“…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]
|talking conservation and corruption with adivasi women |
|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.
|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.
|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.
|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.