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The Ithai Barrage: A Development Decision Gone Awry

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By : Amar Yumnam

Theoretically as well as practically, we say that an investment project is worth taking up if the calculated benefits for the lifetime of the project exceeds the calculated costs. Since an economy does not have unlimited resources, whenever an investment project is undertaken it necessarily implies that some other project is being given up. In such circumstances, we see to it that the difference between benefits and costs is higher in the case of the chose project.
Besides, in any real world situation, whenever an investment project is undertaken it will necessarily benefit some individuals or groups while hurting the interests of some other individuals or groups. We see to it that the gains of the beneficiaries exceed the losses of the losers. In other words, we recommend the undertaking of the project if the gainers can hypothetically compensate the losers and still have certain benefits left for themselves (gainers).
Now the problem with the Ithai Barrage is that the promised benefits have not been fully realized whereas the actual costs have far exceeded the calculated costs. This has had two dangerous effects, one social and another physical. The social effect is the disturbance of the social harmony of the people about it by directly affecting their means of livelihood. As regards the physical effect, not only is the survival of our historically and mythologically significant Loktak Lake being threatened, many of our specific flora and fauna are feared extinct.
The Trade-Off
In such circumstances, we can have to begin with, two “ideal” solutions to the problem, one from the perspective of the authorities and another from the perspective of the people adversely affected by the barrage. The authorities would say that the “ideal” solution to the problem is one whereby keeps his mouth shut. The opposite “ideal” solution from the angle of the public would be one where the Ithai Barrage is immediately scrapped and they are allowed to resume their farming activities all over again.
Both the above solutions will not be real solution and will only cause further problems. The first one fails to recognize that grievances of the Ithai people are genuine and must be attended to for otherwise the result can only be disharmony and turmoil. The second solution does not recognize that the Ithai Barrage is more or less an irreversible investment. If the barrage is scrapped now, it not only implies bringing to naught all the investment on it so far but also hurting the interests of those who have been benefitted by it (i.e. repeating the same Ithai Barrage mistake). This violates one of the most important welfare principles: the pare to improvement.
Now our problem is to find out another solution since these two conflicting solutions will not work. We have to see if there is any possibility of a compromise between these two, and if not, we have to search a third alternative.
In order to find an answer to these queries we have first to search out where the Ithai Barrage went wrong. This we do in the nest section.
Development Decision
As Denis Goulet says any development decision is the result of an interaction or singular play of three actors, the technocrats, the politicians (and bureaucrats) and the public; these three put forward three respective rationales on the basis of which the investment decision is to be based. They are technical rationality, political rationality and human’s rationality. The technical rationality is an exercise in hard logic and tries to reach the objective in as efficient a way as possible by overcoming or crushing any opposition whatsoever on the way. The political rationality is exercised by those wielding power and the main objective is to retain the status quo. The rationality has little concern whether the objective is realized or not. The basis of the humane rationality covers a wide canvass ranging from purely Individual selfish interests to purely moral or value judgments. Its legitimation is based on either a belief system or daily experience of common people wielding no power, status or expertise.
In an uncertain future, these different rationalities would not behave in an overriding fashion on their own. A good development decision should be the result of a dialogue among to these rationalities. A good development decision should satisfy many a criteria and no single, on its own, cannot fulfill all these. One great advantage of a decision based on dialogue is that any unwanted situation arising later on can be easily solved without confrontation.
Where Fault Lies?
In the context of the Ithai Barrage, the technical rationality is represented by the engineers and other members of the technical team who first established the feasibility of the dam and the present team of engineers manning it, the political rationality by the power wielders then and now, the humane rationality by the Ithai people now fighting for their right to livelihood.
The problem with the Ithai Barrage lies in the fact that the decision on it was taken only on the basis of technical and political rationalities. The third rationality was not taken into consideration thereby ignoring the cultural and belief system of the prople and the livelihood fall-outs of the dam in the Ithai people.
We can more or less ignore the political rationality as a rationality of convenience. But what further aggravates the problem is that the technical rationality has turned out to be faulty and imperfect in itself. First, it did not take into account the environmental changes which were taking place in the state. Secondly, it left out of consideration the environmental and cultural effect of the dam out of the purview. Thirdly, it did not conduct a proper calculation of the coasts, direct and indirect, of the dam over its life span. Lastly, it over-stated the likely benefits of the dam and thereby misled the public to appreciate only the potential benefits of it and be ignorant of the potential costs. In other words, the technical rationality lacked the objectivity which should undoubtedly be present in any such rationality. Hence the present crisis.
The Soulution
In order to thrash out the various issues involved in the present crisis, an immediate dialogue among the three actors should immediately e initiated in right earnest. And for the matter, it should be emphasised that in all future development decisions of the Ithat Barrage type, it should be seen to it that the three rationalities are properly taken into consideration.
In order to facilitate the conduct of a smooth dialogue among the three actors, an immediate official survey of the extent of damage caused to the Ithai people. The solution to the problem has to be sought from two but not mutually, exclusion angles, time and scale. In the short-term time span, schemes should be taken up in right earnest to economically rehabilitate the affected people. But this cannot be the ultimate solution to the problem. In order to find the ultimate solution, we have to find out what should be done at the local level as well as at the statewide level. Here it must be clear to us that the Ithai Barrage problem is a problem not only of the Ithai people but of the entire state with dangerous environmental and cultural ramifications.

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Imphal Times is a daily English newspaper published in Imphal and is registered with Registrar of the Newspapers for India with Regd. No MANENG/2013/51092


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