The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) was a mass movement that began in 1985 to protest against the lack of an appropriate resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) policy for the more than 250,000 people who faced submergence during the construction of big dams along the Narmada river. Originally named Narmada Dharangrast Samiti or Committee for Narmada Dam-affected people, the movement was renamed NBA in 1989.
The Narmada Valley project was conceived in 1946, but work on it started only in 1978 after the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) gave its final orders including plans for R&R. The plan was to build 30 large dams, 135 medium dams, and 3,000 small dams along 1,312 km of the Narmada from Madhya Pradesh to Gujarat. Except for the Sardar Sarovar, all the dams were in Madhya Pradesh. Its 138.68-metre-high wall would submerge 38,000 hectares of land, and displace 244 villages and 250,000 people.
In 1985, the dam faced its first legal challenge when 35-year-old Medha Patkar petitioned the Supreme Court against the project, citing poor R&R. The court stayed work but vacated it in 1998 on condition that permission would be granted after a review of the affected areas. In 2000, the court allowed construction on condition of supervised R&R. By 2004 it stood at 110.64 metres and by 2006 it had permission to rise to 121.92 metres.
Patkar’s legal battle continued because the R&R regulations were being violated. Regulations say people should be resettled six months prior to submergence. The NWDT also said that no area should be submerged until all payments were made. Both these fundamental rules were betrayed.
Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, and 17 days later, he granted permission to raise the Sardar Sarovar to its full height and install sluice gates at the top. Modi dedicated the dam in September 2018. This, while about 21,000 families awaited R&R.
Dam supporters see its construction as their victory, but the NBA too has had many successes along the way. The organisation’s biggest triumph was in 1993, when the World Bank withdrew its Narmada loan and also published an independent review of the project. Patkar’s strengths lay in mobilising and educating the oustees, attracting a group of committed activists, strategising plans of action, and interacting with people across the board from district collectors to international leaders. The Andolan brought the national spotlight on environmental and rehabilitation issues raised by big dam projects, raising awareness of tribal and underprivileged people most affected by such projects.
Even now the NBA continues to try and get R&R justice. Most oustees have been forced to accept new terms for their lives. Since villages were not settled en masse, their centuries old social fabric was ripped. Compensatory agricultural land often turned out to be a rocky and barren. Many families moved to cities and made their homes in slums. They are the invisible masses over whose shattered lives the project of greater good was built.