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Why Doesn’t The Government Give A Dam(n) About These 42 Million Indians?

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NFI logoEditor’s Note: With #GoalPeBol, Youth Ki Awaaz has joined hands with the National Foundation for India to start a conversation around the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals that the Indian government has undertaken to accomplish by 2030. Let’s collectively advocate for successful and timely fulfilment of the SDGs to ensure a brighter future for our nation.

“We will request you to move from your houses after the dam comes up. If you move it will be good. Otherwise, we shall release the waters and drown you all.”

This statement may sound like something a villain in a Jeffrey Archer novel might say – but sadly, this was said by Morarji Desai, the then Finance Minister in 1961, while addressing the citizens who came under the submergence zone of the Pong Dam in Himachal Pradesh. It was a blunt statement, without any mincing, telling people exactly what the bureaucracy had planned for them.

Big dams were the joy of the world for a while. In India, they were brought up in the public domain post independence after Nehru’s famous endorsement of dams as the ‘temples of modern India’. Dam building was soon equated with nation building. Nehru further stated, “If you are to suffer, you should suffer in the interest of the country.” What he conveniently forgot to mention was that the suffering would only be borne by a few Adivasi groups that were living in the submergence zone – who in all probability would receive inadequate compensation for their displacement. He also neglected to mention the enormity of the sacrifice they would have to make.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is perhaps the longest fight the country has seen over the issue of displacement. For the past 32 years, the Narmada Valley has stood united and strong – refusing to bow down to the destruction of people’s homes and livelihood. Not only have they banded together to negotiate various policy changes and judicial processes with the government, their protests have also been non-violent – a remarkable feat considering the history of recent protests in India and the world.

The protest has been so long that its coverage has waned. Nowadays, news reports tend to feature isolated parts of the issue – maybe a legal correspondent’s view on the never-ending court proceedings, or an emotionally charged account of the government’s treatment of displaced people or a view from the other side about how NBA is all about ‘a handful of activists’ holding the nation to ransom.

Narmada Bachao Andolan protest in Delhi, 2017. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

What People Forget

The worst-hit in the entire deluge is the farmer. For a farmer, a piece of land is the primary source of their sustenance. If the farmer belongs to a backward class, they are more dependent on the land, and their vulnerability is far greater.

Since 1947, dams have displaced over 42 million people in India. These dams are responsible for turning rivers into a sad series of lakes, devastating the lives and livelihoods of millions of peasants and Adivasis whose subsistence is linked to their land, forests and water.

All through the years, the government’s response has been constant – that the building of  dams is essential for India’s development. But what the government repeatedly fails to take into account is whether this ‘development’ can be sustained. The answer to that is a big no!

The Sardar Sarovar Dam

As a signatory to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), India made certain commitments to the world. It has promised to take certain steps to tackle the menacing issues of deforestation and desertification caused by human activities, and climate change which is taking a toll on this planet and affecting the livelihoods of millions of people in the fight against poverty.

But, by keeping up with the proposed plans of projects like the Sardar Sarovar dam, India is grievously violating the demands of the development goals it has promised to achieve.

Dams And The Sustainable Development Goals

Ashish Kothari, the chairman of Greenpeace India and a long-time ally of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, explained that the movement is not just about being against dams. “What the NBA stands for is an economy that ensures dignified livelihoods, social justice, and ecological sustainability, and in particular an economy that benefits the hundreds of millions of people who have been left behind or displaced by the kind of ‘development’ that the Sardar Sarovar Dam represents.”

And even though the Supreme Court has laid down guidelines and funds for resettlement and rehabilitation, the Adivasi communities living in the submergence zones near the Sardar Sarovar Dam project aren’t comfortable with the idea of displacement, owing to the decades of growing distrust with the government.

In 1986, it was estimated that the Narmada Sagar Project would submerge 40,332 hectares of forest land. Construction activities, including the diversion of the river through a tunnel, have major adverse impacts on the aquatic ecosystem. Vulnerable species, with either limited distribution or low tolerance, can become extinct even before the dam is completed.

The Indira Sagar dam

“The government claims to respect the traditional and customary practices of the people but it doesn’t even have a plan for resettling the 385 religious sites that will be submerged. If they cannot provide a block for our gods and their own, what resettlement will they do for us?,” says Sneha Gutgutia, an activist from Kalpavriksh and a supporter of the NBA movement, says.

Shanobai of the Chikhalda village that is in the area of submergence is defiant. “If we are evicted, we will be like fish out of water,” she says. “We will resist eviction until our last breath.” This emotion is backed up by many people living in the villages that may be submerged.

As a signatory to the SDGs, India not only needs to ensure that it adheres to the promises it has made, it also needs to create policies which centre around these promises. Not only does this mean that it needs to take steps to ensure conservation, restoration and the sustainable use of natural resources, it also has to integrate ecosystem and biodiversity values into national and local planning and development processes. It’s also India’s duty to take urgent and significant actions to reduce the degradation of natural habitats and biodiversity through prudent policy interventions.

The problems posed by the large-scale buildings of dams are not just ecological or humanitarian. As a country, our government needs to realise that development does not have to come at the cost of ecological ruin.

While profits from dams can be tremendous, their harmful effects are greater than the cause for which they stand. It is high time that the Indian government understands this and worked towards a more sustainable future. Only then can India hope to save millions of Indians from drowning or being displaced.

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Featured images used for representative purposes only.

Featured image sources: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

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Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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