Medha on Mega Dams (Interview)

[Medha on Mega Dams|THE PASSWORD|Interview]

“We want development, but not by killing our rivers. Big dams are killing the rivers. Hundreds of people are deprived of their livelihood due to construction of mega dams across the country. Big dams are a symbol of destruction and misery,” says renowned environmentalist leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan Medha Patkar in an exclusive interview to Monjib Mochahari.

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Q: How do you look at the ongoing mass movement against mega dams in the North East?

Here in the North East, we have to convince the cavity society, make them understand the various pros and cons of the mega dams, challenge the politicians and face the contractors or the corporate investors. At first whether it’s the investors, the World Bank, Asian Development Bank or the local companies, we have to convince them that there are a number of other alternatives of energy in the region. If all of that happened with people’s participation who are the direct victims of mega dams, people can be mobilised and the movement can go on and succeed finally.

Q: If there is a movement against dams, what will happen to the industrialisation of the region?

The whole concept of industrialisation is very perverted. In simple language, industrialisation means using the natural resources or raw materials to make something ‘pakka’ to have an input and then get an output, i.e., seen in all fields, many it be agriculture, aqua-industry, village and other home based industry. But today the whole concept of industrialisation as used politically and economically is only one form of industrialisation i.e., corporate or capital intensive or energy intensive industrialisation. So what kind of industrialization with what technology, with how much of labour, natural resources and energy, need to be decided for every region separately and applied to the resource matrix of that region.

Q: How feasible is this movement against the mega dams?

A movement is something that really comes from people’s perspectives and strategies who are the victims of unjustifiable government decisions. It’s feasible when there is people’s power behind it. Feasibility is not to be seen in the sense of the state atrocity or the challenges that comes even from the civil society at times. Every movement has its mission and vision. It should not be seen only on the practicality of its stand, but committed to an ideological framework. If the strategies adopted by the people in protest against the mega dams in the region are effective, certainly the movement can succeed.

Q: What are other alternatives of energy generation and industrialisation in the regon?

Particularly, if we talk about the Northeast, it’s a natural resource rich region. The whole concept of industrialization here has to be based on its rich and abundant natural resources. And it must not be solely on the basis of monetary resources. It has to be least energy based industrialisation. What is happening here in other parts of India is that because of this kind of lopsided efforts, the alternative sources of energy which are not only practical, renewable but sustainable and which are in the hand so of the people and which can be managed and harnessed by the local communities are bypassed and condemned. They do not require pioneering role of the intermediaries and profiteering builders. Sadly, this one-sided drive towards industrialisation which doesn’t benefit the local communities is being pursued here.

Q: What is your take on energy scenario in the North East?

First of all, let us see what is the annual requirement for the region? The actual energy needs for each state when taken together is only a few hundred mega watts. Is it necessary to construct huge dams when only a few mega watts of power is required? Is it really a target or goal which is appropriately worked out considering the needs of the local people or is it considering the need of the ambitious politicians and the corporate in which they are engaged?

Q: How do you assess the role of the planners/policy makers in this region?

Here in the North East, each and every dam is not fully studied. I feel there is insincerity in the whole process of planning of hydel power projects in the region. It’s not surprising; the planners have absolutely failed to take any strategic position on these projects. They don’t list to the public theory or the voices of the people in the planning and execution process. Although people are proud of their autonomous councils and other local bodies, the actual control is in the hands of outsiders. The local communities are given a deaf hearing. Planning should begin from grassroots levels as people know their actual needs, may it be energy, water and what technology to be used. Communities at the bottom of the pyramids should be involved in the decision making process, execution and evaluation. Local communities should be its shareholder of any projects which directly affect their livelihood.

Q: Will these dams bring any benefits to the region?

It’s doubtful what benefits these so called ‘mega dams’ will bring to the people of the region. We don’t get anything by murdering our rivers. Yet, one thing is sure; there is a swift move in the process because the politicians, corporate and investors are trying to get the maximum benefits out of these projects. They don’t want to change the region but change their financial position overnight. It’s absolutely an illogical move.

Q: What is your assessment of cost involved in the construction of these huge dams?

The government at the centre and the state levels are blind-folded. They are only estimating the benefits it will go to the corporate in metros, whereas the cost will be borne by the local communities. The project will go on forever. This is must be questioned. The permanent damage to the region is an irretrievable loss. People at the community levels have the right to question these kinds of mega projects which were sanctioned without proper scientific evaluation.

Q: Arunachal Pradesh has lowest density of population. What impact the mega dams will have there?

The adverse impact, both environmental and human livelihood, should not be limited to the region or a state. People or the local communities and the eco-systems in which they are part of it should be assessed. The government can’t think only about national interest at local cost. The local cost must be assessed. Within Arunachal Pradesh also you have to go down to the river eco system to know the actual impact is.

Q: What is the way to avoid the ongoing protest against mega dams?

We are not Maoists; we are using every democratic platform to raise the issue. The government must provide a democratic platform and sit for dialogues with the local communities. People’s sentiments must be respected and give patient hearing to their suggestions. For, they are the best instrument who can suggest what the alternatives are, how the project cost can be minimised and natural resources can be taken care of. Unfortunately, it is not happening. So, people are raising questions. The least option for them whether it’s in the North East or other parts of the country is to say ‘no’ to any mega dams.

Q: What is the best alternative?

We are not against all dams. We are against mega dams. The region has the potential for thousands of smaller and micro-level dams. If the water catchments are lost then the whole livelihood is lost. We have to preserve and conserve mega water catchments. The government can think about constructing small dams instead of mega dams.

[This Interview was first published in Northeast Business Reporter, August 2010. pp 30-33]

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