The Narmada struggle is again with us, as Medha Patkar, other activists and evictees have dug in for a last-ditch struggle, with supportive actions being reported from several parts of the country. The immediate local issues are of course important. The stand taken by the Narmada Bachao Andolan is that the dam gates should not remain closed and there should be no submergence of evictee villages till satisfactory rehabilitation of nearly 40,000 households is completed. The stand of the government is that the rehabilitation has been completed to a large extent. But this has been strongly contested by NBA.

The general principle of satisfactory rehabilitation is that the living conditions and livelihoods of the evictees should not worsen, rather there should be at least some improvement. This is what the NBA would like to ensure. But the importance of the Narmada struggle goes beyond local and immediate issues, important though these are. Obviously much higher stakes are involved here for democracy, and at a much wider level.

One of the biggest strengths of democracy is that potential correctives to government actions in the form of peaceful movements of people should exist. The government may not agree with them, may not see their voice as a corrective, but if the movements speak in a reasoned voice which gets fairly good support from a range of people and this support is sustained, if the movements are peaceful and disciplined and believe in democratic dialogue, then the government in a democracy should listen to such movements with an open mind. This may prevent some costly mistakes and misadventures.

One strength of a more open country like India compared to say China is that peaceful movements which at least hold out the possibility of avoiding costly mistakes have potentially more chances of making their voice heard. In a closed system where independent voices contrary to official view are not heard, there is hardly any such chance. In Maoist China, according to estimates provided by various reputed scholars and publications, somewhere between 15 to 30 million people died in extremely painful conditions during the 1959- 61 famine. This was caused mainly by disruptive policies associated with Mao which no one dared to oppose till it was too late.

Tragic episodes such as these reemphasise the need for listening with an open mind to groups of people who challenge official views on different views and present alternative viewpoints. The NBA is one such group in India which has presented alternative views on the various dam projects on the Narmada river and its tributaries during the last three decades or so. Its views have received the support of several eminent experts at home and abroad, including from senior officials of the Government of India who had been dealing with dams and related issues (of course this support was voiced openly only after their retirement from the government).

While the NBA opposed several dam projects on the Narmada river and its tributaries, it also offered an alternative view of development of the region and engaged in various constructive activities here. Its most sustained opposition was in the context of the Sardar Sarovar Project. This opposition was documented on the basis of extensive field work and also on the basis of opinions of several independent experts on various issues, including possibilities of alternative lines of development.

When the World Bank, which was initially funding this project called in its own experts to review the Sardar Sarovar Project, they submitted a detailed and critical report which by and large was along the lines of the various criticisms and apprehensions voiced by the NBA. It was on the basis of this report, called the Report of the Independent Review officially but more generally known as the Morse Committee report, that the World Bank decided to withdraw from its funding of the Sardar Sarovar Project.

At least at this stage the government should have considered the various criticisms of the project with an open mind but it did not. The NBA went ahead with its reviews and grassroots opposition at various stages of the construction of the project. Gradually it became one of the best recognised groups to sustain such a democratic role over a long period of nearly three decades.

So beyond local and immediate views there is also a wider issue of the extent to which the opinion of peaceful and well-reasoned groups is received with an open mind in a democracy like India. If the attitude of the government is merely to tire out such groups, then clearly potentially important correctives are being denied to our democracy.

As the peaceful, democratic struggle of the Sardar Sarovar oustees continues, the wider issues of democracy should also get importance even though the local issues of a fair deal for evictees remain very important.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives