A Temple Too Far
Narmada / MAHESHWAR
The temple at Maheshwar is one of the grandest on the whole Narmada river. Ahilyabai, an 18th century Maharani of great wealth and even greater holiness, built a massive sandstone palace and temple complex here, through whose arches long flights of steps descend to ghats – bathing and worshiping places – on the river.
Until recently there has been no contestant to Ahilya in the construction business at Maheshwar. Now there is. Today’s builder is S Kumars. They aren’t using sandstone and marble but earth and concrete, and the temple is the kind that Prime Minister Nehru, in an unfortunate moment 50 years ago, saluted as a ‘temple of modern India’: a dam. In 1993, S Kumars won the concession to build here the first privately constructed hydroelectric dam in India. But the award was a poisoned chalice. Little did S Kumars expect to be so embattled.
Maheshwar is in the heart of the Nimad plains, a long stretch of fertile land watered by Narmada. As the floodwater marks in the Maheshwar Temple show, the river can rise to tremendous heights in the monsoon season. This happens suddenly, often tempestuously.
When you see those high-water marks – skyscraper-height above the dry-season stream – you realize that the gathering of vast volumes of surging water behind a dam, especially when the river slams into it and sends a swirling mass of water back over itself, must create havoc in the valley behind. Many villages in the Nimad are large, like small towns. Sixty-one will be fully or partially drowned by the Maheshwar dam’s retention of the river, or by the backwaters and the silt they carry.
This figure was wrung from the authorities only with great difficulty. But local people distrust it. The surveyors are seen as allies of S Kumars. Such a large project, especially in the hands of a private company as closed to local people and as unanswerable as a Maharajah in his palace, is a gravitational centre of power and influence. According to survey marks, some areas slated for submergence are higher than others which are not. The number of households to be displaced and their assets are also regularly under-estimated. Altogether, 40-50,000 people are supposed to be affected. But the reality may be more. Many fear another Bargi in the making.
Farming here on the black cotton soil is lucrative, and there are many well-heeled and prominent families in the Nimad. From the river, snaking pipes from electric pumpsets run up the bank and penetrate several kilometres inland. Irrigation means that, at any time of year, crops are growing: wheat, maize, soya, pulses, chillies, citrus fruits, bananas, papaya, cotton and vegetables.
In the richer villages, tractors and trailers are parked below the trees. Lower castes provide the patidars (landowners) with much of their labour. Many patidars, sitting out in their immaculate pale-mauve cotton, tell you that they are just farmers, no-one special. But their prosperity supports a host of carpenters, smiths, tailors and shopkeepers as well as labourers. Their produce feeds cities such as Indore and Bhopal – is even traded abroad.
All through the Nimad plains, communities threatened either here, or downstream by the Sardar Sarovar, have mounted determined resistance. The struggle to stop the Maheshwar dam began in earnest three years ago. At an evening meeting in Pathrad village, the women – who have dominated the Maheshwar campaign – describe what happened.
‘We were never told anything,’ says Radneshyam Patidar. ‘In early 1997 blasting work began. People demanded to know what was going on. When they admitted a dam would come up, prominent people went to meet the Narmada Andolan. This is the same valley as Sardar Sarovar, the same people, this should be a common struggle.’ Alok Agarwal, a senior Narmada activist, came to mobilize with them. ‘We went to see the Collector [Magistrate] and fasted in front of his office to demand information. He finally gave us a list of the villages to be submerged. So we went from village to village to tell people.’
In 1998 came the first major action. Kamla Patidar takes up the story. ‘On 11 January, thousands of us marched to the dam site through the darkness and captured it. We refused to move. After 15 days we decided to begin a fast. On the fifth day, Alok became extremely ill and the doctor said he would die. So the Deputy Chief Minister came to negotiate. He promised to stop dam construction until a Task Force had made a report. So we left off our agitation.’
Alok Agarwal and Medha Patkar were included in the Task Force. But long before it reported, dam construction resumed. This led to a 5,000-strong rally and another sit-in. People’s willingness to face the police – a hallmark of Narmada resistance – unnerves the authorities who invariably over-react. Squads of riot police were brought in, there were lathi (baton) charges, beatings and arrests – with special vindictiveness against women. Hundreds were taken away by truck and ended up in jail.
When dam-building again continued, women lay on the access roads, in relays, for months and prevented construction materials arriving. Some of their menfolk thought this action indecent, but they did not stop them. In Pathrad, women boast of the number of times they have been arrested and lathi-charged.
Why are the women the most vigorous in the struggle? Nimad women usually stay at home. This is why they feel the threat of the dam so keenly. Kamla: ‘It is the women who run the house, raise the children, look after the guests. The men normally sit outside. So once we are displaced, the women will bear the brunt.’ Kamla and her daughter-in-law took part in the first dam-site capture in 1998. She has since become a seasoned activist. ‘We organize among ourselves. If the mother-in-law is off at the dam site, the daughter will take her place at home. Food will be prepared and brought there, the children will be looked after.’
Late in 1998 the Task Force report was delivered. It condemned the rehabilitation record. The state’s policy was to give ‘land for land’, but at Maheshwar they bought people out with paltry sums of cash. The project’s economics were also fundamentally flawed: it would only generate any quantity of power during the monsoon, and the unit price would be very high. It was a classic Indian public-private partnership: under the Power Purchase Agreement the state would pay S Kumars and its foreign partners a tidy sum whether or not electricity was generated and whether or not it could be sold.
The government took the Report seriously during the elections, but once they were over, it was forgotten. Struggle, review, betrayal, the standard Andolan experience. But they fight on. Their communities are at stake. Kamla says what others say: ‘We will drown rather than let the dam come up.’
A great deal of effort to stop the dam has been devoted to informing international investors and suppliers exactly what they are getting into. Last year, when Siemens was seeking a government export credit guarantee for a $100 million bank loan, three village representatives from Nimad went to Germany to ask the Government to refuse it. The trip was sponsored by Urgewald, an NGO which campaigns against German involvement in destructive projects. Urmila Patidar from Pathrad was on the delegation. ‘We said to the bank officials: why don’t you send a team to have a look?’ In Berlin, they persuaded the German Ministry of Development to do precisely that. Their report was highly critical and the guarantee withheld.
Once investors have been told the facts of Maheshwar – the illegalities surrounding compensation, the flaky cost-benefit analysis – each has withdrawn. The list is impressive: US companies PacGen, Ogden, and Harza International; from Germany, Bayernwerk, VEW Energie, and Siemens; most recently, ABB and the French company Alstrom. With these withdrawals, 71 per cent of project equity has flown away.
S Kumars should by now be in ignominy and the dam permanently stalled. But S Kumars stated recently that ‘the project is on track’. Only a conjuring trick would secure funds now, but one cannot rule it out. In India things constantly happen which defy credulity.
Up the river from Pathrad, on the other side of the bank, is Mardana village, also slated for submergence. Mardana is reached by ferry, the boatman poling his craft across the narrows. A steep climb leads to a prosperous village with paved streets, gracious courtyards and cascading bougainvillea.
We call on the ex-Sarpanch (village head), Kalu Singh Mandloi. His house is painted turquoise blue, a traditional Nimad colour. Across the courtyard is a pillared verandah with rooms behind. In one of these Kalu Singh discusses his concerns, while from the wall, the Goddess Narmada looks innocently down.
‘We in Mardana do not want the dam. I cannot personally believe that the dam will come up because the project is such a bad one.’ Kalu Singh is convinced that, in the end, the authorities will see sense. ‘But if it does, the people here are not willing to leave. They would rather drown.’
Many people regard Kalu as their Sarpanch (head) although he lost the last election. Why did that happen? ‘Because I did not distribute liquor or buy votes. The other candidate was promoted by S Kumars who tried to split the village. But we are united against the dam. Now he is Sarpanch he has to oppose it. Otherwise no-one will listen to him.’
We talk about Mardana, its market, its high school, its dispensary, its three buses. But we soon revert to S Kumars. ‘The company has bought off all the local magistrates. Everything goes back to the Chief Minister in the end. The police – who beat up the villagers horribly during rallies even though their relatives are among them – they will not put a baton on a person without agreement at the highest level. No district official dares take such decisions. When it comes down from state level, the policeman is helpless. He has to do his duty.’
The ex-Sarpanch is not sanguine that things will improve. Corruption, he feels, is out of hand. ‘Officials at all levels cheat – it is accepted. Even an honest sarpanch, eventually he succumbs. Otherwise you cannot get anything done. The percentage is fixed. If you want the school building repaired, or drainage installed, if you want handpumps. The accountants take money, the surveyors take money, even the man who releases the funds has to be bribed.’ The current democratic process cannot get rid of this. People have no faith in any political group, which is why they freely sell their votes. ‘Every day there is another major scandal. Everyone knows it.’
This land is among the most fertile in the country. Kalu Singh Mandloi asks: Why destroy it? ‘These people, of Mardana, of Nimad, are farmers. They can only farm, they can do no other thing. There is no land like this for them to go to – the state has admitted it. So what can they do if their village is destroyed? They can drown. That is all.’