Shivraj Singh Chouhan leads a unique river conservation campaign, but experts allege it will not even begin to mitigate the destruction governments have wreaked on the Narmada
It was a sultry afternoon but the proximity of the river made it almost pleasant. The festive atmosphere – crowds, shamiana, devotional music – completed the scene.
“It is such a big event for us. There is nothing more pious than taking a dip in the holy waters of the Narmada,” said Ramesh Sharma, who had come from Satna district. Clad in a white kurta-pajama, he had turned to speak to me after completing prayers to the river along with his group of six-seven pilgrims. “Its parikrama is a spiritual journey. My family was looking forward to it. The Madhya Pradesh government has taken a good initiative to organise the Narmada yatra. The punya (virtue) from this yatra will benefit us all.”
The Narmada, one of the largest rivers in India, is also one of the seven holy rivers of Hinduism. Literally the Giver of Joy, it is holiest of the holies, as it is the only river that merits parikrama, or circumambulation. The puranas and scriptures record a myriad of legends about it. Adi Shankaracharya in his hymn, Narmadashatakam, says its “sacred water has the divine power to transform those who are prone to hatred, the hatred born of sins”. Ancient historians mention it with awe.
The Shivraj Singh Chouhan-led Madhya Pradesh government, always on the lookout for potent symbols (surya namaskar in schools, Gita in syllabus) to bolster majority pride and its rapport with the vote bank, organised a unique Narmada Yatra. It started on December 11 last year and concluded on May 15. Many noted religious leaders, including the Dalai Lama, Sri Sri Ravishankar, Swami Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev and Chinmayanand Saraswati, participated in the march for a while, and the chief minister himself walked along the riverbanks for two to three days several times. It was billed as “the world’s biggest river conservation campaign with people’s participation”.
The yatra on the whole traced the traditional itinerary: starting from the source of the river at Amarkantak, pilgrims walked up to Sondwa, near the Gujarat border, crossed the river by boat, and walked back to Amarkantak. The pilgrims, along with visiting VIPs and officials covering short distances on given days, walked 1,831 km on the southern bank and 1,513 km on the northern bank – a total of 3,344 km on foot in 148 days.
Prime minister Narendra Modi addressed a massive gathering at the conclusion. “Narmada is behind the prosperity of farmers in Madhya Pradesh. If we fail in our duty of protecting rivers, it will spell doom for the mankind,” he said, and a thunderous applause followed.
Despite the temperature crossing 45 degrees Celsius, the crowd appeared to be swelling by every degree. Thronging the ghats decorated with triangular red flags, people got ready to take the religious boat ride.
“All our sins will be washed away. There is nothing more pious than the Narmada. My entire family has come to worship and do the parikrama. We firmly believe that a ritual bath in this river can wash away all the sins of your lifetime,” said Ramkamal, a devotee who had come with his wife and two daughters.
The religious fervour was palpable. Five lean figures repeatedly bowed their heads in front of a black stone statue and chanted “Narmada Ke Kanker utte Sankar”, a popular saying meaning every pebble stone of Narmada is a form of Lord Shiva. The lingam-shaped stones, ‘cryptocrytalline quartz’ in scientific terms and popularly called Banalinga or Banashivalingas, are much sought after for daily worship. As half-clad priests sat nearby, some pilgrims got onto the boats to go to the Narmada mandir, marking the point of the river’s origin, while others took a dip in the holy waters chanting “Narmada, Narmada”.
When it began, the MP government claimed the ‘Namami Devi Narmade’ campaign aspired to bring into focus the need to conserve rivers and protect lives. While launching the yatra, Chouhan remarked that the Narmada is the lifeline of Madhya Pradesh. He said, “The parikrama is to increase awareness about the need for conservation of river Narmada and sustainable use of its resources. The plantations at the banks of the Narmada are carried out for protection of the riparian zone and reduction in soil erosion. This initiative is to suggest remedial action in the field of river conservation and promotion of eco-friendly agricultural practices and identify various sources of river pollution and to resolve the same through public awareness and participation.”
The state government has continued the ‘Namami Devi Narmade’ campaign even after completion of the yatra to highlight the importance of the Narmada and its conservation. Creating awareness is needed, as the exploitation of the resources of the Narmada has been a cause for concern. Activists and experts worry about nascent pollution in its waters, illegal sand mining along its banks, and the reducing forest cover in the areas it passes through.
The state is alive to these dangers and has prepared a roadmap to conserve the river. In his speech, Modi said, “The roadmap was sent to me in advance and I went through it. It has details of what is to be done, by whom, and when. In my opinion, it is a perfect document with a future vision.” The prime minister gave an example of the Bharathappuzha, a river in Kerala. “It is a matter of concern whether this river will survive or not. We are forced to sweat it out now because we did not fulfil our responsibilities towards rivers. We exploited them for our vested interest.”
The state government’s concern and large-scale efforts for a river are salutary, and other states can learn a lesson or two from this campaign. India’s rivers need all the help. However, in case of the Narmada, the authorities first will have to mitigate a lot of harm they have caused to the river – primarily because of the Narmada Valley Development Project, a supremely ambitious multi-purpose initiative spanning decades to tame the river, divert its excess waters and harvest them for irrigation and power generation. The construction of more than 3,000 dams, including 30 large dams over the 1,310 km length of the river, has done irreparable harm to its eco-system, experts and environmentalists allege.
“The project has shattered human lives and biodiversity by inundating thousands of acres of forests and agricultural land. The government wants to build these dams on the river in the name of development. But if you don’t know what it costs and who has paid for it, how can you measure progress?” asks Rakesh Diwan, an environmentalist in Bhopal-based Vikas Samwad. With dams obstructing the flow of the water, villages along the bank are flooded every year during the monsoon. Those who live in these villages are “given false promises and told that they would be relocated. With this project, lakhs of families are displaced and their livelihoods are snatched,” says Diwan.
Dams on the Narmada are destroying fertile agricultural soil due to continuous irrigation, and salinisation, making the soil toxic to many plant species, he says. The largest of the dams under construction is the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), near Kevadiya Colony in central Gujarat, which has flooded more than 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land – destroying some of India’s most fertile land, he adds.
“Dams kill the river. The flow is the soul of the river and the dam kills it,” says Himanshu Thakkar, an IITian who runs South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) from New Delhi and has been researching the Narmada in particular for decades. “Building a dam leads to deforestation, destruction of biodiversity, and takes away the livelihood of people. When a dam is constructed, the silt doesn’t reach the delta and gets trapped by the dam, which has a huge role play in flood plains. Water and silt gets blocked by dams. The salinity of the river is at stake.”
He offers data to buttress his point: “Historical sediment discharge of the Narmada was found to be 61 million tonnes and the current sediment discharge (average of the last ten years of a study) was found to be 3.23 million tonnes, indicating a 95% reduction in sediment discharge. The presence of a dam reduces 70-90% of coarse and approximately 50% of medium-sized particles on their way downstream, allowing them to settle in the reservoir. Comparative studies of average suspended sediment load at various locations on the Narmada for more than two decades show overall reduction in suspended sediment load in the river.”
So, how can the government begin to counter this impact? “The government has not yet fully assessed the problems with the Narmada. One can only mitigate impacts after assessment. The government is busy publicising their events like Narmada Sewa Yatra which is completely bogus. It’s a facade and a publicity gimmick,” says Thakkar.
A visit to Badwani district, the zone most affected by the SSP and the hub of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), shows what Diwan and Thakkar are talking about.
For Shama Bai, there is no means of livelihood for the past two months. She lives in Pichaudi village, which is hardly five kilometres from Barwani town. “If we move away from here, what will we eat? How will our kids survive? We have no other option. Earlier we used to catch at least six to seven kg of fish and manage to earn a living and feed our kids. But from the time the government has built the dam and asked us to step back, we have no mode of survival. We are fisherfolk, all we know is fishing; how can we relocate and find another mode of livelihood? The Narmada is like mother goddess to us, we worship it. This river has sustained us for generations. If it is taken away from us, how will we live?” says the 42-year-old, wiping her tears with a red dupatta.
Kamala, from a farming family, has come to the NBA office with a group of seven others from her community. Pointing to a lean fellow next to her (who continues to look down), she says, “He is Radheshyam. His house drowns every time there is a flood. This has happened so many times, we have lost count. Every time we put things back in place after the floods. The government always promises to give us pucca houses, but it has never happened. Now they have snatched our livelihood, what do we do?”
NBA is spearheaded by Medha Patkar, who had arrived here in the 1980s as a young researcher working on her academic project. After studying the plight of the about-to-be-displaced ‘project affected people’ (PAP), she junked her academics and turned to activism to fight for their rights. It was the NBA which went to the supreme court in 1994 with a public interest litigation (PIL) against the SSP. The court stayed the construction for years, but granted a go-ahead in 2000, on the condition that the dam-building would progress only in tandem with the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) of the PAP.
Since 2000, NBA has fought against what it calls lapses in R&R on the part of the three beneficiary states – Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. MP has faced more flak than the others for tardy R&R. (On June 7, Gujarat police briefly detained her and 60-odd activists when they tried to enter the state with their ‘Rally for the Valley’.)
Patkar says, “In the last two years, only 53 people have been rehabilitated. While some have not got land, many of them who have found that the given land was encroached. The Narmada Seva Yatra was organised for political reasons in the name of conservation of environment.”
Khaparkhera, a small town less than five kilometres from Bhidwani in Indore, is one of the villages facing mass dislocation. The houses around the lush green field that holds all the sources of livelihood for these villagers suggest that it must have been a bustling town in the past. Calls of birds and mynas fill the air. It’s unusually quiet, and there are hardly a few people around. A six-foot tall man comes out of his house, and calls out his neighbour. I ask him about the empty houses. He says most people have left. “People who have relocated are the ones who managed to get some other place or are well off. But people like us are stuck and are waiting for compensation. The problem is that the compensation amount is so small that it will help us in any which way.”
In and around Khaparkhera, about 40,000 families face displacement. “On paper, we have been given a plot, but there’s nothing on the ground. Someone else has built a house on the plot. I’m 70, and from a farming background, we have been farmers all throughout our life. What will my kids do now?” wonders Babita, who bursts into tears.
Addressing the gathering at Amarkantak, PM Modi hit the bull’s eye by saying that “the Narmada has been brutally exploited in the recent years” but made no mention of the delayed R&R (something he often mentioned in his 2002 election campaign speeches, when MP was ruled by the Congress).
At Babri Ghat, a little over 100 km from Bhopal, sand mining continues. Trucks loaded with freshly mined sand from the ghat are being transported in the wee hours. Experts say that sand mining affects the groundwater table besides destroying habitat of biodiversity. On December 12, a day after launching the Yatra, Chouhan announced a ban on mining in Amarkantak, but it remains to be seen how effective it turns out to be.
(The article appears in June 30, 2017 edition)