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No dam is a temple. A temple can’t symbolise destruction. The real temples of modern India are its vibrant people’s movements where justice is a dream, humanity is religion, writes Shivani Chaudhry from the Narmada valley

The People United Shall Always Be Victorious: NBA leader Medha Patkar in a rally in Delhi
Photo Sharad Saxena

The narmada river flows, not just from Amarkantak in the Maikal Hills down to the Arabian Sea, but as writer-activist Jai Sen says, “the Narmada flows through the world…”

Thanks to the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s (NBA) sustained 20-year campaign and fired dedication, the Narmada is no longer just an Indian river but a global river. It is a river of hope, of people’s movements, of solidarity. A river of resistance, of freedom, of truth. A river of rights, of satyagraha, of commitment. A river of life.

For the people who love her, Narmada is mother, devi, Ma Rewa, strength, timelessness, wisdom, history, heroism, ideology, testimony, and faith.

But there is another Narmada too. The Narmada that flows in classrooms, in progressive development literature, in the pages of neo-liberal critique, in the strategies of anti-establishmentarians, in the hearts of dreamers, and in the dreams of those committed to a more just, equitable, sustainable world. This is the Narmada that flows from the NBA.

The establishment of the Indian State and its cohorts tried to dam the Narmada. They have dammed the river, to some extent. But they could not and they will never be able to damn the Narmada. Nor will they ever be able to damn the people who have been struggling for the past 20 years to save the river and their lives that are intertwined with it. They might have dammed the river, but they will never be able to dam the spirit, the strength and the non-violent struggle of the people who have put their lives on the line and experienced the severest of hardships to speak out against injustice, time in and time out.

School Of Life: NBA Jeevanshalas for children where education and struggle are in synthesis. Manibeli, epicentre of the movement
Photo Shivani Chaudhry
‘NBA caused an itch in the conscience of the youth. If you read reports of the last 20 years, you will hear in your soul, the chant, not of the past but of the future’ — Baba Amte
On it’s 20th anniversary, I salute the many hundreds of women, men and children who are the breath, the wheels, and the soul of the NBA. The many radical revolutionaries inside and behind the movement. The faces we see and the many more we do not see. The sacrifices we know of and the many more we do not hear of. The people who lost their lives while struggling for the cause: Rehmal Vasave, Nirmal Patodi, Punjiyabhai, Shobharam Baba and Shobha Wagh, among others. The people who succumbed to police violence, to rising waters, to organised State crime. The martyrs who gave up their lives not because they hated life, but because they loved it. Their sacrifice is etched in the collective memory of the movement, and each call for justice emanating from the valley echoes their dedicated passion.

Twenty years is a long time. The movement is still resisting, still inspiring, and still struggling. Its mission is the same, its message is the same. People first. Development — not destruction. Sustainable, equitable development. People’s control over resources. Human rights. Justice. Non-violence.

Non-violent struggle is the core of the movement. Yet NBA activists have been brutally targeted by the State, beaten black, blue and red, abused, repeatedly jailed on non-grounds. Yet, in the face of the savage avatar of the State machinery, they have not once deterred from their chosen path of non-violent resistance. For the NBA activists, their only weapon is their self. And the truth. Because truth is not imagined: hidden, twisted, suppressed, maybe, but never imagined. Justice though, in many places, still is. Still a dream, an imagined reality.

It all started in 1961 when Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone for a 49.8 metre dam — the progenitor of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) in Gujarat. A dispute between the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra delayed construction, and in 1969, the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) was set up to mediate on the issue. In 1979 it fixed the height of the SSP at 455 feet. The World Bank sanctioned a project loan of $450 million in 1985, even before an environment clearance was passed. Resistance against the inimical project started brewing. The first rally against the dam was held in November 1985 and organised mobilisation began to escalate. Finally, several groups, including the Narmada Dharangrast Samiti (Maharashtra), Narmada Ghati Navnirman Samiti (Madhya Pradesh) and Narmada Asargrast Sangharsh Samiti (Gujarat) joined forces to form the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

From its origins in the Narmada valley, the NBA has grown to become one of the most successful people’s movements in the world. From rallies to hunger strikes, from boycotts to jal samarpans, the NBA has worked incessantly for the people of the Narmada Valley while questioning one-dimensional capitalist ‘development’. As a political force, the NBA has played a significant role in critical engagement with the State. It has redefined the politics of debate and renegotiated spaces for inclusion.

Vanguard Women: Mass anti-dam rally at Badwani on November 27
We Are In The Same Boat Brother: Medha Patkar with activists in the valley
People who lost their lives in the struggle: Rehmal Vasave, Nirmal Patodi, Punjiyabhai, Shobharam Baba and Shobha Wagh. People who succumbed to police violence, to rising waters, to brutish State crime
The international outreach of the NBA has shaped new transnational global identities, and given rise not just to global solidarity but to unified resistance that forced the World Bank and Japanese Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund to withdraw from the SSP. There have been victories but there are reasons to continue fighting. Despite a sustained campaign, the Sardar Sarovar dam has reached 110.64 metres. Despite the October 18, 2000 Supreme Court verdict that stresses the completion of land-based rehabilitation for all families before any increase in the dam height, Maharashtra, MP and Gujarat have not complied. Despite another Supreme Court judgement of March 15, 2005 that reiterated land-based rehabilitation on cultivable land, no steps have been taken to rehabilitate the over 10,000 affected families.

At the proposed height of 138.68 metres, the Sardar Sarovar dam will submerge 248 villages, displace over 3,00,000 people, and destroy 40,000 hectares of land. The official estimated cost of the project has risen from Rs 4,200 crore in 1983 to Rs 40,000 crore. Already, between Rs 18,000 to Rs 20,000 crore has been spent. Can anyone support this mantra of devastation anymore?

Too much has been lost and destroyed. Under no condition can the dam height be raised above the present 110.64 metres. Also, because there is no land to offer as rehabilitation. This is evident in the practice of the MP government to give cash compensation instead of land, which is illegal under the Supreme Court order.
Already, 6,000 hectares of land have been submerged (of the fated 11,000 hectares to be submerged at the present dam height). Archaeological relics of the world’s oldest civilisation have been lost. Villages drowned out: Domkhedi, Nimagavan, Manibeli, Jalsindhi, Anjanvada. Tapestries of interaction ripped, and sites of love and longing, of food, work and sustenance, washed away. For what?
It has just been abortive promise after abortive promise, elevated lie after elevated lie. Reports confirm that the much-touted benefits of the dam at the current height have not materialised. Contrary to claims of the Gujarat government, only 10 percent of the villages claimed as beneficiaries have received drinking water. As reality unravels, the words of the NBA are proving to be true.

One river: 30 large dams. But NBA efforts coupled with dam-triggered human rights violations and the projects’ non-compliance with standards, has led to cessation of work on the Narmada Sagar, Goi and Maheshwar dams, as well as the SSP.

There are better alternatives. And the NBA is developing them. Water harvesting schemes that provide drinking water, and micro-hydel projects as in Bilgaon (Maharashtra) that bring electricity with no destructive costs.
Revolution Disarmed: Rally at Badwani on November 27 celebrating two decades of the struggle
Jal Samadhi: Submergence at Dhomkedi, 2004
Twenty years is a long time. And there is much to celebrate and reflect.

“Completion of 20 years of the NBA’s struggle is a testimony to the commitment, perseverance and strength of thousands of people; at the same time, it is a telling commentary on the establishment that people have had to fight this long for their basic rights,” says Shripad Dharmadikary, an activist.

The NBA organised a week-long event in the Narmada Valley from November 23 to 27 to commemorate its 20 years. On November 27, over 15,000 people congregated in Badwani (MP) and participated in a historic and poignant rally where they collectively pledged to intensify their struggle. There are challenges and a long road ahead. Medha Patkar, a tireless andolankari and leader, affirms, “The struggle for justice continues through an alternative water policy and challenge to water privatisation and river interlinking. It is a protracted, unending battle for life and livelihood, for people’s rights and real democracy.”

The piercing cry of Narmada Bachao, Manav Bachao stirs you. But when it emanates from a nine-year-old girl who waves the flag of the movement with an unbridled dream in her eyes, it does much more. It echoes not just in the valley, but in one’s inner being for a long moment, a moment that swirls, resonates, drenches your core with a mystical awe. And when the cry of the moment moves from your ears to your eyes, you look at the determined girl and realise that she is an andolan child. Born into the movement, born in the shadows of the deadly SSP, born in the belly of resistance, in the river of dreams.

You see many like her, all dressed in blue — the blue of hope, blue of water, blue of the NBA flag, and you are already documenting this andolan of tomorrow. The movement brewing in the 14 jeevanshalas run by the NBA: the ‘schools of life’ where struggle and education go hand in hand. Jeevanshalas that give direction to the pain and hope of children who have witnessed a living history — what no other children have.

And no matter what the State does, what neo-liberalism’s gurus propose, what direction democracy takes, the struggle will go on… Because hope cannot be liquidated. And dreams, for sure, can never be liquidated.

Nehru was so wrong. No dam is a temple. For a temple can never symbolise mass destruction, displacement and death. The real temples of modern India are its vibrant social movements. The people’s movements where faith is worship and prayer is action, justice is a dream and humanity is religion…

In tribute to one such movement, I bow my head and raise my hand in solidarity and struggle. Narmada Bachao Andolan, tujhe salaam. Hazaar salaam.

The writer is a human rights activist

Dec 17 , 2005

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