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biopolitical convergences Arrow vol 5 no 3 contents
About borderlands volume 5 number 3, 2005


Biopolitical Convergences: Narmada Bachao Andolan and Homo Sacer

Nirmal Trivedi

Boston College



Taking the anti-dam movement in India ("Save the Narmada Movement" or Narmada Bachao Andolan) as a case study, this paper aims to mark the present as one of ethical indeterminacy for the social activist towards the life that the activist claims to protect through an activation of the law, i.e. the refugee and the adivasi made human through the law. Relying on Giorgio Agamben's concept of "bare life" in Homo Sacer, I argue that the activist disarticulates "bare life" from sovereign power, thereby relying on a human rights discourse that conceives of a subject within and yet beyond the logic of the state, as a life reappropriated and redefined by state power.   I end by suggesting that the activist must go beyond the contemporary ethical crisis by conceiving of a struggle that isolates the moments that make visible the indistinguishable convergence of sovereign exceptionality and life's exemplarity. Such moments involve a double move which names bare existence, not life, as outside the sovereign's juridical power and refuses to attribute this existence to activation under the name of law.


Looking back, how could we not have seen that life itself has been fundamentally at stake in our politics and in our ethics? How could have avoided recognizing the political consequences of the fact that we humans have come to understand ourselves as living beings whose very vitality, longevity, morbidity, mortality can be managed, administered, reformed, improved, transformed, has a political value?

—Nikolas Rose, 2001: 6


1. In October 2000, the Supreme Court of India (SCI) ruled that the Government of India could raise the Sardar Sarovar, the largest dam of the Narmada Valley Development Project, up to 90 meters, which would have effectively drowned 1034 families located in the new submergence zone. Ironically, this legal order came at a moment when opposition to the construction of the dam had reached a high point. One year earlier, in April 1999, Arundhati Roy had published her widely disseminated essay, "The Greater Common Good," which argued that renewed attention must be paid to the suffering of an indigenous population caught in the middle of a development scheme designed to kill them, sanctioned by a government "consummate in its methods of pulverising those who inconvenience its intentions". Through her essay, Roy popularized the advocacy work of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) at a moment when the movement seemed to have saturated its importance as news. In so doing, she introduced the anti-dam movement to an international audience while identifying the precise location of the submergence zone as a place from which political activists could launch their defense of life.

2. To add to this irony of a calculated drowning at the moment of international visibility, the defense of life now seems to preoccupy the discourse of development itself. In recent years, interest in the poor and disenfranchised has defined the agenda of high-level international gatherings. Both the World Economic Forum in Davos and the alternative World Social Forum claim to be committed to "improving the state of the world" and " building a society centered on the human person" where protecting the life of the individual caught in a zone of indistinction between life and death is of utmost importance. How, then, at the apogee of such concern, was the sovereign government of India allowed to abandon its population so as to let 1034 families either live or die when the waters came the following summer? Euphemistically referred to as Project-Affected Families (PAFs), families in the submergence zone continue to increase as the waters rise.

3. I am sympathetic with the activism of the NBA as they are one of the few organizations dedicated to holding the State accountable for the grievous human rights violations that it perpetrates on populations without the political or cultural capital to advocate for themselves within the legal institutions that order our society. Nonetheless, it is imperative that we challenge the complacency that the discourse about the protection of life engenders. It is only through questioning the foundations of the assumption that life and politics are inextricable that we can begin to re-imagine political existence. This paper, then, addresses the vexed relationship between political activists calling for attention to the instances of letting die within the submergence zone and the structure of sovereignty in place that makes indistinct the limit of what the state is capable. In the effort to make visible the submergence zone, I argue that the activist, ironically, becomes entrapped within a structure of sovereignty that forces him or her to set limits that serve the interests of a flexible sovereignty that is able to protect life while abandoning it. In making concrete this calculated state obfuscation by using a discourse of numbers and acronyms that generalize subjectivities, activists are forced to concede their own role in the making of abandoned subjects in the submergence zone. Efforts have also been made to understand whether the relationship between the activist and the sovereign is one of dominance, complicity, or resistance by those working within development circles, many of whom I will quote in this paper. However, these efforts fundamentally neglect the understanding that sovereign power is constituted by making indistinct its own limits as coded in the law's defining of life. As a consequence, advocating on behalf of life becomes central to the making of sovereign power. Whether or not people have died as a direct result of dam development is itself a controversial claim. The need to define precise numbers either saved or killed is in fact the primary discourse that surrounds the competing claims of dam developers and anti-dam activists. It is the broad goal of this paper to investigate the limitations of this discourse and to identify whether there exists any alternative and whether this alternative can be called political.

Overview of the Sardar Sarovar Project

4. As an introduction to the discourse of numbers and acronyms, we might begin with a description of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and its canal structure. Costing upwards of $10 billion, the Sardar Sarovar is one of two large dams expected to irrigate 5 million acres of land, generate 1,450 megawatts of power, and supply water to 8,000 villages and 135 towns through a pipeline in the state of Gujarat. The 133-mile-long reservoir of the Sardar Sarovar will submerge 91,000 acres of land, 28,000 acres of which are forest. The canal network will destroy or remove another 200,000 acres. The reservoir will displace at least 200,000 people and affect at least 200,000 more. More than half of those displaced or killed will be "adivasi"; all will be PAP, or "Project-Affected Peoples." Though plans to build dams along the Narmada River stem back to the late-19th century under the British with The First Famine Commission, the full extent of the project was only formulated in the late 1980s with the Narmada Valley Development Plan (Khagram: 66). This plan seeks to make the river and its tributaries, which run 1,312 kilometers through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, the site of 30 large, 135 medium and 3,000 minor dams.

5. In 1985, the World Bank approved a $450 million loan for the SSP; construction began in 1987. The Indian government subsequently violated the loan and credit agreements, and in June 1992 the Bank-sponsored Morse Commission charged the project with major flaws in planning the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) and in mitigating the environmental impact. While the Bank canceled the loan agreement in 1993, it remains legally bound to ensure the proper R&R of PAPs. However, as Patrick McCully writes, "these [legal] conditions are being widely and comprehensively broken" (McCully 1994).

6. Following a petition to stop construction by the NBA in 1995, the Supreme Court of India (SCI) limited construction of the dam to 80.3 meters. Since 1999, however, the Court has allowed successive jumps, even as it upheld the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDT) which mandated the rehabilitation of PAFs six months prior to any height increase. The dam is projected to reach 122 meters by December 2006 despite the fact that the R&R is yet to be completed at the 85 meters level. All the villages in the submergence zone in the state of Maharashtra have been submerged. A press release from the NBA dated August 11, 2006 states that

the massive submergence in the Narmada valley has left the tribal villages devastated and the unprecedented rains have devastated the Madhya Pradesh villages and sent the rivers in spate. The Satyagraha [non-violence protest] in three places in the valley has been continuing with determination despite the submergence and the tribals in Chimalkhedi gheraoed [sic] the police and officials to demand the resettlelement lands and compelled the government record the large scale of destructions of houses, grains, cattle and other belongings along with the damage to the farmlands. (Rohan et al.)

Law in the State of Exception

7. In light of the continuation of state-sanctioned dam building despite its disastrous impact, it is important to trace the social and political conditions that have allowed us to reach this point of crisis. We can begin by thinking through Giorgio Agamben's formulation of sovereignty as defined by the capacity to create a state of exception. The state of exception enables a state to exempt itself from application of the law while retaining the right to constitute it. In this sense, we can understand what is happening in the submergence zone as a calculated disarticulation of the subjects of sovereign rule from the laws designed to protect them, thereby binding the state and the subject inextricably together in what Agamben writes is a structure of abandonment:

The relation of the exception is the relation of the ban. He who has been banned is not, in fact, simply outside the law and made indifferent to it but rather abandoned by it, that is, exposed and threatened on the threshold in which life and law, outside and inside, becomes indistinguishable ... The originary relation of law to life is not application but Abandonment (Agamben: 29).

The case of the PAPs is illustrative of the structure of abandonment. Contrary to being "outside the law" they are central in all the legal documentation relating to the Narmada Development Projects. The NBA, in its advocacy through the implements of the law, and in particular through a human rights discourse, is forced to concede the PAP as a category in order to claim their legitimacy as an advocacy group.   In working within the framework of the law, it inherits a discourse in which the life of the displaced becomes the sole focus of concern. The consequence of these efforts at advocating on behalf of the PAPs is that subjects are only ever known through the language in which the sovereign has identified them. With this increasing uncertainty about the limits of sovereign power, social activists are at a crossroads between relying on the implements of a human rights legal regime to facilitate their advocacy efforts or refusing these juridical avenues because of the way the law defines life in a state of exception. We might therefore begin to understand the submergence zone in terms of what Agamben terms "the camp", an identifiable location that operates as a "democratico-capitalist project of eliminat[ing] the poor classes through development" (Agamben: 180).

8. In looking at this historically-specific moment from the perspective of those engaged in contesting the building of the Sardar Sarovar, the fundamental convergence of interests between institutions through a human rights regime that imagines life as governed through both the activation of the law and abandonment from it can be seen as paralyzing for advocates of resistance against the "benevolent hegemony" of the post-911 global order. Nonetheless, because humanitarian law is replete with advocacy efforts for life of behalf of those abandoned by the law, I contend that it is urgent that we theorize a way that this biopolitical convergence between the sovereign and the activist be redeployed so that it contests the necessity of the PAP and in turn, abandons the state of exception. In terms of strategy, it is vital for us to see how the way the debate and the struggle is couched cooperates with biopolitics and thereby does not oppose the state of exception that the law can make possible. We might begin with an explanation about how the submergence zone has come to be.

Making of the Submergence Zone

9. Dam construction has long been associated with the project of modernization. For Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, the dam symbolized how a formerly colonized nation established its independent presence upon a world stage. In an oft-quoted analogy of dams to temples, Nehru spoke of dams as sites that meld the secular achievements of industrialized capital with the sacred:

Which place can be greater than the Bhakra Nangal Project, where thousands of men have worked or shed their blood and sweat and laid down their lives as well? Where can be a holier place than this, which we regard as higher?" (Khagram: 33)

As social scientists have typically argued, the Nehruvian model of development is a discourse that mystifies how dams have actually functioned in the post-colonial period. In her study of the social ecology of dams, for example, Amita Baviskar writes that such a model of development has fundamentally changed how different social groups have access and use natural resources. "The changes wrought by the independent state have created conflicts over competing claims to the environment ... These claims are not merely for a greater share of the goods, but involved different ways of valuing and using nature - for profit or survival, or some combination of the two" (Khagram: 33). In these lights, Nehruvian development was less a departure from colonial practices and utilitarian conceptions of nature than a validation of them.

10. As has historically been the case, the populace becomes the central locus of such practices.   Indeed Agamben points out, capitalism cannot function without the invention of a certain "docile body" (Agamben: 3) that can be moved, transported, altered in ways that increase its utility to the nation. This utility of the people is most evident in the manner in which a society's modernization "is equated with economic growth, with increasing consumption of energy and other resources, energy with electricity, and electricity with centralized large-scale generation and grid transmission and distribution" (Dharmadhikary: 135). This model, sanctioned by the Indian government, judges the status of the nation in terms of its consumption. If the people are not consuming at the appropriate rate - as is the case of those in the submergence zone - consumers need to be created.

11. In the colonial era, dam construction in the global South was commissioned and financed as a means of facilitating the harvesting of raw materials for Northern consumption. As Patrick McCully points out, the British construction of the Low Aswan Dam in 1902 was designed to irrigate cotton for the mills of Lancashire (McCully 1996: 18-19). This asymmetry, however, is obscured by Nehru's populist and salvific rhetoric. In Nehru's celebration of the Bhakra-Nangal project, he connects the national project to a biopolitical discourse whereby a few "lay down their lives" for the benefit of the nation. Because the value of nature is a given, life itself as a natural resource to exploit poses little concern. What Nehru's modernizing discourse accomplished was the creation of a representative of nature who would could bear the burden of development in the interest of the greater good. Known later as a PAP, this ambassador could be included within the national laws as a valuable natural resource. In this context, it makes sense that Nehru told those displaced by the Hirakud dam project in 1948 that "if you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country." In the period of decolonization, dam construction also accelerated with the creation of national bureaucracies to work in tandem with the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD). This non-governmental organization was founded in 1929 to advocate for large dam construction internationally. With the World Bank as the primary financier of dam construction worldwide, the number of large dams rose from 5,000 in 1950 to 45,000 in 2000, the majority of which were built in the decolonizing nations (Khagram: 5; WCD 2000). As elsewhere in this period, NGOs and a newly independent nation relied on a colonial era instrumentation of nature in the name of modernization.

12. Nehru and the state are hardly the sole advocates for PAFs. Over the past fifteen years, anti-dam advocates have also made substantial progress in bringing attention to inadequacies of planning and accountability in most nationally-sanctioned large dam projects. Echoing the state's salvific discourse, the focus of much of this advocacy has been on the absence of adequate governmental planning of food and shelter provisions for those displaced by dam construction. As a result, national governments are now less certain when it comes to advertising international financing of large dam projects, highlighting the fact that there might be indeed be some room for distinguishing sovereign exceptionality and political subjectivity. Sanjeev Khagram points out in his analysis of transnational activism - of which the NBA is a leader - the decline in large dam construction globally is associated with changing dynamics in transnational power where the meaning attached to dam development is constituted by a complex organization of transnational nongovernmental agencies (Khagram 11). While legitimacy for these project was provided by the World Bank, transnational grassroots opposition movements have successfully complicated (though not undermined) the notion of development itself (Khagram 211). What the activists have complicated, however, is less the (in)distinction between political subjectivity and sovereign exceptionality than in the need for the sovereign to manage even more than they already do. What appears to be a contestation of development becomes in fact a refining of the discourse of politics as dependent on the "good" management of life, a furthering of the discourse of "life worth living".

13. What remains under-investigated in social scientific studies of the Narmada project, and indeed most geopolitical crises ushered through development schemes, is the convergence of biopolitical interests through the law by both the sovereign and the activist. When activists find themselves agitating on behalf of displaced peoples by invoking a human rights discourse, they are in effect substituting a set of legal protections that can be abandoned by the national governments that are ironically already a part of the international juridical framework of a human rights regime. In this sense, transnational activists extend supranational sovereignty by calling for the enforcement of international law while serving as a proxy for national sovereignty based on protecting the rights of the citizen. While public reluctance from the World Bank to fund large dam projects suggests that activists have attained a certain level of success in collectively opposing the construction of large dams, it also exposes the more basic problem of how those affected by dam development become transnational subjects whose lives are made available to be protected precisely by being abandoned by the state in the first place.

14. As the disarticulation of subjects from the law becomes manifest in the suspension of the citizen rights by governments, activists are able to appropriate the vacated space. But they often fail to consider the state of exception as the basis of their power in the first place. By including the excluded within a political program, the oppositional strategy of transnational activism becomes indistinguishable from the sovereign need to maintain its state of exception. Perhaps the most familiar political strategy that establishes this convergence involves the division of life from what Agamben calls "bare life" through a renaming of the subject as within the domain of the law at the moment of birth. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) depends on this birth-right logic in its first article, stating that "[a]ll human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood". To overcome the crisis of sovereign exceptionalism and the perpetual abandonment of subjects, the activist ironically conceives of a structure of supranational sovereignty through the legal concept of rights as instituted from birth. Such a moment involves a double move which names bare life as outside the sovereign's exclusive juridical power, suspending it from the national sovereignty while reinscribing it within a supranational sovereign structure such as the United Nations.

15. The increasing individualization of the concerns over life in response to disappearance of state advocacy are analogous to what Nikolas Rose describes in the realm of contemporary health management: "Every citizen must now become a partner in the drive for health, accepting their responsibility for securing their own well-being ... This new 'will to health' is increasingly capitalized by enterprises ranging from pharmaceutical companies to food retailers. And a whole range of pressure groups, campaigning organizations, self-help groups have come to occupy the space of desires, anxieties, disappointments, and ailments between the will to health and the experience of its absence" (Rose 6). Furthermore, on the discourse of rights as human, determined by the biological quality of the species that the techniques of individuation "show us that . . . the biological lives of individual human beings are recurrently subject to judgments of worth" (21).

16. The meaning of the anti-dam movement, when it invokes the discourse of human rights, is that the right assigned at the moment of birth risks an association with the very structures of power it seeks to dismantle, that of politics as constituted by its commodification of life as a value that can be purchased, sold, or otherwise maintained by an organization. As Khagram points out in discussing the availability of life to forces other than the nation, "state institutions and governmental practices are also conditioned by domestic actors, interactions, and processes: relations between dominant classes and class coalitions, self-interested actions of political elites, inter-ethnic relations, or waves of social mobilization by subaltern groups" (Khagram 19). Precisely because life can be appropriated in various ways as a resource from which to draw, it remains the primary interest of those interested in political change.

17. Formed in 1989 through the leadership of Medha Patkar, the NBA was founded as a combination of local and transnational organizations that sought to ensure that those abandoned by the state be recognized. In a statement outlining the beginning of the movement, Patkar relates how interest in the PAP, the documented subject abandoned by the law, became the central figure who appeared as an absence and whose concern was to become with time the work of the NBA:

So we dug out the documents, studied those, compared various documents of the World Bank with those of the government, and identified interstate differences. We really went through everything. And finally, we came to the conclusion that there very, very major gaps. The benefits also were not truly estimated. (Patkar: 161).

However, as Agamben suggests, acting to make concrete this location abandoned by the state, as the political activist does when methodically counting the displaced, is actually what makes totalitarian states possible. Agamben argues that the unique character of contemporary politics lies in the increasingly blurred distinction between totalitarian and democratic states, where "politics has already turned into biopolitics, and in which the only real question to be decided [is] which form of organization would be best suited to the task of assuming the care, control, and use of bare life" (Agamben 122). As the NBA is invented to respond and organize those abandoned by the law, it nevertheless takes on the character of contemporary politics. In response, we might bear in mind how the NBA gains this status by locating its supporters in the submergence zone, a location itself suggestive of the convergence of democracy and totalitarianism

The NBA's Entrapment in the Law

18. In order to better understand in practical terms the activist's entrapment within biopolitics, we can begin with a reflection on Giorgio Agamben's concept of "bare life" in Homo Sacer as it pertains to the resistance movement against large dam construction in India's Narmada Valley. Agamben's notion of bare life is premised on the thought of Carl Schmitt, who proposes a notion of sovereign power as defined by its ability to suspend its juridical power at any given time, to establish its own condition for possibility as both the exception to the law and the rule of law itself. Agamben argues in Homo Sacer that bare life is produced by the sovereign as an "inclusive exclusion", through a division of life as worthy of being lived, included within the jurisdiction of the sovereign, and life not worthy of life, capable of being killed, but not sacrificed. It is through this separation that life worthy of being lived can become intelligible as in an example of a citizen who is legally within the sovereign's jurisdiction and protected by the democratic institutions that guarantee its legitimacy. Life capable of being killed, on the other hand, is found in the moment the citizen is no longer protected by the sovereign as in the example of a refugee who is left without a guarantor of his or her legitimacy as a life worthy of, precisely, life. This suspension of power, manifest in the abandonment of the law, is precisely the absence where the activist locates the political project. But first we must ask what this suspension of power entails.

19. In Agamben's terms, the suspension of juridical power is intimately linked to the dual notions of violence that Walter Benjamin posits as central to any understanding of the law: the violence enacted in constituting the law and the violence in sustaining it. The suspension of the law works to sustain the law as it allows for the separation of two modes of life, that which is worth being lived and that which is only worthy of being killed, precisely by withdrawing itself from responsibility for the latter. This "homo sacer", abandoned by the law, vanishes into an unrepresentable abyss, an abyss marked by the loss of a social order. The political project for the activist is often to make visible this loss of social order, where the sovereign is seen to have suspended its juridical power. The activist develops a strategy of legal representation for those the law deems unworthy. The paradox of this advocacy, which is most often articulated through the language of human rights, is that the activist ends up appropriating bare life as the only life worth being lived.

20. In the SCI decision on raising the dam in 2000, the space for homo sacer was opened for appropriation. The SCI declared that the Sardar Sarovar dam could be raised an additional ten meters because, as the majority decision was phrased, putting the project on hold was an inadaquate solution:

[this] only encourages the recalcitrant State to flout and not implement the award [the distribution of land to the displaced] with impunity. This cannot be permitted. Nor is it desirable in the national interest that where fundamental right to life to the people who continue to suffer due to shortage of water to such an extent that even the drinking water becomes scarce, non-cooperation of a State results in the stagnation of the project. (NBA v. Union of India).

The thrust of this decision lies in the Court's ability to suspend and defer its own duty to its citizens of the states within which the dam is being constructed. The legal term, pari passu , meaning simultaneously or with equal pace, is used to describe the priority the judge places on the R&R of the displaced and the continued raising of the dam. This shift in responsibility to the states relies on a second, more subtle suspension of the law based on Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The Court refers to Article 21 most notably in its directions for implementation of the judgment, which states that "[n]o person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty except according to procedure established by law". This is itself exemplary of the principle of exception that defines sovereignty. The law, in this case articulated as being in the national interest, is not a mechanism of control that impinges on an a priori notion of "life or personal liberty", but rather produces and protects life and liberty in the name of the sovereign.

21. After the phrase "except according to the procedure established by law", life becomes divided between that which corresponds to the law and that which is outside of it. Implicit in this division is the permissibility of the law to withdraw itself from responsibility over a certain, unspecified 'non-legal' life. The paradoxical conception of life as "manageable" is articulated in the Court's decision to make individual states accountable for R&R so as not to violate Article 21. What is assumed by the Court is that the life indicated in Article 21 is conceivable as a single concept rather than the divided one that the law itself suggests; life outside of the law disappears for the Court despite being constitutive of existence in Article 21 of the Constitution. In other words, the Court assumes all life, legal and non-legal, exists prior to the sovereign's authority over it, at the same time that it delineates the conditions under which life can be "deprived" to serve the national interest. The discourse of human rights, in turn, draws its legitimacy by making that life unrecognized by the law a legal category.

22. The activist's intervention in the submergence zone is normally about asserting rights as a positive assertion of legal rights. What goes unchecked, however, is the way that the PAP falls into a zone of indistinction in the submergence zone. Official signs posted at the zone reveal the way this indistinction has material consequences. One such sign reads

Warning: The houses of these falias are likely to be affected by floods from the Narmada during the current monsoon season. They are, therefore, asked to move themselves to a safer place along with their belongings so that the people and their property may not suffer damage (Bhatia: 310).

At first, the warning seems to express concern for the livelihood of the people to be affected, possibly killed, by the floods. The distinction, however, between property and people, the necessity of displacement for the success of the project, is ultimately blurred. Because a forced eviction would be "illegal" under a previous court ruling, the eviction of the people in this village is only requested, and therefore cast as voluntary. There is a further level of indistinction between constituting and constituted power as the agent of displacement is not the sovereign but nature itself. It is as if the monsoon rains will in fact carry out the submergence. By allowing nature to submerge the land, the notice reads as a call to care for life.

23. This paradox of caring while letting the subjects in the submergence zone potentially die helps to identify the importance of the pari passu as it is used in the Court's 2000 ruling. The phrase connotes the allocation of land in other states as compensation for land lost. According to evidence gathered by NGOs and the World Bank, much of the land needed for resettlement does not actually exist. As Patkar indicates,

We realized, when the [peoples'] representatives, who had never gone to the tehsil [town council] area before, started raising these issues [on rehabilitation], some of the more honest government employee has to concede that they had no answers. They had no master plans for rehabilitation. They had not even really checked the land records and updated them. For example, when the people asked, "Do you have the names of all the houses in front of you?' they would always reply in the negative. (Patkar: 158-159)

If we consider the language of eviction as necessitated by natural phenomenon, land does not in fact need to be provided in advance. The land will be provided, expressed with the full abandonment of the passive, in the same manner that the people will be submerged.

24. What makes the gap in government planning so obvious and what makes Patkar's realization possible is the precedent of the Narmada Water Tribunal Disputes Award (NWDT) which comprehensively outlines the categories of those displaced through the construction of the dams. The ostensibly democratic process which allowed for the creation of the Award becomes the very textual basis for the Court's decision. A central concern of the NBA has been the refusal of the government to consider the non-agriculturally based families and economies that would be disrupted if not destroyed as a result of submergence. In referring to these cases, the Court states that "[a]mongst the affected families of Madhya Pradesh, the figure of such non-agriculturalist families was also stated to be not more than couple of [hundred]. In our opinion it is neither possible nor necessary to decide regarding the number of people likely to be so affected because all those who are entitled to be rehabilitated as per the Award will be provided with benefits of the package offered and chosen" (NBA v. Union of India).

25. By displacing responsibility over a mode of life to a state authority, while defining its condition of possibility as "a couple of hundred", the Court effectively suspends its own juridical authority. In this case, the counting of the displaced is seen as "unnecessary" as the assumed affected have already been determined to be insignificant. The "people", once the recipients of the shortages of water, literally disappear among the uncounted. This is not to imply that the dictate of the Court physically annihilates the existence of a certain segment of a population, but rather that the Court, in its sovereign authority to create and be the exception to the law, can preclude the discursive presence of a people. The language that elides the specific targets of its power serves to illustrate the sphere of potentiality that Agamben observes as corresponding to the structure of the sovereign. Like the sovereign, potentiality can exist "without ever passing over into actuality" (Agamben 47), making it possible to conceptualize sovereign power without ever considering the results of the orders that it mandates. In fact, it is precisely the existence of language as replete with potentiality that is the location of its power. The activist's demand is to intervene in this sphere of potentialities to ground the conversation: give names to those displaced, provide the names of the homes submerged, count the PAPs, verify that the land be appropriately distributed. In other words, the activist makes the subject abandoned by the law a subject of the law anew.

26. As one NBA activist illustrates, the law is the only location from which advocates can speak about subjects abandoned by the law. Even the home of the subject is not exempt from the law:

Where we live, after all, is or becomes, if we can live there for long enough the centre of our cosmos and universe, at that point in our lives, and indeed, it contributes strongly to our cultural and social identity, and in a very real sense, all our social, economic, and other relations are constructed around and from this "place". It gives us meaning. Our home is also the place from which we claim two of our most basic political rights and freedoms: Our right to vote (and thereby to participate in institutional governance), and in many senses even more fundamentally, our freedom to build community and so to exercise governance over our individual and collective lives. It is in fact generally the case that in India, many of our Constitutional and statutory rights are linked to where we dwell. (Sen)

The home is articulated here as the space from which political rights are inherited and then re-claimed through a intricate relationship with the social. This exchange contributes to the biopoliticization by the sovereign by re-constituting the inextricable relation between law and life, where private and public distinctions give way to the complete politicization of the private sphere.

Locating the Political Moment

27. In understanding what might become problematic in this passage which identifies the PAP as bare life, we can return to Agamben's critique of the human subject. Agamben clarifies that the political project of the NBA is to address abandonment by identifying and naming the refugee as a subject of the law. Agamben writes that

[m]odern democracy is the moment when man as a living being presents himself no longer as an object but as a subject of political power. These processes - which in many ways oppose and (at least apparently) bitterly conflict with each other - nevertheless converge insofar as both concern the bare life of the citizen, the new biopolitical body of humanity (Agamben: 9).

28. What then, to do with the following practical dilemma facing all actors in the submergence zone as identified by William F. Fisher, the editor of the most comprehensive outline of this historical moment?

How does one identify and appropriately compensate project-affected people in remote areas where many of the people who will be affected by the project do not have legal property rights to their assets, and their full relationship to the land is not well understood by those who determine compensation? (Fisher: 29-30)

  29. In Arundhati Roy's essay "The Greater Common Good", she attempts to demystify the submergence zone in order to illustrate the structure of abandonment at the center of our politics. Her essay is fully invested in the laying bare the biopolitical discourse of PAPs and R&R reports.

The Government of India has detailed figures for how many million tonnes of foodgrain or edible oils the country produces and how much more we produce now than we did in 1947. It can tell you how much bauxite is mined in a year or what the total surface area of the National Highways adds up to. It's possible to access minute-to-minute information about the stock exchange or the value of the rupee in the world market. We know how many cricket matches we've lost on a Friday in Sharjah. It's not hard to find out how many graduates India produced, or how many men had vasectomies in any given year. But the Government of India does not have a figure for the number of people that have been displaced by dams or sacrificed in other ways at the altars of "National Progress". Isn't this astounding? How can you measure Progress if you don't know what it costs and who paid for it? How can the "market" put a price on things - food, clothes, electricity, running water - when it doesn't take into account the real cost of production? (Roy, 1999)

Countering the claim that the government of India is simply interested in globalizing through a market economy, Roy develops a rationale for counting in order to make concrete the cost. While the NBA similarly acts to enumerate victims, Roy steps back to ask how it is that the abandoned subject has come to be in the first place, locating an opening for intervention. Agamben does acknowledge the possibility of intervening in the moment of indistinction (or the submergence zone) by observing that the the sovereign's power is based on careful renewals: "[t]he sovereign decision traces and from time to time renews this threshold of indistinction between outside and inside ... Its decision is the position of the undecidable" (Agamben: 27). The political decision, therefore, is to identify the moment of renewal (rather than renew it), and to name the space from which it can re-produce the association of life as uniquely political.

30. Roy's interest rests in laying bare the discourse and questions its very possibility in order to open a moment when it will be possible to look away from a rigidifying language.

In circumstances like these, even to entertain a debate about Rehabilitation is to take the first step towards setting aside the Principles of Justice. Resettling 200,000 people in order to take (or pretend to take) drinking water to 40 million - there's something very wrong with the scale of operations here. This is Fascist Maths. It strangles stories. Bludgeons detail. And manages to blind perfectly reasonable people with its spurious, shining vision. (Roy, 1999).

31. Agamben writes that "the camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule" (169). The camp is characterized by the indefinite continuation of the suspension of juridical order. Whereas the sovereign allows for the juridical order to be temporarily suspended in face of a discernible danger, in the case of a threat to national security for example, the camp is a "permanent spatial arrangement" (Agamben: 169) of the suspension. And yet, ironically, while it is the space in which the law applies in no longer applying and where crimes that are only imaginable can be fully realized, I believe that we can also imagine it as a space of pure possibility. Precisely because in the camp it is no longer possible to determine what is legitimate and illegitimate, can it produce the most affecting scene for the socially conscious activist who perceives the absence of the law as representing his or her opportunity to insert a new form of life. What that life-form looks like, on the other hand, is still an unknown.


Nirmal Trivedi is completing his PhD in the English Department at Boston College. His research interests involve realism and naturalism, the role of biopolitics in political philosophy and social activism, and the textuality of the media. His dissertation focuses on the role of American war correspondence and the making of U.S. imperialism in the nineteenth century.


I wish to thank Kalpana Rahita Seshadri and Christopher P. Wilson for their detailed readings and encouragement for pursuing the questions raised in this paper.


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