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! 🙂