Whither environmental protest

WITH THE WATERS of the Bhagirathi already having made their first, tentative entry into old Tehri town, it does appear that the long saga of protest against the large dam, now close to completion, on the confluence of the Bhagirathi and the Bilangana is coming to an end. Equally too, we might be witnessing the final phase of a turbulent era of environmental protest, marked, particularly in the last two decades, by a major assault on what were once lauded as temples of modern India.

It was not too long back that the Supreme Court brought to an unglorious end what clearly has been one of the most spectacular movements of post-Emergency India - the struggle against the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada. And no matter what personal opinion one holds on the worthwhileness of that project, all fair-minded observers of the struggle will be forced to admit that the Narmada struggle did much to define the extant environmental consciousness in the country, forcing even die-hard developmentalists to admit to the validity of the costs of development, if not rethink their basic preconceptions about the objectives and content of the development project. Now, with the anti-Tehri dam struggle facing imminent `defeat', maybe it is time the activists and the movement concerned too re-examined their strategic impulses.

There are many ways one can read the `success' of the project authorities and, concurrently, the `failure' of the movement. Most stark, of course, is the brazenness of the Indian state. It is, one suspects, insufficiently appreciated that the Tehri dam project violates all procedural norms underwritten by the Government, having been turned down, not once but twice, by its appointed environment clearance committees.

Not only does this dam located in a high-risk seismic zone pose unacceptable dangers to all those living downstream in the unfortunate event of a catastrophe, its active project life is likely to be much shorter than officially claimed, given the high rates of siltation associated with Himalayan rivers. Of course, like all large dam projects, it inundates valuable forest and farming land and displaces people in over 100 villages as also Tehri town. Overall thus, it is difficult to make a case for this project on any rational cost-benefit calculus.

These `facts' are well-known and documented, both in official reports as also independent studies by INTACH and Vijay Paranjpe. One even recollects documentaries screened on the project, including on Doordarshan, recording the testimonies of senior scientists warning against going ahead with the project. If, nevertheless, the Government ignored all evidence and is now set to inaugurate another temple of modern India, it only goes to show that rational arguments cut little ice in the murky environs of our decision-making apparatus.

Sceptics will argue that the Tehri experience only mimics well- set norms. Barring Silent Valley, no large dam project has willingly been given up by the state. And in that case too, without undermining the long campaign spearheaded by the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad, it was finally the intervention by Indira Gandhi and her newly-discovered love for the lion-tailed macaque which carried the day.

More intriguing is why the protest against the dam failed to acquire a significant social presence, both in the local and national domains. Unlike Sardar Sarovar on the Narmada which became a cause celebre, the Tehri protest never quite captured the imagination of the growing tribe of environmentalists and green journalists, this despite the case against the dam standing on firmer ground than most others. It is unlikely that those most directly affected by the project, the local people, were ever convinced that the dam would bring them benefits - be it electricity, drinking water or a boom to the local economy. If anything they are well aware that such projects only benefit those far away, in the urban metropolises.

Equally, it is difficult to believe that they were swayed by the allure of compensation and resettlement, particularly given the officialdom's dismal record on this count. So why their relative apathy?

One suspects that a key problem with the anti-Tehri dam movement has been its highly personalised and centralised character, relying inordinately on Mr. Sunderlal Bahugana's charisma. As a towering personality of the region, it is he who gave shape to the protest. And given his stature, it was never easy for others to join in except on his terms, given particularly his never-quite-hidden uneasiness with outsiders. So, more than building up local networks of resistance or seeking alliances with outside researchers, scientists, activists (though each of these at different points of time did play a role), what will be more remembered are Bahuganaji's long fasts to force a rethink of the project. These did win him some time but evidently were insufficient to stop the construction of the dam.

Even more disconcerting, particularly in the 1990s, was the use of a religious idiom to buttress his case, how a `holy' river was being desecrated by development intervention. The subsequent involvement, if not takeover, of the struggle by VHP mahants and religious leaders, their intemperate speech, further muddied the waters and alienated both secular activists and minority opinion. But more than the above, it is probably the aftermath of the Chipko struggle, a movement with which Bahugana was intimately associated and at one stage exemplified, that played a crucial role. Whatever the near-epic status Chipko enjoys as a defining green movement in the outside world, locally it is seen as contributing to a near cessation of development activity in the region.

As Haripriya Pangan so tellingly documents in `Of Myths and Movements: Rewriting Chipko into Himalayan History', one implication of the environmental legislation that followed Chipko was that the tiniest developmental intervention in the hills required prior Central clearance. Little surprise, Chipko, more so its glorification, came to be perceived as a conspiracy of city-based greens to foreground nature over people, environment over livelihoods.

This anti-environment feeling has been further strengthened with proposals to set up fresh protected areas and bio-conservation zones which will restrict access to over a third of the newly created Uttaranchal State. Locals now complain that they now suffer from two kinds of terrorism - development and environment, both seen as destroyers of livelihoods. This was a major impulse behind the struggle for a separate hill State, a struggle in which Mr. Bahugana, surprisingly enough, played no role.

It is so far unclear what role these different processes had in defining the contours of the struggle, in particular the construction of local apathy. Sustaining protests over long periods is never easy. And each `failure' only contributes to deepening the despondency among affected people. By no means do they support what is being done to them; just that they are sullen, resigned and apathetic. The issues raised by environmental struggles, including against the Tehri dam, remain much too important to be frittered away. This is why protest movements bear a responsibility greater than what their leaderships may realise.

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