Dual approach to dam projects : Narmada Maiya

Narmada Maiya (Mother Narmada) is a curious mix of reportage, diary, report, and analysis on the much-debated Narmada Valley dam project. Originally written in Marathi in 1990, it has now been published in Hindi.

The book attempts to cover a wide range of facts and figures on the Narmada project, the river system, the historical background of irrigation in India and global environmental problems -- such as the greenhouse effect -- and their effect on forests. Also dealt with are issues pertaining to water resources, other river projects in India, development policies and the on-going debate on the concept of development. Incidentally, the movement against the Narmada project, initiated by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, has also raised many of these issues.

Notwithstanding Duttprasad Dabholkar's unbiased treatment, his views are in favour of the project and this comes out occasionally in the book. The past few years have generated productive debates over Narmada. Those working for or against the project have brought out important literature on various aspects, ranging from project analysis and relief and rehabilitation to alternative paths of development. Questionable relevance The weakest aspect of the book is that it does not take into account the plethora of literature, research and commentaries generated against the controversial project. The lack of this information in the book makes one question its relevance in the present context and whether the book achieves any objective assessment of the project.

The book seems like a curious bag of fact and fiction. When it deals with macro issues such as the social history of river projects, dams and small dams and global environmental problems, it provides detailed and useful information. However, when dealing with micro issues -- the Narmada project itself -- the author bases himself primarily on personal observations, interviews and travelogues.

And, in a rather disturbing fashion, he tries to ridicule the opponents of the project. For example, the headline of one of the chapters is Bhago, bhago, aasmaan gir raha hai (Run, run, the sky is falling). He also questions the honesty and integrity of the Andolan activists in a rather superficial fashion.

The book raises pertinent questions about displaced people, the so-called need to preserve their culture and the search for alternative paths of development. The author states that if the culture of the tribals needs to be preserved, why shouldn't the same be done for Brahmanical cultures as well? If tribal values, institutions and practices are progressive, then what about the superstitions and blind agricultural and food practices prevalent among them? And, what about the economic inequality among the various sects of tribals?

These may be trivial questions in terms of the whole project and the range of crucial issues at stake. But they have been dealt with in a rather dismal fashion by the author, to say the least.

Mukul Sharma is a journalist with Navbharat Times.