The Gaze of the Developmental State in Narmada Valley

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The years following the Second World War were characterized by a renewed focus on the ‘Modernization’ of nation-states. While the constant feature of the post-war years was the high-stakes rivalry and arms race between the USA and the USSR; both tread a common ground as regards high-modernization and ‘development’. ‘Development’ fuelled growth was considered a panacea to all ills and soon became dominant across the post-colonial world. WW Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth was a significant work which argued for five stages of growth in which “traditional societies” could transform themselves into the “age of high mass-consumption”. It was no wonder therefore as to which nation-states were characterized as ‘traditional’ under this rubric and pushed towards ‘development’.

A standard feature of ‘development’ in India has been the showcasing of large scale industrial and apparently ‘public purpose’ projects; an instance of this is seen in the construction of large dams. As much as ‘modernization’ or ‘development’ can be witnessed through the industrial or ‘public’ projects themselves; the ambition of the ‘developmental state’ and its vision can certainly be understood through the one-constant feature of the bureaucratic machinery – paperwork.

Therefore, for the purposes of this essay, I attempt to evaluate the ambition of the post-colonial ‘developmental state’ in India by analyzing the language of a few planning documents. In this case, I consider the Narmada Valley Development Authority’s (NVDAs) Action Plans prepared in the years 1991, 1993, 1995 and 2000 for the Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) of Sardar Sarovar Project ‘oustees’ in Madhya Pradesh. These Documents are revealing in aspects of the modern state’s enterprise and it’s most significant undertaking, planning.

The State’s gaze and legibility:

James Scott’s magnificent work Seeing Like a State characterizes a crucial difference between the pre-modern state and the modern state: while the former “was in many crucial respects, partially blind” and “knew precious little about its subjects”, the modern state is consumed by a desire to know. Armed with statistics and other tools of ‘accuracy’, the modern state stakes its claim to the accurate depiction of the social world, which it then tries to alter in accordance to its designs of ‘development’.

The NVDAs Action Plans of 1993 details the rigor of this enterprise by claiming that in order to “attain a high degree of accuracy as possible….Survey of all the affected villages has been completed and we have updated this survey in a number of ‘information camps’ held in the past few months.” As if to emphasize the point further; mention is made of a ‘64 column family survey proforma’ in which all information was recorded and later ‘computerized’ as well. The information collected and computerized of individual families in this ‘64 column family survey proforma’ after having been categorized are then subject to R&R as per the guidelines of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA) and the state’s R&R Policy.

The R&R policy extends beyond all things human too. An exclusive Chapter titled “Protection of Ancient Monuments” in the Action Plan of 1993 assumes that culture, monuments and heritage can be retrieved once destroyed or shifted. In the process, it categorizes culture and monuments themselves into the two categories of those which have ‘archaeological significance’ and are therefore important and those which do not enjoy this privilege. In a further note, emphasizing India’s museum culture, an elaborate plan for a “Central Narmada Valley Park” in Indore is formulated which would house and “open air museum, a closed door museum” and in one of the many insensitive statements in these Plans, “a panaromic view of Narmada going through submergence areas”.

The Voyeuristic State and her ‘Primitive Subjects’:

The post-colonial state’s full-fledged voyeuristic gaze is perhaps nowhere more evident than in the Action Plan of 1995 which specifically focuses on the ‘project-affected’, ‘tribal population’ in the region. Curiously enough, the term ‘social engineering’ is used in order to handle the R&R of the ‘tribal population’. However, R&R is still a secondary concern; the state’s aim is to firstly present the ‘tribal’ from in his ‘primitive-ness’ by contrasting his/her image, culture and behavior with the modernist zeal and vision and thereby emphasize how even a tragic developmental project can be beneficial. Thus, as tragic as it is, displacement is looked at as an opportunity to improve the ‘standard of living’ of ‘tribal’ communities.

The 1995 Action Plan contains observations made by a “group of experts” and begins by making a claim on ‘tribal’ culture by observing that “tribal culture and ways of living have no future orientation. They are only concerned about the present”. The beliefs of the Bhil community are further described as “a curious mixture of superstitions, belief in supernatural spirits and propitiation of deities and animals”.

Thus, there is a new-found legitimacy in the state’s ‘development’ agenda to “insure against repeated mistakes of these (‘tribal’) types” and frame broad guidelines for improving their life. In a classic case of positing the traditional in need of the modern, the state’s voyeurism is full-fledged in its description of Bhil men and Bhil culture. Extremely detailed, these descriptions are fuelled by a desire to make visible a ‘primitive way of life’.

It is worth mentioning the graphically detailed description of Bhil men who are described as having “a fairly well-developed body…..straight, slender and lean body with proportional limbs and well-developed chest, buttocks and calves” and are “fond of keeping long moustaches….and walk with a peculiar gait which is difficult to translate into description.” In describing their behavior, the Plan observes that they “are rather grim-looking people who do not give an inkling of what they are thinking or what they are going to do. They are highly individualistic people having a strong sense of possessiveness…highly unpredictable…never forget or forgive…have volatile and violent temper and flare up suddenly. They have infinite capacity to bear pain and their body resistance is very high”.

The portion in italics reads as a cautionary note to the State authorities should they ever come in contact with the Bhils. Keeping the political circumstances of the time and the fierce anti-dam movements which existed (which I have considered below); it is quite evident who the State assumes to be a conspirator and therefore also as a criminal. The tendency to view ‘tribal’ communities in this way has its foundations in the colonial period, a lasting legacy of which still operates in the form of the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871. The state’s voyeuristic gaze is therefore of necessary caution and the need for surveillance on these communities. As a final note of emphasis on the apparently criminal nature of the Bhil community, the report declares that the “three things the Bhils love most in the world are: laadi, taadi, khedi-baadi (women, toddy and agriculture). Majority of their disputes and resultant murders centre around these”. The state’s job is thus to keep a strict eye on the often quarrel-some child and deviant child who must therefore be disciplined and reformed for his/her own good.

Submerging Resistance – What does the State gaze upon?

The resistance to the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Project had begun way before these Action Plans were formulated. Even before the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the Nimad Bachao Andolan in Madhya Pradesh and various other groups such as the Shramik Sanghthana in Maharashtra as well as the Maharashtra Rajya Dharangrast va Prakalgrast Shetkari Parishad (Maharashtra State Conference of Dam and Project Affected Farmers) had voiced their opposition to the Dam and were actively involved in raising questions over the rehabilitation of project affected people as well. The Narmada Bachao Andolan had declared its opposition in 1988 and has since then retained its anti-dam position. Resistance to the projection of brutal state-power unleashed through its ‘developmental’ agenda has therefore been an integral part of the politics of the Sardar Sarovar Project despite the state’s ambition.

Remarkably enough, while the 1990’s witnessed the most fierce opposition to the Dam; the Action Plans prepared in the same decade make scarce mention of any resistance from the project affected people except to refer to the presence of anti-dam activists as a problem and in one case (in the 1993 Plan) make it explicit that these anti-dam activists are members of “Narmada Bachao Andolan and are against the construction of the dam”. Thus, a mixture of ignoring resistance is combined with the minimal acknowledgement of resistance (whenever mentioned) as a problem, which the State must take preventive measures against.

‘Anti-dam activists’ are posed as a problem to conducting surveys and gaining information as “people are not free to express their preference to likely site for relocation”. The Action Plans also concede that they may be misguided in their surveys as they are “dealing with human beings in the shadow of anti-dam activists”, thus necessitating surveys conducted under secrecy and by “talking to a section of PAPs (Project Affected Persons) and by eliciting information from them”. In addition to these quotes, the only other lines which make mention of opposition is present in the Action Plan of 2000, which mentions the Supreme Court Case involving Narmada Bachao Andolan and the Union of India and Ors.

These Action Plans are thus a classic illustration of hegemonic planning that is present across all modern-states. The unyielding belief in the work of the official statistician or field official conducting survey and a ‘group of experts’ combined with the vision of the planner produces the legitimacy required to carry out a project with little or no regard for the consequences. In the process, the State also shows no regard for local participation and processes and imposes a uniform and standardized representation of the social world. Resistance is submerged as that which does not really exist or does so only as a minor hurdle which can be dealt with. In counting the hurdles faced in conducting surveys and in its lack of acknowledgment of resistance, the State is also allowed to cloak its brutal repression of dissent as well.


Scott very rightly argues that the “most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering originate in a pernicious combination of four elements”, all of which “are necessary for a full-fledged disaster”. He notes that these four elements are i) ‘the administrative ordering of nature and society’, ii) ‘a high modernist-ideology’, iii) ‘an authoritarian state’ and iv) ‘a prostrate civil society’. In the case of the Sardar Sarovar Project, it may not be exaggerated to claim that the first three of these elements have combined with the fourth, (and continue to do so) in order to break the backs of existing resistance movements. Despite the fierce anti-dam movements, the idea of ‘development’ and its high-modernist ideology have no doubt become hegemonic in Indian society. One has to only consider the opinion of middle and upper-class Indians on the ‘development’ projects to see the far reaching influence it has had on our psychology; an instance of which was seen in the ‘pro-development’ or vikaas agenda which propelled someone like Modi to power in 2014.

‘Development’ operates through knowledge which produces ‘truth’ in order to replenish its claim as an all-encompassing cure. The production of truth, as Michel Foucault has rightly argued is a function of power. And ‘Development’ produces truths about the social world which has to be transformed, reinforces the belief in the ability of man to transform nature and human beings in accordance with its vision and also suppresses dissent. In these Action Plans, the Sardar Sarovar Dam, a faulty developmental project is presented as necessary to improve the standard of living of countless people despite the large scale human tragedy involved. Truth is produced in order to claim that the social world with humans and non-humans, traditions, culture, monuments, history and in fact civilization can despite being submerged be restored to their past positions and prominence. Truth is produced in order to firstly show the ‘tribal’ what he/she is lacking and also display him/her to the world as who still exists to be modernized.

In a final foray truth is produced in alliance with brutal state power to firstly repress resistance and dissent and secondly present them as ‘minor problems in conducting surveys’. Years of struggle and voices unheard, therefore fall prey to the politics of ‘development’.

Nevertheless, as much as any of these Planning Documents fail to understand and acknowledge resistance, they do not remain the final authority on which continued struggle and action can be based. It is therefore necessary to acknowledge struggle against these ‘produced truths of development’ at their minute levels and celebrate them; for herein lie our basis of resistance and alternate to any ill-conceived high-modernist utopia.


Throughout the essay, I use the terms development, tribal etc. as ‘development’ and ‘tribal’. I consider this important as these are categories which are not bereft of power and therefore need serious re-thinking. The term ‘tribal’ particularly is not social scientifically accurate and is a colonial construct as one which stood in contrast to the ‘civilized’ or the ‘modern’. The term adivasi would be more appropriate but I have used ‘tribal’ to emphasize the language of these Action Plans. Similarly, even the term anti-dam activist is presented as ‘anti-dam activist’ (sometimes in italics) in order to showcase a new category of individuals operating against the law in these Action Plans.

At the time of writing this essay, nearly 50,000+ families are yet to be Resettled and Rehabilitated fully and rightfully as per the provisions of the NWDTA and respective state’s R&R policy. The construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam is complete and the gates remain to be closed. Cases of massive corruption, undeniable environmental damage and loss to property and life accompany this disaster while the projected benefits of the project have also succumbed to forces of private capital and are being diverted for their benefit than to any of the project-affected people.

I’m thankful to Gail Omvedt’s open letter to Arundhati Roy (available here on this link – for mentioning resistance movements apart from the Narmada Bachao Andolan.




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Ashwin Written by:

Ashwin works as an Independent Researcher, having graduated from Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

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