Fourteen years after he visited India as a member of a landmark World
Bank-authorised independent review of the Sardar Sarovar Project,
anthropologist Hugh Brody returned this year. Brody, honorary
associate at the University of Cambridge and chair of aboriginal
studies at the University College of the Fraser Valley in Canada,
tells Chandrika Mago that there still seem to be many ongoing problems.
[ Times of India, 12:00:01 AM Monday, February 21, 2005]
At the start of the 1990s, your team found the World Bank approach to
the project flawed. What had gone wrong?
The review looked at a high-profile, highly contentious dispute at the
centre of a very large part of India. We had access to all bank
documents and personnel. The governments, the Narmada Bachao Andolan
(NBA) and Arch Vahini, the organisation which agreed to support the
project after 1988, all let us in. We found serious flaws in both
resettlement and environment aspects. From 1988, Gujarat had come up
with a very progressive resettlement policy. But could it be
implemented, given the political atmosphere and institutional
capacity? Proper resettlement depended on Maharashtra and MP adopting
the policy. To some extent, Maharashtra did; but MP would not, could
not. The problems were huge, tens of thousands of people were at risk,
especially in MP. Seventy per cent of the project cost was on 75,000
km of canals. We calculated at least 140,000 katedars would be
affected. Gujarat was offering a pretty rough and ready cash
compensation device for them. In addition, there had been few, if any,
downstream studies. They were transforming the river. We reckoned up
to 40,000 families could be affected. This was a big lacuna. Gujarat
had also come up with the idea of the Shoolpaneshwar sanctuary
adjacent to the dam. There, it looked like 40, then 90, villages were
going to be evicted.
You returned to the valley in January this year. Why, and what did you
A photographer friend is doing a book of images of the Narmada; she
asked me to do the text. We went to the resettlement sites, looked at
the canal and dam. We went to the sanctuary. I can't judge on the
basis of a flying visit but it's evident there are many ongoing
problems. I met people displaced by the main canal who seemed to be
struggling. Gujarat resettlement has some success. I visited sites
where people had been living for 10 years and had done okay. It seems
to have worked in some places; there are serious problems in others.
Meanwhile, many in MP are struggling with what is going to happen.
Resettlement policy implementation continues to be a huge challenge.
What about the sanctuary?
I was startled when I came to know how difficult life is for villagers
hugely dependent on harvesting forest products, both for subsistence
and the market. They aren't allowed to harvest freely, there are
restrictions on their right to wood for fuel or building homes; they
are not allowed to cut bamboo for homes though I was told bamboo is
being cut commercially. The relationship between forest dwellers and
the forest department is full of stress: an illiterate, quite shy
people have to deal with a powerful organisation which does not seem
sympathetic to them. They have nowhere to turn to when they find they
are at risk from extreme poverty or could become landless. I met some
who were going to Surat as migrant labour. They are going from life in
a village where they had a resource base, which despite a low level of
service was secure and had endured for generations, to a life of
poverty and uncertainty.
How do you view NBA's role?
Between 1983 and 1988, along with Arch Vahini, NBA played a very
important role in pressuring the World Bank, international opinion and
the Gujarat government with, in effect, a mass movement in the Narmada
valley. Thereafter, it took the view that Gujarat's 1988 policy could
never be implemented and there were many other problems, so it opposed
the project. AV, however, saw it as a fait accompli and tried for the
best possible deal. These opposing views reflected the paradigms of
development. NBA's view was to stop the dam, the other view was that
NBA didn't do what it could to help those affected, in the villages.
Each side of this argument criticises the other for failing to
recognise grim realities. I can see the relevance of both views.
There is now a nationwide plan to link rivers. What are your views on
I haven't worked on these projects in India. But in Canada, where I am
familiar with inter-basin development, we have seen that environmental
risks are complex and high, usually inseparable from human, social
costs. Big water projects in effect transfer resources from one part
of a society to another. This is high risk at many levels. My concern,
in the Canadian cases, has been centred on the vital need for the most
comprehensive impact assessment and due weighting of costs. Or, these
projects may turn out to entail violation of human rights as well as
irreversible damage to environment. In the end, all societies have to
live with the consequences often unforeseen of large-scale
development. There is a need for the best science, the most scrupulous
attention to the needs of both people and lands. The moral and
political stature of a nation may, in the end, be inseparable from how
these consequences unfold.