley on this particular date, with a spectacular lack of preparation, rehabilitation and compensation.

The narrative created around development has often been the most essential component in forcing the project through. Hence, in the current context of "development at any cost", bought hook line and sinker by a middle class that never actually bears the cost, it is not surprising that the mass inundation of livelihoods and lives of fellow citizens passes by unheard behind chants of "development".

In this specific context, inundation is defined by a rise in water levels to 128.50 metres (set to rise to 130 metres) which will lead to partial submersion of 177 out of the 178 villages and complete submersion of the Rohana village in Kukshi Tehsil in Dhar.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan and affected villagers have vowed a "Jal Satyagraha" unto death amidst claims that thousands of applications before the Grievance Redressal Authority (GRA), mandated by the Supreme Court, are yet to be addressed and rehabilitation of villagers has not been completed, with land not being allocated and monetary compensation being withheld.

The fact that the project has generated electricity and produced great revenue (over ₹16,000 crore according to the government) for the Indian state cannot be challenged by any reasonable critic of the dam. However, the complete ambivalence to the struggle of affected villagers and their livelihoods reads like a tale of gross ethical malfeasance.

The most worrying sign of this endeavour however, is not just the flooding but the manner in which it has been done. There seems to be a very direct impact that the cult of personality has now taken on development policy and state machinery. Apart from the fact that 17 September was the Prime Minister's 67th birthday, there was no compulsion to flood the valley on this particular date, with a spectacular lack of preparation, rehabilitation and compensation.

Shaping policy on the whims of an individual, instead of on the needs and necessities of those at risk, may do justice to the former, but does a grave injustice to the latter.

The fact that only 30% of the Narmada Canal networks have been completed in Gujarat has not hindered this flooding. The fact that this means water will not reach the water-starved regions of Kutch has also not proved to be an obstacle. Quite clearly the only real reason for picking 17 September as the date was the fact that 67 years ago on this date, a future prime minister was born.

In his speech, the Prime Minister called on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel for his blessings and said the water from the dam would be used to fulfil the needs of the BSF, apart from benefitting the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, but failed to acknowledge the thousands that would lose their livelihoods to pay for this endeavour (unless the intended implication was that they were the obstacles to this development).

The irony of celebrating one's birthday, while endangering the lives of thousands has not passed by unnoticed. With the onset of time and a drastically changing narrative around development, one hopes that the Indian government learns to find the balance between development and displacement, livelihoods and power generation, growth and inclusion.

While the Prime Minster might be celebrating his 67th birthday, it would be prudent to remember that the nation has just recently celebrated its 70th as a democratic state. Shaping policy on the whims of an individual, instead of on the needs and necessities of those at risk, may do justice to the former, but does a grave injustice to the latter.

The opinions expressed in this post are the personal views of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of HuffPost India. Any omissions or errors are the author's and HuffPost India does not assume any liability or responsibility for them.

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