New York University Public Law and Legal Theory Working Papers

Document Type



in HUMAN RIGHTS ADVOCACY STORIES (Deena R. Hurwitz, Margaret L. Satterthwaite, Douglas B. Ford, eds., Foundation Press, 2009)


This Chapter describes the struggle of India’s Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a social movement that arose in response to the building of a World Bank-funded dam project along the Narmada River. The project—which has displaced hundreds of thousands and has imposed stunning environmental costs without reaping the promised benefits of “modernization”—has been the source of constant controversy. In response, the government has maintained that large dams are essential for achieving the “common good,” reflecting the dominance of a ‘‘balancing’’ or ‘‘cost-benefit’’ approach to development over an approach that puts human rights at the center of the debate. Controversy surrounding the dam led to the World Bank’s withdrawal from the project and to the creation of the World Bank Inspection Panel in 1993—a milestone for the human rights movement, and the first mechanism established to enable local groups to challenge World Bank projects. The Chapter analyzes how a local, grassroots social movement was able to influence human rights discourse at the international level and create a forum for those most affected by development-led displacement. Prior to the Panel’s creation, local groups had no formal way of challenging development schemes conceived and financed in faraway capitals. Fifteen years after its creation, the Panel remains increasingly important to human rights advocacy worldwide and despite its mixed record, represents a major milestone in integrating international human rights norms into the practice of development aid. The Chapter also reviews the efficacy of various litigation and non-litigation strategies deployed by the NBA in an attempt to halt construction of the dam and ensure appropriate resettlement and “rehabilitation” of those displaced by the project.

Date of Authorship for this Version

December 2008