Development on its haunches

  • 14/07/1997

HARD truths need harsher frames. Especially if the truths deal with the excreta that the dominant model of development in India produces when it squats on its way to concrete progress. And if film is the medium in which the squatting is caught. In the film under review, big dam development along the 1,300 krn Narmada river is shown as appalling indigestion. But the showing could have been harsher?

Rehabilitation is the core issue related to contemporary big-dam protests in India. For the state apparatus, resettling displaced people is at best an administrative matter, at worst a law and order problem. Paperwork is more a papering-over - power's iron cage ensures immunity. The urban consumer is equally and willfully unconcerned. Until the displaced find their voice. Then it becomes a matter of address. Propaganda to swing society's opinion inevitably depends upon a popular rhetoric of progress, one that is intensely moral in nature and which seeks to blackmail the :udience. India is behind. The poor child needs light to study. India needs the Sardar Sarovar dam. Another of Nehru's temples. Please.

Work on the Bargi megadam began in 1970. Forty krn upstream of Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, the megadam was the first among the 30 mega-dams planned along the Narmada to be completed. The film narrates how about 1,00,000 villagers began to find water and utter dislocation submerging their lives. Each development wave claimed more villages - 10 1 villages were initially re-engineered into oblivion, another 39 were engulfed when the 300 sq krn reservoir (half the size of Mumbai!) began to fill in 1991, and 22 more joined this list when the water reached full reservoir level an year later. A factual camera records how village Bijasen, primarily comprising Gond tribals, was first resettled beyond the full reservoir level marked by engineers. But the engineers miscalculated, and this resettled village promptly drowned again as water levels rose in 1992 (the original Bijasen by now somewhere in the middle of a sea of planning).
The film then branches out into other 'truths' on the Narmada valley development issue. Various interest groups heave into sight. Gujarat chief minister Chimanbhai Patel's wife Urmilabehn Patel is shrilly pro-Sardar Sarovar at a public meeting. Madhya Pradesh chief minister Digvijay Singh coolly points to the need for energy. A landlord gregariously supports Sardar Sarovar. Medha Patkar quietly speaks in opposition.

The film then briefly passes through people's protests at Manibeli (the Sardar Sarovar site) and revisits the Bargi dam. The Manibeli spirit of confrontation has also infused Bijasen villagers. They were reduced to urban slum dwellers, but have now decided to re-occupy their village site. What have they to lose? They rebuild their huts. They plant a crop and ask the authorities not to fill the reservoir, or at least let them take one harvest. The authorities do the exact opposite. In protest, three villagers stand in jal samarpan (attempt to drown themselves). As the water begins to swill around their necks, a brutal state promptly arrives to beat them up and arrest them. No ordinary protest, this. After all, the question is: how are we to survive? Kaise Jeebo Re?

Kaise Jeebo Re counters tall tales and popular attitudes. It relies on a chronology of events to draw attention to the terrible nitty-grittv of resettlement; the exposure gains depth thereby. Naturalist shots are care- fully juxtaposed to make previous frames cast ironic light upon what comes after. Successive layers of irony are built to uncover the many facets of indifference. Tall tales are really glaring silences. A descriptive voice- over is used with well-cut interviews in point-counter point fashion. Protest songs are used along with poems that the displaced have composed. All this creates a morally intense address. It creates a hush, as happened when the film was premiered at the India International Centre, Delhi, on May 9, 1997. But is this form of address enough? We need a different morality to under- stand what's happening, says the content of the film. Let the viewer decide, says the technique. L9ok at reality.

Irony is a relativist technique; it often succeeds in adulterating the message. Precisely what happens in the film. A call to a politics of response becomes yet another moral message, one more among so many others available to the hearing (or seeing).

This politics needs to catch the consumer by the collar. The bizarrely efficient insensitivity with which the Bargi displaced are treated demands satire, not irony. If development is to be caught on its haunches, why cannot it be caught in all its filthiness? Why cannot carnival, and not intensity, be the stylistic mode? Is moral out-rage enough? Can't we be outrageous, if the facts are so?