It seems inconceivable that some time in the near future people will be playing golf on what was once fertile agricultural land belonging to the struggling people of the Narmada. If a Rs 170 crore proposal by the Sardar Sarovar Nigam Ltd (SSNL) to develop tourism facilities at Kevadia, the site of the Sardar Sarovar dam, goes ahead, that's exactly what will happen.
Mention Narmada, and a set of well-known images and issues comeimmediately to mind. Prominent among them are the Sardar Sarovar dam and the Narmada Bachao Andolan with its struggle that has caught the imagination of the nation like nothing else has in the last couple of decades. It's been a long, protracted battle to save thousands of families and prevent the submergence of fertile agricultural land and forests in an ancient valley.
The Supreme Court order allowing an increase in the dam's height was a huge setback. But the struggle continues, even as the walls of the dam continue to rise. And, with every increase in height, more land and more families are sacrificed at the altar of 'development'.
What does all this have to do with playing golf? As struggling, protesting people and their lands become submerged behind huge walls of rising concrete, mocking their helplessness and inability to save their homes and their ancient way of life is a Rs 170 crore proposal by the Sardar Sarovar Nigam Ltd (SSNL) to develop tourism facilities in Kevadia, the site of the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat. It's like telling the drowning: "The greater your struggle to live becomes, the harder we will sock you in the face."
Earlier this year, in May, Business Standard reported that the tourism project would be developed through private participation and that the SSNL had sought the approval of the Gujarat Infrastructure Development Board (GIDB) for the project, and the floating of expressions of interest by July.
"To make the investment viable," the managing director of the SSNL, S K Mohapatra, was reported to have said, "the Nigam has worked out 11 packages to be proposed in the first phase of the project. This includes water parks, hotels, golf courses, a botanical garden with cottages and camping facilities, theme parks with cottages andtrekking facilities, cottages near wildlife reserves, boating decks, a restaurant and visitor centres."
The plan for the project, that's expected to be completed within the next three years, was developed by Ahmedabad's renowned Centre for Environment Planning and Technology (CEPT). Ironically, it is being claimed that the project is being developed in an 'environmentally sustained manner' and is based on an 'ecological approach'. An entire valley with some of the most fertile lands, richest forests, invaluable archaeological sites and places of worship and an ancient culture is being destroyed forever. And the agency responsible for this destruction is talking about ecology and environmental sustainability!
A note on the SSNL website(http://www.sardarsarovardam.org) makes amusing reading. It even has a definition for what it calls 'eco-tourism' that will be developed at the dam site. "Eco tourism," the note reads, "is conceptually a purposeful travel to natural areas with an emphasis on understanding the culture and natural history of the environment, taking care not to alter the integrity of the ecosystem, while providing economic opportunities that make the conservation of natural resources beneficial to the inhabitants of the host region. This concept of eco-tourism is being developed at Kevadia on a scientifically-based approach for the planning, management and development of sustainable tourism products and activities.
Eco-tourism will attempt to present the dam site in its pristine and natural glory, with nature parks, planned gardens, woodlots, nature trails, an eco-museum and a panoramic view of the hills which will captivate the tourist and hold him in awe of the benefits provided by the project."
It might be pertinent to ask here: But will this 'eco-tourism' also educate the visitor about the struggles of the people who opposed this monumental disaster; of the illegalities and violations of the project authorities; of the many homes and graves that now lie submerged under the waters here?
And what will this 'eco-tourist' be shown? Pictures of a huge sheet of muddy water, or of the half-submerged, shivering satyagrahis of Domkhedi, who say they'd rather drown in the waters of the Narmada than live to see the project come up? Will they be taken diving to archaeological sites and temples that once stood on the banks of an erstwhile river? Will the tribals and their cultures be shown as cutouts, or mannequins clothed by fashion designers and placed in model huts? Or will the tourism create a livelihood opportunity for a couple of tribal families who will pose and grind grain for the benefit of visitors, to explain a culture that has been submerged?
The Times of India, in an earlier news report (' Dam good idea to develop tourism', dated 12/10/2003), explained another benefit of the project, when it was being considered for joint implementation by the states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. "There is an added advantage," it says. "The project can involve the free availability of liquor in the two states across the Gujarat border to draw the travel-crazy Gujaratis to spend their holidays freely in the wide expanse of water and woods."
That someone could have thought up such a project in the first place is indicative of great insensitivity. To suggest it at this time is monumentally vulgar, as is the notion of leisure and luxury.
Is it too much to have expected that someone at the SSNL had spared a thought for the drowning valley and its people? Could someone have wondered whether golf should indeed be played on manicured lawns when the original owners of the land were struggling to make a living and make some sense of their tragically altered circumstances?
Pankaj Sekhsaria is a member of the environmental action group Kalpavriksh. He is also author of TroubledIslands -- Writings on the indigenous peoples and environment of the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. He may be contacted at [email protected]