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Narmada river rising

Water swirls around their ankles, then reaches to their knees. The long-dreaded monsoon submergence of tribal villages in the Narmada Valley upstream from the massive Sardar Sarovar dam is under way. Activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement – NBA) have sworn to face the waters in the village of Domkhedi, and on the night of 20 August that is what they do. They stand in a thatched hut. Tempestuously, the river rises around them, debris and snakes flowing past. Suddenly the water is at their necks.

The political and judicial storms which have led to this are also tempestuous (see NI 336). The 1,300-kilometre river runs through three states, and the three state governments have been wrangling about the dam’s costs and benefits for decades. Maharashtra and especially Madhya Pradesh will suffer almost all the submergence. Gujarat will take all the water. Gujarati politicians tell their people that Narmada waters, travelling through canals and pipelines, are their salvation from drought. Many believe them.

Since 1985, a popular movement led by the indomitable Medha Patkar has sprouted in the Valley: against the dam, against submergence, in favour of people’s rights to the natural resources they depend upon to survive, in favour of real, not cosmetic, resettlement, in favour of local and sustainable water husbandry. They have fasted, sat-in, occupied the dam-site, faced baton charges by police, gone to court and to jail. Now, for the fourth year, they are facing the waters of the monsoon. Last year there was drought, so the threat came and went. But this year the dam is higher.

In May, Gujarat managed to pressure the other states and the malleable Narmada Control Authority (NCA) to let them raise the dam by 5 metres to 95 metres. Resettlement has yet to be completed for those affected at the dam’s current height, so further construction is in violation of a 2000 Supreme Court judgement. The NCA and Supreme Court have turned a blind eye. So if normal rains fall this year, inundation of lands and homes could be catastrophic for up to 6,500 people. For many, it has already happened.

As the drama unfolds at Domkhedi, the state governments are locked in a new round of Narmada wrangling. Their politics go on in a realm quite separate from that of the supposedly non-existent people on the river banks. The Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, who oversaw the worst communal carnage in post-independence India earlier this year and whose officials and police were complicit in attacks on Muslims, faces elections. Modi wants to put another five metres on the Sardar Sarovar as an election stunt, to cast himself as saviour of his drought-stricken people – and woo the influential with water for Ahmedabad city, sugar plantations, and canal-side real estate.

Meanwhile the Chief Ministers of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are upping the stakes on their side, demanding more Gujarat money for resettlement. There are accusations that Maharashtra is inflating the figures of the dispossessed – notoriously under-estimated up to now – as a bargaining chip. The rights of the tribals and farmers as people, as Indian citizens, to their lands, forest, livelihoods, don’t ruffle the surface of these negotiations. The poor are an expendable sacrifice on the altar of inappropriate and unsustainable development benefiting the élite.

As the waters rose in Domkhedi in the frantic darkness of 20 August, villagers broke down the walls of the hut where the activists stood, and moved them higher up. Later, a 200-strong police force arrived and arrested 20 people, charging them with aiding suicide. At Domkhedi the waters briefly receded. Now they are rising once more, and more activists – Medha Patkar among them – stand there. Whatever happens next, the livelihoods of thousands in Narmada have been irrevocably ruined.

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New Internationalist issue 350 magazine cover This article is from the October 2002 issue of New Internationalist.
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