Ordinary People, Extraordinary Movement: 25 Years of Struggle and Quest for Alternatives in Narmada Valley

December 13, 2010

By Madhuresh Kumar

The author is National Organiser, (National Alliance of People’s Movements) NAPM and can be contacted at madhuresh [at] napm-india [dot] org

In the early 1980s, when murmurs of protest were taking shape against the Sardar Sarovar Dam, no one had thought that the reverberations of ‘Narmada Bachao, Manav Bachao’ [Save Narmada, Save Humanity] would continue for nearly three decades afterwards. Narmada Bachao Andolan, the seeds of which were sown in 1985, has continued to challenge the Dam, the technocratic model of development, and kept the flag of resistance and justice afloat for the communities in the valley who are facing submergence, loss of livelihood, cultural heritage and environmental disaster.

Over these years, the Andolan has seen worst of the state violence; undertaken strenuous and at times life-threatening peaceful direct actions in form of willful submergence in rising waters, fasts; waged struggle at local, national and global levels; participated in numerous Commissions, Court cases; received support and adulation from umpteen individuals and groups, faced the ire of some other sections; earned epitaphs and awards and also labels like ‘anti-national’ and ‘anti-development’. The expanse and mere size of the movement made it the ‘mother’ of new wave of social movements in 80s and 90s marking a series of books, PhDs, research topics, films, reports etc. making it perhaps one of the most documented struggles of our times. It successfully managed to forge an alliance of Gandhians, Sarvodayis, environmentalists, young professionals, cultural activists, lawyers, students, campaigners and many others not only in India but across many countries, thereby creating a transnational struggle spread over three continents at a time when the means of communications were nowhere near as it exists today.

For a community, an Andolan and a nation, what does it mean to have continued the struggle for this long? The SSP today stands stalled at 122.62 mts since April 2006 in the wake of stiff resistance from people and the project authorities’ inability to complete the provisions of command area development, compensatory afforestation and other mitigation measures as contained in the environmental clearance granted in 1987. There is also severe non-compliance with regard to rehabilitation with land, livelihood and R&R sites to thousands of oustees in the three states of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. Despite winning over land for 11,000 families from the State, the challenge to rehabilitate 2,00,000 people remains.

The Andolan in SSP area has gone through various phases. If the late 80s and early 90s saw intense mobilisation at the local, national and international level, then the later half of the 90s saw greater action at the regional and national level. Today the Andolan is putting up a greater legal and technical fight in different Committees, Commissions and Courts, along with continued resistance in plains and adivasi areas. So, even though the detractors of NBA would like us to believe that the movement is on its way out since it has run its course and the only remaining issue is of rehabilitation of the people, which the governments claim to have already completed (51,447 families), the struggle however is on at various levels.

NBA continues to not only challenge the height of the Dam but also uses a multi-pronged approach; creatively using the print and electronic media, enlisting the support of intellectuals, extensively pursing RTIs to expose rampant corruption in the rehabilitation process and environmental mitigation measures etc. In these many years NBA has expanded the struggle to other dams in the Narmada Valley – Jobat, Indira Sagar, Omkareshwar, Maheshwar, Mann and others. The struggle is at different stages in different project areas and is in no way going to die since the resolve of the people for justice keeps getting stronger everyday.

Intense political machinations to push the Sardar Sarovar to its final height of 138.68 mts is underway, even as there is overwhelming evidence of the minimal attainment of the projected benefits and a mammoth increase in the overall costs. The pronouncements of NBA about Kutch not getting the water, and most of it being pocketed by urban centres like Baroda, Ahmedabad and diverted for industrial purposes, sugar cane farming in the central Gujarat plains and water parks are all coming true now. The fact that the farmers from Kutch have moved the Supreme Court over irregularities in water distribution only corroborates what NBA has been saying for this long. A recent study titled, ‘Monument of Mismanagement’ by Gujarat’s social organizations has documented cases of farmers refusing to give up the land for the canals, which at places are nearly 100 mts. wide. Due to such opposition, Gujarat government now plans to construct underground pipes instead of canals!! The investment in the dam today stands at Rs. 45,000 crores ($ 10 billion) which is squarely 10 times the initial approved plan cost, Rs. 4200 Crores in 1983. The Planning Commission estimates that this while elephant would gobble up 70,000 crores by 2010.

These facts only corroborate what NBA has been saying all this while about the fundamental question of how development planning needs to be re-imagined in the country. The SSP is no more a question of dam since in these many years the pro-dam lobby in Gujarat and elsewhere has come to symbolise the worst form of dam(ned) nationalism which continues to push for more and more dams in the country in ecologically fragile areas of Himalayas, without reviewing the questions raised by NBA and other anti-dam movements in the country. If, even after spending such large amounts from the state exchequer, we are not able to achieve our developmental targets of providing water, whether for domestic or irrigation purposes, we, as a nation must do a serious re-thinking on utilizing our finances more meaningfully, by involving the local communities in the planning process and promoting small, sustainable, non-displacing alternatives.

Anti-dam struggles all over the world have shown that ‘development’ or ‘dam building’ is not a mere technical activity, it is a political project. Recognising and learning from that NBA since the days of Harsud Sammelan in 1989 has been shifting the terms of debate on development. It famously raised the question, ‘development – how and for whom ? Who pays, who profits ?’ Harsud became a rallying point for similar struggles in the country and challenged the technocratic development paradigm being pursued by the Indian State post 1947 through its five year plans. NBA is not the first of the anti-dam struggles in the country; many existed before, but it is unique since it managed to break the Nehruvian myth of ‘dams being the modern temples of India’. It gave rise to a whole series of struggles against the dams and for that matter any large infrastructure project in the country, which would displace communities from their land, water and forest.

The slogan, Vikas Chahiye, Vinas Nahi [We want development, not destruction], truly captures the essence of differences in the meanings and models of development followed by the State and the one wanted by the people who have been sacrificed at the altar of development.

The struggle was never against one dam; there was the urgency to wage a comprehensive struggle and so along with others it took to formations of alliances and coalitions like Bharat Jan Vikas Andolan, Bharat Jan Andolan and National Alliance of People’s Movements in early 90s. It became the struggle against a world-view – dominated by capital and technology and inspired by neo-liberal capitalist agenda. Today, we are witness to a diversity of resistances manifested across the country, feeding off the energies generated from struggles and as a result any intended acquisition of land, water, forest and minerals gets challenged by the people all over the country. If the agenda of Land Reforms has taken a back seat then the struggles for democratic control of natural resources have occupied the centre stage and the imprints of various movements on the failed and trapped investments of corporations like Tatas, Mittals, POSCO, Jindals, Vedanta and many others can be seen all around.

The idiom of protest and solidarity actions which NBA pioneered politicised and trained a whole new generation of young people in this long period of struggle. They have continued to struggle for justice and democracy not only in the social movements, but in numerous progressive organisations, NGOs, research institutions and even within the government agencies and media. The NBA’s journey is also synonymous with the growth of ministry of environment, question of environment and development, environment movement, media and judiciary more sensitive to the questions of environment and development in the country. The struggle against the World Bank in 90s meant opening up of a completely new front against foreign capital, investments and impact which these policies had on the country. The fight against the World Bank became the fight against the new economic policies of the then government of India and WTO.

But more than these the peaceful and democratic struggle of NBA for twenty five years has continued to test the Indian democracy and State. The Gandhian idioms of protests applied to its extreme (when NBA undertook Jal Samparpan or long fasts on many occasions) sent the Indian state scurrying for answers and responses. The immense faith which NBA and many other democratic movements have put in the democratic traditions have only strengthened the Indian Democracy. The fact that people in the valley still continue to pour their faith in the state assumes larger significance, when the faith of the people in peaceful means is dwindling in the wake of growing state violence and the reactions to that by Maoists in Central India or the insurgent groups in North East and Kashmir. The Indian State at its own peril have chosen to engage with the armed groups and refused to engage with the civil and democratic voices in these regions. The struggle in Narmada Valley will continue to have bearing on the struggles across the country and more so when the State will be challenged in different ways. In such times, the struggle of ordinary people, creating an extraordinary movement with a comprehensive vision of development, might have answers to many of the problems which India might face in times to come.

The success and failure of NBA can in no way can be restricted to the question of completion of Sardar Sarovar Dam. It has to be seen in entirety due to all the dynamism inherent in the movement. In all frankness, the very fact that the movement continues in all its vibrancy even to this day, is evidence of what it has been accomplished. Every time the naysayers thought the Andolan was finished, more so after the verdict of the Supreme Court in 2000, it has risen like a phoenix and shown the power of people. The events of April 2006 was one such occasion. The Andolan and leadership has shown immense capacity to learn from its own past which are visible in the struggles against other dams in the Narmada Valley. Today the Andolan stands at a critical point and it is looking for a strategic direction keeping the flag of justice afloat in times to come. The people, at the fore front shall keep the struggle alive with their slogan and spirit of ‘Ladenge ! Jeetenge !’ [We shall fight ! We shall win !].

1 Comment »

One Response to “Ordinary People, Extraordinary Movement: 25 Years of Struggle and Quest for Alternatives in Narmada Valley”

  1. vidya rao Says:
    January 21st, 2011 at 02:05

    Dear Madhuresh Kumar
    Very analytical and succinct article.
    Allow me to say – you may consider making some statements on Indian state’s choice of development model, pace and content of development – entire trajectory? How people power has tamed Indian state which is ‘public servant’ – how MBA/NAPM has questioned these ‘givens’ and how it has inspired ‘voiceless’ little people’s movements to challenge ‘state directed planned development’ all over India. How this synergy is uniting dalits and tribals, in some cases even minorities on a single platform against the constant pounding of the state to fragment Indian people through so called ‘vote bank politics and democracy’. And NAPM has necessitated the state to adopt/refine R & R policies, water policies, policies re CRZ etc. Democracy theorists should not miss how NBA/NAPM has changed state-civil society relations and have added several new dimensions to the democracy theory namely at levels does direct and representative democracy works and under what conditions does local leadership is able to resist cooption by dominant hegemony.
    I am sure all the above points are there in your piece in some way. I thought I would like place my perspective to get your response
    vidya Rao

Leave a comment