Dialogue January-March, 2012, Volume 13 No. 3
Of Large dams and smaller ones
The burning issue for both Assam and Arunachal Pradesh during the last two months has been the construction of a 116 metre-high concrete dam at the lower reaches of the Subansiri river along the Arunachal Pradesh-Assam border with a capacity of 442 million cubic metres of water. Initially, a 257 metre-high dam had been proposed for the project with far more ambitious plans of power generation. The present reduced size of the dam will be capable of generating only about 2,000 MW of hydro-electric power. But this is only one of the several dams proposed to be built in the region over the coming years to harness about 40,000 to 50,000 MW of the hydroelectrical power potential of the region. Though the Lower Subansiri dam proposed at present will be less than half the height of the dam originally envisaged, it is still a source of major fear in the minds of the people. This is because the dam is being built in a region that is geologically and seismologically sensitive and prone to frequent earthquakes. People are naturally afraid that the dam might breach with disastrous consequences to the people living in the downstream areas. Such fears are not without substance for people who recall the fury of nature during the great earthquake of 1950 in which hundreds of people perished beneath landslides or under the waters of the Brahmaputra that had risen by several metres in some places inundating villages completely and leaving no survivors. The river had also changed course at many places and there was severe erosion at both Sadiya and Dibrugarh. A rule-of-thumb definition of intelligence is the ability to profit from experience. Should these people then be expected to fail to learn from their experience of 1950 and the havoc wrought by an earthquake that was followed by tremors for several days? The other experience of the people of near-by Dhemaji and Lakhimpur is that of embankments built as flood-control measures which have collapsed year after year. People ask the legitimate question about the safety of such a massive dam in the context of this repeated experience. If our contractors cannot build embankments that last a year, what guarantee do we have about the safety of huge dams built by contractors of another wing of the same government?
The NHPC that is constructing the dam for the Lower Subansiri project contends that several bigger and higher dams have been built in India (some of them in the sub-Himalayan region too) in "similar geological conditions," and all of them are "intact, safe and operating since long satisfactorily." We are not convinced that all the dams mentioned were constructed in areas with quite the same kind of geo-tectonic profile. After all, can anyone really cite another instance of an earthquake causing the kind of destruction that the earthquake of 1950 did in the very region where the Lower Subansiri dam is being built now?
The opposition to large dams has been sustained mainly by organizations like the All Assam Students’ Union (AASU), the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti (KMSS) led by Akhil Gogoi, the Asam Jatiyatabadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP), the Takam Mising Porin Kebang (TMPK) and the Mising Mebang Kebang (MMK) and has had the support of the AGP. It will be recalled that both the AASU and the AGP had demanded in 1986 and 1997 that both the Subansiri and the much larger Dehang dam be built expeditiously. They have now performed neat somersaults to oppose the building of the lower Subansiri dam. When the blockade went on for weeks preventing trucks and rafts carrying equipment from reaching the dam site, and essential supplies from reaching the people, the government had to take a hand in clearing the blockade by force with the help of the police. The blockade was resumed again and this time the government decided that the carrot was better than the stick. So it invited leaders of the AASU, KMSS, TMPK. AJYCP and the MMK for talks on January 5. The Government and the NHPC kept trying to defend the mother of all fait accomplis by appointing an expert committee and asking it to submit report within six months. However, it added the proviso that the work on the dam would not be suspended to await the expert committee’s report. One cannot help asking why the expert committee’s opinion was needed at all if the work was not to be suspended pending the committee’s report. In fact, there had been two expert committees before this—one set up by the State government and the other set up by public organizations. None of them had a real expert in the sense of someone with actual experience of building huge dams in an earthquake-prone region. The experts were more classroom experts than field experts. Even so, both expert committees had recommended smaller dams for a geo-tectonic region like the Northeast. In fact, this has been the recommendation of experts all over the world. Recently we also had a conversation session of two reputed economists at Guwahati—Nobel laureate Professor Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and Lord Meghnad Desai of the London School of Economics—who also touched on the topic of large dams versus not-so-large dams in an earthquake-prone region. Their opinion was much on the lines of the opinions aired by the expert committees and of experts all over the world: smaller dams are preferable to massive dams anywhere in the world, but more so in earthquake-prone areas. Is the State government now going to ignore all these opinions that were asked for merely because it has the mother of all fait accomplis to defend?
Meanwhile, the State government has constituted a Group of Ministers (GoM) with Power and Industries Minister Pradyut Bordoloi at its head to continue the talks with the anti-dam lobby and to orchestrate public opinion among citizens who have some credibility in the eyes of the public. Early this month the GoM had a discussion with citizens but the exercise was more a public relations one geared to soliciting support for the government’s line of action to ensure that work on the Lower Subansiri dam went on uninterrupted. This is certainly not what the doctor ordered for a democracy, but among the many aberrations of democracy that we have already countenanced this will probably rank as one having created far fewer problems so far for the politicians. What happens to thousands of people if the dam breaches is not really their concern. This is called democracy in our lexicon. Take a colossal source of hydro-electricity, do nothing about it for three or four decades. Then one fine morning decide that political capital could be made out of harnessing that power for industrialists in mainland India. Keep the people in the dark and first set up the distribution lines to take away about 40,000 or 50,000 MW of power through the Chicken’s Neck. When the power is eventually generated, take the bulk of it away and leave some crumbs for the people of the Northeast, making sure that the region remains a hinterland for mainland India. This is called development in our lexicon.
Can democracy be redeemed Post the Lokpal fiasco?
Delhi may be as distant as the moon for many North Easterners but the day the Lokpal Bill fell through in the Rajya Sabha we all gasped with horror at the consequences. What’s this supposed to mean for Indian democracy?’, we all asked. True that the North East has its moments of ambivalence as far as the Indian constitutional arrangements are concerned and its people straddle the twin challenges of modern democratic practices and traditional governance. But apart from those stray moments of identity crises we still believe in the untidy arrangements of Indian parliamentary democracy. Until that fateful midnight of December 29, 2011, of course! The whole drama in the Rajya Sabha was so well choreographed that it fooled us for a bit when the BJP managed to look holier than thou.
Watching the ruckus in the Lok Sabha and the shenanigans in the Rajya Sabha makes us who watch from the outside feel betrayed. We realised to our consternation that politicians across parties do not want to be held accountable. That was what we witnessed on that fateful midnight. What politicians say and what they mean are poles apart. But the tragedy facing voters right now is that if they don’t want to vote the Congress which has been the choir master in this well orchestrated opera, then they have very poor alternatives. Not for a moment is there reason to believe that the BJP would have done things differently on the Lokpal Bill. They too were happy to tuck away the Bill in their closets during their heydays. So the BJP’s public stance now only reeks of dishonesty and fools no one.
We are at the crossroads of history. Do the people of this country still want to experiment with the same five year exercise and elect goons and brash types with the manners of a Bollywood villain? How can anyone show dissent in the House by tearing up the Lokpal Bill? And why on earth were 189 amendments listed when there was plenty of time to come together before the Bill was drafted and push those key issues in. As the largest opposition party, the BJP could very well have prepared its own shadow Lokpal without having to kow-tow to or wait for Team Anna’s version. Why did they not do it? With several legal eagles in the fold, was it difficult for the BJP to foresee the midnight fiasco and therefore used their sharp minds to prevent Hamid Ansari from cracking the whip?
Why was pandemonium created in the Rajya Sabha which necessitated the short adjournment of the House for some 47 minutes? Had there been a respectful silence in the Rajya Sabha while the Bill was debated clause by clause, would Ansari have had the temerity to cut short the deliberations and to adjourn the House sine die just like that? The uproar (rude shouting) actually became the reason for the suspension of business in the winter session of parliament. Can anyone blame citizens if they now take to the streets a la Anna Hazare’s movement? What else do we do now that parliamentarians have failed us? The street is now our parliament. It is the place to settle scores.
Make no mistake, when it comes to the Lokpal Bill, weak or otherwise, all political parties were in cahoots. And this is a frightening scenario because it means the parliamentary system of governance we believed in has actually collapsed. Some say the judiciary is still intact but that is only a via media. It can never become an alternative to the legislature and executive. Besides, there is no proof that the judiciary can do better or is less corrupt at lower levels, than the two other pillars of democracy. Interestingly, in this country we are never short on seminars and workshops that delve into philosophical questions such as the deepening of democracy. But these papers and presentations quickly become chapters in books that the academia is proud to own and showcase in their libraries. Nothing real ever gets done at the level of real people where it matters. The closest we got to addressing the root of the matter was when Anna Hazare started his first phase of the India Against Corruption movement last year. It seemed then that India had converged to fight graft in all its forms. That sent shivers down the spines of the elected. They pleaded with Anna and his team to call off the fast, promising a strong Lokpal. But haven’t we truly misjudged the modern Chanakyas? They played their cards close to their chests even while displaying a holier than thou attitude matched only by that of Team Anna’s threesome (Kiran Bedi, Arvind Kejriwal and Prashant Bhushan).
So where are we today as a nation that wants accountability from its elected representatives? Are we sure the Lokpal Bill will be passed in subsequent sessions of the Rajya Sabha? Just see what has happened to the Women’s Reservation Bill? It’s almost forgotten now. No one even mentions it except to compare it to the recently dropped Lokpal Bill. Why are such crucial Bills pending for decades in parliament? Should a strong polity allow this to happen? Should elections not be fought on the several Bills pending in parliament? Should the present set of parliamentarians not be held accountable for stalling those Bills?
The Congress keeps reminding us about how it passed the RTI Act. Should we be grateful to the Congress for giving us an Act that seeks to do a post mortem of government transactions? Was it not because of a nation-wide campaign by the NCPRI (National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information) that the Bill had to be passed, lest those who reject it are rejected by the people? There is a strong instinct for self preservation among all politicians and this has been adequately displayed during the last parliament sessions. Politicians have to be cornered before they can concede anything even remotely resembling an ‘accountability framework.’ The CBI became a convenient tool for raucous debates.
Arun Maira in his book, "Discordant Democrats," says democracy is not merely about political parties and elections but it is as much or even more about public discourses in many forums outside the legislatures. Do we not have such public discourses today? Of course we do, but most such discourses are amongst ‘people like us’ (educated middle class types) who very often do not even know where the shoe actually pinches the wearer because the shoes that the average person from Bharat wears is so different from the Hush Puppies that PLUs are used to.
The closest that Bharat came to thinking alike with India was when Anna brought them together. Anna represents the rural, rustic citizen who votes with much hope but is let down again and again. This is the citizenry that suffers the most and yet is virtually voiceless except while casting that precious vote once in five years. This Bharat must be given voice to speak up and demand their pound of flesh for all the sufferings they have been put through. Think of the bad policies that have caused so many to take their lives without hesitation? Who should be held accountable if not government and parliament? But parliament is turning into a circus of verbal callisthenics with some despicable acts thrown in to complete the tamasha. Surely we Indians deserve better than this pejorative drama enacted by the people who are entrusted to pass enlightened laws on our behalf!
Manipur Elections: Full of sound and fury
Politics is a peculiar game and many politicians thrive not by their individual strengths but by their ability to stir the hornets’ nest and theatrics. Under the circumstance, the game is often reduced to, as Shakespeare’s Macbeth ruminated in his characteristic dark mood, "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".
Viewed in this vein, the forthcoming election to the 10th Manipur Legislative Assembly, held on January 28 should provide an illustrative case. The Nagaland chief minister, Neiphiu Rio and his loyalists who have fielded 12 candidates in what are considered Naga constituencies in the Manipur hill districts on the Naga Peoples’ Front (NPF), tickets, and the Manipur chief minister, Okram Ibobi and others aligned to his outlook, are virtually stirring the same hornets’ nest. Though they claim to belong to different ideological camps, they are all intent cashing in from the same emotive bank. The former calls it "Naga integration" and the latter "Manipur integrity".
Both need this bank desperately, for both are bankrupt of ideas to tackle real issues that affect the day to day lives of the ordinary citizenry in their respective states. Bad roads, rising unemployment, sinking education standards, inadequate health facilities and the list can go on. It is predictable both camps will ensure this hornets’ nest is stirred alive and buzzing always, especially at the times of elections. If seemingly dead, they would even exhume it from the grave to hold it up as their election mascots. What they do realise but do not care about is that the venom they spit for electoral gains, will ultimately form the residue of ill-will which will mar relations between communities who have no other choice than to continue to exist together.
So in the Naga dominated districts, this round of election is being portrayed as a referendum of sort on whether the population there still prefer to be affiliated to Manipur or else be part of a greater Nagaland or Nagalim that the NSCN(IM) has been fighting for. In the valley, a conglomerate of underground organisations have come together to oppose the return of the ruling Congress. By proxy at least, it can verily be said these underground organisations both in the hills as well as in the valley are taking part in the Indian electoral process. For indeed, what is now demonstrated is that it is no longer a matter of indifference to the Indian political system, but of selectively supporting or else opposing contesting parties.
What is also to be noted is, in the years that have gone by, the Congress has by fair and foul means consolidated its foothold on the entire state, in the valley as well as in the hills. It is now the only party which can field and hope to win seats in both these geographical regions and amongst all the ethnic groups.
This is not a matter of any egalitarian ethos which it alone possesses, but also about how other parties have either allowed themselves to move into a path of self destruction through skewed visions and policies, or else have been forced to disintegrate by the temptation of the Congress’ superior resources. It is not a surprise at all that opposition stalwarts as well as its younger crops, made a beeline for Congress tickets this time too. Whatever be the cause, the fact of the matter is, today it can veritably be said that it is only the Congress which can, and has been spreading its wings to all sections of the people. Whatever be its drawbacks, it must be admitted, the Congress has emerged as a binding sinew in many ways to keep a common interest running in the veins of the different communities. The monopoly is bad, but the uneasy fact is, at the moment no other party has the reach or resource to shoulder this responsibility.
This is the party which is sought to be destroyed through the power that flows out of the barrel of the gun. Regardless of whatever the justification in the argument that the coercive power of the Congress’ money is being countered by the coercive power of the gun, the fact would remain that a semblance of political equilibrium provided by ruling party would be what is upset if the campaign to destroy the Congress succeeds.
It is difficult under the circumstance to imagine how this upset equilibrium would be reset and how another political equation to fill up this vacuum would be struck. Political observers are already at a loss how and what new alliance would be able to put parties in the hills and valley together to forge another alternative political agenda that has the common interest of the people in mind. Which are the non-Congress parties likely to return sizeable seats in the hills and the valley? More importantly would these parties ever see eye to eye on vital issues to prompt them to come together to form the next government? Considering the low ceiling on the size of the cabinet the Anti Defection Law has imposed, it is difficult to imagine a large coalition ever working too. The post election picture at best is very foggy at the moment.
The one expectation understandably in the minds of newspaper readers from media professionals like us is the likely fortune of the different parties in the fray. Amongst them is the question how would the new but very high profile entry of the NPF, fare. Although as observers with our ears close to the ground, we have a fairly good speculation of likely outcomes, the Election Commission of India (ECI), this time has forbidden all pre-poll public predictions which are likely to influence voters. Since other states are also going to the elections, this prohibition is till the entire election process is over after the March 6 counting. This is also why though Manipur election was over on January 28 itself, counting of votes would be a month later together with other states on March 6. But as to the NPF fortune, suffices it to say that it is old wine in a new bottle. In the last Assembly election, the United Naga Council, UNC, fielded their sponsored candidates on the same ideological plank in the same constituencies NPF has now entered, and could manage to return six seats. All of them sat in the opposition too for the entire term.
This uncertainty apart, there are other areas of concern. To look at it more positively, let us pose this concern as a question to everyone concerned. Can this election be taken as a referendum of support for some of the most crucial issues facing the state? In the hills, the crucial question would be whether there is still a shared emotional integrity in Manipur?
In the valley, the matter is a little different. A combined underground forum, more popularly known as CorCom, is opposing the Congress in a radical way. If despite this, the Congress returns a majority, or at least as the single largest party, the message should be clear that the ordinary men and women on the streets do not share the vision of these underground organisations. Are those behind the campaign then be prepared to leave the verdict on this matter to the adult electorate of the state who cast their votes on January 28? Whichever way the verdict goes, it can virtually be a recommendation for either side of the conflict. If the Congress is voted in, the message should be clear for the non-state players. If the party is voted out, it is the establishment which must introspect and reorient its own approach to the vexing problem.
However, we can already predict the excuses which would be forwarded by either side should they lose. One will claim failure, if at all, was the result of gun power trained on them. The other will claim failure, if at all, is the result of money power that bought the electorate. Either explanation would betray a lack of trust in the wisdom and integrity of the common man. The story would also be back at square one.
No Coercion or Ghosts
Writing on this round of elections however can never be complete without a mention of the ECI’s new approach. The commission has not left any stone unturned to ensure the forthcoming elections in Manipur and some other states are free and fair, at least to the extent possible. In Uttar Pradesh, the commission has even ordered for the chief minister, Mayawati’s statues to be covered so as not to create false larger than life image of the leader in the eye of the electorate. The extent to which it has gone has even prompted many observers to joke that the ECI may start ordering all lotuses in the states going to the polls plucked and ban anybody showing the palms of their hands. Or better still to make it mandatory for everybody to wear gloves during election campaigns so that their palms do not show. All these, the lampoons go, with the intent of ensuring the visibility of no party is unfairly, even if inadvertently, increased.
But jokes apart, the commission indeed went to all lengths within its command in Manipur. In Imphal, it went about ordering campaign hoardings to be torn down. In fact, even on the eve of the polling, there were hardly any reminders that the state was going to the elections. The loudest publicity for the elections even at the last hour, in quite macabre irony, had been the daily bomb blasts and grenades hurled at homes of candidates and their workers by the UGs. This round of elections, no doubt would go down as the most noise and litter free.
Overtly, this ensured an end to slanderous polemics which have become so familiar in election campaigns in Manipur. Overtly again, this also ment no extravagant feasts, nightlong binges and revelries etc, and therefore less expenditure for the candidates. However, as in the case of so many other fields of activities, when they are banned, they would have gone underground and continued to exist. The loud campaigns may have been banished but there is no gainsaying covert corrupting campaigns of vote purchases would have happened away from public view.
Nonetheless, there is everything to be happy about the way the elections were conducted this time. A lot many discerning voters were able to quietly weigh their options, away from the usual cacophony of Indian elections, and cast their valuable votes for the candidate of their choices. If there is a way to check the covert bribing as well, and if this becomes a lasting trend in the future, elections would no longer be prohibiting for talented potential politicians from all walks of life, thus free this extremely important exercise of democracy in Manipur from the monopolistic grip of filthy rich contractors and retired bureaucrats who made their money by emptying the public exchequers.
The ECI also brought in unprecedented number of central paramilitary forces to ensure no coercive means are used by any party to force voting trends to suit their vested ends. In the secure environment of the polling booths, the secret ballot would have become the free expression individual will as it should be. This is again welcome. Without this freedom of choice in the selection of candidates, democracy would be rendered hollow. There is no reason not to believe this has been allowed to happen to a great extent in the past in states like Manipur where guns and bullets are cheaper than human lives.
The ECI further introduced state-of-art voter screening technologies this time to prevent proxy voting. This would have ensured that even if the voters’ enumeration lists have been grossly manipulated to show more voters than there are in any village or leikai, the excess ghost electorates are not allowed to be translated into votes. In the past there had been disputes about census figures with claims that in some areas the population had been inflated beyond humanly possible and pardonable margins of error.
This round of elections, the voter photographing technology, should somewhat put the dispute to rest. If voters’ numbers had been inflated dishonestly in certain areas, there would be drastic drops in the voters turnout there, for obviously ghosts cannot have their photographs taken and so cannot vote under the new ECI screening system. This round of elections hence would be interesting for the insight it provides on all these issues, aside from watching which political party ultimately turns out to be the most popular in the state, and also assessing the extent of divide within the society in the face of the campaign by certain parties to weaken the unity of Manipur.