State Repression in the Narmada Valley

by Angana Chatterji

Dissident Voice

August 21, 2003


Villages on the Narmada River are frontlines in the struggle for cultural survival. In May 2003, a controversial decision was taken to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam from 95 to 100 meters. Waters swirl around Dhankhedi, Anjanwada, Bharad, Kevadia, Nimgavan, Mokhdi, Dhanale, Manibeli. The police assault those facing submergence, destroying homes, forcibly evicting people, harassing activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. On July 28, 2003, 74 people, including women and children, were arrested in Chimalkhedi village in Maharasthra for protesting displacement.


Sardar Sarovar is the largest dam on the Narmada, one of 30 large, 135 medium and 3,000 small dams planned on the river, whose watershed is home to about 20 million peasants and adivasis. The reservoir will displace 200,000 people. Canals, colonies and afforestation will affect another 200,000.


The river comes unannounced into their fields bringing the stench of rotting crops. Siltation levels are dangerous, captive crocodiles have killed people. In front of Domkedi village, a red flag flutters. Shobha Wagh died on May 22, 2003, trapped in the silt. The very river where people bathed, fished, where children played, their greatest ally, has turned into their most intimate enemy.


The Maharasthra government claims that it has resettled all project affected persons at 100 meters. Untrue. 1,500 families in Maharashtra and 12,000 families in Madhya Pradesh are yet to be rehabilitated at the 100 meter level. The submergence is devastating the lives of people, wildlife and precious ecosystems. The people, treated with contempt and disregard by the state, have nowhere to go.


This state of affairs diverges from the conditions of the Narmada Project Rehabilitation Policy mapped by the Government of Madhya Pradesh. It violates provisions of tribal self-determination directed by Schedule V and VI of the Indian Constitution. Such callousness defies Convention 107 (and 169 to which India is not a signatory) of the International Labour Organisation mandating against the arbitrary separation of indigenous peoples from their traditional survival resources. It contravenes the conditions of the United Nations Charter of Rights for Indigenous Peoples, and disobeys the guidelines drafted by the World Commission on Dams.


The response of the state to people affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam is a crime against humanity that particularly targets women, children, adivasis, dalits and other minorities. This dam is a fearsome testimonial to 'progress' in postcolonial India, where the voices of the marginalised are drowned out in development planning. Their lands and livelihoods are collateral that enable the dreams of the privileged, their cultures and practices seen as a hindrance to the process of modernisation, insufficiently 'productive', lacking in value.


India is intent on building non-viable large dams even as many nations are decommissioning them. As water and electricity pulsates to Ahmedabad, the Narmada people are left without basic amenities, without shelter, clean water, electricity, schools. Where resettlement has been attempted, it is flawed. The rehabilitation process is deceptive and the people's demand for a written Government Resolution (Maharashtra) on Rehabilitation is yet to be met. The Daud Committee of 2001 directs land for land rehabilitation, implying habitable and cultivable land. Repeatedly, the government's resettlement package offers neither. Often the same land is allocated to multiple stakeholders.


Last week, on a solidarity visit to the Narmada Valley, colleagues and I met with members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the prolific and ethical movement whose commitments since 1985 demand our solidarity. We witnessed intensifying resistance as the Satyagraha gains momentum. We met Medha Patkar midstream near Jalsindhi. As our boats paused next to each other, she smiled and spoke in that inimitable way of the struggle ahead that has inspired a generation.


Leaving the Valley we got off the boat near Kadipani, four hours from Baroda, and were stopped and interrogated by the Gujarat police. We were asked to explain our association with Medha Patkar, and accused of coming to the Valley to create disturbances. We were informed that in Narendra Modi's state there are new rules and those deemed suspicious would be detained. Our visit, we were told, would be reported to the government. Another indication of mistreatment in 'Modi's Gujarat', where the state participates in the intimidation of the innocent, in violence against minorities. The very state that was an accomplice in the recent murder of Muslims and obstructs justice today, continues to abuse the rights of the people of the Narmada Valley.


Umesh Patidar, an Andolan activist, was waiting outside the police station. As we said goodbye, Umesh Bhai handed us some food, saying that we had a long road to travel and should have sustenance. Amid all he has to do, amid the horror of his reality, he is caring. It is humbling to witness the strength of the Andolan, its refusal to be made inhuman. A clash of worlds. One where integrity and relationships matter. Another where alienation and greed dominate, where there is no comprehension, or tolerance, of difference.


Proponents see the dam as a leap in science and technology. They assert that the quality of life will significantly improve because of the political and economic decisions made in support of the Sardar Sarovar. Treacherous fictions. Struggles over the shape of the Indian nation in the Narmada Valley, narrate the irrevocable depletion of the country's natural resource base and the brutalisation of the disenfranchised. Sardar Sarovar tells a disparaging story of the destitution of communities, of persistent and invasive inequities. It symbolizes the incapacity of the state to honour lives and aspirations that dare to challenge the inequities of globalization and the tyranny of dominant development.


Who is accountable? The World Bank withdrew in 1993 without redressing the consequences of its involvement. The Governments of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat have failed to abide by legal norms, the Supreme Court to deliver juridical justice. How little democracy functions for the disempowered in India.


The bereaved river rages in despair. Cultural genocide is never justifiable regardless of how much 'economic prosperity' results. The injustices in the Narmada Valley must be scrutinized by international human rights organizations. The government must comply with the rule of law. If history chronicles that the people of the Narmada were indeed drowned out, with them will die ways of being precious to preserving our world, languages, values, spiritualities, imagination and memory. And, if we do not speak up we will have been complicit in this massacre.


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


Other Recent Articles by Angana Chatterji


* Orwellian Fantasy

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