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This One Dam Will Make 5,00,000 Indians Homeless

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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.

NEW DELHI, INDIA – MAY 17: Activists of Narmada Bachao Andolan protest against the closure of gates of Sardar Sarovar Dam at Shram Shakti Bhavan on May 17, 2017 in New Delhi, India. NBA alleged that 40, 000 families affected from Sardar Sarovar project are still awaiting for the proper rehabilitation, and Narmada Control Authority is assumed to give verdict of closing the dam’s gates, which will lead the affected to miserable condition. (Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

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.

Medha Patkar sloganeering as she is being arrested. A screenshot from the film ‘Words on Water’

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.

People protest against raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam in 2014 (Photo by Khyati Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

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.

‘Words On Water’

A still from the documentary ‘Words on Water’

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.

Image Source: Counterview

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.

A still from the documentary ‘Words on Water’

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

Featured Image Credit: Counterview
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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.

Read more about his campaign.

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.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

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.

Read more about her campaign.

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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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.

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.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

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.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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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, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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