Print edition : August 14, 1999

In a show of solidarity with the dam-affected people, campaigners from the country and abroad led by author Arundhati Roy, among others, march through the Narmada valley.

LYLA BAVADAM in the Narmada valley Pictures: Vivek Bendre

THE Narmada has turned turbulent again. Hundreds of campaigners, led by the feisty Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy and film-maker Jharana Jhaveri, lent their voice to the 14-year-old struggle of social activist Medha Patkar's Narmada Bachao And olan(NBA). They journeyed with the river on an eight-day rally under the banner of "Free the Narmada Campaign", which ended on August 5.

The rally covered 800 km, three-fourths the distance between Mumbai and New Delhi, along a rigorous route, which began and ended in Indore. Its destination was Jalsindhi, a village that would submerge this monsoon. There were countless halts along the wa y as people thronged to greet the rally. Leaving their fields, the residents of Karamal village waited more than six hours for the convoy. After the first few halts the rally fell into a pattern.

The village of Jalsindhi in Madhya Pradesh, which faces the threat of total submergence.-

As the convoy approached a village, the drivers, who were familiar with the large pale blue banner of the NBA, would slow down. The organisers, followed by mediapersons, would alight and be greeted with garlands, tilak and petal showers. Arundhati Roy or Jharana Jhaveri would say a few words. As the convoy left the village slowly, the buses would be showered with flowers.

The coming together of artists, students, engineers, architects, interior decorators, documentary film-makers, scientists, lawyers, tribal activists, teachers and journalists, both Indian and foreign, represented a strange amalgamation, but they were bou nd by a common cause. Jyotsna, a scientist from Hyderabad, said: "I have come to add my voice (to that of the displaced people and of the NBA)." Several partcipants were inspired by Arundhati Roy's essay, The Greater Common Good. Manu from Thiruva nanthapuram found the essay compelling. Kavita from Mumbai said that she had been aware of the Narmada issue for several years but had never really understood the details until she read the essay.

Arundhati Roy called for solidarity with the affected people and also said that there was a need for "an honest debate between the pro- and anti-dam lobbies. This debate is being blocked and instead there is misinformation."

Spontaneous camaraderie developed between the rallyists and the people in the Narmada valley. A group from Kerala quickly taught the residents of some villages to shout a slogan in Malayalam. Another group from Andhra Pradesh followed suit. At Anjad vill age, a group of ulultant women interspersed their calls with the slogan "Pani chahiye, Pepsi nahi" (We want water, not Pepsi).

A midnight meeting at Nisarpur was perhaps the most bohemian. Participants were enveloped by a crowd of more than 800 people led by two musicians - an old man vigorously beating a drum and a boy hitting a large thali (plate), which sounded like ch urch bells chiming. An Englishman pulled out a clarinet and the make-shift orchestra transported listeners to a state of frenzied delight.

Fighting for a common cause, Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar at Jalsindhi.-

WHEN the rally halted at Baba Amte's ashram in Kasravad, the venerated Gandhian social worker referred to the rally as "the Gangotri of global mobilisation of the intelligentsia for this cause. I hope Arundhati will continue to stir the world's conscienc e."

Village after village, people brimmed with confidence and appeared cheerful. Most villages which supported the NBA put up signs that forbade entry to dam advocates. Government officials were ticked off and in a few cases manhandled. NBA activist Rama Pat idar of Karmal village asserted in halting English: "No entry to 'gorment' officer."

The NBA has consistently endeavoured to raise the self-respect of the people and make them aware of their right to information. This has resulted in a long-lasting process of empowerment, especially of women. The first large public meeting as part of the rally was held at Pathrad village, where Urmila Patidar was in charge of the organising committee. Flat-bottomed boats with wide sails, some with slogans painted on them, crowded the Narmada. Fisherman Jharelal Yadav cheerfully called out to the rally p articipants to see the river before it changed its roop (image).

The rally was initially meant to start from Gujarat but the State administration was in no mood to entertain any campaign connected with the NBA. It not only refused to cooperate with the organisers, but went to the extent of blocking the border with Mad hya Pradesh at Hafeshwar. All traffic, regardless of destination, was halted for two days.

In Madhya Pradesh, there was heavy security ostensibly to protect the rallyists. An Inspector was on deputation throughout. At certain night halts, the District Superintendent of Police would also pay a cursory visit. When the rally stopped at Maheshwar Fort, the S.P. and the District Magistrate were present. That morning a local newspaper carried scandalous 'news' of alleged sexual encounters between some NBA activists who were jailed last year. The District Magistrate admitted that he had told the new spaper that used contraceptives were found in cells used by the activists. But when 200-odd rallyists sought a clarification, he withdrew the allegation.

Police presence was most visible at Jalsindhi and Domkhedi, another village likely to be submerged this monsoon and from where the members of samarpit dal (dedicated squad) of the NBA has vowed to sacrifice themselves to the rising waters. Police camps dot the hills and a barge with police divers on board patrols the river.

THE rally was organised to draw attention to the immediate prospect of submergence faced by 50-odd villages in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra as a consequence of a Supreme Court order. In addition to an increase in the height of the Sardar Sarov ar dam, the largest on the river, from 81.5 metres to 85 m, the court sanctioned three more humps, totalling three metres, at the top of the dam. In February, acting on affidavits filed by the Gujarat Government, the court lifted a four-year-long stay or der against raising the height of the dam.

This seemingly inconsequential increase in the height of the dam would ultimately displace 2,500 families from tribal communities. The governments in the States concerned claim that they have an adequate rehabilitation programme, which the NBA denounces as a falsehood perpetuated since the inception of the Narmada Valley Development Project (NVDP) in the 1960s.

WITH varying success, the NBA has questioned the public purpose, the cost-benefit analysis, and the social, environmental and socio-political aspects of the proposed dams on the Narmada. The high point of the agitation was when the World Bank pulled out of the project in 1993. The Bank's action was based on the Morse Committee Report, which lambasted the resettlement policy of the State governments.

Since then there was a lull in construction, and the NBA gathered further momentum. Displaced people who had gone to resettlement sites returned to join the NBA. While the Supreme Court order initially dampened the people's enthusiasm, NBA activists said that it also galvanised the movement into action once again. The people of the Narmada Valley were prepared to confront what they saw as a great injustice perpetrated by the state.

A fleet of boats for the 'Free the Narmada Campaign' rally.-

A satyagraha was launched on June 20 with a call for the decentralisation of the decision-making process. Medha Patkar and the residents of affected villages undertook a fast. About 1,500 people gathered on the banks of the Narmada and took an oath to fi ght the threat of submergence. Alarmed at this rising tide of protest, the Madhya Pradesh Govern-ment issued a notice that some villages would be submerged. The cry of ''Doobenge par hatenge nahi'' (We will drown but will not move from our homes) rose louder. On July 11, Medha Patkar and other NBA activists said that if the Sardar Sarovar dam has allowed to rise above 88 m without a new tribunal being appointed and a public hearing held, then they would commit jal samarpan (sacrifice thems elves to the rising waters).

The NBA received an unexpected boost when Arundhati Roy became involved with the issue as part of her work on the essay The Greater Common Good, and Jharana Jhaveri, who has made a documentary film on the effects of damming the Narmada, conceived a solidarity rally.

WHY is the damming of one river such a big issue? The answer touches political, social, environmental, geographical, economic, anthropological and historical issues, but what is of prime concern now is the displacement of countless people.

The tragedy of the displacement strikes one even deeper when one visits the area. The riverside communities are self- sufficient because of the river and the fertile land on its banks. Submergence will mean a loss of lands, lifestyle, homes and the right to resources which will ultimately be contracted to outsiders. NBA activist Chittaroopa Palit said: "General Outram gave the river rights to the tribal people and now our own government is going to make them landless and resourceless." The area is so pr osperous that only two people from Pathrad village, consisting of 1,200 households, have sought jobs outside the village. Fisherman Gisalal Yadav said: "We have no need to look outside for jobs."

An unquantifiable dimension of the displacement is uncertainty. Generations grow up not knowing the ultimate fate of their villages. NBA activist Shripad Dharmadhikari explained: "When it is announced that an area will face submergence, all development w ork comes to a halt. So if a school is being built or roads are being constructed, everything is stopped. The actual submergence may remain on paper but the work stops." In Kakrana village, Behena, a Bhillala tribesman, told Frontline that the ele ctricity to his village was cut a year ago after it was announced that the village would be submerged. Kakrana is still above the waters. but power supply has been stopped.

A band of supporters from abroad.-

Lakshman Patidar of Sulgaon village, which will be submerged by the Maheshwar dam, said it was increasingly difficult to get brides for eligible boys. He asked: "Who will want to send their daughters to a home which will soon be under water?" In Maheshwa r town, which will not be severely affected by the rising waters, land prices on the riverfront have dropped. The people live in dread of the year 2000, which is expected to be one of a huge cyclical flood which occur once in 100 years.

The resettlement issue is a powerful weapon that the NBA wields against the state. Once the Sardar Sarovar dam is completed, it will create a reservoir that will engulf and submerge more than 245 villages and displace at least 2.5 lakh people in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The number of displaced persons would swell to 10 lakhs if the people affected by subsidiary projects of this dam are included.

The availability of land has proved a bottleneck for the process of resettlement and rehabilitation. People who will be displaced before the dam height reaches 90 m face a peculiar situation. The Gujarat Government claimed that it had no land for this ca tegory of project-affected people. Madhya Pradesh has also taken a similar stand. Thousands of people are expected to surrender their homes and lands without any guarantee that they will be given land in return. The land problem is as acute in Maharashtr a, the State that will benefit least from the project. In an attempt to solve the problem, it earmarked some land for resettlement by cutting down forests. Land is not the only component of people's lives. What about compensation for the absence of other resources, such as forests, river water and fishing facilities?

Former Chairman of the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDP) Sharad Jain told Frontline that the rehabilitation process "has gone out of control". He admitted: "Nobody thought that so many people would be displaced or that we would be cultur ally displacing them." However, he still justifies the project "because too much investment has gone in to turn back now. The people of Gujarat are expecting a lot."

While the NVDP has made a grand promise to provide canal-fed water to the drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra, the reality may be different. The water will pass through heavily industrialised areas, which will siphon off the water long before i t reaches the intended destination. Gujarat was awarded a disproportionately large quantity of water because it has drought-prone regions. Instead, the prosperous areas of central Gujarat, where the paper and pulp mills and sugar and cement factories are located, will have the first access to the waters.

THE benefits of this gigantic scheme are ostensibly power and irrigation benefits for an area that lacks these. But the politics of water will ensure that the promise is never fulfilled. Not only are Kutch and Saurashtra unlikely to get the Narmada water ; in the process the prosperous economies of the Narmada riverbanks will be destroyed and a whole new population of displaced people will be created.

While addressing an audience in Indore, Arundhati Roy highlighted the tragedy of the displaced people and the injustice of the dams with a gruesome simile. She likened the situation to a news report that she had read of a tiger in the Belgrade zoo. Drive n mad by the aerial bombings, the tiger started to eat its own limbs. "We are like that tiger," she said. "We have begun to gobble at the edges of our own fringes, at our own people." The price of damming the Narmada may prove too high.

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