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This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.
The episode of the twelve spies sent to scout the Land of Canaan leaves the generation of recently-freed Israelites farther away from the Promised Land than they have ever been. The Israelites believe the report of ten of the spies that the Land is filled with giants against whom they could not prevail.
God punishes them severely for this demonstration of lack of faith, telling them, in no uncertain terms, that they will never enter the Promised Land: “Your children shall wander in the desert for forty years and bear your defection until the last of your corpses has fallen in the desert” (Numbers 14:33) The news of this devastating detour throws the community into mourning and panic.
In movements for social change, we often experience such demoralizing setbacks: The champion of our bill loses re-election. Civil liberties it took decades to win are eroded instantly by a single court decision. A visionary leader is assassinated.
Such a setback was experienced by the campaign to stop the Narmada River Dam Project in central India–a highly contested megaproject consisting of 30 hydroelectric dams that threatened the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of Indians living along the Narmada River.
This project, funded by The World Bank, attracted tremendous criticism by environmentalists and by advocates of the large numbers of people who would be displaced by rising river waters upstream. A grassroots movement formed to halt the dam, organized by the NGO Narmada Bachao Andolan.
The movement’s actions led to an unprecedented reversal, and the Bank’s participation in the project was cancelled in 1995. Writer and activist Arundhati Roy describes the magnitude of this grassroots victory in The Greater Common Good: “No one has ever managed to make The World Bank step back from a project before. Least of all a rag-tag army of the poorest people in one of the world’s poorest countries.”
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