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Armada Against Narmada


new internationalist
issue 230 - April 1992

Over the barrel: dam building brings work to local people - but it will also flood their homes.
Armada against Narmada
India's Narmada dam project is the most grotesque example of World Bank monomania.
But women like Medha Patkar are helping to build a formidable wall of human opposition.

For the last seven years a fight has been going on in the Narmada valley and it is now quite clear that the valley is being led towards destruction - not just of its environment but also of its human communities.

This particular valley, which has bountiful forest and water resources, has been the life support system for the tribal communities who live there for generations. Now it has become the focus of attention for those who want to exploit these resources in the name of development.

For them, development means meeting demand. And demand comes from those who have the purchasing power and the political power to express it. If water in the Narmada region is to be harnessed to hydropower then this is justified on the basis of the demand for energy. But who ultimately is going to benefit from hydropower? This question is never frankly and promptly answered. No-one is encouraged to ask it. The whole atmosphere, in developing countries also, is dominated by the Westem-oriented development pattern and the interests of elites - bureaucrats, politicians, contractors and their like.

We realized the first thing to be done was to establish the rights of the directly affected people. These include the tribal people belonging to highly-integrated, non-consumerist communities living right up in the mountain ranges, with no roads, no shop, no school, no post office, no whatever you call an indicator of modem development.

Nonetheless they are rich in other ways. They are integrated. They know how to manage their lives with happiness and within the available resources. And they also have a more or less sustainable way of handling natural capital resources. They have three 'lenders' at their disposal; the land, the forest and the river. Unlike the World Bank, these natural 'banks' come to their help when they need them, in one season one, in another season another.

The communities in the plains are heterogeneous, not homogeneous like the tribal peoples, but they are culturally established, full of not just tourist sights and monuments but a culture which revolves around the natural resources in the valley.

But the Government claimed the project was 'public purpose' and used the age-old Land Acquisition Act. The Act is irrelevant to this kind of large-scale displacement, large-scale social and environmental impact, which involves not just individuals but communities, civilizations within civilizations.

The tribal people said: 'Land is not created by you; land is created by God. It has been in our hands for generations. So today if you come to plunder what is capital not just for us but for generations to come we can't easily allow you to do that. If you come as intermediaries from the Almighty, kindly get a certificate from Him! Tell us what you want, bargain for it, and then we will have our own doubts.'

Now, there are no answers to these kinds of questions - even simple, logical, practical questions like: 'How could you start building the dam before even coming to ask us? How can you expect us to sacrifice everything that supports our way of life and our livelihood?' The whole frame-work of 'public purpose' projects and land acquisition was questioned.

The World Bank always sends the first reconnaissance mission to projects of this kind, so it gets legitimacy and credibility. No-one ever questions the details of the data used by the World Bank. In the case of Sardar Sarovar (Narmada) projects, four pages of risk analysis showed that the economic rate of return might come to zero, and so it has proved in practice. But the World Bank has no wish to face up to the consequences. The project becomes irreversible.

Development officials are cautious and like to boast of 'involvement' and 'participation'. But their words are empty. They create new structures and in the process invariably end up destroying or by-passing indigenous structures and values. Take the Social Forestry Programme of India, for example. The initial programme as proposed by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) promised that the forests would meet the needs of the community, who would participate in forestry. Nothing like that has happened. The communities have become the daily wage earners for forester teams who are out to exploit tribal people. They do not have to worry about protests because once a project is funded, once it's supported from outside, local support doesn't matter.

We're not saying that you can't interact with us. But you must interact with the community, with a full understanding of our rights, which have come to us through generations. You cannot come to us in the form of a collector, an administrator, a politician or whosoever and bestow upon us the rights and titles to our own land.

For if people accept this kind of thing they also will not mind destroying their own natural resources. Suppose a woman is cooking and she wants firewood for the stove to cook bread. Now, tribal houses are very spacious, full of wood, with wooden pillars, and each type of wooden pillar has a separate name. The woman who starts hunting for wood never touches the pillar by the hearth. She goes out and takes wood from the forest, which she does not think of as hers but the Government's. So she is not concerned for its future. There is no meaning in saying: 'But look! They had the forest and they destroyed it!' Technically speaking, in modem property terms, they never had it in the first place.

These matters have a twofold importance for aboriginal and indigenous peoples anywhere in the world. First because they are the ones facing the direct backlash of the development model. Second, they are not just preserving their own land, but demonstrating how a people-nature relationship, a human-human relationship which can be non-exploitative, is the basis of their life.

The real challenge of 'modernity' faces everyone. That challenge is not to fulfil a particular person's desires, or those of a small number of people. That is easy. The real challenge is not to have a water source in just one place because you can't find a way to tap it in the thousand different places that are needed. The real challenge is not to fund a single project costing hundreds of millions of dollars, but to develop participation as the focus at 500 or 500,000 different points. That is the challenge that needs to be faced if truly modem institutions are to be created. Otherwise you are the traditional ones - you are more traditional than we are.

There must be roots among the people. You cannot call these 'grass roots'. Grass roots are very superficial, you know. This kind of jargon is rhetorical and has no meaning for most people. I know European activists who have 'grass roots' all over the place which entitle them to participate in 20 different seminars. If you 'participate' by going from seminar to seminar, conference to conference, you cannot achieve anything. There is a kind of development agency network that is still clinging to islands of 'grass roots'.

That does not mean there should not be a support network. But what we really need is people to go out and reach the larger masses. Without that, you can talk of saving this or that but it has no meaning. You have to live the life of the people involved. When a dam is being constructed you have to be ready to face the rising water with them. Only if you can develop that faith in the communities do you have any moral right to say 'sacrifice your lives to save the valleys and the hills and the communities who live in them'.

Of course, if you are attacking powerful institutions you have to learn their terminology and dissect their methodology. But it is the voice of aboriginal peoples, with their questions which can't be answered, and reaching out to others as well, that really matters. And one of them once said to me: 'We should not have anything to do with paper. Otherwise we lose.'

Medha Patkar is a member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the opposition campaign to the Narmada Dam project. She has been on hunger strike and was arrested shortly before leaving India to receive a 1991 Right Livelihood Award (the 'Alternative Nobel Prize') on behalf of the campaign.

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New Internationalist issue 230 magazine cover This article is from the April 1992 issue of New Internationalist.
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