Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Narmada, NLS

Excerpt from Medha Patkar (in conversation with Smitu Kothari), ‘The Struggle for Participation and Justice: A Historical Narrative’, in Toward Sustainable Development? Struggling Over India’s Narmada River, ed. William F. Fisher (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1995), pp. 173-174:

'In 1987 I first went to Washington with friends from supporting US organisations and met a number of World Bank officials. The questions that were raised were not merely related to rehabilitation. One question raised was, for example, How could the World Bank sign the agreement when our own indigenous agencies, the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the Planning Commission, had not cleared the project? This was a distorted decision-making process and the influence of the World Bank then would make the project a fait accompli, and the sanction would be drawn out and the process was going on anyway. The World Bank had no answers. The only answer came from consulting the Indian legal adviser they had at that time, Mohan Gopal, who said, "Oh, we were not aware of this kind of a procedural requirement from Ministry of Environment!" I said, "If you are not aware, then you are obviously not responsible for all the claims in your appraisals and your agreements that you would monitor the project and that this would be monitored and that would be monitored, and you cannot be considered capable of doing that."'

Background: Medha Patkar is the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the single largest organisation fighting against the displacement of people by the Narmada Valley Projects. Mohan Gopal went on to become Director of the National Law School of India University, Bangalore, in my final year there (2000-01). In the summer of 2001, the Operations Evaluation Department of the World Bank commenced a review of compliance of Bank projects over the last decade with the Bank's Operational Directive 4.20 on Indigenous Peoples. I worked with the review team for a period of two months out of their Bangalore office. The terms of the review did not include the Bank's involvement in the controversial Sardar Sarovar Project (controversial because it had displaced tens of thousands of indigenous and tribal peoples without adequate resettlement measures). I am not entirely sure why this was the case - it may have been (i) because there had already been a severely critical Independent Review of the Project by the Bank's first ever Inspection Panel; or (ii) because the Bank had withdrawn from the Project before completion in 1993. The lead evaluation officer for the review was Gita Gopal - Mohan Gopal's wife.

Gita was a real pleasure to work with - obviously committed to her work, not afraid to speak her mind, and conscious that as somebody who worked for OED it was her job to do so. She was also a genuinely warm and friendly person and I learnt a great deal from working with her. I was particularly heartened to learn about the extent of dissent that existed within the Bank. But I regret that I did not question her more closely about the reasons for exclusion of the SSP from the terms of reference of the review. Nor did I ask her about the specific role that her husband might have played in all this (I had assumed that he had always been legal counsel for East Asia - his last position - and was also given to understand that Bank staff never advised on projects in their home countries).

I would be lying if I suggested that I had anything but a good relationship with Mohan, though many in school (including some of my closest friends) couldn't stand him. However, on the issue of Narmada, he showed a sort of knife-edge ambivalence. On the day in October 2000 that the Supreme Court delivered its bleak judgment allowing construction on the dam to resume after a gap of several years, a number of us from law school joined a rally on Bangalore's MG Road in protest against the judgment. The demonstration got out of hand and some of us were arrested. Mohan Gopal and our equally unpopular registrar Babu Mathew (now head of ActionAid India) played an instrumental role in securing our release (although charges were not dropped). However, as soon as we returned to school, Gopal harangued us about how misguided we were in taking to the streets. At the time, I attributed this to his reformist inclinations (as lawyers we should be working within the system, demonstrating fealty to the rule of law, I remember him saying). It now seems clear to me that his own personal complicity in the Bank's negligence in the Sardar Sarovar Project must have been weighing heavily on his mind, accounting for his lack of support for our protest. Our protest was directed against the likes of him, more directly than we knew.

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