In Which Swaminathan Iyer McDonaldises the Tribals and Serves Other Junk Food : Shripad Dharmadhikary and Nandini Oza

Guest Post by SHRIPAD DHARMADHIKARY AND NANDINI OZA

Reposted from Manthan

What can one expect when one is faced with a blog by “India’s leading economic journalist” which is titled “Most of the ousted tribals are flourishing and loving it”? That there will be a large helping of fries on the side? That it will taste great but is really junk? In all of these expectations, one is not disappointed.

First, a little background. The leading economic journalist is Swaminathan Iyer, who along with a colleague carried out a survey of some tribals ousted by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada dam, comparing their situation with those left behind in the hilly areas near the river, and others in the hilly areas but near a mining project. On 10th Sept 2017, Iyer wrote a blog titled “Why many tribals don’t mind being ousted” based on his study. In a matter of just two days, Iyer has come out with a second blog based on the same study on the same topic. One wonders why. But then, again, one may not wonder, for the Sardar Sarovar has become an important topic with the Prime Minister scheduled to dedicate to the nation the dam on 17th Sept 2017.

The first blog was a classic case of misinterpretation of data, hiding the more important issues, and conclusions not supported by research findings, as we showed in our response. We showed that the tribals do mind being ousted. Now Iyer has written another blog on the matter, which skirts the issues we had raised in our response and omits some crucial survey findings given in the earlier blog, but still tries to show the Sardar Sarovar rehabilitation program as being successful.

Iyer’s second blog tries to discredit activists who have raised issues with resettlement of tribals affected by the Sardar Sarovar, and argues that displacement has led to modernisation for the tribals, that they are flourishing, and of course “loving it”, as his title says.

To do this, he uses several devices. Firstly, he sets up a straw man: “Some activists say economic development and modernisation are disastrous for tribals.” This statement is of course easy to attack. But activists, least of all the activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) which has worked with Sardar Sarovar oustees, have never taken such a position. We have argued that modernisation, development, and social and economic change is very important for tribals, but that it be their choice, be gradual, be on their terms (as much as possible), with their full involvement, and in a way that they can handle. Displacement for the dam was not only involuntary but missed most of the other elements too; and much of the struggle was in fact to have the tribals find a voice in the process of what happens to them. Iyer is not concerned with this detail.

Second, his findings that tribals are better off in the resettled village is not exactly substantiated even by his own surveys, as our earlier response shows. In the second blog, he reiterates his earlier findings that “the oustees were far better off in material terms (TVs, mobikes, pukka houses, school access, electricity)”, but omits figures that show that even 30 years after resettlement, and hundreds of crores of rupees spent by the project, 55% of resettled oustees did not have access to drinking water, 63% no access to a PHC, and 84% no access to a hospital. His own finding that “54% of oustees said they would rather return to the same land they once occupied in the forest” – 25-30 years after displacement, is an indication of whether the oustees feel they are better off.

Third, in his second blog, one of the findings Iyer gives to show how well the tribals have accepted modernisation is that “Cellphone ownership, the epitome of modernisation, was 88% for oustees versus 59% in the semi-evacuated forest villages.” Whether the cellphone is the epitome of modernity is questionable, but the fact that tribals have accepted and taken to this new technology is simply a testimony to the fact that tribals, like most of the human race, are intelligent and will learn new things. But Iyer wants to imply that such a “modernisation” is possible only when the tribals leave their forests, and that it is the Sardar Sarovar that has made such modernisation possible. Both are flawed assertions. Tribals have taken to modern technology even in their original villages. With the support of NBA, two of the tribal villages in the submergence area set up micro-hydro power generation projects. Once partial submergence made travel virtually impossible without motorised boats, tribals were quick to buy second-hand boats from Alang shipyard and run them themselves.

Iyer highlights the modernity of displaced tribals by saying “Many of those near the Sardar Sarovar Dam have cell phones and motorcycles, and can download their land titles from internet cafés.” Is this an attempt to attribute causation to the Sardar Sarovar, and by doing so, justify or glorify it? If so, that is bunkum, as the examples given by us show.

Rest of his blog meanders away from the Sardar Sarovar oustees and talks about how some tribals have become affluent, foreign-educated ones, and how tribals left behind in forests “can catch up, given empowerment and access to modern facilities.” There is no disputing this. But the issue is that what “catching up” means should be defined by the tribals themselves, and not by others for them. And certainly, that should not require them to be forcibly uprooted from their lands, culture and communities. As Iyer himself says, but ignores in his conclusions, “Tribals in hill states earn well above the national average. Education and infrastructure have enabled hill tribals…to leapfrog into modernity with minimal trauma.” But this is without any displacement by any dam, which Iyer seems to conveniently ignore. So may be displacement is not a necessary condition for modernisation and development, unlike what Iyer wants to imply?

Let us then make this the aim – that the tribals themselves decide what “modernity”, “development” mean for them, that it be done with their involvement and control, where they are located, any migration being voluntary, and with minimal trauma. That the Sardar Sarovar has none of these characteristics is clear, and that the tribals reject this as “development” is also obvious from the fact that majority still want to go back, after so many years.

Thus, Iyer’s attempt at dressing up the Sardar Sarovar (and its rehabilitation program) by bringing in a false causality, by mistaking or implying co-existence and juxtapositioning as causation is completely irrational and specious. The tribals certainly are not lovin’ it.

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