'We will drown but we will not move'

Print edition : May 22, 1999

Excerpts from a letter from Bava Mahalia of Jalsindhi village in Jhabua district to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh in 1994:

Shri Digvijay Singhji,

We, the people of Jalsindhi village...are writing this letter to you, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh.

We are people of the river bank. We live on the banks of the great Narmada. This year, our village Jalsindhi will be the first village in Madhya Pradesh to be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar dam...We will give up our lives but we will not move from our village. When the water comes into our village, when our homes and fields are flooded, we will also drown - this is our firm resolve.

We are writing this letter to let you know why the adivasi peasants of Jalsindhi are preparing to drown themselves.

You, and all those who live in cities, think that we who live in the hills are poor and backward, like apes. "Go to the plains of Gujarat. Your condition will improve. You will develop" - this is what you advise us... If it is true that our situation will improve in Gujarat, then why aren't all of us ready to go there?

... We have lived in the forest for generations. The forest is our moneylender and banker. In hard times we go to the forest. We build our houses from its wood. From its rushes and splints we weave screens. From the forests we make baskets and cots, ploughs and hoes, and many other useful things... We get various kinds of grasses; and when the grasses become dry in summer, we still get leaves... If there is a famine we survive by eating roots and tubers. When we fall sick, our medicine men bring us back to health by giving us leaves, roots, bark from the forest. We collect and sell gum, tendu leaves, bahera, chironji and mahua. The forest is like our mother; we have grown up in its lap. We know how to live by suckling at her breast. We know the name of each and every tree, shrub and herb; we know their uses. If we were made to live in a land without forests, then all this knowledge that we have cherished for generations will be useless and slowly we will forget it all.

Bava Mahalia of Jalsindhi, whose courage and determination made the village a nerve-centre of the anti-dam movement. The sign on his door says: "Our Rule in Our Villages. We will not allow this Government, which drowns us, into our village. Our Courage is every bit as strong as your Dam. We will die, but we will not leave our lands."-ANURAG SINGH

... The river too is our sustenance. The Narmada has many kinds of fish in her belly. Fish is our standby when we have unexpected guests. The river brings us silt from upstream which is deposited on the banks so that we can grow maize and jowar in the winter, as well as many kinds of melons. Our children play on the river's banks, swim and bathe there. Our cattle drink there throughout the year, for the river never dries up. In the belly of the river, we live contented lives. We have lived here for many generations; do we have a right to the mighty river and to our forests or don't we?

... After the forests and the river, how can we live in the plains or in cities? You city people live in separate houses. You ignore each other's joys and sadness. We live with our clan, our relatives, our kin. All of us pool together our labour and build a house in a single day, weed our fields, and do any small task as it comes along. Who will come to lend a hand and make our work lighter in Gujarat? Will the big Patidars come to weed our fields or to construct our houses? ... In Gujarat, if any sorrow or evil befalls us, to whom can we go to tell of our troubles? You are not going to give us the bus fare and send us back, are you?

... You tell us to take land in Gujarat. You say that our leaders are inciting us, that we should not be swayed by them...We are not being swayed by them. We are being swayed by our land, our forest, our river and our livestock. They are what is leading us astray.

You tell us to take land in Gujarat. You tell us to take compensation. For losing our lands, our fields, for the trees along our fields... But how are you going to compensate us for our forest? ... How will you compensate us for our river - for her fish, her water, for the vegetables that grow along her banks, for the joy of living beside her? What is the price for this? ... Our gods, and the support of our kin - what price do you put on that? Our adivasi life - what price do you put on that?

... The land in Gujarat is not acceptable to us. Your compensation is not acceptable to us. We were born from the belly of the Narmada, and we are not afraid to die in her lap... In the summer before the monsoons, our village will be filled with water and we will drown.

We will drown but we will not move. Bava Mahalia
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