Going beyond the Narmada Valley

Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

The Narmada Bachao Andolan wins wide support as it decides to continue its campaign against the Sardar Sarovar Project, even as the government resumes work on the project.


IF inaugural ceremonies are meant to be symbolic of a good start, the events of October 31 certainly do not augur well for the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). In order to kick start the Rs.18,000-crore project, which was stalled for six years by a lawsuit, the Gujarat government planned a function at the dam site at Kevadia in Bharuch district. The Keshubhai Patel Cabinet was present in full strength, and there were some Union Ministers and more than three lakh people to watch Union Home Minister L.K. Adv ani activate a remote control device that operated a concrete dumping trolley.

The State government had chosen the date with care: it was the 126th birth anniversary of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who had dreamt of harnessing the Narmada to meet the State's irrigation and power needs. But it did not make available even basic faciliti es like drinking water for the crowd of people who had been trucked in from far-flung villages. To slake their thirst, the villagers raided nearby sugarcane fields and demanded water from homes in Kevadia. When sought to be restrained by the authorities, the crowd went berserk, throwing stones, burning government vehicles, including five cars of Ministers, and manhandling police personnel. Eyewitnesses said that two State Ministers were roughed up.

In stark contrast to the Kevadia fiasco was a rally organised by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) on October 23 in Badwani, in the heart of the submergence zone in Madhya Pradesh. Black flags, signifying protest and outrage, mingled with the light blue f lags of the NBA as more than 3,500 people from Bagud, Piplud, Pipri, Dadada, Kendia, Kadmal and Bhavaria converged on Badwani in the west Nimad region. The villagers of Nimad, a prosperous region, have chosen the path of resistance to the Supreme Court's verdict allowing the construction the Sardar Sarovar dam. Thousands of people from villages and hamlets have fought for a place in the public conscience following the verdict. Determined not to leave their houses and lands for "an ill-conceived project, " they shouted: "Narmada ghati par haq hamara, chahe jo kahe kanoon tumhara" (We don't care what your law says, Narmada Valley is ours).

The rally represented the first public reaction to the "betrayal of justice". In a show of anger, the people locked the local rehabilitation office of the Narmada Valley Development Authority. The Supreme Court's had ordered the governments of Gujarat, M adhya Pradesh and Maharashtra to draw up a relief and rehabilitation plan within four weeks. With no master plan ready to identify and acquire land for rehabilitation of those displaced by the dam, the order came as an insult added to injury.

Later, the rallyists buried in front of the Sessions Court, a copy of the majority judgment passed by Chief Justice A.S. Anand and Justice B.N. Kirpal in favour of the dam, describing it as "the most illogical, atrocious, anti-democratic and anti-people verdict ever in the history of the Supreme Court". The protest had the support of local politicians and trading community.

Leader of the NBA, Medha Patkar, who went on a three-day fast in Bhopal from October 25, described the October 18 ruling as "an inhuman crime". She said: "I feel disappointed... seeing the limitations of this judgment." In her 15-year fight for people wh o would be displaced by the project, she has cited several reasons, ranging from low economic gains from the dam to immense and environmental damage and serious emotional trauma for the predominantly tribal inhabitants of the region, for her opposition t o the dam. Displaying the same spirit, tenacity and courage that has seen the NBA through its non-violent civil actions, Medha Patkar continues the never-say-die approach that has become her hallmark.

She said: "This is a judgment that people will have to judge for themselves. It is a judgment that is an outcome of the State governments misleading the court. It does not reflect the reality of the project. We have proved that the State governments have violated the Tribunal Awards, that there are affected families with absolutely no relief and rehabilitation. The judgment reposes unjustifiable faith in the state machinery. It is symbolic that the state and the judiciary have chosen to stand by those w ho have monetary capital and not by those who have resources capital. In this battle of 15 years in which even the World Bank withdrew in the face of truth... the people will have to decide how to take this forward. The court is bound by law but the peop le are bound by their lives and their actions."

Author Arundhati Roy described the verdict as "an event in which the highest court in the country actually condones and encourages the violation of the human rights of Indian Citizens".

The judgment sparked spontaneous protests across the country. Rallies were held in all metropolitan cities. October 23 was observed as Black Day. Support came also from abroad. Patrick McCully, campaign director of the California-based environment and hu man rights organisation International Rivers Network said: "The ruling is utterly illogical and an insult to democracy and justice. The Sardar Sarovar Project is one of the world's most controversial dam projects and would forcibly displace more people t han any other infrastructure project in the world except for China's Three Gorges Dam."

In a letter, Dr. P. Bossard of the Berne Declaration reiterated the organisation's support for the NBA, saying: "As the Narmada Bachao Andolan documented in all detail, the Sardar Sarovar Project will not achieve its purported benefits... We support the NBA in its continued resistance..."

People from a section of society voiced their support for the anti-dam campaigners. In an open letter, Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer wrote, "I appeal to the judicial conscience of the highest court and the equity sense of the Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maha rashtra Cabinets not to put one stone more on the dam until the last and the least human who is rendered homeless, consequence on Narmada Dam, is given shelter in dignity. If a review of the judgment is necessary, I am sure the Judges on the high Bench w ill unhesitatingly do what the refugees of 'Dam Development' need as an aspect of social justice. Development is never at the expense of distress inflicted on the poor, as Mahatma Gandhi has taught us and the Constitution in its vision cautions us."

Support also came from Thomas Kocherry of the National Fishworkers Union, Jnanpith Award winner and president of the Denotified and Nomadic Tribes Right Action Group Mahasveta Devi, Admiral L. Ramdas, former Chief of the Naval Staff, columnist Praful Bid wai and Sarvodaya leader Mahendrabhai Jain.

On October 27, a delegation led by former Union Finance Minister and former Vice-Chairman of the Planning Commission Madhu Dandavate met President K.R. Narayanan and raised the issue of rehabilitation. The team included former Delhi High Court Chief Just ice Rajendra Sachar, former Union Finance Secretary S.P. Shukla, socialist leader Surendra Mohan and expert on water resources Himanshu Thakker. The President assured the delegation that he would take up the issue of displacement and resettlement of the affected people with the authorities concerned.

The NBA's writ petition, filed in 1994, was mainly against raising the height of the dam beyond the existing level of 88 metres on the grounds that hundreds of villages would be submerged and millions of people displaced. It is feared that several thousa nd tribal people will lose their livelihoods as irrigation canals and housing for construction workers come up and other dam-related activities begin.

Work has already begun to raise the dam height to 90 metres in line with the Supreme Court judgment. (The court has cleared the construction of the dam up to a height of 138 metres in stages.) Even the two-metre increase in height is in violation of the Narmada Tribunal Award. The three State governments concerned, which have been able to relocate just 20 to 25 per cent of the affected people between 1979 and 2000 maintain that they do not have enough land to rehabilitate the people who will be affected by the present increase in the height of the dam. This fact is at the core of the NBA's campaign.

If, after a six-year legal battle, the highest court in the land has cleared renewed construction of the dam, what course of action is left for the NBA?

Medha Patkar described the verdict as a "pile of contradictions," primarily because "it allowed the dam construction to go ahead overlooking clear evidence submitted to the court by the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the government of Madhya Pradesh, which s hows that the rehabilitation of people affected by the dam at its present height is far from complete. But, apart from ignoring most issues raised by the NBA, the verdict has sanctioned the violation of the Tribunal Award and the right to life guaranteed by the Constitution. The judgment expressed full confidence in the existing system and mechanisms in overseeing the rehabilitation work, whose callousness and complete failure had forced us to approach the court in the first place." She said that the NB A rejected the "confused, illogical verdict of the court" and that it would file a review petition.

Meanwhile, the NBA has begun rallying people. "We will certainly go back to the people. They are ready to fight a battle even beyond this verdict," Medha Patkar affirmed. Within two days of the ruling, Medha Patkar returned to the Narmada Valley to find the people in a mood to assert their rights. Dalsukbhai, one of the project affected people, said: "The judgment is a betrayal. People feel that the court is hand in glove with the state." Ragmanibhai, another affected person who has braved state repress ion in the past in the anti-dam struggle, said, "We will not succumb to this. We have been fighting governments, now we will fight against the judgment too."

The villagers have realised the need to become more proactive and decided to continue their peaceful struggle through non-cooperation. They have decided to demand detailed information from their respective State governments on rehabilitation. They insist that notice boards be erected in villages and that the local authorities regularly post details of relief and rehabilitation on them. The NBA has planned a People's Hearing in Delhi to seek answer from the administration, the President, and representati ves of civil society.

Medha Patkar says that the verdict has added another dimension to the campaign. While at one level the battle has been about displaced people, loss of livelihood and damage to the environment, at another level it has been about the wider issue of develop ment policies. "The ramifications of the judgment will go well beyond the valley of Narmada," Medha Patkar said. She added: "The judgment has overtly given the go ahead to the development policies followed during the last 53 years, under which the people of the country have been exploited and displaced, marginalised and 'destitutionalised'. This has happened especially to the lower sections of the population - Adivasis, Dalits, minorities, the harnessers and protectors of natural resources, farmers and the fisherfolk, small artisans and the self-employed. Their plight has worsened with economic liberalisation. While governance has gone from bad to worse, democratic institutions have become defunct. The system, therefore, needs a jolt and the giant forc es need to be challenged with the strength of people's power."

The struggle in the Narmada Valley has now become rallying point for many more people. As Dr. Ravi Kuchimanchi, an anti-dam campaigner, says in a poem: "In the case of Governments vs People It's the Court that had lost."

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