Thursday, September 14, 2017

In Which Swaminathan Iyer McDonaldises the Tribals and Serves Other Junk Food

What can one expect when one is faced with a blog by “India’s leading economic journalist” which is titled “Most of the ousted tribals are flourishing and loving it”? (Times of India  TOI, 12th Sept, at ) That there will be a large helping of fries on the side? That it will taste great but is really junk? In all of these expectations, one is not disappointed. 

First, a little background. The leading economic journalist is Swaminathan Iyer, and he and a colleague have carried out a survey of some tribals ousted by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada dam, comparing their situation with those left behind in the hilly areas near the river, and others in the hilly areas but near a mining project. On 10th Sept 2017, Iyer wrote a blog titled “Why many tribals don’t mind being ousted” based on his study. In a matter of just two days, Iyer has come out with a second blog based on the same study on the same topic. One wonders why? But then, again, one may not wonder, for the Sardar Sarovar has become an important topic with the Prime Minister scheduled to dedicate to the nation the dam on 17th Sept 2017.

The first blog was a classic case of misinterpretation of data, hiding the more important issues, and conclusions not supported by research findings, as we showed in our response. We showed that the tribals do mind being ousted. Now Iyer has written another blog on the matter, which skirts the issues we had raised in our response and omits some crucial survey findings given in the earlier blog, but still tries to show the Sardar Sarovar rehabilitation program as being successful. 

Iyer’s second blog tries to discredit activists who have raised issues with resettlement of tribals affected by the Sardar Sarovar, and argues that displacement has led to modernisation for the tribals, that they are flourishing, and of course “loving it”, as his title says. 

To do this, he uses several devices. Firstly, he sets up a strawman: “Some activists say economic development and modernisation are disastrous for tribals.” This statement is of course easy to attack. But activists, least of all the activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) which has worked with Sardar Sarovar oustees, have never taken such a position. We have argued that modernisation, development, and social and economic change is very important for tribals, but that it be their choice, be gradual, be on their terms (as much as possible), with their full involvement, and in a way that they can handle.  Displacement for the dam was not only involuntary but missed most of the other elements too; and much of the struggle was in fact to have the tribals find a voice in the process of what happens to them. Iyer is not concerned with this detail.

Second, his findings that tribals are better off in the resettled village is not exactly substantiated even by his own surveys, as our earlier response shows. In the second blog, he reiterates his earlier findings that “the oustees were far better off in material terms (TVs, mobikes, pukka houses, school access, electricity)”, but omits figures that show that even 30 years after resettlement, and hundreds of crores of rupees spent by the project, 55% of resettled oustees did not have access to drinking water, 63% no access to a PHC,  and 84% no access to a hospital. His own finding that “54% of oustees said they would rather return to the same land they once occupied in the forest” – 25-30 years after displacement, is an indication of whether the oustees feel they are better off.

Third, in his second blog, one of the findings Iyer gives to show how well the tribals have accepted modernisation is that “Cellphone ownership, the epitome of modernisation, was 88% for oustees versus 59% in the semi-evacuated forest villages.”  Whether the cellphone is the epitome of modernity is questionable, but the fact that tribals have accepted and taken to this new technology is simply a testimony to the fact that tribals, like most of the human race, are intelligent and will learn new things. But Iyer wants to imply that such a “modernisation” is possible only when the tribals leave their forests, and that it is the Sardar Sarovar that has made such modernisation possible. Both are flawed assertions. Tribals have taken to modern technology even in their original villages. With the support of NBA, two of the tribal villages in the submergence area set up micro-hydro power generation projects. Once partial submergence made travel virtually impossible without motorised boats, tribals were quick to buy second-hand boats from Alang shipyard and run them themselves.

Microhydel project underconstruction in tribal village in SSP Submergence area. PC: Anon. Courtesy NBA.
Tribals running motor boat in partially submerged villages. Photo: Nandini Oza

Iyer highlights the modernity of displaced tribals by saying “Many of those near the Sardar Sarovar Dam have cell phones and motorcycles, and can download their land titles from internet caf├ęs.” Is this an attempt to attribute causation to the Sardar Sarovar, and by doing so, justify or glorify it? If so, that is bunkum, as the examples given by us show.

Rest of his blog meanders away from the Sardar Sarovar oustees and talks about how some tribals have become affluent, foreign-educated ones, and how tribals left behind in forests “can catch up, given empowerment and access to modern facilities.” There is no disputing this. But the issue is that what “catching up” means should be defined by the tribals themselves, and not by others for them. And certainly, that should not require them to be forcibly uprooted from their lands, culture and communities. As Iyer himself says, but ignores in his conclusions, “Tribals in hill states earn well above the national average. Education and infrastructure have enabled hill tribals…to leapfrog into modernity with minimal trauma.” But this is without any displacement by any dam, which Iyer seems to conveniently ignore. So may be displacement is not a necessary condition for modernisation and development, unlike what Iyer wants to imply?

Let us then make this the aim – that the tribals themselves decide what “modernity”, “development” mean for them, that it be done with their involvement and control, where they are located, any migration being voluntary, and with minimal trauma. That the Sardar Sarovar has none of these characteristics is clear, and that the tribals reject this as “development” is also obvious from the fact that majority still want to go back, after so many years. 

Thus, Iyer’s attempt at dressing up the Sardar Sarovar (and its rehabilitation program) by bringing in a false causality, by mistaking or implying co-existence and juxtapositioning as causation is completely irrational  and specious. The tribals certainly are not lov’in it.

Shripad Dharmadhikary (                                                 14 Sept 2017
Nandini Oza (
The writers were both fulltime activists with the Narmada Bachao Andolan for close to 12 years.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Why Tribals Do Mind being Ousted by Dams: Response to SA Iyer’s Unsupported Clean Chit to Sardar Sarovar Rehabilitation

SA Iyers’s piece in Times of India dated 10 Sept 2017, “Why many tribals don’t mind being ousted by dams”, examining the condition of some of the oustees of Sardar Sarovar Narmada dam, ( ) is a classic case of misinterpretation of data, hiding the more important issues, and conclusions not supported by research findings. Indeed, a proper reading of the article itself shows that unlike Iyer’s assertion, his own figures show that tribals do mind being ousted. Some important points are given below.

A rally by the oustees of Sardar Sarovar. Photo: Nandini Oza
Iyer claims that their “surveys showed, unambiguously, the resettled villagers were better off than their former neighbours in semi-evacuated villages.” In support, among the figures given from their survey, they point out that comparing the resettled with their former neighbours who remain in the original areas, the access to drinking water was 45% against 33%, to PHCs was 37% versus 12% and to hospitals 14% versus 3%. Given that the oustees were resettled between 25-30 years ago, and that the Sardar Sardar project has poured in hundreds of crores of rupees for resettlement, these figures don’t speak of oustees being better off, but indeed, point to the pathetic case of the oustees. After 30 years and massive money being spent, 55% of the rehabilitated people had no access to drinking water, 63% no access to a PHC and 86% no access to hospital. And this is when the oustees have been settled in areas closer to the cities and the former neighbours continue to remain in remote hilly areas. True, cycle and motorcycle ownership was more favourably distributed towards the oustees, but that may be simply because in the hilly areas, these are less useful. In any case, they are less crucial than drinking water, access to health services etc. 

While Iyer claims that “Resettled villagers said they adjusted to new conditions…within two years” (something which we, as former activists of the NBA who have lived for years with them, find completely unbelievable), Iyer also finds that in response to the question whether “Would they prefer returning to their old villages, with the same land they had earlier? Around 54% said yes, 30% said no…” This response, after 30 years of resettlement, itself speaks volumes.  Iyer justifies this by saying that “For a majority, nostalgia for ancestral land and access to forests mattered more than greater material possessions.” But it’s not just nostalgia.  The forests, the river, also provided the tribals with substantial economic and livelihoods resources including fodder, fruits and fish. The fact is that the majority of the oustees at the resettlement continue to face multitude of problems like bad quality of land, lack of basic amenities, hostility from original residents etc. and many promises made to them remain unfulfilled. (May be they were just jumlas to get the oustees to move?). That is why to them the original village would still appear a better proposition from even an economic point of view. 

This is further substantiated by the response to the question “... if given the oustee compensation package, they would like to be ousted. In semi-evacuated villages, 31% wanted to move, 53% wanted to stay, in interior villages, a majority (52%) wanted to move, 35% wanted to stay…”. While clearly a majority of the former neighbours of the oustees indicated their lack of confidence in the rehabilitation package, the response of the “interior villages” is used by Iyer to make astounding conclusions about majority of tribals wanting to leave the forests. But the “interior villages” are those living near the mines of the GMDC, where mining has impacted them badly, even as it has brought them some access to infrastructure like roads. 

Overall, Iyer uses his data to draw some highly unwarranted and astounding generalisations that “it’s entirely possible to implement resettlement packages making tribals materially better off. ..explodes the claim of some activists that modernisation is disastrous for tribals…”

Last but not the least, his concluding line is most revealing. “Many tribals want to leave the forest for a better life.” In saying this, Iyer never raises the fundamental question as to why the tribal have to be evicted from their original village in case they want to have a better life, why is it that they cannot have access roads, drinking water, health facilities etc. unless they leave their original lands, homes and forests. If they did have many of these facilities in their original homes, even the limited advantages which Iyer’s study shows the oustees got, would have vanished.   In deliberately ignoring this fundamental issue, in not articulating what his own survey reveals, and in making sweeping generalisations, Iyer betrays a haste to give an unsupported clean chit to the project’s rehabilitation, the reality of which is far more dismal. 

Shripad Dharmadhikary (                                                 12 Sept 2017
Nandini Oza (
The writers were both fulltime activists with the Narmada Bachao Andolan for close to 12 years.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Expert Appraisal Committee of Environment Ministry Applies its Expertise to Determine Civil Action Groups are Anti-Development

The Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change of Government of India has a very important responsibility. Under the EIA Notification 2006, it examines various projects and recommends to the Ministry whether these should be granted environmental clearance or not. There are different EACs for different categories of projects. One of the EACs is for River Valley and Hydroelectric projects (RVH).

The EAC for RVH has recently been reconstituted for a three year term, and in its first meeting held on 30th Dec 2016, has applied its “expertise” to a rather strange aspect – categorising the submissions it receives from various NGOs, civil society organisations and project affected communities, and has opined that these are anti-development. Moreover, in a touching display of sensitivity, the EAC has also felt that these representations have financial implications for the project developer in particular, and the nation in general. 

Based on this “finding” the EAC-RVH  has now decided that it will “not take any cognizance of such representations received from the any Civil Action Group during final appraisal.” (See Minutes of the 1st Meeting of EAC-RVH here)

A hydropower project under construction in the Himalayas. File photo, for representation purpose only.
In support of its decision, the EAC has put forth a weak justification couched as legal reasoning. It records in the Minutes:

“The EC process has four distinct steps. Screening; Scoping; Public Consultations; and Appraisal. The Step-3, “Public Consultations” has two parts. A public hearing at the project site is held for ascertaining concerns of the project affected persons and obtaining responses in writing from public at large. Procedure has been prescribed for conducting public consultations, and it has to be followed strictly.
“b) The stage of Appraisal starts only after the stage of “Public Consultations” has been completed. Therefore, once a project comes before the EAC, it has crossed the stage of “Public Consultations”, and the EAC should not go back in time, and should not reopen it, by entertaining unsubstantiated representations received from the people. The environmental rules allow, for inputs from the public, for which an opportunity is provided by way of “Public Consultations”. Any stakeholder, who wishes to make a representation, has to do so at the time of “Public Consultations” stage.”

However, this justification is a specious reasoning, and does not hold water. There are several reasons for this.

1.       The law, including the EIA notification does not bar the EAC from accepting any representations or inputs at any stage. The public consultation stage is one stage where seeking public inputs is mandatory, but it does not exclude the space for other inputs if felt necessary. There are several instances when the  public consultation  as structured today does not provide opportunity for public input to the environmental clearance process.
2.       There are issues considered by the EAC where there is no place for public consultations. For example, the EAC is considering and approving detailed Basin Studies for many river basins. These basin studies are to form the basis for giving clearance to projects within the basins. However, there is no public consultation phase when preparing these basin studies. So how can the public give their inputs if not send them to the EAC?
3.       In several cases, the process after public consultations is also long drawn and new facts, new developments are emerging. Under such circumstances, how can EAC refuse to look at comments on such new developments?

In fact, in many projects, developers themselves come back to the EAC to request amendment to the clearance due to some changes in project parameters, external situation etc. In such cases, there should be an opportunity for the people to give their comments on the new developments. 

Another situation is when the project developer comes back to the EAC to seek extension of the clearance which has lapsed due project not moving ahead for many years. In such cases, how can the comments made many years back at the public consultations stage be considered sufficient to satisfy the requirements of public inputs?

If the EAC feels that  the public consultation is the only lawful mechanism for public inputs, then all such projects should be sent back for the public consultation stage.
4.       It is very well-known and widely acknowledged that the public consultation process, and particularly the public hearing process are often not conducted as per the spirit and the word of the law. Problems include Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) reports not being made available in advance, particularly in local languages, hearings not held in all affected areas, and people not being allowed to participate in public hearings with the use of money and muscle power.

For example, some of the most severely affected areas by river valley projects are the areas downstream of dams. But public hearings are not held in the downstream areas, which can often be far off from “project site” which is narrowly defined to mean the place where dam construction takes place.
5.       More important, the legal process requires that the points made in the public consultations are to be given responses by the project developer, and the EAC has to apply its mind to these replies and see if the project promoter has addressed all the concerns. However there is little evidence that this is happening. The minutes of the meetings do not show such application of mind. On the contrary, it appears that claims of project developer that they have considered all the points raised in public consultations are taken at the face value. The EAC itself does not seem to following the dictum it wants to impose on the civil action groups, that is, legal procedure “has to be followed strictly”.

An issue missed by the new EAC is that in many cases, it’s the civil action groups which have brought out information which the project proponent or the EIA had not revealed or the EAC itself could not find. There are instances of mistakes in EIAs, cases of blatant plagiarism, ignoring important facts and so on.  It’s indeed sad that the EAC wants to shut out such inputs, which can complement and strengthen its work.

May be the real reason lies in the attitude of the EAC. This is reveal by its categorisation of “many such kinds of representations” as “anti-development”. How has the EAC come to this conclusion? It seems to claim expertise, and monopoly, on what should be called “development”.
Moreover, the EAC stating that such representations 

“have an anti-development attitude so that the projects are kept on hold or delayed. This has financial implications to the developers in particular and to the nation in general.”

also has no logic. No representation by itself has any power to hold up or delay any project, unless the EAC or any other empowered body takes action based on the representation. Presumably, the EAC would hold up a project based on some representation only if it found the representation to have some serious points. To say that anti-development representations will delay projects is to actually say that the EAC will be swayed by such representations even if they don’t have strong enough grounds. So is the EAC admitting a lack of confidence in itself? 

Last but not the least, the issue of such representations having financial implications for the project developer and the nation is nothing but the old thinking which looks at environmental considerations as obstacles to “development” (narrowly defined), and which believes that giving due consideration to environmental concerns means delays and increased costs for infrastructure projects, and hence these concerns should be played down or ignored.

The fact that a body that is supposed to represent the environmental perspective displays such an attitude is the biggest critique of the EAC and the environmental clearance process that it is a part of.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Is our new environment Minister anti-large dams?

The Indian Express , writing on July 9, 2016 about the new Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Shri Anil Dave, made a statement which  left many people rather bewildered:

"Having been part of the Narmada campaign, it is hardly surprising that Dave is opposed to dams and big irrigation projects."

Shri Anil Dave, part of Narmada Campaign? And opposed to big dams?!

I find this difficult to believe. 

A protest action against the 400 MW Maheshwar project on the Narmada, at Mandleshwar, Madhya Pradesh. File Photo: Courtesy NBA.
As I have been a full-time activist with the Narmada struggle (the Narmada Bachao Andolan) for many years, and have spent several more years in the Narmada valley as a resident, I would surely have come across Anil Dave’s campaigns on opposing the dams on the Narmada. I don’t recall any action or statement by Shri Dave that could be construed as a protest against these dams. To make sure that in the unlikely event that  I had missed something, I also search on the internet to see if I could see Shri Dave’s involvement in the Narmada campaign challenging dams. But I could not find anything.

His profile on the Ministry’s website describes him, among other things, as a “river conservationist”. This may be due to the International Narmada Utsav(s) (Narmada Festival) that were organised for a few years running, on the banks of Narmada, near Hoshangabad, by the NGO Narmada Samagra founded by Dave and where he is the Secretary.  Since I was in MP during the time some of these were organised, I remember them well. They were big affairs, with lot of talk about protecting Narmada. But not a word was spoken about the dams that are being planned and built on the river. Considering that the Utsavs were held in Madhya Pradesh, Dave is from the state, and the state is building 29 large dams, 135 medium ones and more than 3000 "small” dams in the Narmada basin as a part of the Narmada Valley Development Project, this silence was somewhat puzzling. It implied that the organisers did not believe this massive dam construction came in the way of conserving the Narmada. Or maybe it was because there was a friendly government (led by BJP) in power in the state which was strongly pushing these dams, and there was no point criticising it. 

This was around 2007, 2008, and it was a time when there were very intense and strong mass movements around many of these dams in the Narmada valley, led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan and supported by many others. These dams, the displacement of lakhs of people, the destruction being caused to the river etc. were everyday news in the state, and even many times in the country. Yet, the Narmada Utsavs were mum on these dams. 

During one of these Narmada festivals, people’s movements and struggles in M.P., several of them involved with the struggles around Narmada dams, brought out a leaflet posing many questions to the organisers of the Narmada Utsav. 

The title of the Hindi leaflet was “How will the Narmada be saved? How will the civilisation of rivers be  saved”? And the first question in the leaflet was “Festival of Death of Rivers?”  This first question raised the issue that while the documents related to the festival listed 13 different topics and issues for the festival, there was no mention of the dams being built on the river, and the destruction and displacement being caused by them. There was no reply to the questions raised by the groups. A copy of the leaflet can be found here.

Given all this, it is difficult to believe that the new Minister Shri Dave is really against large dams. It’s also not clear what would his vision of river conservation be, if it allows cascades of large dams to turn flowing rivers into a series of stagnant reservoirs.

A dam under construction on the Himalayan river Teesta. Photo: Author.
In any case, all this is of academic interest. What is relevant, what counts, is what Shri Dave will do now, as Minister of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change. While any major results will need time, there are a few things where immediate action can demonstrate the approach of the new Minister to the issues of environment protection. Some of these are offered as suggestions:

  1. In an ongoing case in the Supreme Court dealing with dams in the upper Ganga basin, the MoEF has been reluctant to impose constraints of maintaining adequate environmental flows in the rivers – its suggestions are based on a 100 year document and not on any scientific analysis. On the contrary, the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) is not only arguing for a more scientific approach to e-flows, but also suggesting that several of the dam projects be scrapped, and that rivers Bhagirathi, Alaknanada and Mandakini should be allowed to flow unfettered.  It would be most appropriate if MoEF were to revise its submission to the Supreme Court and support the MoWR.
  2. The MoEF has recently brought out a draft notification that will allow those who have started and continued work on their industries and operations without the legally mandatory environmental clearance, that is, clearly violated the law, to get away and get their entities regularised.  This draft has been widely criticised for allowing violators to get away with impunity. There have been calls to withdraw this notification in-toto. Interestingly, a recent article has exposed that this draft legislation is an almost word-by-word copy of a US law. MoEF should immediately withdraw this draft to show that it supports the rule of law, and would not allow violators to get away. 
  3.  Last but not the least, there is an urgent need for the MoEF to strongly defend its work and itself, and not be reduced to an apologist. MoEF has in the recent years been criticised for being a “road-block” ministry, as an “obstructer” to development.  While these allegations don’t stand scrutiny, the problem is that the MoEF has itself internalised this criticism, and has been devaluing its own work and role. It would be very important for the new Minister to come out unequivocally in defending the role that the MoEF plays, and stand up strongly for the right of the Ministry to question and challenge reckless development, to question development that destroys the environment.
We look forward to the work of MoEF under its new leadership and hope that it can really work for sustainable development and conservation and protection of the environment.