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Environment Vs Development – The Debate Rages On

Environment Vs Development – The Debate Rages On

Many sociological theories have engaged over the issue of ‘tribal conflicts on development’ and ‘the politics of environment’. Is there scope for middle ground

By Dr. Rekha M Shangpliang

Today the ruling paradigm about environmental issues mostly centers around “resource utilization.” For centuries vital natural resources like land,water and forests have been used collectively by village communities thus ensuring a sustainable and judicious use of these renewable resources. Because of their cultural ties with nature,indigenous communities who have in the past lived in harmony with nature have been marginalized by forces of development in recent times.

In India, the first instance of environmental domination by state authority and resource policy was felt during the Colonial rule which systematically transformed the common vital resources into commodities for generating profit and revenue. However, even after thecollapse of the Colonial structure in India, resource policies still continued along the Colonial pattern thus restricting the common people’s access to natural resources. Infact, the contemporary periodis characterized by the emergence of a number of Ecology movements under the banner of water conflicts, forest movements and tribal resistance over development in different pockets of the country.

All these conflicts have echoed the same voice,i.e. they have questioned the validity of the indicators of development. India represents a puzzling paradox of poverty amidst abounding natural resources. The conflict between the Right to Development and the Right to Environment is very obvious in developing countries like India since they are both Third-Generation Rights, closely related to human development and world peace. The Right to a Clean and Healthy Environment is enshrined in the chapter of Fundamental Rights through judicial innovation and similarly The Right to Development is a Fundamental Right. Interestingly both these rights draw their genesis from Article 21 of the Constitution. Therefore, while trying to balance both these rights,the question of compliance with the local communities and their resource needs has emerged.

How can one forget those famous lines in Nehru’s inaugural speech on the eve of the construction of the Bhakra Nangal Dam over the river Sutlej in 1954 – “Dams are the temples of modern India.” Perhaps it was Nehru’s dream to equate economic development to nation building at a time when India was a young independent nation ready to grow. Today, this Nehruvian dream of connecting ‘Dam building to Nation building’ remains a questionable debate. India stands fourth in line next to China,USA and Russia as a successfuldam building industry.

But over the decades there have been innumerable anti-dam protests. Opposition to big dams has a long history in India, extending to the very recent ones in Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. The anti-dam protest in Arunachal Pradesh is a case in point which reached a new milestone as the stoppage of construction work of Lower Subansiri Hydropower Project has brought the issue of downstream impacts of large dams to the forefront and also showed how a mass movement can question a top-down development project.

If you have read Arundhati Roy’s The Greater Common Good you would understand the message sent across by this Nobel Laureate. Having spent several years on the banks of a river in Kerala, her instincts took her to support the idea of people fighting to save a river which was their only source of livelihood. She was voicing the problems of displaced communities alongside the valley and consequently became an ardent supporter of the NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan).

Another significant addition to the growing literature on tribal movements and the environment is the book by Amita Baviskar In the Belly of the River wherein she gives an account of the lives of the Bhilala Adivasis in the Narmada Valley who have been fighting a silent war against displacement by the Sardar Sarovar dam in Western India.

Much ink has been spilled and many sociological theories of social movements have also continuously engaged over the issue of ‘tribal conflicts on development’ and the politics of environment. The story of Narmada may tell us a different story but it does ring alarms, at a juncture when closer home in our own state, the Anti-Umngot dam voice grows louder. The river Umngot or WahUmngot as it is locally called originates from the Eastern Shillong Peak located about 1,800 mts above sea level and flows downside between the Jaintia and Khasi mountain ranges thus acting as a natural divider between two ranges and also between two countries India and Bangladesh.

Umtong River

For the tourists it is a “hidden jewel, attracting thousands of visitors each year to experience the enchanting beauty with crystal clear water,so clean that the boats appear to float on the surface and one can clearly see through to the bottom of the river and the fishes below. Of late however, Umngot has captured the news items and media for a very different issue.

The uproar started when residents of 12 villages including Umsawwar, Mawsir, Mawdulop, Ksangrngi, Jatah, Nonglyer, Jatah Lakadong, Mawlong, Mawjatap and adjoining villages under the banner of Ka Kynhun Ki Nongrep Harud Wah Umngot came out in large numbers to protest against the proposed 210 MW hydroelectric project proposed to be implemented over the river Umngot.

The locals fear that if the project is implemented and allowed to proceed it would cause irreparable damage to the pristine environment besides uprooting several villages on the lower slopes of the river. Besides the fear of submergence there is also the fear of losing some 296 acres of land. (Shillong Times: Pg 1 April 9th2021). The locals fear that the project if executed will lead to a loss of livelihoods specially for those who depend on tourism and totally wipe out Shnongpdeng and Dawki from the tourism map.

This ambitious project proposed by the State government and Meghalaya Energy Corporation Limited (MeECL) comes at a time when the State is passing through a severe power crisis and so resorting to such a hurried decision maybe a point of justification that the project in the long run be a source of additional power supply and make the State self sufficient. However,from the socio-economic point of view one can easily judge the implications that the project would have on their livelihood and nature-man relationship of the local communities.

The role and significance of water in all its forms i.e as streams,rivers,ponds etc  in the life and culture of the Khasi exhibits water as an eco-cultural reality with an eco-spiritual value. This reminds me of a well-known Khasi legend,“The race between the two rivers” which revolves around Umngot. Once upon a time U Lei Shyllong (deity of Shillong)had two beautiful daughters named ka Ngot and Ka lam. They were twin sisters and inseparable. One day they climbed the top of the Shillong Peak and gazed at the beauty of the landscape below. Ka Iam who was the more confident of the two challenged her sister to a race.

So they decided the starting point of the race from the bottom of the Shillong Peak which finished in plains of Sylhet.So the two sisters transformed themselves into two rivers and set out on the race. Ka Ngot silently meandered her way from the bottom of the hill through smooth valleys and slowly but steadily reached her destination only to find that Ka lam had not yet reached.

Ka Ngot in her dismay panicked and curled her way and took a sharp turn in search of her sister and legend has it that this particular sight was so spectacular and breath-taking as the silvery waters of Ka Ngot was gleaming in the sunlight like a necklace that till today this curved part of the river is known as Rupatylli or a silver necklace.

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Ka ïam was delayed because being adventurous she went through a rocky terrain and lost track of time. Ka ïam on reaching the destination felt humiliated because she had already announced to all that victory would be hers. So in order to hide her humiliation she divided herself into five streams, namely ka Umtong, ka Torasa, ka Pasbiria, ka Kumarjani and ka Duwara to finally join the mighty Surma on its voyage to the sea. This legend exemplifies the spiritual significance attached to rivers and their personification as deities that have  strong connotations of reverence and respect to them even today.

Such sacred values attached to nature have often been overlooked in the pursuit of development goals leading to tribal resistance and conflicts over natural resources like water and forest. Such irresponsible and insensitive resource utilization has left deep scars on the cultural life patterns of local communities. We must keep in mind that the basic element that binds culture to nature is the ‘mother earth’ symbolism deeply rooted among all tribes including the Khasi who with reverence symbolize nature as ‘meiramew’.

Ecology movements as an emerging trend can no longer be viewed as rare happenings but they are an expression of the ‘dispossessed’, the ‘displaced’ a ‘tragedy of commons’. It is only hoped that the voices of the anti-dam protesters over the Umngot River are heard by the authorities concerned and do not go unnoticed.

A meaningful dialogue, a sound and democratic approach which is holistic in nature involving local communities and being sensitive to their resource needs is the need of the hour. It should not be a narrow approach that views water as a mechanistic entity that can be cut up and divided but as a valuable natural resource -the lifeline of a community. Besides,there are certain criteria or social safeguards laid down by International Agencies such as WCD (World Commission on Dams) that need to be adhered toby any project before being finalized.

Late Anil Agarwal, founder-director of the CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) had said, “Development can take place at the cost of the environment only upto a certain point. Beyond that point it will be like the foolish person who was trying to cut the very branch that he was sitting”.


Photographs by Piyush Plabon Das 

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