Armchair Allocution

“…It’s particularly disturbing, in hindsight, to realize that there just might have been a connection between those spectral bodies that gave us nightmares and the smoke pouring from our own chimneys.”

In Sahel – the End of the Road, Sebastiao Salgado portrays photographic images of starving migrants from Chad, Ethiopia, Mali, and the Sudan in 1984 ( for some background, check out http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reports/article/101079/When-Peoples-Suffering-is-Portrayed-as-Art.aspx).  The commentary preceding the photos of these emaciated dying people explain how it was impossible to publish them in the U.S. during the time of the crisis.  How, decades later, scientistists assessed that the unually severe and prolonged drought in Africa was likely linked to smokestacks in the west spewing sulfur dioxide.  And how even today, talk of people starving in Africa or elsewhere is not amenable our western palates. 

This is the crux of it.  We compassionate people give a thought, sometimes two, to the plight of others, the homeless man on the street, the illiterate children halfway around the world.  We may even give a dollar or a euro to the cause.  And we continue to play out lives that keep them destitute, hungry, and that worsen the plight.

We are wired this way.  To forget conveniently how our systems of procurement actually destroy natural rivers, arable land, rural livelihoods and create more of the landless poor.  This is the only way one can survive – to go a little crazy, to pretend that it all isn’t happening, or worse yet, to justify it.  Thousands still starving annually in the Sahel?  Don’t want to talk about it.  Millions toiling to produce the plastics and trinkets that run our lives?  Don’t know what you’re talking about.  In fact, my needs are providing a job somewhere else, dammit.  I should be thanked for demanding so much.

[One of NBA's greatest purposes is to bring up and make clear what has been swept under the carpet, what has been perversely normalized in the public sphere, both to the people being affected and to those with influence.  The pictures below illustrate their tireless work of travelling from village to village to meet, inform, discuss, and organize]

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|talking conservation and corruption with adivasi women |

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|community meeting to create a fishing cooperative in bhaadal|

In Narmada Valley, the displacement of the rural poor of Madhya Pradesh and Maharastra was initially justified through the provision of critically-needed drinking water to the rural poor of Gujarat, in the regions of Saurashtra and Kutch.  The sacrifice, proponents said, is worth it for the greater good of India’s well-being.  Tens of thousands who have suffered drought and devastation for so long will now receive clean consistent drinking water.  Nevermind that the engineers grossly underestimated the number of affected flood victims at 6,000 families, when it actually is upwards of 1 million people.  Nevermind that they never even thought to count the tens of thousands to be affected by the canal system, to be built across the entire state of Gujarat.  Nevermind that the cost of the project would be infinitely greater than hundreds of small-scale hydro and water-harvesting projects.  To provide water for approximately 50,000 people.

For the sake of argument, let us ignore issues of livelihood and the erasure of the Adivasi cultures along the river and say this can be justified:  people can always be relocated and “rehabilitated” but drinking water is precious and would not be possible otherwise.  Let us say for a moment, the movement of a million people is a necessary service to the country.

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|old friends thrilled to see and talk with medhadidi along their pilgrimage|

And then let’s look at the facts:

What was once promised to rural Gujaratis has now been taken away.  In bait-and-switch fashion, the thousands of villagers who were meant to benefit from this water will still receive it – except now only 1/5th of what they were promised and years later than expected.  Instead, the canals have been shortened and diverted to satisfy none other than urban upper-middle class communities in Vadodara, Gandhinagar (oh the irony), and Ahmedabad, along with the ubiquitous worldwide phenomenon – the ever-present industrial park.  You see, water for the poor is not worth it after all – especially when there are profits to be made selling it to corporations and lawn-owners.

The travesty of shunting the poor on one end of this equation is that their brethren on the other end will also be receiving a raw deal.  As the newly landless in Narmada continue to fight for the recompense that was legally awarded to them, there will be another landless people in Gujurat, leaving their villages for lack of adequate water.  There has been little to no outrage at how the floodwaters are quickly and quietly being funneled to those with deep pockets. Nor on the mismanagement of the dam and canal construction, which has run into cost overruns time and again – much to the glee of its contractors I imagine.

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|conversing on pending canals and still-to-be-seen compensation|

Funny enough, talk with any Indian citizen about the corruption leading to this mess and the mismanagement perpetuating it, and nary a soul will deny it.  It is openly acknowledged what an albatross this project truly is.  You might get the Modi-ite who proclaims that the captains of industry will bring much needed low-paying jobs to Gujarat – and of course they require water to slake their manufacturing thirst.  But even these “progress” manic proponents acknowledge the botched up path to this outcome, complete with potholes and washed out roads – like all of those dotting the Narmada valley.  You might even hear a cluck or see a shake of the head at the government’s dysfunction.

And there it ends.

Like the people of the Sahel, the Adivasis, Nimadis, Saurashtrans, andKutch must be forgotten.  In order for society to advance, in order for us to progress, in order for us to live – these things are necessary.  And necessarily ignored.

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|children and adults gathering late into the night for talk on narmada and the near future|

But I believe this…forgetting, is new.  Avoiding the discussion is a recently-conditioned response.  For there was a time where you could see with your own two eyes the impacts of your actions on your brethren.  And allow it to temper your behaviour.  A time before the era of big business, globalization, and consumerism.  A time where you knew where your shoes came from, recognized all the ingredients in your shampoo, and understood the care, commitment and sacrifice in your food.  A time where you knew the true hypocrisy you were living. 

This is not that time anymore.  And not yet.  As we send food and medical aid to Haiti, donate to our local charities, acknowledge our corrupt politicians, and curse the system, let us sit back, re-kindle a new fire and talk. 

Let us create a new time, where we will readily give up our armchairs so everyone can join us in sitting together on the ground. 

My time at NBA has drawn to a close.  But they have shown me: these conversations are ready to begin.

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The Drop in the River

Love—in the production of affective networks, schemes of cooperation, and social subjectivities—is an economic power.  Conceived in this way, love is not, as it is often characterized, spontaneous or passive.  It does not simply happen to us, as if it were an event that mystically arrives from elsewhere.  Instead it is an action, a biopolitical event, planned and realized in common.
 
Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Common Wealth, p.180

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 |on the way to a “hilly” Adivasi area, NBA flag blazing from the jeep|

I received this missive a couple of days ago from a dear friend and mentor.  It is a phenomenon that I feel rippling in circles everywhere, the conscious committed act of joining together -not necessarily in love at first.  But with intention, it seems to always come.

A key nuance of the work, the mantle that NBA has taken up is to build solidarity amongst very different people, across horizons, caste, religion, and of course gender.  Effectively to combat racism and sexism not only because it is right, but because it is absolutely vital to winning any battle against the state.  This was lost on me upon first getting here.  Medhadidi would speak about working (also known as “organizing” where I come from) first in the “hilly” areas and then moving to the “plains.”  I interpreted this talk as some kind of NBA manifest destiny – that they were simply expanding their geographical reach.  But implied in this seemingly simple statement is a world of effort to bridge differences.  My first couple of site visits were in the Nimadi plains, where people seemed activated and organized.  And then I went to the “hilly” towns, like Bhaadal and Bitaaraa.  Slowly Medhadidi’s words began to take on meaning:

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|waving to chilli sorters on the way to the boat and Bitaaraa| 

The hilly areas, where NBA’s work first began, is more or less 100% Adivasi.  Physically, these villages are spread out with large distances between family fields, and seasonality in farming, grazing and shepherding - due to the river’s changing face from monsoon to drought every year.  Culturally, people are reserved, independent, and appear gentle and believing.  The more I ask about these folks, the more I learn of a history of government authorities, policemen, and bureaucrats who have taken advantage of the Adivasi ways, demanding royal treatment on visits, exacting tribute where none is due, and making life harder for people who already follow a beautiful but rough path.

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|intrepid Medhadidi crossing the alluvial plain at the base of Bitaaraa village|

This became most obvious in Bitaaraa, another village located on the Narmada River.  On this visit, it so happened the government doctor had boated in and was making his rounds as well.  Just that week, a child had died in nearby Bhaadal.  And now his brother was terribly ill.  Upon meeting the doctors, Medhadidi had them join our village meeting.

And then let them have it.

For almost two hours, she lambasted them on the poor health services in the region: visits routinely skipped by doctors, lack of medical facilities, medicines or education, the difficulty and expense for so many Adivasi’s (some of whom do not engage in the cash economy at all) in getting themselves to a town for health check-ups.  And grilled these men on why it had been so long since anyone had seen these villagers. 

Scolded is more accurate.

She then asked the villagers to recount how many children died that year.  Amongst just the men sitting with us the number climbed to 10, then 15.  (This didn’t include women who may have had birth complications, nor women who may have died in pregnancy/childbirth). During this time, at first the Adivasi men present held quiet.  But upon the momentum kicked up by Medhadidi, they came out with hard stories of sick kids who expired after a few days – their faces a mask of anger though their words were few.

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|afternoon meeting in Bitaaraa|

The racial component was clear.  These people look and act different, on top of which they are not “educated” or inculcated in typical Indian bureaucratic society.  And it was they, regularly cheated of services and resources, who were being asked to sacrifice not only land and home for these dams, but surely their nature-based way of life in re-settling miles from the riverbed.  This is surely worth fighting for.

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|meeting participants and their apprentices|

So onto Nimadi, the plains areas - where farmers have been exposed to the Sarkari (government) and politics for years now.  These peoples are primarily non-Adivasi, caste-based,  integrated into Indian society, and for the most part, better off than the tribals.  They were also more cynical about the issue as their politicians had failed to protect them from the large dams on Narmada.  Because the Sardar Sarovar Dam offers few benefits to Madhya Pradesh where these farmers live (most of the water and power will go to the state of Gujurat), while asking them to shoulder most of the impacts, Madhya Pradesh had been against the dam at the beginning, with politicians taking up the cause.  But it was quickly abandoned, for political horse-trading, gerrymandering, or very possible, it was just too hard to keep Gujarat at bay.  What did it matter anyway?  The fancy engineers claimed it would only affect a handful of thousands of families – and provide water for 50,000 of India’s poorest.  (We will revisit the Travesty of these numbers in my next installment).  Hence, the Nimadi villagers, already deserted by their politicians, took more time to trust that NBA in fact was here to stay and fight for their cause.

As the damn building started, so too did the building amongst people – across Adivasi and non, within Nimadi’s castes as well.  And everywhere, the effort to activate the ever-conspicuously missing Indian woman.

I can’t comment on the 25 years of holding meetings, ensuring people did not disrespect each other on class, race or gender lines, could look each other in the eye, learn how to follow and lead both.  What I can tell you is something I witnessed one night that floored me.  That was truly revolutionary.

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 |the tragically beautiful reservoir below Bitaaraa|

On our way back from Bitaaraa, an Adivasi family hitched a ride in our jeep – ironically because their children were sick and needed attention.  Attempting to take the least amount of space possible, husband,wife and four kids had quietly crammed themselves in the back of the vehicle with our luggage.  We insisted on taking our bags and the oldest child in our back seat to give them more room.  Before reaching home, we stopped at a festivity in a Nimadi town, where the town’s mayor insisted we eat dinner at his home (such is the way when I travel with Medhadidi). 

We pulled up to a veritable mansion, and entered a marbled hallway, leading to a large open room to be served dinner langar-style.  The Adivasi family stayed in the car at first, assuming they weren’t invited.  They had to be nudged out of the car, gently pushed into the house, and asked to sit for dinner.  As they came in, instead of sitting on the chairs, sure enough in typical Adivasi fashion, they squatted in a corner.

It was astounding.  The temerity with which they came in, the children shoeless and dusty, the parents quiet and unassuming.  And then, the most wealthy and respected Nimadi family in town served them dinner as honored guests just like us.  Perhaps it was because they came with us.  Perhaps it was not as extraordinary as I imagined.  But watching as the family ate in that huge white hall and these plains people served us food, I felt a pride in humanity that is often fleeting. 

And remembered how when the family first joined us in the car how my own mind jumped first to germs and self-preservation.  How I was more concerned about getting sick than getting these children better.  Short a thought it was, it came and went.  A gentle reminder that I too can focus on difference when I am scared, when it serves me.

I have heard since then that in the struggles against submergence, the Nimadi people would organize, take shifts, and join the Adivasis in the dhoop satyagraha – standing in the rising waters for days and nights.  They would protest, get beaten, get jailed – some of whom had nothing to lose from the dam, but felt the injustice. 

Riding back that night after dinner, as the warm little body sitting next to me slowly lulled to sleep against my side, there was little else to do but put my arm around him and feel that this child is mine too. 

Two days later, we learned that the second child who was sick in Bhaadal had been brought into town for help. He had received a blood transfusion and was immediately sent home after. He died the next morning from complications.  Another child lost to…take your pick:  

  1. Poor medical access 
  2. Botched up medical care
  3. Pocketed funds intended for health care
  4. All of the above

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|the girls of bitaaraa sporting sleek short hair|

For him, a song by the girls of Bhaadal – about the value and potential of a child to become a star.  A reminder that all these children of ours require us to forget our differences and even ourselves for the running river.


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The United Nations Over-Development Program

I have been briefly travelling with 17 MSW (Masters of Social Work) students who’ve come to visit to better understand the Narmada Bachao Movement.  It was great to see a core group of young people who instead of engineering, computer science, or medicine, are interested in doing social work within India.  However, they too appear to be in the throes of “metrics for success,” how to raise GDP while lowering mortality, poverty alleviation, the miracle of education (send them away to school!) and other mechanisms of “sustainable development.” 

We took a trip entailing a long jeep ride, then boat ride, to Bhaadal which is a “submerged” village – a village that has lost land because of the large dams on the Narmada.  These photos chronicle that visit. 

On the way, one of our vehicles broke down.  Thankfully, we were next to a few houses and the bhai living there pulled out chairs and cots for us to sit and wait while others went for help.  He was kind enough to water and feed us as well!  And one of the students asked me, what do I think development should look like. 

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|we take matters into our own hands and start walking to where we’ll catch the boat|

Travelling through rural areas, in India, Mali, Mexico, I am constantly struck not by the lack of resources, poverty or dirt – as others remark to me time and again.  I am floored each time by how much people in rural areas know.  About conserving water and energy, showing hospitality, inventing solutions, patience – and most definitely enjoyment!  About how the “developed” world is at such a disadvantage with us chasing our tails over money, living soft lives that take us away from our bodies and our resources, and constantly looking at each other and ourselves, comparing, wanting more.  Because we can.  Finding reasons to spend, expend, and pretend more.  We have so much in our western lives – just the luxury of a sink and tap is less than most.

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|finally on the Narmada – almost still because of the Sardar Sarovar Dam|

In these villages and with the NBA folk, there has been a pace, a culture of letting things take their course instead of making them happen.  Just like the Narmada should be.  To me there are many more things going right in these villages.  Expending effort in order to use our most precious resource, water, makes people so conscientious of it’s use.  Expending energy to visit a neighbor in walking or biking encourages lingering a longer time and receives in turn a hot cup of chai.  The mentality not of scarcity, for there is much water in the river, but of valuing, relishing, sharing.

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|one of the few remaining corn fields in Bhaadal|

What has gone so wrong in my own country that we have created systems and a culture that enable us to take so much from the world precious reservoirs and cheapen it?  Development should not be about monetizing the bottom of the pyramid and turning poor people into consumers like us.  Single-serve plastic shampoo packets for 3 rupess replacing naturally replenishable and biodegradable buttermilk is NOT progress!  The result is that where there once were naturally decomposing clay cups and plates made from leaves, rural areas are now littered with plastic bags and cups .

In Narmada valley, the dams have destroyed rich agricultural land, while there is a policy to encourage the agrarian economy.  We continue to transfer “technology” from the global north to the south, and lose our most vital knowledge – that which will sustain us well beyond exhaustion of fossil fuels and minerals.  Development should be the transfer of practices and culture from the global south northwards.  THIS is the real challenge – convincing our apathetic, gluttonous selves that we must consume, purchase, use less.  That being human is diminishing while accomplishing.  To strive in decreasing our footprints instead of increasing our net worth.  As do-gooders support and flock to work in Africa, Asia, Latin America to help our fellow humans (to hopefully improve their health and livelihoods so that they are not displaced by “progress”) how many are working with the minority that uses 75% of the world’s resources?  Why isn’t there a United Nations Over-Development Program to address development that has gone out of control?  Our framework on sustainability has to change, as does our understanding of sanitation, success metrics, what is enough, and to what end. 

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|observing the solar water heater in the higher, relocated Bhaadal|

The extraordinary fact of NBA is that it exists to enable rural life to exist.  First to ensure “progress” and “government” gets out of the way of rural peoples’ path to self-determination, and second, to listen.  As development brings big dams and inculcation into an upwardly mobile society through formal schooling, NBA is asking another question: what do the rural communities need to stay put?  In particular, what do the Adivasi peoples of the valley, those who have had the least power and voice in this process, want as a community? 

We had the opportunity to see this first-hand in a village that has had most of it’s agricultural lands submerged by the Narmada reservoir.  And the answers, to begin with: a livelihood that allows their culture to continue, schools that teach their own language, culture and politics in addition to “coping” skills (i.e. Hindi, Civics, etc.).  A life rich enough that the young folk care to remain and are not forced to flee the rising waters for a running tap.

In that vein,  Jeevanshala is a system of schools set up by NBA to address the huge lack of education in Adivasi areas.   Some interesting background viewing:

http://esp.powos.org/Send-Modify/JEEVAN-SHALA-SCHOOL-OF-LIFE2

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|Bhaadal Jeevanshala students singing|

And a song, recorded from the children of Bhaadal’s Jeevanshala.  The song, Zindabaad, is about the beginning of the unrlenting struggle for indigenous people’s rights to self-determination and natural resources. 


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Due Process

I’ve been fortunate enough to catch a world-renown activist in flight and am holding on for dear life!  My first day with the famous and wildly inspiringly infamous Medha Patkar was no less than exceptional:  a conference on government corruption in Delhi was our meeting place, then off to a meeting with the national Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF), a brief reprieve at an activist bat cave, and finally, an overnight train to Indore, getting us closer to the homeground of Narmada Bachao Andolan.  A bit of background in case you missed it: 

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narmada_Bachao_Andolan

http://www.narmada.org/

****************

But I digress.  The coup d’etat of the day was definitely the meeting with the Ministry.  And it would have made Sam Mygatt proud.  

Sam Mygatt, lawyer extraordinaire, former Peace Corps volunteer and short-lived corporate lawyer, was my first boss out of college.  He had been head of a state-wide environmental agency that approved or denied large-scale development projects.   I worked for Sam after this, when he served as an advisor to companies on what they could and could not do under the letter of the law.  As the former gatekeeper and the person who had fortified the walls, he knew only too well what could be approved.  And he kept his clients in line.   Sam understood that development was going to happen and worked tirelessly to ensure that it happened conscientiously, legally, and responsibly.

Ten years after my job as an environmental consultant, I found myself on the other side of the table with Medhadidi, fighting a large-scale development by a company known as Lavasa.  

Like the US, India has an environmental protection law requiring companies to do environmental assessments before they can proceed with work. Like many US companies, Lavasa avoided national environmental review and received instead, the minimal approvals possible. Unlike the US (one hopes), it had been flagrantly conducting large-scale construction activities, causing significant environmental harm way beyond the reach of its approvals. 

Bringing this company to task has been an ordeal. Local community residents have had the burden of proof on their shoulders, surveying and documenting the construction activities over several years now.  Misinformation, government corruption, and multiple levels of bureacracy have made the task of executing the law that much more challenging.

However, the slow and steady fight is starting to pay off.   Based on the mounting evidence, last month the High Court of Mumbai ordered all work on the project to be stopped.

Lavasa, attempting to scuttle the process once again, asked to speak to the Ministry of Environment directly before having to take the “drastic action” of stopping all work.  To ensure misinformation did not continue, environmental and community advocates also requested to address the Ministry at this same meeting.

Under these conditions, I watched as a nigh 15-member team of consultants, planners, lawyers, and communications experts presented the Lavasa project to the Ministry.  They attempted to justify the large-scale construction project by over-inflating their “corporate social responsibility” efforts.  They spoke for over an hour and rarely answered the Ministry’s questions directly.  This was green-washing at its best.  Or rather worst.

Medha Patkar,  and her fellow advocates, Sunithi S.R., and Vishwambar Chaudhary, presented the counterargument to Lavasa’s drawn out and meandering presentation in less than 15 minutes.  They presented an irrefutable argument:  that Lavasa’s project, in its entirety, was essentially illegal. And backed it up with proof from local residents. 

After the meeting the press were waiting to catch a glimpse of these activists.

Here’s a snippet of the press coverage:

This week, we learned that the MoEF agrees. Lavasa’s work is to remain stopped!

Full details here: http://moef.nic.in/downloads/public-information/Lavasa%20Show%20Cause-14122010.pdf

And unless it can prove otherwise, Lavasa will be subject to full environmental review.

Sam Mygatt passed away last year.  Watching this unfold, I couldn’t help but think of his work for the environment and how much I learned from him.  About not only using the law to its fullest extent, but rather insisting on it - to protect our natural resources, our ways of life and our communities. 

Wherever he may be, Sam must be smiling.

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