It’s not clear what would new environment minister’s vision of river conservation be

File Photo: Courtesy NBA
A protest action against the 400 MW Maheshwar project on Narmada, at Mandleshwar, Madhya Pradesh

By Shripad Dharmadhikary*

“The Indian Express”, writing on July 9, 2016 about the new Union Minister for Environment and Forests, Shri Anil Dave, made a statement which  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.”

Shri Anil Dave, part of Narmada Campaign? And opposed to big dams?

I find this difficult to believe.

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 on opposing the dams on the Narmada. I don’t recall any action or statement by Shri Dave that could be construed as a protest against these dams. To make sure that in the unlikely event that  I had missed something, I also search on the internet to see if I could see Shri Dave’s involvement in the Narmada campaign challenging dams. But I could not find anything.

His profile on the Ministry’s website describes him, among other things, as a “river conservationist”. This may be due to the International Narmada Utsav(s) (Narmada Festival) that were organised for a few years running, on the banks of Narmada, near Hoshangabad, by the NGO Narmada Samagra founded by Dave and where he is the Secretary.  Since I was in MP during the time some of these were organised, I remember them well. They were big affairs, with lot of talk about protecting 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 Madhya Pradesh, 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 organisers 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 in the state which was strongly pushing these dams, and there was no point criticising it.

This was around 2007, 2008, 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, the destruction being caused to the river etc. were everyday news in the state, and even many times in the country. Yet, the Narmada Utsavs were mum on these dams.

DSC07407
A dam under construction on the Himalayan river Teesta

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

The title of the Hindi leaflet was “How will the Narmada be saved? How will the civilisation 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 for the festival, there was no mention of the dams being built on the river, and the destruction and displacement being caused by them. There was no reply to the questions raised by the groups. A copy of the leaflet can be found here.

Given all this, it is difficult to believe that the new Minister Shri Dave is really against large dams. It’s also not clear what would his vision of river conservation be, if it allows cascades of large dams to turn flowing rivers into a series of stagnant reservoirs.

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

  1. In an ongoing case in the Supreme Court dealing with dams in the upper Ganga basin, the MoEF has been reluctant to impose constraints of maintaining adequate environmental flows in the rivers – its suggestions are based on a 100 year 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 several of the dam projects be scrapped, and that rivers Bhagirathi, Alaknanada and Mandakini should be allowed to flow unfettered.  It would be most appropriate if MoEF were to revise its submission to the Supreme Court and support the MoWR.
  2. The MoEF 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 and get their entities regularised.  This draft has been widely criticised 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. MoEF 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, there is an urgent need for the MoEF to strongly defend its work and itself, and not be reduced to an apologist. MoEF has in the recent years been criticised for being a “road-block” ministry, as an “obstructer” to development.  While these allegations don’t stand scrutiny, the problem is that the MoEF has itself internalised this criticism, and has been devaluing its own work and role. It would be very important for the new Minister to come out unequivocally in defending the role that the MoEF plays, and stand up strongly for the right of the Ministry to question and challenge reckless development, to question development that destroys the environment.

We look forward to the work of MoEF under its new leadership and hope that it can really work for sustainable development and conservation and protection of the environment.

*Founder, Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, Badwani, Madhya Pradesh. Source: http://shripadmanthan.blogspot.in/

 

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