`No possibility of popular intervention'

Print edition : January 16, 2004

VIVEK BENDRE

Interview with Chittaroopa Palit.

A graduate of the Institute for Rural Management at Anand, Chittaroopa Palit has been associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan for a long time. She is well respected for her knowledge of local issues, understanding of local politics and ability to rally people. The NBA activist, based in Madhya Pradesh, responded to an e-mail questionnaire by Lyla Bavadam.

Digvijay Singh projected decentralisation, power, roads and other infrastructure plus good governance as the achievements of his government, but were they just well-drafted paper policies or were they actually implemented?

As for power, roads, other infrastructure and good governance in Madhya Pradesh, they were completely non-existent. He took huge loans from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for power ($350 million) and a separate loan for roads, but nobody knows how the money was used. Digvijay Singh's dalliance with anti-people reforms and multilateral institutions like the Department for International Development or DFID (the British government department responsible for promoting development and reducing poverty), the World Bank, and the ADB and his indifference to people's expectations are what brought his government down. However, panchayati raj was a very sound innovation, as was the extended role for women. And these did give a great deal of power to the people to take many decisions at the gram sabha level, to receive revenues from activities in the village, and generally feel empowered as village-level decision-making mattered. The experiment was limited in practice not by its democratic reach but by corruption. Because the sarpanches were identified with corruption, the Congress was unable to raise the panchayati raj issue effectively in their campaign. Uma Bharati has already cancelled the zilla sarkar which had, despite its corruption, provided a transparent decision-making body - the Zilla Yojna Samiti that was composed of elected representatives and officers. Now the decisions will be taken politically but with no transparency. Therefore there is no possibility of popular intervention. We also hear that the BJP is planning to cancel all the gram panchayats although how they will do that now in the light of the constitutional provisions is beyond me. Maybe they will identify the Congress panchayats and bring them down on charges of corruption. There is likely to be a great deal of harassment.

Uma Bharati put aside the issue of Hindutva and concentrated on good governance and infrastructure development in her campaign. Now there is talk that Togadia will visit Madhya Pradesh though during the election campaign, he had been kept away. It looks like development and governance were just electoral hype. What do the people feel about this?

Of course, that is what the BJP will do, that is their agenda. They will come in on development issues and then bring in Hindutva issues so that people will not question them on whether they have failed or succeeded. This opportunism and hate politics have to be challenged and that is what people's organisations must do in the coming months.

Uma Bharati has already said that her priorities are to improve the power situation and to scrap the district planning committees. What does this augur for the work of the NBA?

We do not have any problem if she prioritises the power sector. After all, we have also been raising the issue. However, the way to reliable power in the State is not through big hydel projects. The successive droughts in the State in the last few years and the poor power production from hydel projects then has revealed the Achilles' heel of this form of power generation, apart from other problems. That and hydel project-related rehabilitation issues are what the NBA must emphasise in the coming months.

Do you think that Uma Bharati will implement a fair resettlement and rehabilitation? Just how much tougher has your fight become?

It is difficult to say at the moment what the response of the new government will be. Certainly, if they are interested in more electricity and water, they will have to be serious about the rehabilitation issues at the very minimum. The new Narmada Minister Anup Mishra has announced that Madhya Pradesh is not happy with the 110 m height of the dam which will benefit Gujarat because waters will come in at that level. Madhya Pradesh wants a full 138 m because that is when power will flow. However, he has said that rehabilitation is a big issue, in which Digvijay Singh failed and in which they, I presume, expect to succeed.

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