Is Our New Environment Minister Anti-Large Dams?

Shripad Dharmadhikary
The author, Shripad Dharmadhikary, with Medha Patkar when he was an activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan or Save the Narmada Movement.
The author, Shripad Dharmadhikary, with Medha Patkar when he was an activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan or Save the Narmada Movement.
International Rivers
The Indian Express, writing on July 9, 2016 about the new Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Anil Madhav Dave, made a statement that left many people rather bewildered:

"Having been part of the Narmada campaign, it is hardly surprising that Dave is opposed to dams and big irrigation projects."

Anil Madhav Dave, part of Narmada campaign? And opposed to big dams?

I find this difficult to believe. 

His profile on the ministry’s website describes him as, among other things, a “river conservationist.” This may be due to the International Narmada Utsav(s) (Narmada Festival) that were organized for a few years running, on the banks of Narmada, near Hoshangabad, by the NGO Narmada Samagra, which was founded by Dave and where he is the secretary.  Since I was in Madhya Pradesh (MP) during the time some of these were organized, I remember them well. They were big affairs, with lots of talk about protecting the Narmada. But not a word was spoken about the dams that are being planned and built on the river.

Considering that the Utsavs were held in MP, Dave is from the state, and the state is building 29 large dams, 135 medium ones and more than 3000 "small” dams in the Narmada basin as a part of the Narmada Valley Development Project, this silence was somewhat puzzling. It implied that the organizers did not believe this massive dam construction came in the way of conserving the Narmada. Or maybe it was because there was a friendly government (led by BJP) in power, which was strongly pushing these dams, and there was no point criticizing it. As I have been a full-time activist with the Narmada struggle (the Narmada Bachao Andolan) for many years, and have spent several more years in the Narmada Valley as a resident, I would surely have come across Anil Dave’s campaigns opposing the dams on the Narmada. I don’t recall any action or statement by Dave that could be construed as a protest against these dams. To make sure that in the unlikely event I had missed something, I also searched on the Internet to see if I could see Dave’s involvement in the Narmada campaign. But I could not find anything.

This was around 2007-08, and it was a time when there were very intense and strong mass movements around many of these dams in the Narmada Valley, led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan and supported by many others. These dams, the displacement of lakhs of people, and the destruction of the river were everyday news in the state, and even many times in the country. Yet the Narmada Utsavs were mum on these dams. 

During one of these Narmada festivals, people’s movements in MP – several of them involved with the struggles around Narmada dams – brought out a leaflet posing many questions to the organizers of the Narmada Utsav. 

"I would surely have come across Anil Dave’s campaigns on opposing the dams on the Narmada," writes Dharmadhikary.
"I would surely have come across Anil Dave’s campaigns on opposing the dams on the Narmada," writes Dharmadhikary.
International Rivers

Given all this, it is difficult to believe that the new Minister Dave is really against large dams. It’s also not clear what his vision of river conservation would be, if it allows cascades of large dams to turn flowing rivers into a series of stagnant reservoirs.The title of the Hindi leaflet was “How will the Narmada be saved? How will the civilization of rivers be saved?" And the first question in the leaflet was “Festival of Death of Rivers?”  This first question raised the issue that while the documents related to the festival listed 13 different topics and issues, they made no mention of the dams being built on the river, or the destruction and displacement they were causing. There was no reply to the questions raised by the groups. A copy of the leaflet can be found here.

In any case, all this is of academic interest. What is relevant, what counts, is what Dave will do now, as Minister of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change (MoEFCC). While any major results will need time, there are a few things where immediate action can demonstrate the new minister's approach to the issues of environmental protection. Some suggestions:

1. In an ongoing case in the Supreme Court dealing with dams in the upper Ganga basin, the MoEFCC has been reluctant to impose constraints around maintaining adequate environmental flows in the rivers – its suggestions are based on a 100-year-old document and not on any scientific analysis. On the contrary, the Ministry of Water Resources (MoWR) is not only arguing for a more scientific approach to e-flows, but also suggesting that the government scrap several dam projects. It is also suggesting that the rivers Bhagirathi, Alaknanada and Mandakini should be allowed to flow unfettered. It would be most appropriate if MoEFCC were to revise its submission to the Supreme Court and support the MoWR.

2. The MoEFCC has recently brought out a draft notification that will allow those who have started and continued work on their industries and operations without the legally mandatory environmental clearance – that is, clearly violated the law – to get away with it and see their entities regularized. This draft has been widely criticized for allowing violators to get away with impunity. There have been calls to withdraw this notification in toto. Interestingly, a recent article has exposed that this draft legislation is an almost word-by-word copy of a US law. MoEFCC should immediately withdraw this draft to show that it supports the rule of law, and would not allow violators to get away. 

3. Last but not the least, the MoEFCC must strongly defend its work and itself, and not be reduced to the role of an apologist. MoEFCC has in the recent years been criticized for being a “road-block” ministry, as an “obstructer” to development. While these allegations don’t stand up to scrutiny, the MoEFCC has internalized this criticism, and has been devaluing its own work and role. The new minister should come out and unequivocally defend the role that the MoEFCC plays, and stand up strongly for the ministry's right to question and challenge reckless development, and to question development that destroys the environment.

We look forward to seeing the direction the MoEFCC takes under its new leadership, and we hope that it can really work for sustainable development, conservation and protection of the environment.

Shripad Dharmadhikary coordinates the Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, a centre set up to research, analyse and monitor water and energy issues. You can read his blog here.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016