“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.
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!
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.
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 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.
Featured images used for representative purposes only.