The River Narmada slices across central India, a natural dividing line between north and south. Rising in eastern Madhya Pradesh, it flows west for 1,300 kilometres through gorges and plains, alluvial belts and mountain ranges. Along its way it skirts Maharashtra State and on through Gujarat, finally pouring into the Arabian Sea.
Although the Narmada is a mighty stream the traveller glimpses it only now and again. Occasional bridges carry dilapidated roads high above its shining waters, but the countryside along its banks is difficult to reach except from the river itself. The Narmada is the defining element in the landscape, the lives of whose inhabitants it has ruled materially and spiritually for thousands of years. This explains why Mother Narmada is so revered: shrines and temples adorn her banks. The cultures etched by Narmada’s behaviour retain a self-sufficiency from the world outside.
That is one reason why the dams on the Narmada River are an affront. They breach that self-sufficiency, they disregard the existing social and economic relationship between people and their environment. They do so in a blasphemous way by co-opting the people’s life force – the river – and turning it upon them as a destroyer.
The plan to corral the river into a series of huge stepped reservoirs, ending with the 214-kilometre stretch behind the massive Sardar Sarovar, will cause an environmental makeover throughout the valley. This upheaval is being perpetrated by outsiders in the interests of ‘the common good’. For hundreds of communities, ‘the common good’ requires drowning their homes and lands. The planners say that oustees will be rehabilitated – receive new homes and lands – in accordance with state policies. But if you go and look, there is no way that you can believe them.
I am at Bargi Nagar, after two bone-rattling hours from Jabalpur on the back of Babloo’s motor-bike and ten hours in an overnight bus. Babloo is a young Narmada activist and I am the guest of Vivek Bajhal, Additional Engineer of the Bargi power station. Electricity for Jabalpur is generated by its massive turbines, courtesy of a large dam – one of 30 planned and the nearest to the Narmada’s source. The reservoir is also meant to irrigate 437,000 hectares. But although it finished filling in 1990 no-one has bothered to build the irrigation canals. The dam submerged 27,000 hectares of agricultural land and forests, an area three times larger than intended.
This used to be Kipling country, land of tiger hunts, obscure maharajahs and thugee who waylaid travellers and killed them for fun. Vivek says that the ‘interior’ at the far end of the reservoir is still wild, jungly and remote. Those communities are adivasi – aboriginal. This is not the Brazilian rainforest but, in crowded India, the closest equivalent. Large dams and flooded wildernesses go together. But this was a wilderness only in the bureaucratic mind. Instead of 90 villages, 162 were submerged. The number of people was 114,000: 44,000 more than anticipated. Some had to be relocated two or three times as their villages were again submerged. None received land in compensation.
Since 1950, at least 25 million people in India have been displaced by large projects.1 Of these, 40 per cent are adivasis – who constitute only 8 per cent of India’s population. Adivasis are called ‘scheduled tribes’ and constitutional provisions protect them. But these don’t, apparently, extend to the theft of their lands and livelihoods. It is the predicament of indigenous people everywhere: who says you own the forest? Where are your title deeds? Over time they have been increasingly hemmed into remote corners and designated ‘encroachers’ of their own lands.
The statistics say that 50 per cent of those displaced by large projects have been pauperized. In the lands beyond Bargi Nagar the proportion is closer to 100 per cent. This includes farmers, as well as craftsmen and merchants, in adivasi and non-adivasi communities. A few people starved to death or died of hopelessness in the terrible years between 1990 and 1993 when the state, as Vivek puts it, drowned them. Most are now rural paupers or have ended up as the cheapest of labour, pulling rickshaws in Jabalpur. Self-sufficient farmers who once had self-respect have become lowly servants of others, grateful for a job as a watchman.
Those who have avoided this fate have done so only by tenacious struggle against the bureaucracy’s abysmal neglect. According to Vivek, even officers whose specific job is their rehabilitation care nothing for the people of the Bargi submergence. They only ‘hold pen’.
Vivek, his family and neighbours, are very hospitable, but they are a little disappointed in me. Recently they entertained another Englishwoman. Miraben was very spiritual. She wore holy orange. She was doing parikrama – pilgrimage – barefoot, up one bank and down the other. Two thousand kilometres and nothing to eat except charity lentils and chapatis. Miraben entrusted all her money and possessions to a holy man. He vanished and so did they, but since she was spiritual she did not mind. Vijay, a young English teacher and son of Dr Solaiyappan, a friend of Vivek’s, arrives to inspect me. She is not like Miraben, he says to Vivek. No, agrees Vivek, she is not spiritual. Too true.
Vivek and Babloo have already taken me on the back of a motorbike to visit some submergence communities close by. We rode at dusk along a stony track, the five-kilometre dam of earth and concrete stretching away in the distance. We switchbacked up a hair-raising path into the adivasi village of Binjha. It has been rebuilt on a headland above the spreading waters. The far bank used to be 100 yards away. Now it is several miles.
The houses are neat and gaily decorated. Inside, they are almost bare. These families used to farm seven, eight, ten acres of fertile land. They were given some cash compensation many years ago, but land prices instantly shot up so they could not replace it. Besides, they had never previously handled any large sum of cash, so they spent it on marriages. The dam was a remote idea. But as the waters rose their land went under. The police brought bulldozers and they were forced to shift. Soon they were also forced to sell their cattle and anything of value. Their lives have since disintegrated.
Simi Lal, an elderly woman, describes how they live now. The men have gone to Jabalpur. The women sell firewood. Four hours to collect a load, four hours to Bargi Nagar, four hours back. They make 12 rupees a day – US$ 0.25. They can barely feed their families. They eat only the cheapest rice boiled in lots of water. No pulse, no vegetables, maybe some forest leaves. And before the submergence? Simi Lal waxes lyrical. Roti, dal, curds, rice, vegetables, fruits, everything. You look at the women and children and they are wasted and thin. When I ask Simi Lal if she minds that her husband has gone away, she pauses. ‘At least I am sure that he is safe and he eats. What else can I say? There is nothing we can do.’
In 1991 the people displaced by Bargi reservoir began to demand rehabilitation. They sought help from the Andolan, and they had a valuable ally in Dr BD Sharma, previously India’s Commissioner of Scheduled Castes and Tribes. They held rallies and sit-ins. They successfully claimed the right to fish in the reservoir – from which they were barred. They formed a fishing co-operative and were given a contract. But their new livelihood is constantly threatened. Others try to bribe officials to get their co-operative out.
One submergence village – Bijasen – has become identified with the struggle. In 1993 BD Sharma told the authorities to come and negotiate. He built a small hut below the village and he sat in it for 55 days, threatening to drown if the waters rose. The Madhya Pradesh authorities did negotiate and accepted many demands: land settlement, water supplies, electricity. But afterwards little happened.
Another satyagraha (sit-in) in 1994 forced concessions. Still nothing happened, except by ‘pen’. So, in 1996, yet another satyagraha as the waters rose. There were police charges, beatings and violent arrests, including of Medha Patkar. But the people at Bijasen sat on in the water. When they were arrested others took their places. They demanded that, every year, the reservoir be kept below a certain level from mid-December so that they could farm the exposed land. Eventually the Government agreed. Every year now the families get some harvest.
But the battle is endless. Any gain won with painful effort, signed and sealed, may never progress beyond pen. Or be whimsically withdrawn. This evening at Binjha we are told that the electricity connection – won so dearly – has been cut. Why? There seems to be a permanent campaign of harassment, as if the authorities are trying to torment these people into oblivion. Already half have vanished into the urban maw of destitute labour. How long can the rest resist?
The next day we set off for Bijasen in a jeep – myself, Babloo, who grew up here as a child, and Vijay, now our translator. The road is appalling. Babloo says the police built it in 1996 to bring in vehicles to arrest the satyagrahi. Vijay has never been here before. As he translates story upon dreadful story his eyes become larger and more horrified. My lack of spirituality is eclipsed. He feels sick.
Babloo takes us to the ‘model village’ of Golakpur, where his father was brought in 1991 to be resettled. There is no land to till nor water, just lines of huts. Babloo’s father died in penury last year. He was once a substantial merchant with a pack-horse business and 16 acres of land. His hut is falling down – no-one wants it. At another, a woman called Rambati talks to us. Her husband has gone to try and find work for the day, but no locals want to hire him. They resent the incomers. ‘I live without hope,’ she says. ‘I can barely sleep. How will my children survive?’
Hours later we rest in Vivek’s living room. Vijay’s father arrives to say that his son is too ill to escort me further. He presents me with a postcard of the Bargi dam as a memento of my visit. Another friend arrives, politely inquisitive. I tell him that I have been visiting villages ruined by the dam. ‘Oh but you see Madam,’ he explains, ‘we have to develop our country.’
- Indian Planning Commission statistics, quoted in Dam vs Drinking Water, L.C. Jain, Parisar, Delhi, 2001.
The Narmada struggle has a very special spiritual leader, Baba Amte, a renowned and venerable champion of India’s tribals and dispossessed. On 6 March 1990, Baba Amte moved from his previous ashram to live on Narmada’s banks, to lend his presence and his prestige to the Andolan. They built him a house at Chhoti Kasaravad, a small headland overlooking the water, and planted papaya and other shady trees. We visit Baba, now 87. Spinal weakness means he is obliged always to lie down. His bed is in the garden.
In 1994 his house was flooded and they had to rescue him by boat. The coming monsoon will very likely flood him out again. I respectfully ask Baba if he is going to drown. No, he tells me, certainly not. He doesn’t approve of drowning, not for himself or for Medha. In frail but ringing tones he declares: ‘The victor is he who, even in defeat, never surrenders.’
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