Jawaharlal Nehru famously called dams the “temples of modern India” in 1954. Dams were envisioned as the answer to modernising India’s agriculture and thereby boosting its tottering rural economy. They can be used to produce electricity, irrigate cultivable land, and make water accessible to households and industries.
While large dams may help accrue some of the aforementioned benefits, there is also a monumental cost to be incurred. I think we focus on the former, as we ignore the latter because the cost is often incurred by indigenous communities who lose their land, livelihoods, and ways of life. We think of them as expendable rather than respecting them for their collectivistic lives and values. Their resource-rich community lands have been commodified, looted, and the profits reaped by outsiders. Essentially, it is development for some, but at the cost of destitution for many.
Take, for instance, the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s (NBA or ‘Save Narmada’) efforts to highlight the large-scale human displacement and environmental destruction caused by the building of the Sardar Sarovar dam. The NBA is a people’s movement, comprising of Adivasi folk, farmers, environmental and human rights activists in the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. The mass movement started in 1985 when the government announced its plan to build 30 major, 135 medium, and 3000 minor dams across the river Narmada. It has been tirelessly fighting for the fair rehabilitation and resettlement of those who have been displaced, or Project Affected Persons (PAPs).
Conservative estimates put the number of Project Affected Families at 27,000 (or approximately 1,52,000 people). The NBA estimates that 85,000 families or 5,00,000 people (5 lakh) will be rendered homeless in the aftermath. The discrepancy in the estimates stems from the fact that the government only takes into account those families who have lost their homes or lands, while NGOs and other organisations argue that all those who have lost their livelihood should also be included.
The latest government figures suggest that at least 32,000 families have been displaced and that all the PAFs have been resettled. I believe that one would have to be really naïve to buy the government’s hyperbolic claim, as all the evidence on the ground points to the contrary.
The NBA’s founding member Medha Patkar, a fiery social activist, doesn’t beat around the bush when holding the administration accountable. Patkar went on a hunger strike recently, to compel the state and central governments to reconsider their decision to raise the water level of the dam, without ensuring that the people displaced are comfortably resettled.
Raising the level of the dam will mean that the size of the reservoir will increase. This means that the land on which certain villages exist will get submerged as a result of it. When the land gets submerged, agricultural fields and human settlements are destroyed.
I am of the view that the NBA’s multipronged, peaceful approach to resistance has immensely aided its cause. Apart from approaching the courts and the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, the NBA managed to successfully enlist the locals who were going to be directly impacted to fight, through grassroots mobilisation. It empowered these very people to voice out their anxieties via protest marches, dharnas, rallies, lobbying with international lending agencies and companies, consultations with the government, etc.
“Koi nahi hatega, bandh nahi banega” (no one will move, the dam will not be built) became a resounding cry at these public meetings. The pressure exerted by the NBA forced the World Bank to reconsider its decision to finance the project, which is no small feat in my opinion. Furthermore, it forced companies such as Siemens and Ogden Energy Group to back out from building and financing the Sardar Sarovar dam.
The NBA also relied on the support of notable personalities such as social worker Baba Amte, actor Aamir Khan, and writer Arundhati Roy to advocate for it. National and international media, documentary filmmakers actively covered the grievances of PAPs and activists. The media acted as a catalyst in the process and made certain that the struggle reached more people.
As the lady at the beginning of the documentary, Words on Water, rightly said “Shasan walon, sun lo aaj… humare gaon mein humara raj!” (loosely translated, it means: rulers beware… our village, our rules!).
The documentary, directed by Sanjay Kak, traces the journey of the NBA, from its inception as a grassroots level agitation to its evolution into a full-fledged satyagraha.
The poignant film depicts the struggles undertaken by the people (Adivasis, farmers, fishermen, sand-quarriers, and activists) of the Narmada valley as they fight for their prerogative. Families refused to leave villages across the Narmada even as water continued to pour in. They stood still in neck-deep waters for hours and days on end, indicating their commitment to their demands.
Their righteous defiance stems from both, a sense of dismay at what the powerful (ministers, magistrates, corporates, credit lending agencies) have decided for them, and a feeling of solidarity with each other (powerless). I find such fearlessness in the face of brute injustice very inspiring.
According to me, the current government needs to take off its rose-tinted glasses and recognise the legitimacy of people’s demands. Multiple governments have tried to quell the mass movement by crushing it under the jackboot of the police and policies. But the people have remained steadfast in their convictions, over the course of 34 years now.
Rahul Yadav, an NBA activist neatly encapsulated the spirit of people’s sentiments, when he told The Caravan, “Movements are not like governments that come and go.”
Note: The author is part of the current batch of the Writer’s Training Program.