Narmada's revenge

Published : May 06, 2005 00:00 IST

The April 7 tragedy at Dharaji village in Madhya Pradesh is a warning about the dangers from the 3,000-odd dams on the Narmada river.


TRAGEDY follows tragedy, but none seems to have any impact on the governments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, which are bent on damming the Narmada regardless of the conseqences. There were three near catastrophes in seven months, with the situation saved only because of the frantic measures taken by voluntary agencies and the district administration. Instead of learning from these experiences, the pro-dam lobby continued to dismiss the fears of anti-dam activists. But on April 7, the river extracted a heavy price for this blindness to the destructive potential of restrictions on its flow.

It was the beginning of the two-day Bhootdi Amavasya, a popular religious occasion in these parts. At Dharaji village in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh, which is one of the traditional gathering places for the event, over 50,000 people had assembled to bathe and pray on the banks of the Narmada at night when a huge tide, five feet high, washed away scores of people. The force of the current and the unexpectedness of the strike caught the victims unawares. Official statistics said 57 people died, a figure established from the number of bodies recovered downstream. Unofficial estimates put the figure at 150. Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activist Alok Agarwal said this number was based on reports from relatives of the missing and from witnesses.

Dharaji is located about 30 km down the river from the Indira Sagar dam, the second biggest in Madhya Pradesh. Local people said the river rose suddenly on April 7 after the National Hydel Development Corporation (NHDC) released water from the Indira Sagar reservoir. Initial investigations revealed that 600 cubic metres of water had been released, which is part of the daily release of water from the dam to generate electricity.

What happened on April 7 cannot be blamed on the release of water alone. It was the failure to clear the banks and warn the pilgrims in time that brought about the tragedy. That it occurred at night, when the pilgrims had gathered for prayers, only made things worse.

The dam authorities had released the extra water at 6.30 p.m., which is the usual time for water release. This water reached Dharaji in about two hours. The pilgrims did not notice the rising water level because of poor lighting, which also hampered rescue efforts.

Both the NHDC and the district administration refuse to take the blame for what happened. The report by the Principal Secretary of the Water Resources Department will, hopefully, throw more light on the accident. Chief Minister Babulal Gaur has said criminal cases would be brought against the government officials found negligent.

The NBA, which has conducted a long campaign against the Narmada dam project, said the accident was typical of the disaster potential of the Narmada dams. A press release from the NBA said that the 3,000-odd dams on the river had rendered it "dangerous and treacherous".

With the largest impoundment in Asia, the Indira Sagar dam has made life perilous for the people living along the upper and lower reaches of the Narmada. The seasonal changes of the river, with which the people living along the river were once so familiar, have been radically altered because of the series of dams. From being a river that was known locally as Ma Reva, a reference to the all-nurturing maternal aspect that the local people attributed to the Narmada, the river is now treacherously unpredictable. The change has occurred all along the 1,310-km stretch of this sacred and once life-giving river.

Consider the example of the area near Jalsindhi, a tribal hamlet in Madhya Pradesh. Before the dam was built, it could be accessed only after a steep climb. The river had cut a gorge and in the dry months it was possible to wade across. In the monsoon the current flowed swift, but local people knew that if they stayed away from midstream they were safe. The river left behind heavy deposits, which sustained the agriculture of the local hamlets, providing more than enough for each family with a bit left over for barter. Fishing and cattle-rearing took care of the other essential nutritional needs. Lives in these hamlets were spartan, but as Luharia Shankaria, a resident of Jalsindhi said, "We had more than we needed. The river looked after us."

With the building of the dams, the landscape has altered unrecognisably. The once famous cliffs of the Narmada, etched with the geology of the ages, are permanently under water. Hamlets that were once perched high up on hills are now at river level. Boats anchor almost at the doorstep. Silt is still deposited, but it is no longer the life-giving soil that it once was. It piles up thick and high all along the banks, and it has taken many lives. Luharia said, "People either get sucked in or get stuck and then crocodiles come and eat them."

The unpredictability extends to the current. Once an easily navigable river, the Narmada is now a mass of sand bars, criss-crossing currents, sunken trees and huge amounts of debris. "We no longer know the currents of the river. The river has risen [because of the dam] and there are new eddies and pulls in the water. Now not even a canoe can get across easily. It twists wildly from side to side. The river is no longer comfortable with herself," Luharia said. The once common ways of crossing the river, like floating across on a log, or doing a lazy frog kick, would now be suicidal.

Perhaps, the saddest changes have come about in the villages that have become islands, like Chimalkheda. Marooned by the rising waters, the village sits in a surreal scenery with half-submerged trees in the waters around it and with homes demolished by the district administration to discourage habitation. Like other residents of tapu (marooned) villages, the residents of Chimalkeda find themselves in a twilight zone - homeless but not eligible for rehabilitation and resettlement since the R&R policy does not have a clause for tapu villages.

A placid and slow-flowing river, the Narmada flows through hills and plains. Fed by a perennial source in the hills at Amarkantak, the river was once known for its predictable nature, even in the monsoon. For centuries, it was the centre of life, economy and culture for those who lived alongside it. Sand-mining, fishing, collection of driftwood and draw-down cultivation (river bed farming) of melons, cucumbers, vegetables and wild rice ensured a living for all. The Nimad region in the plains of the Narmada is just one example of this prosperity. The Nimadi farmers are so satisfied with their lives and rural wealth that migration to cities from this region is rare.

The last two decades of dam-building has torn apart the lives of all those who depend on the Narmada. For instance, in the last one year, nearly 75 per cent of the 15,000 families of the Kewat and Kahar castes, who are primarily engaged in riverine occupations, have been unemployed because of the strict control of downstream water releases. Since the Narmada is now used solely for the activities decided on by the dam authorities, water is released only to suit their purpose.

The alternate exposing and flooding of the riverbed has resulted in the death of aquatic life. It is ironical that man-made control of the water has destroyed human activity, whereas the natural seasonal schedule of the river nurtured it. Take draw-down farming. This temporary form of agriculture is ideally suited to rivers that shrink in the summer. The few months during which the river bed is exposed are ideal for quick-growing crops such as melons, which thrive on the rich silt and use soil moisture to grow. The new schedule of water release has made draw-down agriculture a thing of the past.

One of the sacred rivers of the country, the Narmada has been a centre of intense cultural and religious activity. Lined with scores of temples and shrines, it was well-known for the mystic ritual of Narmada parikrama. Pilgrims started their journey at the source of the river, walked along the bank until they came to its mouth at the Arabian Sea, then they crossed over to the other bank and proceeded up to the source again. Following the river's course was a spiritual landmark in the lives of believers. But the parikrama is now a thing of the past because of the unseasonal releases. The socio-economic activities that went with it have died too, as have the architectural and cultural traditions symbolised by the Shoolpaneshwar temple. Now completely submerged, the temple was an important stop in the parikrama. More such temples and shrines await the same destiny.

Chittaroopa Palit of the NBA, who says the disaster at Dharaji should be a lesson to the State government on what the dams might do, has a warning for the future: "Human tragedies like the one at Dharaji will happen again and again. If the officials cannot control and regulate the releases of the Indira Sagar dam, what will happen when they have to deal with the cumulative impact of the 30 large dams on the river, when they are all built?"

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