In Indian democracy's annals, the fast is a uniquely powerful weapon, immediately identifiable with demands for justice. Terrorists and anti-nationals do not fast; self-starvation is widely recognised in this country as the weapon of the righteous mind that protests the apathy and misconduct of government. While there will be imitators who fleetingly adopt this as their propaganda of choice, in most cases they meet a political death that is thankfully swift. Not so the fast that Medha Patkar, of the much-admired and despised Narmada Bachao Andolan, entered in late March, for yet another time. This fast is the real thing; it is the unyielding protest of a decent person asking the state too to behave itself.

And it is immediately understood as such, which is why politicians who've spent decades ignoring the pleas of dispossessed citizens and their supporters, suddenly find it uncomfortable that some might take their lives in protest, and scramble to avert this.

The latest development is that the Centre has now decided that the Narmada Control Authority must review its decision to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam, and as per rules convened a meeting of the Review Committee of the NCA (RCNCA) in New Delhi on April 15. The Prime Minister chaired the Cabinet meeting that led to review decision. While the government has called on Medha Patkar to end her fast amidst worrying signs from doctors, she has refused, saying that suspension of construction, not a mere review meeting, is the decision she and others seek.

The country's executive authorities have always been in an unarticulated but tacit consensus about the Narmada dams.

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 •  The Narmada struggle Note that the Narmada Control Authority - the body that took the decision to raise the height of the dam to 121 metres and precipitated the current impasse - is headed by the Secretary of the Ministry of Water Resources, and has as its members the chief secretaries of the riparian states. The decision by the NCA to raise the dam's height to 121 metres had to have been taken by these members with the approval of the Secretary. The Review Committee that will revisit the decision is headed by the Minister for Water Resources, i.e., Saifuddin Soz, and has for its members all the riparian state chief ministers. In effect this is a meeting of ministers the bosses - reviewing the decision of their top bureaucrats.

What will come of this meeting? It's hard to say, but a look at how current developments came to a head gives us an indication of what may be at stake.

'Grave concern'

The Prime Minister will not be at the review meeting tomorrow, but given the focus of the dharna at Delhi, he remains the man on the spot. Hailed as the reigning good man in Indian politics - like his predecessor, he too is assumed to be cut from a different cloth than the political company he keeps - Dr Singh has been challenged to uphold a higher moral standard, with leading public figures calling for his intervention to do the decent thing, or at least, something. Hence his earlier dispatch of three cabinet ministers, including Minister Soz to assess the claims of inadequate rehabilitation for those displaced.

The three Ministers and three independent observers visited some rehabilitation sites in Madhya Pradesh on 7 April. Theirs was a hurried visit and lasted all of one day. According to the observers reports, Soz acknowledged that there was 'grave concern' in the government, and this is what led to their visit to the valley in M.P.

Grave concern. Contrary to the ring of legitimacy in those words, it is well understood amongst officials at the Centre, the States and the Narmada dam authorities - and not lost on the politicians - that rehabilitation for the Sardar Sarovar project oustees, like many others, is a scam. Calling the M.P. officials' bluff last year, the Supreme Court found that officials had twisted the meaning of the word 'oustee' and shrunk the list of families entitled to benefits. There is substantive evidence that across the board in M.P., Gujarat and Maharashtra, rules on everything - estimation of project affected families, payment of compensation, establishment of rehabilitation sites and villages, house plots for affected families, cultivable and irrigable land for entitled families, civic amenities in R&R sites - have been violated in letter, their spirit having long gone.

While our democracy has placed occasional obstacles in the path of this madness, our governments have usually found ways - corrupt authorities, misrepresentations in court, and media management among soft options, and outright police brutality including killing being hard options - around it.

It is telling then that ministers of the Government of India have to personally visit the river valley to determine for themselves the truth of claims that have been made for decades now, and which they themselves know only too well (here's their report). In the case of the Narmada dams, our governments have long ago sacrificed their judgment, arguing that, for the sake of development, some sacrifices are necessary, wilfully neglecting to note that the sacrifices are always made by the same people. And in doing so, they have subordinated the law which incidentally calls for fair compensation, not sacrifices -- to their idea of development itself. As a result, thousands of people in the valley have been grossly harmed as our state and central government ministries determinedly pursued their ideas of economic progress by whatever means necessary.

This determined hardline stance, however, appears callous when challenged non-violently and on moral grounds. Hence the decision to remove Patkar to a hospital by force - a knee-jerk reaction from a government that is fearful of the grave consequences that might arise if Patkar's non-violent sacrifice met its ultimate end, and yet is not prepared to admit its collective folly of decades. Equally appalling is that in true ham-handed bureaucratic fashion, a case of attempted suicide is threatened to be slapped against Patkar and other protestors. Bluster apart - such threats rarely materialise, given how embarrassing they would be to the government - the sheer idiocy of threatening someone with jail when she's willing to make a sacrifice of her life is stunning.

Political expediency won't do

For Dr Singh, the Cabinet, and the Centre-State review committee that meets tomorrow, the immediate decision - to call off the raising of the dam's height to 121 metres - is itself is a simple one. But it is by no means an easy one.

The problem facing the Prime Minister and the Cabinet is this. The country's executive authorities - consisting of all the administrations of the state and centre put together - have always been in a unarticulated, but tacit, 'unholy consensus' about the Narmada dams. Namely, that regardless of the real state of rehabilitation, and what the Courts may have ruled, the highest authorities at the Centre, vide, the PM and the Cabinet, will themselves never side with the lowly Narmada oustees - villagers and adivasis - or the Andolan. This political consensus has provided the necessary cover for the NCA to repeatedly raise the height of the dams; its members are confident that the lack of R&R will not stand in their way.

What new, reformed and independent voices are going to speak and be heard at the review meeting? History shows that the Ministerial visits and review meetings have just been aimed at thwarting the self-sacrificing protestors from paying the ultimate price. Perhaps this is what may come of the NCA's review meeting this time around too. Like before, we may have with another round of promises, which will inevitably be broken, a drama that has played itself over and over again.

We hope this will not be the case, but if the review committee does not suspend construction, the Prime Minister will need to act. Suspending construction of the dam requires nothing less than breaking the back of our executive's consensus, or at least taking the first few steps toward it. A politically expedient decision at this stage, without the necessary revision in mindset and methods, will not do. What is needed is ultimately a moral response to Patkar's challenge, and not merely an admission that rehabilitation has failed. For Delhi's own development realpolitik, that would be a telling reversal, and a much-needed forward-looking precedent.

Is this too much to ask? Indian politics has a tradition of 'good' men making promises, and bad men - in the Narmada saga's case, the conniving officials in the states and the Centre, and their minions - helpfully breaking them. Is it cynical to expect no better this time? Let the Centre prove us wrong.