Smitu Kothari on Dams, Development, and the Ethics of Engagement

As we approach the launch of Development 52.3 in memory of Indian activist, scholar and long-time SID collaborator Smitu Kothari, SID has decided to publish an interview he gave to Georgina Drew, a Ph.D. candidate at UNC, Chapel Hill on 29 March 2007. The interview highlighted Smitu's involvement with the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the transitions that social movements in India have gone through in the last few decades. 

Interview by Georgina Drew

GD: A lot of social scientists have written on movements such as the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the opposition to Tehri dam. How do you feel about how those struggles have been covered by academics that brought knowledge of those movements West? What do you think about the way that those movements have been exported and represented?

SK: Well to some extent the question highlights a very deep tension that concerns many of us. Which is, what are the sites of power that researchers come from? What is the relationship that researchers build with the movement? Who in the movement are they talking with and talking to? Who is representing the movement? What are the issues, therefore, from the entire set of complex issues that get represented and analyzed? What is done with that representation and analysis? What is the sustained involvement of the researcher in what he or she has researched? So, the whole issue of the activist as researcher is a highly contested terrain, a highly contested issue. And my experience, at least, suggests that very few people have been deeply introspective and respectful of the complexity of what they encounter on the ground. Also, from the other side, if you look from the prospective of the movements, they have been inundated with people coming in. I mean, the Narmada—and, to a smaller extent, Tehri—have become sites of development tourism. Dozens of PhD theses have now been done on the Narmada. Lots of researchers have been trampling up and down the valley. For me, that raises the additional question, which is to what extent has that research contributed to the creation of a wider resistance to what the dam represents and to the dam itself? And to what extent has it actually furthered the academic careers of those who have researched those movements? Even though it is not so linear always, I come away with a great deal of skepticism. These sites inevitably tend to become sites of a different kind of academic extraction. It is not very different from the extraction of colonial or capitalist knowledge systems and (other) systems themselves. Now, this is not to say that there hasn't been research that has had a positive long-term impact on what these movements have been fighting for. But they have been few and far between. Particularly in the context of Tehri, when it became a question of the dam being defended by extremely powerful political and economic interests -as it is also the case for the Narmada- more and more of these researchers became wary of being identified as those who were associated with those movements. In both those cases, the movements themselves have gone through a major transition, a very radical transition, from taking a position that is anti-dam to taking a position that is now seeking comprehensive justice for those who have been displaced by the dams. That shift is very politically important and rather painful because (now) you have destroyed cultures, you have destroyed eco-systems. You now have destroyed and divided and fragmented the communities. You are now essentially involved in -from the point of view of the system- you are involved in a program of very cynical manipulation and a very cynical delivery of marginal goods. From the point of view of the communities, you continue to be humiliated, you continue to be deeply exploited in many different ways. Because both the systems as well as, to a large extent, academia, have continued to remain indifferent to the gravity of what you are experiencing. What I should also say though is that both those movements, particularly Narmada but Tehri also -because Tehri is part of that legacy- have definitely contributed to a global debate that has put a huge question mark in front of large dams. And in India alone, I would say roughly about 70 percent of the projects that were planned before the movements (arose), they are now on the back burner or have been cancelled. This is not just India. It has also led to the building of the largest global alliance around a development project. At one time, I remember nearly 350 groups and movements around the world were part of the international alliance in support of the Narmada struggle. That alliance has helped, therefore, in bringing the debates into other countries. And in that sense, again, the Narmada and Tehri movements have spawned and inspired and given strength to other movements in other parts of the world. In many relatively non-visible ways, this is a kind of osmotic inspiration, an inspiration through osmosis which doesn't come through people sitting across the table directly and talking about what they go through. And I think that is a very important contribution that they have also made.

GD: What do you think about the arguments that these (dam) projects threaten to break connections that people have with water and the spiritual values that people associate with water? In Tehri, they were saying that the dam would kill the Goddess, that it would disrespect the Mother (associated with the river). To what extent do you think that those are valid arguments that speak to the concerns of the affected communities? To what extent, if at all, do you think they are part of opposition rhetoric? And how do those arguments travel and get processed in political spheres? Do they delegitimize people's development-related concerns because they signal a non-modern rationale?

SK: From the point of view of the community, they are very real issues. The river is not just a site of livelihood; it's a site of spiritual regeneration. And for them, for the community, because it is a site of regeneration and a site of livelihood, their defense is a defense of both and of many other things. It is also a site of historical memory. The destruction of that site therefore is also a destruction of their history. It's also destruction of their past. But what was very ironical to me was (the behavior of) the governments in power. In many cases for instance when the Hindu right wing, the Hindu nationalist party was in power in Delhi and the state government, they were projecting themselves as defenders of Indian culture, as defenders of its multiple plural religious system. When, however, it came to the question of fourteenth century temples or ancient Hindu sites from the Indus valley civilization being submerged or (the loss of) what Tehri represented -for local communities it involved both the spiritual God Mother and Mother but it also played an important role in the cycle of ritual and regeneration- they completely discounted it. So they selectively appropriate tradition for their nationalistic regressive politics and then they selectively appropriate modernity to defend the dam. And so it's a strange co-existence between the defence of modernity, which is actually destroying elements of Indian spiritual and religious roots, and at the same time the defence of those spiritual and religious roots selectively to shape their politics. I think that one of the mistakes that a part of India's Left has made in discounting the value of religion in Indian political life is that they have allowed the Hindu right to appropriate the space that belongs in all its plurality to the people. Which is that, if the spiritual significant of the river is important for the local community, then we must give space to the power of that connection. We mustn't allow it to be appropriated by one particular political force. It is important to sustain the fact that an extremely liberative politics can be shaped that is rooted in a spiritual context.

GD: To go back to the movements, how do you feel about the shift -you said it was very significant- to focusing on compensation and rehabilitation. How valuable do you see that as a shift and how does it affect other struggles? Are other movements looking towards this shift and deciding to talk about how large-scale projects should be managed instead of whether they should be built at all?

SK: Whatever you do -whether we talk about dam and its problems or you talk about the current situation of displacement -in both cases development is implicated. It's very severely implicated. Since independence, planned development has displaced about 60 million people in India alone. We are displacing about 8-10 million people every year in the projects of planned displacements. The overwhelming majority of these people have never been rehabilitated. As if rehabilitation is a solution. It is inevitable, therefore that we need to critically examine -need to critically interrogate, need to critically challenge- the very nature of development itself that causes such large scale suffering. It is imperative now that the state and other agencies look at least-displacing options, that they respect the importance of communities giving consent- not just agreement but formal consent after they fully know about all aspects of the project. And there should be a proper due process in which project papers are available to them in local languages. If you look at what is in the offing for countries like India, in the next 20 years to the next century, it has become urgent for us to look at options. As the (IPCC) report so graphically points out, the Ganga will become a seasonal river in 25 years. This essentially means, not just that a civilizational legacy will come to end, it also means that the 250-300 million people whose livelihood, cultures, (and) identities depend on the river are going to see a lot of this threatened and devastated. So that it has now become imperative for us -looking at the reality of displacement, looking at the reality of climate change, looking at the reality of the need to defend the plurality of India's knowledge systems- that we take a comprehensive view of the choices, of the economic and political choices, we are making. The biggest challenge in India today is a double challenge: How do you bring into the mainstream the urgency of doing this (questioning our choices)? The second is, how do you create structures to defend communities who have protected their knowledge systems, their ways of knowing, their ways of being? How do you create those systems of protection, so that their struggles for autonomy can be validated, so that they can have more political and economic space to be able to nurture what they think are their futures rather than somebody violently coming and taking those futures away?

GD: The overall issue that my research explores is climate change in the Himalayas and the paucity of water resources, particularly in the Ganges, that will be left if the glaciers melt. Some might say that it is contextualized within a framework of 'impending doom'. At the same time, there are a lot of immediate water struggles that we don't have to wait for, that need urgent attention. It is hard to know how to direct one's energies.

SK: See, I think that at the moment there are enough conflicts that are taking place because of the changes in India's water regimes, in the availability of water. In the duration and strength of monsoons, in the use of that water. In the harvesting and protecting of the water systems, in the quality of catchments and who is defending and protecting the catchments. In the highly iniquitous rerouting of major sources of India's water for the big cities and for industries. There are at least a dozen of such urgent, immediate issues, that people are suffering, that people are dealing with, that people are engaging with, that you need to get involve in. Yes, it simultaneously is important for us to talk about the melting of the Himalayan glaciers and its implications. But if there are people who are much more engaged with the immediate, let them stay, let them strengthen that engagement. I don't think that we should go, I mean at least spend all our energy in that, what you called impending doom. It is because we are in the position of power, of plural sources of information and knowledge. We are very privileged. It is important for us to make available this information and knowledge in wider arenas. But we need to be also very careful in how we choose those arenas and how we respond to the nature of urgency that exists on the ground. I would say that given the urgency of what is happening immediately, the kind of response that needs to be built is miniscule. And so there is a huge amount of work to be done. Let's get on with it. Rather than getting into, you know, endless debates at one level about 'how do you prioritize,' and 'what should come first'? After all, you know glaciers are melting. And you know there's going to be no water. What's the point in talking about it now? At one level those are important debates at another level they are totally academic.

GD: One of the groups that I have been working with is opposing Coke factories in India. It has been amazing to see how they have been able to network and draw attention to their cause. There has been critique of their approach because they use Gandhian tactics--non-violent protests, dharna, and fasts- to raise awareness. Some say that there are other ways to be more effective in this day and age. What do you see as the biggest issues, the possible points of action and hope for communities fighting big struggles like this?

SK: What is happening in Mehdiganj, what's happening in Plachimada, what's happening in Rajasthan in and around Coke factories is quite remarkable. But there is no question in my mind that much more energy needs to be expended in challenging Coke in the US. I spoke three weeks ago at a rally organized by teamsters in New York on Coke. The international campaign director of teamsters and the national campaign director were both there. They invited me to come and speak, and I spoke precisely on the effect of Coke in India. And after I ended, I was stopped by many of the teamster workers who knew nothing about this. They now have new energy to engage the company with. There needs to be political activists here -students, scholars- who work on these issues. They need to be openly challenging, to look for ways in which you can legally bring (to light) the company's record. I know for a fact that several groups in the US were also planning two weeks ago to go to the annual share holders meeting of Coke, and to challenge them there. They wanted me to go, but I couldn't make it because of other commitments. But I think that just like in Bhopal, we need to strengthen our capacities to hold companies, multilateral banks, bilateral agencies, bilateral banks accountable, and we need to continue to fight even though it's a huge uphill battle, because most courts are unwilling to, beyond a point, challenge corporate violence in other parts of the world. But I think we need to keep pushing and we need to keep challenging lawyers and politicians in public and in media, in highlighting these issues. I really think that the Indian community has done a lot. There is more to be done there but I think a huge amount needs to happen here (in the US) and the more urgently it is done, the better it will be for us.