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Jawahar Lal Nehru in Retrospect

Jawahar Lal Nehru in Retrospect

By Vatsal Khandelwal

Development in India has always been characterized by an imbalance between an eco-centric and anthropo-centric system of values. It has deteriorated to an extent at which the state differentiates between its citizens and modernity in its flawed definition has gained prime advantage over inclusive environment friendly growth. Unsustainable development in India has been promulgated through unsustainable policies and programs which are so progressive, growth oriented and exclusive that the harms done to environmental and social order are completely neglected. ‘Broad based’, ‘bottom up’, ‘just’, ‘redistributive’, ‘empowering’ and ‘environmentally sustainable’ have thus become idealistic, sacrosanct objectives that the government establishes on paper and certainly not in action. Misunderstanding Nehru’s ideals and crediting him for a myopic outlook towards development is a mistake that has continuously crippled India’s development process.

Jawaharlal Nehru insisted on rapid industrial growth as a means to achieve social welfare in India and also dubbed factories, industrial power plants and dams as ‘temples of modern India’. In his speech ‘Social Aspects of Big and Small Projects’, this enthusiast for large growth projects mentioned that “the idea of doing big undertakings or doing big tasks for the sake of showing that we can do big things is not a good outlook at all.” He also expressed his concern for “the national upsets, upsets of the people moving out and their rehabilitation and many other things associated with a big project”. While we remember Nehru glorifying rapid industrial growth and development projects associated with the same, we fail to remember him for a crucial limitation upon growth that he worded as the ‘disease of giganticism’: what the Brunt land Commission later termed as ‘unsustainable development’. The Nehruvian Model of Development often used as a defense by politicians in order to legitimize their policies pays as much importance to the negative externalities arising out of projects (unsustainable development) as much as it does to rapid industrial growth. Quoting Nehru for legitimizing the unsustainable pace of development in India is contradicting the very notion the leader stood for. Various governments that have emerged since then have not realized that an environmental and social perspective is extremely important to judge the costs and benefits arising out of development programs. While Indira Gandhi emphasized that “removal of poverty is an integral part of the goal of an environmental strategy for the world” (in the United Nations Conference, Stockholm, 1972) she could not foresee the damage that large scale irrigation projects would do to both the people whose poverty she clamored for and the environment, whose protection strategies were well designed on paper. Mrs. Gandhi, along with parties in power, thereafter do not remember the ‘disease of giganticism’, Nehru mentioned.

The Tehri Dam Project in the Garhwal region, for example, proposes to build a 260.5 meter high and 1,100 meter wide hydro electrical power plant which will affect the best agricultural lands of the region and also make it susceptible to major landslides, deforestation and erosion. Apart from this huge environmental consequence of the gigantic endeavor, the project would also displace an estimated 100,000 people who would then require rehabilitation. Though, the government has provided compensation, the amount is extremely meager with respect to the damage done. Todd Nachowitz, in his report “Tehri Dam, India: Stumbling towards Catastrophe” mentions, “The cultural survival of these ‘backward classes’, who have lived and survived without modern technology or electricity for centuries, has been ignored. Steep mountain slopes now stand as brutal monuments to the folly of “modern” Indian architecture.” 2 Billion dollars are being used for this project which according to popular estimates would generate electricity only for 35 years leaving behind an environmentally devastated valley with a displaced population. Be it the Anti Tehri Dam Struggle, Narmada Bachao Andolan, Chipko Movement, Jungle Bachao Andolan or the Silent Valley Project, civil society and various Non Governmental Organizations have tried to protest against the unsustainable form of development that the government has tried to adopt. That modernity is a farce in its true definition unless and until it embraces the ideals of sustainability is what these movements stand for. All of them protest against environmental and social injustice that arises due to government projects and seek to maintain the balance between eco-centrism and anthropo-centrism. In the minds of our national leaders, the social aspects of big and small projects that Nehru mentioned have long been forgotten. The leader whom we remember as a progressive, modernist, benefactor of industrialization also had a socialist view point which is now conveniently narrowed down to serve the corporate interest of the government. But we have been taught to worship unsustainable economic growth and despise the socialists and in that case hoping for a welfare oriented political super structure is the only alternative.


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