Lessons from the Narmada Bachao Andolan

25 years later, they continue their epic battle for survival far away from national consciousness


Prasanna Mohanty | October 25, 2010

Snapshots of a struggle
Snapshots of a struggle

People of the Narmada valley marked their 25 years of struggle against big dams last weekend without much fanfare, quite clearly because their struggle has gone out of public discourse and national consciousness. A sad comment indeed given the seminal contribution they made towards what we have come to recognise now, though not fully implement yet, as good governance practices. It was their struggle which, for the first time, raised a voice for right to information, right to land and forests, right to food and livelihood, right to resettlement and rehabilitation and, above all, questioned the logic of big dams, a deeply flawed growth-centric development paradigm that benefitted a few at the cost of the others and proposed smaller dams, check dams and other water harvesting measures, instead, to take care of the water needs. They were also the ones, for the first time, to seek people’s participation in decision-making.

Post independence, there have been several major political movements; some, like those in Punjab and Assam, died down but others, in Kashmir, parts of the Northeast and the tribal heartland, continue to simmer. What sets people of the Narmada apart is their adherence to the Gandhian non-violence and satyagraha, not by compulsion but by choice. Ashish Chadha, who teaches anthropology at Yale University, USA, wrote an article in the Hindustan Times a few months ago recalling his days of the Manibeli satyagrah of 1991 in which Medha Patkar, activists of her Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and some tribals planned to drown themselves in rising waters of the Narmada. (This Maharashtra hamlet went down in 2009.) He remembers what members of the dreaded People’s War Group said to him: “We told Medha-tai to let us lead the movement for just one day. We will see to it that this dam (Sardar Sarovar) is never made. Gandhian non-violence will not do you any good. You don’t know this government. It will trample you. It will mercilessly crush you.”

Medha didn’t relent and the prophecy came true. She and her NBA stand discredited and marginalised today, thanks to suppression and vicious state-sponsored campaigns. Their place has been taken over, in the tribal heartland at least, by the marauding Maoists (after PWG and Maoist Communist Centre merged in 2004) who have brought to centre stage the debate about good governance and alternate development models. Medha may not profess violence but is now often seen in the company of Maoist front organisations and Arundhati Roy, the celebrated author who batted for Medha’s non-violence for many years, is thoroughly disillusioned and has become an apologist for the cult of Maoist violence.

As for the Narmada’s hapless people, their struggle endures. Unofficial assessment (as per Justice AP Shah report of June 2010) puts the number of people yet to be fully rehabilitated at 2,00,000. There is no official word on it decades after construction of the Narmada dams (30 major, 135 medium and 3,000 small ones) began. That is because dispute over the very definitions of “submergence area” and “project affected family” continues even today. The Narmada Tribunal and then the supreme court added to the mess by saying rehabilitation could happen “pari passu” with the dam work.

Benefits from the Narmada dams? Well, the ground realities are vastly different from what was promised because some of the dams and most of the canal work remain incomplete. Disputes over water allocation for irrigation and power plants have ensured that even the build-up facilities remain under-utilised. Kutch and Saurashtra, in whose name Gujarat government built up a resistance to the NBA, may have got water for drinking but nor for irrigation because the canal works are struck in the first phase (they will get it in the third phase). In any case, only 1.5 percent of cultivable area in Kutch and 7 percent of cultivable area in Saurashtra were to get water.

The Narmada struggle has provided countless lessons, without putting a gun to our head. Probably that has proved to be their undoing.



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