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  Villagers teach how projects impact people

It is common for Indian businessmen to complain of the slowness of procedures in India. Equally, most citizens complain of things as being beyond their control. Both are one in blaming the state. The truth is that those who can act as bridges between people and the state have no time. Whenever communities find truly non-partisan mediators, harmony does result.

‘Civil Society’ a year old magazine reporting development news in India, featured a success story in its July,2004 issue. This alas is not yet available online at its archives and is therefore worth summarising in some detail.

The Bhilwara Group of Rajasthan arrived in Himachal Pradesh in 1996 armed with 45 government clearances, to set up a 192 megawatt hydel power station on lands to be acquired from the villages of Prini and Jagatsukh. They had an environment and social impact assessment [ESIA] done by ‘government-approved’ consultants. Far from the passport they had imagined it to be, it was the cause of Bhilwara’s woes that followed.

Often businesses in India go complacent thinking either that paper work is ‘done’ right, or at a minimum, that inconvenient documents are buried deep enough for anyone to find. The task of public spirited persons has to centre on salvaging submerged papers and make them speak. This is a daunting task for even the stout-hearted, the barely literate masses having no chance of success whatsoever. If governance has to improve in India, educated Indians must find the time for communities in need of help. Most of all, these crusaders need to believe that democracy does deliver, that in it, papers may be asleep but don’t die, and in the end justice will be done. It is easy to flinch at the stacked odds and choose the easy option, which invariably ends in the chant, “the system cannot be beaten”.

The ESIA that Bhilwara carried with it was a shallow document. It was essentially an acquiescence by the two village panchayats. There had been no public airing and discussion of issues. On the face of it a small hydel power station is a welcome thing. But there are several subtle issues to be considered. That these had been ignored, bothered Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People [SANDRP].

He was the man who became the ears and mind of the villagers. He hopped on the Internet and found that the International Finance Corporation [IFC] of the World Bank was funding the project. Thakkar lit an electronic fuse that exploded in distant Washington. The IFC commissioned public hearings to be conducted by Shekar Singh of the Centre for Equity Studies in New Delhi. Singh roped in Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan and Dr Shailja Vohra, a consultant ecologist. And so began some extraordinary fair play on behalf of people.

The Civil Society print article, with field reports by Colin Fernandes is very detailed and it is hoped it will become available online one day. For it unveils what fine—and deeply sensitive— concerns people do bring to the fore when asked.

The village of Jagatsukh was parting with little land but most of the water and its concern was in one direction. Prini was giving most of the land—though little water—and it asserted its rights to get the best prices it can. Women were concerned about the nearly 2,000 single men who would descend to labour on the project. Everyone were concerned about loss of traditional foot paths to places of livelihood. They also proved alive to pollution of noise and dust that would accompany blasting in the hills. What of the effects of these on their livestock? What happens to the debris? Ram Krishna Sharma a village elder, detailed the flora and fauna that were endangered. In the wind that gathered from these queries, the no-objection certificate [NOC] that Bhilwara had obtained from the village pradhan blew away from view.

It appears discussions are still on. Maybe eight years is too long a lead time for a small power project, but whose fault is it? The dialogue with villagers began barely four months ago.

How many villages are lucky to have Himanshu Thakkars? How many complaining, educated Indians are willing to be Thakkars? Also, why the blind damnation of the World Bank [—though it manages to deserve it most of the time]. In this instance, it delivered where the Indian state failed. The point is, whether or not you are ready to take positions in the globalisation debate, the information world is already globalised. In some ways, if you marshall the Net, it’s not so hard to be a Thakkar.

Civil Society, July, 2004