Under Siege in the Narmada Valley

by Angana Chatterji

Dissident Voice

May 27, 2003


In the Narmada Valley, the government is seeking to wrench control over land and livelihood from its poorest citizens. Thirty large, 135 medium and 3,000 small dams are planned on the Narmada River as she journeys through Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The bad news is, over a million lives will be decimated if the project is carried out. About 50 per cent of the affected will be adivasi (tribal) people. Familiar victims of “progress”. Adivasi lives and histories are under siege in India, their annexation into maldevelopment a necessary cost of national advancement. It is a war by the state on its people.


The residents of the Narmada Valley are expected to vanish, like vermin, into the crevices of city slums or resettlement colonies. Become a statistic. Join the 350 million Indians living in poverty. In the Narmada Valley, people are policed and brutalised. Stranded, eliminated. Unable to raise crops, families or livestock, build homes, send children to school. Unable to dream any other life but that of righteous resistance. People whose burden is to be the conscience abdicated by the state.


The Narmada Project has made contentious claims that it will bring water to areas where the need for water is immense. The plan is to store and divert the water of the Narmada. All 1312 kilometres of her will be controlled and managed, exemplifying the power of technology and government. The people of the Valley have protested the construction of these dams since the mid-1980s. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) has advocated the rights of local communities to sustainable development. The Andolan has charged that the Narmada Development Project prioritises the electricity, irrigation, and drinking water needs of the privileged at grave cost to the marginalised.


The Sardar Sarovar multipurpose hydroelectric project is one of the mega dams on the Narmada, expected to produce 1,450 megawatts of power, furnish 30 million people with water, and provide employment for 600,000. The reservoir will flood 91,000 acres of forest and agricultural land. The canal network will mangle another 200,000 acres. The dam will displace 200,000 people. Calculations of costs and benefits are based on assumptions that tribal lives have no value. Small-scale, affordable technologies respectful of local knowledge or the participation of affected people in decision-making escapes the dominant imagination of nation, progress, democracy.


The height of the Sardar Sarovar is directly proportional to the submergence of villages. Following a writ petition by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in 1995, the Supreme Court of India limited the construction of the dam to 80.3 meters. In an interim order in February 1999, the Court sanctioned an increase, raising the height to 85 meters. In October 2000, the Supreme Court allowed another jump to 90 meters. The Supreme Court also upheld the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award mandating land-for-land rehabilitation of all impacted families six months prior to any increase in dam height.


In 2001, the Daud Committee report insisted that any extension in height not be entertained until outstanding rehabilitation issues were addressed. Yet, in May 2002, the Sardar Sarovar dam was expanded from 90 to 95 meters at the insistence of the Narmada Control Authority. Followed by forcible displacement and submergence. Reciprocal rehabilitation was never undertaken.


On May 14, 2003, the Indian government decided to further increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar Project to 100 meters. The Madhya Pradesh government has moved to offer cash compensation claiming that there is no land on which to resettle the displaced.


Five more feet. Medha Patkar, whose dedication has galvanised the Andolan, protested this decision and was arrested on May 20. Most of us barely notice, intent on escaping the inconvenience of insight, while around us lives, held distant and insignificant, fall apart. One hundred villages will be buried in Madhya Pradesh and twenty-six in Maharashtra, with no provisions for just rehabilitation. Over 12,000 families will be drowned out. Where will the people go? For adivasis and small farmers, the colossal dam stands as a grotesque vessel of modernity enraging the river that gives them life.


Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, complicitious in the carnage against Muslim minorities in 2002, and Congress Chief Ministers, Sushil Kumar Shinde of Maharashtra and Digvijay Singh of Madhya Pradesh, are silent about the implications of this decision. Perhaps the plan is to erect the dam to the original height of 138 meters?


Fifty years of dam building. Over thirty-three million displaced. Is this development? What of the accountability of a nation to its people? What is development but a commitment to rethink the inequities of history through ethical growth? In the imagination of India, the disenfranchised are a liability. They hold the nation back. They do not find legitimacy in the model of combative and centralised development that the state embraces.


The misadventures of modernisation in India have generated intense conflicts over environmental management, cultural survival and the cartography of development. It has made necessary oppositional struggles in response to the chronic failures of human rights. Land alienation, large dams, fishing trawlers, mining, loss of common property, caste, gender and religious violence, state violence, water privatisation, pollution, soil erosion, forest evictions, displacement, irresponsible corporatisation. On and on. The list of national “accomplishments”. Testimony to the enormity of social rupture.


What will it take? During the submergence in Domkhedi and Jalsindhi last year, people in the Narmada Valley protested in neck deep water. They went on a hunger strike, stood in front of bulldozers. The Narmada Andolan has profoundly expanded the script of non-violent resistance in the present. In refusing to be made docile, thousands and thousands of people have enacted steadfast dissent for almost two decades. International solidarity, the World Commission on Dams, horizontal alliances, research, advocacy. These actions of democratic practice are dependent upon the nations capacity to listen. What more will it take?


Angana Chatterji is a professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco (http://www.ciis.edu/faculty/chatterji.htm). Email: Angana@aol.com



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