Thursday, September 14, 2006

Keepers of the Narmada, look here

This Wednesday, something happened in California's capital Sacramento that is being hailed as a historical event in the state's complex narrative of water resources and the environment. Representatives of two warring groups - environmentalists and farmers - stood shoulder to shoulder and announced that they have reached a settlement about the fate of the Friant Dam and the San Joaquin river, in a dispute that was under litigation the past 18 years. Though this happening is more of an exception than a rule, one cannot help but yearn for a similar miracle to happen in the Narmada valley.

The history of this dispute goes back to 1942 when the Friant Dam was built by the federal government across the San Joaquin river to feed dry southern California with water from the wetter north. The dam brought irrigation to a million acres of farmland but severed the link between the spawning areas of Chinook salmon in the mountains and the ocean where these fish live all their lives. There were other environmental consequences but the Chinook became the poster-child of the evils of the Friant Dam.

In 1988, a group of environmental organisations led by the Natural Res Defence Council sued the federal government over the dam, and litigation dragged on. Last year, a couple of politicians representing California in Washington sat down with the farmers and environmentalists and urged them to reach a compromise instead of the legal route. This idea was reinforced by the judge presiding over the litigation telling the parties that lacking the delicate legal tools to work on this complex issue, the judgement was going to be an insensitive "meat cleaver"; it was best that a negotiated position was reached.

Wednesday, the two groups announced that a settlement had been reached - starting 2009, releases from the Friant Dam to the river below will be doubled allowing salmon runs, and farmers will get economic incentives as relief for their losses. By 2012, salmon will be reintroduced in the river. The most significant consequence is that this settlement paves the way for a mammoth project to rehabilitate the San Joaquin to its natural state. At the cost of $800 million, it will be one of the largest river restoration projects ever.

There are challenges to be faced yet. Marginal stake-holders who have been left out of the settlement may throw a spanner in the works, and raising funds from state and federal sources will be a looming challenge. Nevertheless, this development in itself represents a text-book case in environmental negotiations.

There are too many comparisons here with the Narmada valley projects to ignore. To begin with, the Narmada issue too is primarily being fought between agricultural interests (also some urban water supply interests) on one hand and other 'marginal' (at the risk of sounding condescending to the valley dwellers) interests on the other. The issue of the Sardar Sarovar Dam too went to court, dragged on for years, and the court's decision was indeed of the "meat cleaver" variety, much to the vocal dissapointment of Patkar and Co. The delay in court also causes losses to the state through power, irrigation and construction losses. The motivation behind the pro-dam group is good old economic gains, insurance against dry spells and the machismo of exercising entrenched state control over water. The anti-dam group is an amalgam of various motivations, chief among them being preserving the environment, protecting tribal interests and a general anti-development philosophy.

Unfortunately, for reasons that can be broadly engendered as stemming from a lack of a coherent democratic process manifest in mutual distrust and ridicule, nothing close to negotiations has happened in the Sardar Sarovar dispute. Both parties have held intransigent stances, their arrogance and self-assurance coming from broad international support for one side and unfailing local support from future beneficiaries for the other. Instead of reaching for a settlement, both sides have been shooting for a solution.

While the Sardar Sarovar issue now seems to be trundling towards a "solution", plenty more battles are forthcoming as other dams of the Narmada Valley Development Project are taken up in Madhya Pradesh. Anti-dam groups in the valley have often pointed out the post-modern dam demolition in the US as an example, pro-dam groups have pointed out the US' extensive irrigation infrastructure as one. Maybe both groups should now be looking up to the San Joaquin settlement.

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