Dissertation Abstracts

Subalternity, State-Formation and Movements against Hydropower Projects in India, 1920-2004

Author: Roy Chowdhury, Arnab , arnab.roy2007@gmail.com
Department: Sociology
University: National University of Singapore, Singapore
Supervisor: Daniel Goh and Anne Raffin
Year of completion: 2014
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: Hydropower , State-Fromation , Subalternity , India
Areas of Research: Futures Research , Environment and Society , Historical and Comparative Sociology


In this thesis I compare the social history of movements against hydropower projects in two states of India, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, from 1921 to 2004 in three phases.

The specific aim of this project is to demonstrate the shifting notion of subaltern political subjectivity (subalternity) and 'state-formation' in postcolonial India. Here, I argue that the subalterns played significant causal and constitutive roles in transforming the structure of postcolonial Indian state in a more democratic direction and in that process considerably changed their political discourses, practices, and strategies. The two extended historical cases of movement against large dams illustrated in this thesis mark the different types of subaltern politics that emerged in postcolonial India.

The state of Maharashtra encompasses the largest number of large dams built in India. Consequently it also has the longest history of resistance against large dams in India and throughout the world, since 1921 to the present. The first instance of resistance was led by Senapati Bapat, a veteran freedom fighter, against the Mulshi Dam in the year 1921. Incidentally this is the first known anti-dam movement organised by the project affected persons. However for various reasons this movement failed.

From the 1980's onwards, the movement of the project in Maharashtra started succeeding in fulfilling their material demands led by the group Shramik Mukti Dal (SMD; Labour Liberation Party). Here the movement trajectory was strategically localized and oriented towards the politics of the sub-national state. This movement hugely succeeded in forcing the state of Maharashtra to pass the first law for the rehabilitation of the project affected people.

Although the state of Madhya Pradesh encompasses the second largest number of large dams in India, movements against large dams emerged here much later in 1980's. It was mainly the leadership of Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada movement) which mobilized the peasants and tribes here and generated support from many NGOs and a section of the Indian middle class. This movement failed in terms of fulfilling its material demands, which were largely ignored by the Indian state. Nonetheless, the movement captured the global imagination. Movement actors succeeded in creating a paradigm shift in the building of large dams and were instrumental in the formation of the World Commission of Dams (WCD). Therefore this movement can be easily considered an ideational success story.

I analyse these two contrasting cases with concepts mainly drawn from the literature on state-society relations, subaltern and postcolonial studies, political economy and development studies.