Defining the "Local" in the Arun Controversy: Villagers, NGOs, and The. World Bank in the Arun Valley, Nepal
The Arun III hydropower project was to have been the largest infrastructure project yet developed in Nepal, providing 201 mega-watts of power and including the construction of a 122-mile access road. The project would have cost an estimated $764 million and taken a decade to complete. In August 1995, the newly appointed president of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, announced the withdrawal of Bank support for Arun III. Wolfensohn explained that the risks of the project to Nepal were too great for the Bank to proceed any further. This was an unprecedented reversal of Bank to proceed any further. This was an unprecedented reversal of Bank policy on a project that had been in gestation for nine years. Though Wolfensohn emphasized that this was his own decision based on a careful assessment of the costs and benefits of the project, he also stated that the public debate on Arun had played an important part in heightening the concerns of Bank staff about its risks. This debate had been launched by two Nepali NGOs: the Arun Concerned Group (ACG), a coalition of human rights organizations comprised of lawyers and human rights activists, and the Alliance for Energy, made up of engineers, economists, management experts and journalists. Both of these organizations were described as the "locals" in the subsequent debates over Arun. Though this label was an important basis for mobilizing international opposition to the project, on a national and regional level, as the founders of both organizations readily admit, this claim of "local-ness" was easily contested.
One of the most important measures of the legitimacy of an NGO is its "local-ness". Local participation and indigenous knowledge are buzzwords of authenticity, and the ability to make a claim of authentic representativeness is an important basis for mobilizing against powerful interest groups and corporations. Critiquing this representation, pointing out who is the real local and who is a fake, has thus become an important tool in efforts to undermine these movements. This paper suggests that the search for the real "local" is an incomplete and thus a potentially misguided search.
Calling something "local" or indigenous implies a fixed category that designated a static and bounded identity. Contemporary theory, however, emphasizes that identities are multiple and malleable, that they change in time and space. What is "local" in one context at one moment in time may be nothing of the sort in another time and place. Factors such as who speaks up, who claims to speak for whom, who chooses to remain silent and why, all influence which voice is eventually labeled as the "local". Though it matters where one lives (a Nepali who has lived in Kathmandu his entire life cannot claim to be a "local" from the Arun valley), the mobilization of identity claims are more about politics than they are about geography.
It is nothing new to say that the consequences of development programs reverberate in time and space. Given the complexity and unboundedness of these impacts, designs for these programs must include the input of those from the various sites that will effected. A "local" in the Arun controversy thus includes those living within an hour's walk of the dam site, as well as those in Kathmandu whose work is disrupted by electric shortages, as well as those worried about Nepal's foreign debt. What is distinct in these perspectives is not that the "local" view is attached to place and the others are not, but that actors have different interests and concerns depending on the places where they live and work.
These issues become more complicated when used to examine social movements. Though an NGO's ability to stake a cultural claim to "local-ness" is an important source of authority, the movements that organize around this identity claim are by their very nature dynamic and fluid. In fact, their very success often depends precisely on their mobility in space and their flexibility in time. While during the first stage of their campaign, the Nepali NGOs worked primarily in an international context, their success during the next phase, namely designing and implementing alternative development plans for the Arun Valley, will depend on their ability to establish a meaningful dialogue with the inhabitants of the valley. Their effectiveness thus depends on their skill in moving across boundaries, not on their ability to claim a fixed identity attached to one particular place.
Looking only for the "local" prioritizes place over politics and implies that physical boundaries are impermeable. I instead suggest thinking about the consequences of a project such as Arun as a series of concentric circles, spiraling out from the very local, very immediate impacts to the very global and long-term. An organization that has a broader zone of influence, one that can see both the local and beyond the local, is thus likely to be more effective than one that is only local or only international. This emphasis shifts analysis away from a search for the legitimate "local" toward an understanding of the processes by which different identity claims are employed to achieve different strategic ends.
The different perspectives in the Arun controversy provide a vehicle for talking about this question of legitimacy and zones of influence. I present several vignettes to capture some of the more vocal voices in the controversy. I then discuss the opposition's campaign, focusing in particular on their attempts to create a context in which more informed and more diverse groups of "locals" can be engaged in decision-making processes about development. Views on Arun III: The Anthropologist
Ravi Pradan, one of the founders of the Alliance for Energy, was reading through a report in a conference room at the International Rivers office in Washington, D.C. He was a surprised to see me in this setting as I was to see him. The previous year we had spoken about the Arun project in his dining room on the outskirts of Kathmandu. He now explained that he was in Washington for ten days to present the local view of the Arun project to the Bank. He had not yet managed to get up to the Arun valley to see the site of the proposed project, he explained, but he was planning to go later that fall.
I had recently completed eighteen months of research in Hedangna, the village north of the proposed damsite, and I was skeptical of this use of the term "local". At the time, my perspective on who counted as an authentic "local" was shaped by the ridges and valleys that physically blocked Hedangna from the outside world. Pradan's presence in D.C. as the "local" voice seemed to be one more manipulation of this category in order to claim an identity that these educated Nepalese did not deserve.
Two years later, my thoughts on the "local" have changed. Physical boundaries have faded into the background. I find myself agreeing with the more distant and often more circumspect opinions of those who are not immersed in "local" politics as often as I agree with policies espoused by those who are geographically "local." If my understanding of the "local" changes as I move through space and time, it is safe to assume that others' conceptions of what is "local" are similarly dynamic. If all of these definitions are this flexible, it makes sense to question the category itself, and to think instead about the ways in which an emphasis on the "local" distorts our understanding of a particular social movement. The Villagers
Hedangna, like most of the villages in the upper Arun is a largely subsistence farming community. The nearest road is a hard five-day walk, and everything coming in and out of the village is carried on people's backs. Though there was a wide range of disagreement on most topics in the village, there was almost uniform consensus on the Arun project. Everyone wanted Arun III because of the road.
By the time I arrived in Hedangna in 1991-93, discussions about Arun had dragged on for six or seven years. Villagers had received such conflicting messages that most were skeptical that anything would ever be done. Raj Kumar who was from Hedangna was now a school teacher in the village. Like most villagers, Raj wanted the road and, like most, he had little sense of the potential impacts of the project. In a discussion about the project, Raj said he hadn't thought about their needs for fuel or water or anything else. "How can we decide what we think," he said, "when we don't even know what questions to ask?" The King Mahendra Trust had prepared an 11-volume impact study for the dam. The reports were in English, difficult to track down, and expensive. Locals wanted what they knew of the project. Would their opinions have changed if they had known any more? Dam Supporters
I first met Prasad, an engineer working on the Arun project, on a chilly morning in February at the dam site below Hedangna. The dam site is an obtrusive collection of five, cement, tin-roofed buildings tucked into a clearing, cut from the jungel along the edge of the Arun river. Prasad invited me inside and laid out his maps on a roughly made wooden table. He carefully explained the plans. He wanted me to understand his reasons for supporting the dam and to know that he was sympathetic to the concerns of the opposition.
A year later, I met with Prasad at his office in Kathmandu. He had set up an engineering consulting firm to which he comes at 4:30 pm after completing his day job with Nepal Electric Authority (NEA). We sat in a small cement room on the second floor. Kathmandu had limited the use of electricity for the past three or four years because of energy shortages; tonight this section town was blacked out so we sat in the dark. Prasad left and returned several minutes later with milk coffee and a fat white candle. He left again to find matches. When he finally returned, we talked about the public hearings that NEA had organized in communities in the upper Arun, and about ACG and their opposition to the dam. Prasad told me that I was an anthropologist, so of course I didn't want the project. "But the opposition is too late," he said. "So much time has passed, they should have raised their objections during the planning stages, not now when construction is supposed to begin. I am also concerned about building local capacity," he said. "But now, let it go. Nepal needs the experience and it is too late." Prasad was concerned about the welfare of the communities in the upper Arun. But he was more immediately concerned with the electric shortage in Kathmandu that prevented him from doing his work. The Arun project is one way, though as he acknowledges not the best way, of addressing these shortages.
The height of the Arun controversy during 1993-95 coincided with a period of political instability as the nascent democracy in Nepal struggled to get on its feet. The Congress government and its supporters endorsed the project because of their belief in the need to further the pace of the country's industrial development. They were also concerned that further delay in Arun would cause them to lose the funds. The Communist coalition that replaced the Congress government in elections held in November 1994 was more skeptical, but after intense debates in Parliament, the government expressed its support of Arun to the World Bank. Opponents to the Dam
I met Gopal Siwakoti early one morning, before his work day began, at INHURED's (International Institute for Human Rights, Environment, and Development) office in Kathmandu. Gopal immediately launched into a description of INHURED's campaign against the Arun project. He was not opposed to the project itself, he explained, but to the way it had been designed, the way it was being debated, and the way it was to be implemented. Because of its size and complexity, it had implications for the entire country, he said, and thus it needed to be discussed by the entire country.
Elsewhere in Kathmandu, a group of concerned Nepalese had formed the Alliance for Energy to generate public debate on hydropower projects and to propose small and medium scale dam projects of up to 100 mega-watts as alternatives to large-scale, capital intensive projects like Arun.
For these Nepali activists, the Arun controversy was not about opposing dams as much as it was about how foreign aid defines development priorities of aid-dependent countries like Nepal. As Bikash Pandey, an engineer and one of the founding members of the Alliance explained, "It is about the conditionalities countries like Nepal must submit to in order to receive aid, and about how these conditions inhibit real development in the country." They saw the Arun project as a test case for the effectiveness of democracy in Nepal and for the willingness of the government to interact more openly with private groups in decisions about the use of the nation's resources. Inside the Bank
In letters written to Lewis Preston, then President of the Bank, and subsequently in an interview with the Environmental Defense Fund, Martin Karcher, a Division Chief for Population and Human Resources, South Asia Region for the World Bank, he expressed his concern about Arun. "Let me make clear at the outset that I am not against the development of power in Nepal. The country needs power but what is at issue ... is the scale of the investments and the nature of the risks one is taking with such a large project." Karcher was worried that such large investments in this sector would not generate labor intensive growth, which was a stated objective of Bank projects, and he had questions about the economic analysis of the project. He also felt that the costs and benefits of Arun were not being discussed in "an objective and even-handed manner" because "senior management seemed committed to the project." Karcher's disapproval of the project and of the process finally led him to resign from the organization that had been his employer for the past twenty-nine years.
By resigning from the Bank, Karcher made his concerns about Arun III public, but he was not the only Bank employee to raise questions about the appropriateness of the project. Nor were these concerns limited to internal meetings in the Bank. During the summer of 1994, when the project was being reviewed most closely, other U.S. federal agencies expressed concerns about the viability of the project and USAID reviewers of Arun concluded that it was not acceptable as of June 1994. But these reviewers were also worried about the consequences of killing such a large investment in Nepal's energy sector this late in the planning stages, and they supported efforts to improve the existing project. Opposing the Bank
The debates about Arun - what was discussed, which concerns were voiced and which were silenced - differed depending on the politics of the different sites where the campaign was launched. Early on, the Nepali activists in Kathmandu recognized that it would take too long to educate the villagers about the long-term impacts of this type of project and to convince a population, who had yet to be "developed", that development was not what it was cracked up to be, that more came in with roads than buses. If the activists were going to succeed in their objective of opposing the dam, they had to give up any expectations of being an authentically "local" organization. When they then began to raise their concerns on a national level, they were told by Nepalese in government ministries that the Arun project was too far along, that maybe the project had problems but there was nothing to be done.
Because of the difficulties of finding support for their movement within Nepal and because they realized that the final decision on Arun would be made in Washington, the Nepali activists took their campaign to an international audience. ACG forged alliances with international NGOs interested in the Arun controversy as a vehicle for their broader objective of making the World Bank more accountable. The success of the Arun campaign in this international context in large part lay on their ability to challenge the technocrats at the Bank in their own language, in terms of efficiency and economics, not in terms of local representation. Their claims that Arun III was not economically viable resonated with similar concerns raised within the Bank and created a context in which a new president with no loyalty to the project was able to hear and heed these concerns and withdraw Bank support of Arun.
The debate around Arun was possible only because of the simultaneous political opening of Nepal. The controversy unfolded in a context where the government was more accountable, the press more free, and, for the first time in Nepal's history, the public had the right to demand to be informed. While the campaign achieved its immediate objective in the Bank's decision to withdraw support of the dam, their long-term success depended on their ability to institutionalize the processes by which they had achieved this goal. Two important steps made in this process were the Nepalese Supreme Court ruling securing the right of the public to be informed about national policies and the decision of the inspection panel to take up the complaint. Supreme Court
Underlying the rhetoric on both sides of the Arun controversy, the debate over Arun III was essentially over how Nepal should be developed. Were big projects, big money, big debts the way to go? Who should be the ones participating in these debates, and who should make the final decision? Debates over development are impossible unless the participants are equally informed about consequences of that development and unless there are alternatives to consider. ACG chose to mobilize their opposition in Nepal around the issue of right to information while engineers at the Alliance prepared plans for alternative projects. In January 1994, Gopal Siwakoti and Dr. Rajesh Gautam filed a writ petition on information disclosure and the constitutionality of World Bank conditionalities. In May 1994 the Supreme Court issued an order in favor of the petitioners, requiring that all information on the project be made available to the public. Though it is difficult to assess the order's impact on the Bank's decision to withdraw funding, the Court decision legally establishes the right to information for all Nepali citizens regarding Arun III. More generally the decision secures the right for the Nepali public to have access to the information needed to be fully informed about the details of development projects. The Inspection Panel
Though the World Bank began to introduce social and environmental reforms in the late 1980s, there are still no systematic rules in the Bank to ensure that staff abide by the new policies. Enlightened polices are only useful if translated into enlightened projects. The controversy over the Narmada Dam in India had led to the creation of an inspection panel to redress complaints brought forward by parties affected by World Bank projects. The panel creates a channel whereby outsiders can force the Bank to comply with its own operating principles. The Arun project was the first case brought before this panel.
The process for filing a complaint with the inspection panel underscores the complexity of the concept of "local". According to the procedures of the panel, for a request for inspection to be accepted, the claimants must be directly impacted by the project in question. In the case of Arun, this stipulation meant that the claimants must be from the Arun valley. In their visit to the upper Arun, however, the inspectors found that villagers were reluctant to express concerns about the project publicly. No one wanted to be seen as endangering something that might bring economic development to a region in need of that development. Two villagers from the valley eventually came forward to be represented by ACG in the request for inspection, but only on the guarantee of anonymity. Though the panel acknowledged that "there were deficiencies in the formalities of the request... the serious nature of the substance of the request as a whole...out-weighed outright rejection of the request on the grounds of doubt on the standing of the requesters".
On one hand, then, the Arun controversy was about who was a legitimate spokesperson for those who are geographically local. But the controversy also raises questions about the politics of speaking up, especially if you are geographically local and especially if your opinions might hurt your neighbor's ability to improve his or her livelihood. Opponents to the dam in Kathmandu were able to speak up precisely because they were not local. During the village meetings, the inspectors realized that social dynamics at the community level made the question of ensuring access to the panel much more complicated than it had looked from Bank offices in D.C. By respecting the anonymity of the requesters and overlooking the ambiguity of "local-ness" in this first request, the panel set an important precedent for the flexibility and future accessibility of the inspection panel. Legacies of Arun
In his announcement that the Bank would not go through with Arun III, Wolfensohn said that the Bank would consider investing in alternative hydropower projects in Nepal. In August 1995, the Alliance submitted a proposal with recommendations for re-structuring hydropower programs in Nepal. Pandey emphasized that this is only one proposal, and that they expect the Bank to solicit other opinions from other sectors. Their intention is not simply to replace the old plan with a new plan: their plan. Instead, they are trying to redesign the way development is done in Nepal. Regardless of whether projects are eventually implemented or even of the actual reasons for the Bank's withdrawal of support, the success of the campaign against Arun has created a precedent whereby public debate is considered an essential part of the development process.
Each of the voices sketched out in this paper represents an important interest in and perspective on the future of the Arun Valley, a future that is not only local and not only in the short-term. Westerners tended to emphasize the importance of the campaign as a test case for the inspection panel. Their zone of influence is international and they are most immediately concerned with the accountability of the World Bank. Nepalese in Kathmandu emphasize the Supreme Court decision as an essential step in making their government more accountable. The perspective that is strikingly absent from the discussion, as it has been throughout the campaign, is that of the inhabitants of the Arun Valley. The stated intention of the Kathmandu based-activists of increasing participation in the development process has yet to be translated into structures that ensure involvement on a local and regional level. This is the next challenge in the debate over the future of the Arun Valley. References Alliance for Energy. 1995. "Nepal's Investment in the Power Sector Over the Next 15 Years." Draft. Arun Concerned Group. 1994. "Request for Inspection." Letter to the Inspection Panel, Kathmandu, Nepal. October 24, 1994. Environmental Defense Fund. 1994. "Nepal's Arun Dam." Transcript of interview with Martin Karcher, Division Chief for Population and Human resources, Country Department in the South Asia Region, World Bank, Sept. 9, 1994. Fox, Jonathon. 1995. "The Politics of the World Bank's Sustainable Development Reforms: Analytical Dilemmas." Paper presented at Institute of International Studies Workshop, University of California, Berkeley, Sept. 15, 1995. INHURED. 1995. "The World Bank & Nepal's Arun III: A Case of Anti-Social Development." INHURED International, Kathmandu, Nepal. June 1995. Inspection Panel. 1994. "The Inspection Panel Report on Request for Inspection, Nepal: Proposed Arun III Hydroelectric Project and Restructuring of the Arun III Access Road Project." Washington, D.C. December 16, 1994. Pandey, Bikash. 1995. "Because it is There: Foreign Money, Foreign Advice and Arun III." Himal, Kathmandu, Nepal. July/August. USAID. 1994. "Requesting an Agency Position on the Nepal-Arun III Hydroelectric Project." Office Memorandum. Washington, D.C. September 22, 1994. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.
Cultural Survival helps Indigenous Peoples around the world defend their lands, languages, and cultures as they deal with issues like the one you’ve just read about.
To read about Cultural Survival’s work around the world, click here. To read more articles on the subject use our Search function and explore 40 years of information on Indigenous issues.
For ways to take action to help Indigenous communities, click here.
We take on governments and multinational corporations—and they always have more resources than we do—but with the help of people like you, we do win. Your contribution is crucial to that effort. Click here to do your part.