Long Years Ago We Made a Tryst, with…Mathematics

I thought it wasn’t that complicated. When you make a new nation, make sure everybody gets a place. A roughly equal place. When you undertake any development in that new nation, make sure the benefits equal the costs. These are easy equations, easy maths. Maa-tha-maa-tics, my school maths teacher would say portentously, full of meaning and threatening.

This summer, quietly, safe from the media’s attention, 17 more metres were added to the biggest dam of the Sardar Sarovar Project, a dam that was already 400-plus metres high. Being ‘weak at maths’, I hesitate to calculate the catchment area of this big big dam, only one of many big dams in the web of waterworks created by the Sardar Sarovar project. I am getting goosebumps writing these words – the Sardar Sarovar project. As I did way back in school, as a fifteen-year old with a mind like an occupation zone for textbooks. Nehru’s photo radiates in waves out from that mind, that iconic Bhakra Nangal photo with him pointing to something in the far distance. The blazing sun, the deep shadows, the monumental respectability of it all…now the photo is fused with a different, equally iconic image – that of Sunil Dutt’s youthful strides across a dam site in Hum Hindustani. Humming those goose-bumpily patriotic lyrics now, I note for the first time their rapid transition – from a constructive image of nation-building to a wildly destructive one:

Kitne Taj Mahal hain humko aur banane

Kitne hain Ajanta humko aur sajane

Abhi palatna hai rukh kitne dariyaon ke

Kitne parvat rahon se hain aaj hatane

Naya khoon hai nayi umangein ab hai nayi jawani

Hum Hindustani…

But we know this; we know the die was cast early on in our nation-building project – the fatal connection between destruction and construction, between river-valley projects – dariyaon ka rukh palatna – and the magic of electricity; between mountain-breaking awesomeness – rahon se parvat hatana – and modern transport and communication. But I digress. The teacher at school was very frightening, and I hated maths – it growled at me from hostile looking textbooks, scented with distinctly masculine pheromones and backed by the entire disciplinary power of the school, corporal, non-corporal or plain mental. And I mean mental.

Trapped in my lonely cage of math-hatred and self-loathing, I failed to notice a phenomenon which became clear as day when I left school – that about 94.3% of my countrymen and women hated maths too, and most also sucked at it, just like me. In no time, a new caste system arose before my very eyes – separating those of us who cast maths off like old clothes, running wild and naked into the waiting arms of the humanities, hotel management, media, God knows even IAS was preferable; from those who pursued it, tamed it and whipped it to crack exams that could get them big bucks in the future. As for me, secure in my lower status, I heaved a sigh of relief. Freedom from numbers and equations for life? Could I be dreaming this?

But it is all very confusing now. The television debates are full of complex mathematical equations curated into breaking news tickers – 56,000 crores lost. 250,000 displaced. Ordinary people everywhere seem to be discussing facts and figures, figures and facts, facts and facts, figures and figures. Strangely enough however, these good folk don’t appear to be the math-Brahmins at the top of the competitive exam food chain – they were too busy making moneys, usually in the land of milk and moneys, if you know what I mean. It is the 93.4% majority that have now revealed a secret capacity for number-crunching, thereby betraying me and forcing me to wonder if as a nation we love maths after all. Perhaps maths seems democratic to its adult lovers, never mind that it may have been indifferently or badly taught, or that its students at some point must enter a caste not of birth but of merit. After all, a figure or number doesn’t have an identity, it is not marked, it is nobody’s fiefdom. Numbers are free to float through the hands of experts and authorities, children and old men, shopkeepers and housewives. Moral philosophers should love maths too, logic is one of the requirements of a philosophy degree. The moral equation stated at the beginning of this post – lets keep things roughly equal if we are building a new nation/dam/road/railway/nuclear plant – its not Marxism, it’s simple maths! How would we know equality if we don’t know maths? Ok, perhaps we are not all equally enamoured of equality. Perhaps all we want is proportion, like Plato himself. Even then, how would we know how to distribute goods and plot them in graphs in order of priority if we didn’t know Maths? Guns and butter; X axis and Y axis.

So maybe it’s not maths-from-school that we are enamoured of. It is a new kind of maths – a different maths, a national maths. 3,000 killed, 59 burnt, 59 burned. 3000 killed. 3 attacked. 10,000 rendered homeless. 5 raped. 400 jailed. After all, we are 1.2 billion and counting. Counting like the scary LCD board at AIIMS flyover in Delhi, that keeps ticking with every child born in this blessed nation. So numbers become meaningful. Or at least over-heated, like microwave dinners. And like TV debate itself. There is a problem however. Since none of us learned enough maths to write 1.2 billion without scratching our heads and rubbing out and rewriting zeros several times, not to mention cheating from our desk partners, we concentrate intently on the national maths offered to us by the national media. 1.2 billion is mind-boggling. Why, 250,000 displaced is mind-boggling. And the catchment area of a dam? A big dam at that – Sardar Sarovar, Polavaram? The damn catchment area. This may require trigonometry. We are reasonable creatures; we know our limits. Even while we like to dabble in mathspeak from time to time, we like expertise even more. Let’s not forget, the scales of justice will tip on the weight of national maths. So we should make sure we get our facts right, because apart from everything else as Arnab will remind us, the nation will want to know.

So in the Narmada case we went to the Supreme Court, opposing parties suspended before the satisfying impartiality of the law. In a now landmark judgment, the Court in its wisdom effectively sealed the case of the anti-dam struggle led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, leading many respectable citizens to smack their lips even more loudly on their morning tea-biscuits. The ragtag army collected by Medha Patkar could now concentrate their energies on relief and rehabilitation, they said, now that the Court has Spoken. We can all go back to building big dams and counting (we love counting) the megawatts of energy and the mcms of water that will be ‘harnessed’ by the Sardar Sarovar Project – kitne dariyaon ke hain rukh palatne…Nehru’s dream would be fulfilled in Modi’s Gujarat.

But in the midst of all this lip-smacking we have striven hard to forget something scandalous, telling us that national memory is also mathematical, requiring the careful calculation of forgetting against remembering. The judgment was a divided judgment, involving a lengthy dissenting judgment given by Justice Bharucha recording his disagreement with majority judges Kripal and Anand. National maths had not managed to come to the rescue, even when all parties had been given the formal chance to balance memory and forgetting judiciously, legally, transparently before the Court. Here was due process, away from the cacophony of newspapers and television, away from the din of street protests and the quiet pathos of jal satygarahas, away from pro- and anti-dam sentiment. But there was no agreement, the light of reason didn’t shine on the final arguments.

How did the highest Court of the land disagree on something so material, so mathematical as a dam and its cost-benefit ratio? Maybe I am wrong, but to my un-expert, un-mathematical mind there was a terrifying apples-and-oranges conundrum at the base of the Narmada issue – a conundrum that maths may just be too weak (scandal!) to solve. If you put what the SC judges termed the (potential) benefit (their word – potential – not mine) of (potentially lots of) water and (potentially a little) employment (for mostly non-tribals) on the one hand and the (fully non potential and assured) destruction of 250,000 (mostly) tribal lives and livelihoods on the other side, what is the result? What is the method of calculation to be used? Indeed, what units are we dealing with? What do we put on the X axis and what on the Y?

Apparently they couldn’t agree either. The majority judges used three main arguments to dismiss the petitioner Narmada Bachao Andolan’s arguments about destruction and costs – one, delay or what is termed ‘laches’. The NBA was too slow to approach the court, according to Justices Kripal and Anand. Here, they used a patently absurd argument, condemning the NBA for having raised the matter decades after the Sardar Sarovar Project had been conceptualized and work begun on it. The absurdity was that the NBA did not exist until the 1980’s, when the costs of the project had become widely apparent. Thus the Court was in fact criticizing the NBA and its leader Medha Patkar for not having existed earlier! Two, that delays in rehabilitation could not be used to justify the non-completion of the project; that it was sufficient to direct the authorities to undertake rehabilitation pari passu, or as the land becomes available. This was in fact the Court sanctioning a gradual slide down a slippery slope towards non-rehabilitation, since for one, the history of big dams in India has provided repeated evidence of rehabilitation never being completed as promised. Two, the dilution of rehabilitation rights was apparent in the Narmada case itself, since one of the earliest clauses built into the project was regarding rehabilitation being completed before further construction is undertaken – the only humane approach to the issue of displacement if there is one. This clause was diluted to rehabilitation being undertaken side-by-side; and finally in this judgment, to not being binding on further progress at all. The third and final argument that the Court used was an old and familiar one, used by all judicial and executive authorities since the start of the project – that since much investment had already been expended on the project, its non completion in its current form would be tantamount to betrayal of all interests that stood to benefit from the project. This was a tautological argument, since those interests wouldn’t be created in the first place if the costs of the project were so large as to offset or demolish the case for potential benefits. In other words, an argument about future interests requiring current local sacrifices is one that defies ordinary, sober, legal calculation, since its an argument made with national maths, not regular maths. This argument, by being repeatedly deployed to sanction further development in the Narmada case, effectively destroyed any hope of measuring the human costs of the project, since those costs could always be played off against the steadily accumulating potential interests in favour of the project.

Thus one couldn’t question national development, effectively. If one questioned it at the beginning, the government would say ‘rehabilitation would be undertaken’. If one questioned it in the middle, government would say rehabilitation should be undertaken side-by-side. If one questioned it in its mature stages, government would say whether the project has already acquired a material reality and concrete interests, not to mention the projected interests that are steadily accumulating; thus it needed to be completed, and rehabilitation can be undertaken even after the completion of the project. If rehabilitation is not undertaken even after the completion of the project…well…nobody remembers the oustees of Bhakra Nangal anymore, do they?

Apparently apples and oranges can be measured and balanced, after all, according to the majority judgment in the Narmada case. It was left to the minority judge to disagree, to state that the cost of one cannot be balanced against benefit, especially potential benefit.[1] Why is it that despite the horrendous and visible detritus of development in terms of millions of impoverished, homeless oustees and PAPs (project affected people), these figures never entered the blinkered calculus of national maths?

The reasons may lie in a fact unrelated to water availability altogether, or at least to water availability – they may lie in geopolitics and particularly in state politics. As Sripad Dharmadikary writes about the colonial-era dispute between Punjab and Sind over the Sind Valley Project, “one way of “attacking” (Sind by Punjab) was to enlarge the scope of its proposed projects, so as to try and show that it had much more need of the water, that it could command much more area, and hence its share should be higher…This practise of inflating storage capacities and proposed commanded areas, or even proposing entirely new projects and massive “requirements” so as to strengthen one’s case in a water dispute is a regular and well known practice– even though this means that the project design is governed by criteria other than the rationale of irrigation needs and possibilities.”

History shows that state and regional politics are the only conduits that have forced a critical debate on the big dam issue through controversies that are framed in terms of state power, prestige and resource sharing. How national is development, if the fraught seams of region, language, identity are still required to stitch it together and sell the tapestry, or to register a modicum of protest against its horrific costs? All the displaced of Polavaram wouldn’t have made it to the “national” conscience (even if their impact is minor) if the issue had not been about sharing waters. It was the state politics dynamic that forced Sind to hand over control of downstream water to Punjab, and it is the tension between Andhra Pradesh, Orissa and Chhattisgarh that has brought the question of displacement and rehabilitation of tribal populations, not to mention environmental impact and submergence of fertile agricultural land, to the forefront of national media. It was Madhya Pradesh that, due to these regional dynamics, admitted that it did not have land to rehabilitate the Narmada oustees. Today, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and the nation are all under the same party, a party that has translated its Gujarat model of development into a national victory cry, and a party that will never see it fit to respond to the fact that the waters of the Narmada are flowing straight into a Coke plant.

So now, just like that, quietly, like an eel, the national development machinery has approved 17 more metres, and the catchment area of oustees be damned, because the catchment area of national-math-proficient development-devotees just got bigger.


[1] The literature against big dams and their purported efficacy is now prolific. As most readers would be aware, the global consensus has steadily moved away from dams and towards more decentralized, localized water harvesting solutions that are not only less destructive and require no displacement, but may also be more effective in the long run. The world commission on dams supports small dams and water harvesting projects and the world bank withdrew funding from the Sardar Sarovar Project citing non-viability and high costs including displacement. For a critical and detailed study of the claims versus reality of the iconic Bhakra Nangal dam over the Sutlej in Punjab, please see Dharmadikary.

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