Medha re Medha re

Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) fame, was here in insti this Monday, to share her piont of view with us, the IITians. Since I happen to be doing so many case studies this semester, which involve in some way or another the resistances offered by activists and environmental groups, I was particulary interested in hearing to what she had to say. And oh my holy lord, she had to say a lot. She is an extremely effective orator. She knows how to put forward her points and how to fight back against so many powerful forces.

She was here in Chennai, basically to oppose the airport expansion plan, which if initiated would displace about five thousand households. I wont go into the details of her speech (as if I remember everything she talked about in that something more than an hour duration), but I would definitely like to share some points that are worth pondering over.

Before writing any more, I would like you to recall that I am being trained as a Civil Engineer. So you see, guys like me come up with engineering solutions in the form of Dams, and Airfields to meet the needs of the society. Guys like Medha on the other hand, just brush aside our otherwise appreciated projects. So there's supposed to be an inherent conflict between our ways of thinking. All I would like you to do is to keep this in mind while you read my arguments so as to make a better assessment of the affair.

She questioned the meaning of development. Do rising shopping malls in cities, or the increasing number of airports or the construction of hydroelectric power projects really signify development? She said no. And she said she belived so, because these activities lead to disparity. These so called parameters of development, leave behind the poor who are not included fairly in the policy making processes. She asserted that every individual matters and so any infrastructure project should not be given a nod, till every affected 'citizen' is happy with it.

She is no different from the other activists who fight for the plight of small sections of society who so often get negatively affected by the process of so called development. Though she never explicitly mentioned, what she was talking about was 'Economic Development'. And Economic development indeed includes all the stuff (especially the infrastructure realated stuff) that she talked about. It includes any thing and everything that leads to improvement in the overall economy of a nation. So if the Govt decides to invest in a project that will lead to an increase in power generation, it indeed is a step towards economic development. Doesn't matter what Medha Patker thinks of it.

But yes, her issue about rising disparity is true. Economic Developments often tend to increase the gap between the rich and poor. The section of people who are directly going to benefit from say increased power generation are the industrialists who are in real need of power to run their machines. Why should a villager who doesn't even have a power transmission line crossing his village care about it? He care's about his land, which gives him rice and wheat and maze and sugarcane and what not. That is all he wants. And so if a dam at an upstream spot is going to sink his land deep inside water, he is going to raise his voice. What we are talking about here is a trade-off. Scarcity of resources is the concept on which the whole theory of economics is based. So many times, it happens that to produce A you have got to give up B. So how do you decide then? Tricky question.

It felt good when Medha did admit that some kind of econimic development was definitely needed. But it should be done in fine balance with the social develeopment where the benefit of any project trickles down to the lower sections of the society. A fine balance! Well, it makes sense though it does have one problem. Being almost always surrounded with the affected groups, she wont ever be happy with any kind of balance that guys like me come up with. What kind of balance is really the best? It's really a difficult question to answer, more so because here we are two different sets of people looking at world from different places. The more we listen to one another, the better we will be able to appreciate each other's concerns. And look, that's happening! :)


  1. Karthik Rao Cavale said...
    It appears to me that even in a purely economic sense, the projects that she opposes don't make sense.

    And she did give examples of that. Take the e.g. of Bhakra, where the money earnt by sale of power is lesser than the cost of desalination of farms in Punjab, a certain result of the agricultural policies of which Bhakra was such an integral part.

    The problem is that they are able to pass off such projects as 'development' because there are externalities. If each one recieved the full compensation for his land, the cost of the project will spiral up and the project would have to be shelved!

    And we haven't even considered the environmental costs of building a dam (salinity in soil, submerged forests etc.) or the social costs (uprooted communities, livelihoods lost etc.)

    The likes of MEdha Patkar don't oppose development. They oppose iniquities being passed off as development. The fact is that despite the power generation and irrigation capabilities of the Sardar Sarovar, it is economically unviable. Which is why the govt. has to retort to snatching away the lands of the people to give a semblance of viability to the project.

    The problem with activists like Medha Patkar is that they haven't recognised the nature of the problem.

    This is essentially a right to property issue. If the tribals/villagers had full control over their lands, if they chose the price at which they will sell their lands, then there would be no injustice.

    The problem is not that the govt. is giving these people a bad deal. The problem is that they are being forced to accept a deal that they did not make.

    Read this post of mine.
    amrit said...

    First of all sorry for a late response. Secondly I would like to thank you for such a wonderful comment here.

    I appreciate your views and do agree with some of them. But of course there are certain areas, where our thoughts do not match. Let me try to answer some of your raised concerns.

    1. 'Economic Sense': Talking about the Bhakra case, I would like to say that, either intentionally or unintentionally, the desalination work was probably forgotten while working out the figures. Mistakes like these happen at times. But that does not really mean that projects are given a nod even when they are projected as economically unviable ventures.

    Morever, Medha Patkar's (MP) real concern is not whether these projects are profitable in general. Her main concern is the impact of such projects on a limited group of directly affected people.

    2.Environmental & Social Costs: All I would like to say is that these ARE always considered! The real issue is about the trade-off between the economic and social cost and the economic and developmental gain. At times a win-win situation can be worked out, but in such projects more often than not, a win-lose situation arises. So the real challenge is in settling on an accepted balance. This balance in turn depends upon the social acceptability.

    3.A little bit about land: What is the real cost of land? Say if the Government is ready to 'pay' the demanded cost for acquiring land needed for such infrastructural projects, how much do you think will the farmer who owns the land demand? Do you think that's going to be anywhere near the Market Price of that land before the project was proposed? The answer is NO. As soon as such projects are announced, the land prices soar up! So its impossible to figure out what you call a "full compensation". If the Goverment agrees to pay whatever is aksed for, you are absolutely right in saying that all the projects would work out to be economically unviable.

    I agree with you that these tribal people who have to part with their lands, are more or less being forced to do so. But this doesn't necessarily make the deal bad for them. In fact it seldom happens that the price that's offered is ever less than the real cost of the land. A bigger issue here, is of course that how logical is it to compensate their lost land with cash? A majority of them actually do not want cash. They demand for 'similar' land instead. There's a clear mismatch between whats offered and what's demanded. The order of the day is of course to sort out this mismatch, but definitely not by simpling letting the owner of these lands decide any price that they wish to. Because if you even consider this option, no single project can ever be executed!
    Karthik Rao Cavale said...
    I completely disagree with the contention that cash compensation is bad. What is money? It is a tool to facilitate exchange of goods. If you get money in lieu of your land, you can use it to buy land elsewhere. Land of your choice, with the kind of soil you like, located at a place convenient to you.

    The problem is when the compensation is not enough. But what is adequate? Who decides? I believe that it is for the previous owner to decide whether he wishes to let go of his land or not. There ought to be no force involved.

    When the govt. decides the rate for the land, it will naturally fix the rates at a lower rate. Because that makes such a project viable.

    Yes, if the full compensation was paid to those who are evicted, many projects will have to be shelved. And they ought to be shelved because they are unviable!

    It is because we are able to get away with such iniquities that inherently unviable projects like large dams ever get commissioned. And the net result is a loss!

    Because people don't vanish. The people displaced by narmada fill the slums of mumbai. The govt. spends crores of rupees to give them decent shelter there. Is that a part of the project cost?

    You argue that prices will rise. Yes they will. But in a competitive environment, prices will never rise too high, because there will always be a competitor to bring prices down. In this case, a 400 km long project will clearly be unviable. But if they plan to build a small project, they can choose between different points in the Narmada Valley, and obviously they will choose that place where people have come together and are ready to sell their lands en-masse at a decent rate.

    In short, I am suggesting a market-based solution to the problem.

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