Indian Federalism in Troubled Waters by Dr. Prasenjit Maiti SignUp
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Indian Federalism in Troubled Waters
by Dr. Prasenjit Maiti Bookmark and Share

The Government of India claims that the multi-purpose Sardar Sarovar Project would irrigate more than 1.8 million hectares (mostly in Gujarat and some in Rajasthan) and solve drinking water problems in drought-prone areas like Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat. The Sardar Sarovar Dam is the largest among the 30 big dams planned to be constructed on the Narmada River in central and western India. This dam, with a proposed height of 136.5 meters (455 feet), has emerged in the not-so-recent past as the focal point of the Narmada Bachao Andolan's concerted opposition and resistance.

The NBA has steadfastly maintained that tall claims on the part of the government are exaggerated and untenable. The SSP would instead displace more than 320,000 persons and adversely affect the livelihood of innumerable others. NBA activists have even estimated that a population of at least 1 million would be dislocated if the SSP were to be completed (as a result of displacements caused by the canal system and other allied projects).

The NBA has been opposing this project for a decade now, and its activists sought to highlight demerits of the SSP during 1990-91 by employing statements of protest like dharnas, or sit-ins, and satyagraha, or non-violent non-cooperation. The World Bank (that was about to finance the dam for $450 million) was subsequently compelled to set up an independent review committee, the Morse Commission, the first of its kind. The Morse Report indicted the World Bank on many counts, and (tacitly) supported the major human ecological concerns raised by the NBA. Adverse international reaction that had followed the Morse Report finally decided the World Bank against financing the SSP.

The Supreme Court of India, the country's highest court, had suspended further construction of the dam in 1995, at a height of 80.3 meters, following a writ petition by the NBA demanding a comprehensive review of the SSP. However, the Supreme Court, in an interim order (February 1999), had given go-ahead for the dam's height to be raised to a height of 88 meters (85m + 3m of humps). But this can lead to floods during the monsoon season displacing 2000 tribal households in about 50 villages.

The Supreme Court finally delivered judgement on the SSP on 18 October 2000; it permitted immediate construction of the dam up to a height of 90 meters (in a 2 to 1 majority judgement). The judgement further authorized construction up to the originally planned height of 138 meters in 5 meter increments, subject to approval by the Relief and Rehabilitation Subgroup of the Narmada Control Authority.

NGOs and other activist groups like Friends of River Narmada, an international coalition of volunteer individuals and organizations (primarily of Indian descent) provide a support and solidarity network for the Narmada Bachao Andolan. They communicate grassroots viewpoints to the global community through dedicated websites in order to generate debates on whether the SSP (and such similar projects) should be allowed to continue or not in the larger interests of human ecology and sustainable development.

The federal Indian State, however, has never really been able to reciprocate any similar grassroots-level dialog, and has even treated the SSP as an exercise in pragmatrix that would focus on cost-benefit analyses in terms of an authoritative definition of development. The State's intransigent attitude is yet to be entirely overhauled despite the president of India's (implicit) criticism of his own government on 6 December 2000 during presentation of the Ambedkar International Award for Social Change to environmental activist Baba Amte.

It is thus clear by now that the judgement on Sardar Sarovar Project by the Supreme Court permits further construction of the dam, which will lead to forcible eviction and destitution through flooding of houses and lands, without rehabilitation of a few thousand families. The judgement thus has paved the way for violation of right to life and livelihood of innocent toiling masses and integrated natural resource-based communities. Will it not be a violation of the Constitution itself?

The Narmada struggle has been non-violent, but certainly assertive. It has sought to innovate, sharpen and widen the means of non-violent satyagraha, which otherwise had become a routine affair, often ineffective. Like every movement, the Andolan has developed its own means, idioms, and work culture for spreading and sharpening the issues at stake.

The role of social trust and networks of cooperation in the context of such decentralized federal governance is rather vital. As Confucius had once remarked that trust is the single most important factor in the political lives of men. Trust leads to social bonds and intra- as well as inter-institutional connectedness, and this actually coheres institutions, so to say.

A federal democratic regime like India's can be politically successful and thereby continue in power if it is able to properly read its ground realities and problems thereof. These problems are more or less popular in nature, and have a propensity to develop into discontent of the ruled actors against their ruling institutions. So the actors in power have to redress these grievances of the actors at the grassroots in a political manner by effectively establishing and handling pro-people institutions in order to ensure good federal governance.   

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