Abandoning the displaced

Ramaswamy R. Iyer

It seems that the executive and the judiciary subscribe to the proposition that the infliction of injustice and misery on the project-affected people must be accepted as the "cost" of development.

THE SUPREME Court's Order in the Narmada case on May 8, 2006 is completely unjustified. Let us take note of some indisputable points.

First, the requirement that rehabilitation must precede submergence is beyond question: it follows from the Tribunal's Award and the Supreme Court's own earlier orders in this case. The proposition of construction being conditional on rehabilitation was re-affirmed in the judgment of October 2000.

Secondly, there is no doubt whatever that rehabilitation, even with reference to the dam-height already reached, is in fact incomplete and poor. The Report of the Group of three Ministers was a severe indictment of the state of rehabilitation. Even assuming there were some errors in the report that need correction, it is clear that all is not well on the rehabilitation front. The extent of failure might be in dispute but not the fact of failure.

It follows from those two propositions that work on the dam must be stopped, rehabilitation completed, and then construction resumed. If construction has run ahead of rehabilitation, as is in fact the case, this constitutes an illegality in terms of the Tribunal's Award and the Supreme Court's earlier orders and judgments.

The Supreme Court now wants to wait for the Oversight Group's report, the results of the sample survey, and the study of that material by the Prime Minister. It proposes to hold the next hearing in July 2006. One has no quarrel with any of that. What is not understandable is the court's disinclination to stop the construction until the next hearing. At one stroke, the court has done something unthinkable: it has de-linked construction from rehabilitation. It has gone against its own earlier orders and re-written the "immutable" Award of the Tribunal.

If in July the court finds that there have indeed been failures in rehabilitation and that the continuation of construction was illegal, what will it do? Will it shrug its shoulders and accept the fait accompli?

I was about to say the order was illegal and unjust, but that would be wrong: by definition the Supreme Court cannot do anything illegal or unjust because what it delivers is ipso facto justice, and what it lays down is ipso facto law.

Let me state my point differently: what was injustice and illegality till the morning of Monday, May 8, 2006 ceased to be unjust or illegal by that afternoon by virtue of the Supreme Court's order.

While the judgment of October 2000 was far from satisfactory, it did seem at least to hold out a tenuous hope of future justice. The present order extinguishes that hope, and makes the denial of justice absolute.

The project-affected people (PAPs) in the Narmada Valley have been abandoned by the State governments and also the Central government.

It now seems that the executive and the judiciary share a particular understanding of "development" and subscribe to the proposition that the infliction of injustice and misery on PAPs must be accepted as the "cost" of that development. Project-affected people must now reconcile themselves to the fate ordained for them.

The establishment is now in a position to say a word of farewell to those who are being abandoned. Echoing Nehru's words to Assam in 1962, it can say unctuously, "Our hearts go out to the people of the Narmada Valley."

(The writer is a former Union Secretary for Water Resources.)

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