Why should the UN intervene in Narmada? – A somewhat confused article which argues in all directions at once

BHARAT JHUNJHUNWALA
Three United Nations representatives have advised the Indian government not to increase the height of Sardar Sarovar Dam until rehabilitation is complete. These include special representative on the situation of human rights defenders, Hina Jilani, special rapporteur on housing as a component of adequate standard of living, Miloon Kothari, and special rapporteur on the human rights and fundamental freedoms of indigenous people, Rodolfo Stavenhagen.
The United Nations seems to be interested in protecting the human rights of poor people from the atrocities committed by the Indian government! But a deeper study indicates their objective is to lock the poor people into poverty and ensure their economic exploitation by rich countries.
One has to understand the mischief inherent in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. The fundamental anomaly is that political rights have been given global reach, while economic rights have been restricted to national boundaries. Article 1 says, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Article 3 says, “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person.”
Articles 18, 19 and 20 establish the right to freedom of thought, opinion and expression and to receive information, and freedom of peaceful assembly and association. The point to note is that these rights are not restricted by national capacity. For example, the right to dignity is not limited to conditions of a nation. Dignity is an absolute value. The displaced people of Narmada valley have the same freedoms as the displaced people of River Mississippi. That is as it should be.
It follows that the responsibility of providing these rights rests with the international community. The Security Council, as a representative of the international community, must set right the domestic governance if the human rights of a people are violated by the national government as happened in Kosovo.
But now let us examine the situation of economic rights. Article 13 says, “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state.” A displaced person from Narmada dam does not have the freedom to move to the United States. He is free to move within the borders of India. Article 21(2) says, “Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.” The displaced person from Narmada valley cannot demand public services from the United States—even on payment. Article 22 says everyone has the right to social security in accordance with the resources of each state. The international community does not have the responsibility to provide social security to a person residing in India. The economic rights are to be provided according to the economic capacity of the specific country.
The consequence is that the rich countries can militarily intervene and displace a national government if the political or economic rights of a people are violated. But they have no responsibility to provide economic rights. The people of a poor country can be perpetually locked into poverty if the country does not have adequate resources.
Say the government of India does not have the resources to provide the displaced people with housing before raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The government decided that the displaced should be asked to live in thatched huts for five years till the dam is complete. They may be provided with brick houses after the water from the dam starts flowing and economy attains the high path. Such an alternative is not available because the international community can impose economic sanctions or even launch a military attach if brick housing is not first provided.
It is forgotten that the rich countries have denied their poor people precisely these rights in their period of nascent economic development. In the nineteenth century, England allowed employers to whip seven-year-old child labourers and force then to work up to 14 hours on the power looms. They were required to eat their lunch with one hand while working the loom with the other hand.
The United Sates, similarly, denied these rights to black slaves imported from Africa. Economists call such forced poverty as ‘primitive accumulation’. But the same process of economic development is not open to India anymore. If India does not have the resources to first make brick houses for the displaced then it should not build the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The rich countries may even attack India to protect the human rights of the displaced people if India dares to still make the dam.
The result is that developing countries remain locked in the production of primary goods. For example, software parks will not be established in the plains of Gujarat due to unavailability of water from the Sardar Sarovar. Our production of software will be hit. At the same time cultivable land in the Narmada Valley will not be inundated and the production of rice will be more. The logical result of not building Sardar Sarovar is less production of high-priced software and more production of low-priced rice. Developing countries will be dependent upon the rich countries for the import of software, which will be supplied by companies like Microsoft located in the rich countries. The developing countries will thus be forced to sell their natural resources at low prices for a long time.
Such a situation would not arise if economic human rights would be global, like political rights. Those displaced from Sardar Sarovar would have the right to migrate to the United States or to demand the use of public facilities in that country. Then Sardar Sarovar Dam would be made and the global community would also secure people’s economic rights. But the objective of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is to keep the people of poor countries locked into poverty hence economic rights have been limited to national boundaries.
The true character of the United Nations is clearly seen in the fact that, to the knowledge of this writer, these representatives have not issued statements for Coca Cola to first provide irrigation and drinking water to the affected villages before depleting their ground water by pumping out ground water. They shed crocodile tears wherever rich countries violate the economic rights of the poor people to amass profits; but launch a big harangue where the same economic rights are violated by the national governments for national progress.
Sensitive and well-meaning persons like Medha Patkar should certainly fight for securing rights of the displaced persons because the present development paradigm is clearly anti-people. But they should not get entangled in the Human Rights discourse because that is not only anti-people, it is also anti-development. The bitter truth is that development is necessarily anti-people in the initial stages. One has to sacrifice current consumption for future income. While seeking development we must minimise this adverse impact on the poor people. But in the process we should not take an anti-development stance because that will deny prosperity both to the rich and poor of the country.

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