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L.C Jain, Assam and mega dams
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About the Author - Dr. Sanjib Baruah

Dr. Sanjib Baruah is currently professor of political science at Bard College in New York, United States. His articles on the Lower Subansiri Mega Dam projects is an ey opener of not only for the authorities constructing the project and also for the common people of North-East India. He is the author of many books like "India against Itself: Assam and the Politics of Nationality", "Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of Northeast India", etc.

There are often references to the World Commission on Dams [WCD] and its 2001 report Dams and Development in the discussions on Lower Subansiri and the other hydropower dams in Arunachal Pradesh. But one rarely hears of one of the reportís key authors -- the Commissionís Vice Chair, Gandhian activist and economist the late L. C Jain.

Jain who passed away in November 2010 was once Indiaís High Commissioner to South Africa and a former member of the Planning Commission. What makes the absence of any significant reference to Jain surprising in this context is that Jain was a well-known friend and well-wisher of Assam and Northeast India. Prior to joining the WCD he chaired the Indian Planning Commissionís committee on development options for Assam for putting into effect Clause 7 of the Assam Accord. Indeed in his remembrance essay on Jain published in this newspaper, a retired senior civil servant from the region and former Tourism Secretary M. P. Bezbaruah calls Jain a "true friend and crusader for the Northeast" known for "his personal advocacy of NE development as one arm to fight the divisive violence." The WCD was established jointly by the World Bank and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in 1997 in response to the controversies over large dams that were raging in many parts of the world. As a major funder of dam building projects, the World Bank was at that time embroiled in a number of those controversies. The WCDís mandate was to "review the development effectiveness of large dams and assess alternatives for water resources and energy development" and to "develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of dams."

It is a matter of remarkable good fortune that a person who had Northeast Indiaís best interest in mind and a person who was intimately familiar with the developmental challenges of Northeast Indiaís was a key figure in the WCD. One can venture to guess that Jainís knowledge of Northeast India had indirectly found a place in its deliberations. As a result Dams and Development has perhaps more relevance to our region than any such global document.

The 12-member WCD with South Africaīs Water Resources Minister Kader Asmal as chair and L.C. Jain as Vice-Chair was designed as what is sometimes called a "multi-stakeholder process," that is it tried to include individuals who are "representative of the diversity of perspectives" on the question - that is industry representatives and large dam advocates, as well as their opponents. The Commission had the support of a full-time professional Secretariat, a 68-member advisory Forum, and numerous experts from a variety of academic disciplines. It built a comprehensive knowledge base of large dams and it closely examined many dam projects in different parts of the world and consulted extensively with people involved in those projects and those affected by them.

The WCDís report Dams and Development launched in 2000 by Nelson Mandela recognizes that "dams have made an important and significant contribution to human development, and the benefits derived from them have been considerable." However, it concludes that "in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to secure those benefits." In its view, notwithstanding significant gains from such projects--for instance in terms of the production of hydropower--a very high social cost have been extracted because many dam building projects had failed to recognize the complex nature of rivers and river ecosystems. For instance, the dramatic changes to "rivers, watersheds and aquatic ecosystems" and their adverse impact on "downstream livelihoods" have been inadequately understood and as a result, thousands who depend on river ecosystems have been impoverished because of losing their traditions sources of livelihood.

To ensure that future dam building projects do not extract such a heavy social cost, the WCDís report proposes a policy framework that decisively breaks away from the idea that decisions on dams are primarily the domain of technical and economic experts. Consistent with Jainís bottom-up and participatory view of development, the WCDís report emphasizes the need to ensure that the affected people have a chance to make "informed choices" and that they should be active parties in negotiations and not just passive victims or beneficiaries. Dams and Development even recommends that dam building decisions should be made only with the "free, prior and informed consent" of the people affected by dams and that their acceptance of such projects be "demonstrable."

It will not be hard for anyone familiar with Jainís work to see the impact of his thinking in Dams and Development. As a Gandhian, Jain did not like centralisation of power. Despite being a member of the Planning Commission himself, Jain has gone on record to say that in "more than 60 years after Independence, centralised planning had not made a dent on poverty." He complained about power in India being "concentrated in the Bhawans of New Delhi: Yojana Bhawan, Rail Bhawan, Udyog Bhawan, Krishi Bhawan," adding that "we have forgotten to build the Janata Bhawan." Jain even advocated the dissolution of India's Water Resources Ministry and the empowerment of local bodies "to embark on a massive rainwater harvesting program" instead. Jain received the Magsaysay Award for "his informed and selfless commitment to attack Indiaís poverty at the grassroots level."

We in Assam got a sense of Jainís faith in participatory development in the report on Clause Seven of the Assam Accord. "Our entire thinking," said the reportís introduction, "has been influenced by one major factor: a fairly well informed and fervent demand for development for the people at large - students, political parties, womenís groups, voluntary organisations, economists, ministers, administrators, entrepreneurs - with whom we had the privilege of interacting. This magnitude of popular awareness and interest in development is a rare social force. Constructively used, it can be the most precious capital for the development of Assam."

That officials in NHPC or the Power or the Water Resources Ministry would find WCDís proposals on how to go about making decisions on building dams unacceptable is not surprising. Dams and Development has been criticized by many traditional dam-building experts and enthusiasts of mega hydropower projects. Both India and China, the two countries that have emerged as the worldís most prolific dam builders in the 21st century, have rejected the reportís recommendations.

Indiaís official critique of the report charges that the WCDís report had made "a dam decision subject to veto power of the local people settled on the river banks." Rather than privileging the preferences of people living in the river valleys or those directly impacted by dams, it suggests that "people who are to benefit from a project are also to be considered as stakeholder."

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