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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 1, December 25, 2010 (Annual 2010)

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Movement

Twenty Five Years Of Struggle And Quest For Alternative In Narmada Valley

Friday 31 December 2010

by Madhuresh Kumar

In the early eighties when the murmurs of protest were taking shape against the Sardar Sarovar Dam then no one had thought that the reverberations of ‘Narmada Bachao, Manav Bachao’ [Save Narmada, Save Humanity] will continue nearly three decades after that. The 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 the worst of state violence; undertaken strenuous and at times life-threatening peaceful direct actions in the form of wilful 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, and 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 the new wave of social movements in the eighties and nineties marking a series of books, Ph.Ds, 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 profes-sionals, cultural activists, lawyers, students, campaigners and many others not only in India but across many countries thereby creating a transnational struggle spread over three conti-nents at a time when the means of communication were nowhere near as they exist today.

For a community, an Andolan and a nation, what does it mean to have continued the struggle for this long? The Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) today stands stalled at 122.62 mts since April 2006 in the wake of stiff resistance from the 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 are 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 the SSP area has gone through various phases: if the late eighties and early nineties saw intense mobilisation at local, national and international levels, then the latter half of the nineties saw greater action at the regional and national levels. 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 the 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.

The NBA continues to not only challenge the height of the Dam but also uses a multi-pronged approach creatively utilising the print and electronic media, enlisting the support of intellectuals, extensively pursing RTIs to expose rampant corruption in the rehabilitation process, environmental mitigation measures etc. In these many years the 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 Dam 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 the NBA about Kutch not getting the water, and most of it being pocketed by the urban centres like Baroda, Ahmedabad and diverted for industrial purposes, sugarcane 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 corro-borates what the NBA has been saying for so long. A recent study, titled ‘Monument of Mismanagement’, by Gujarat’s social organi-sations has documented cases of farmers refusing to give up their land for the canals, which at places are nearly 100 mts. wide. Due to such opposition, the Gujarat Government now plans to construct underground pipes instead of canals!! The investment in the Dam today stands at Rs 45,000 crores 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 Rs 70,000 crores by 2010.

These facts only corroborate what the NBA has been saying all this while about the fundamental question of how development planning needs to be reviewed 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 the ecologically fragile areas of the Himalayas, without reviewing the questions raised by the 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 rethinking on utilising 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 the NBA since the days of the 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. The NBA is not the first of anti-dam struggle in the country, many existed before that 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, Vinash 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 and so the urgency to wage a comprehensive struggle; and hence along with others it took to the formation of alliances and coalitions like the Bharat Jan Vikas Andolan, Bharat Jan Andolan and National Alliance of People’s Movements in the early nineties. It became the struggle
against a world-view—dominated by capital and technology and inspired by the 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 the Tatas, Mittals, POSCO, Jindals, Vedanta and many others can be seen all around.

The idiom of protest and solidarity actions, which the 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 as well. The NBA’s journey has also coincided with the growth of the Ministry of Environment, the question of environment and development, the environment movement, media and judiciary being more sensitive to the questions of environment and development in the country. The struggle against the World Bank in the nineties 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 WB became the fight against the new economic policies of the Government of India and WTO.

But more than these, the peaceful and democratic struggle of the NBA for twentyfive years has continued to test Indian democracy and the state. The Gandhian idiom of protest, applied to its extreme (when the NBA undertook Jal Samarpan or long fasts on many occasions), sent the Indian state scurrying for answers and responses. The immense faith which the NBA and many other democratic movements have put in the democratic traditions has only strengthened Indian democracy. The fact that the people in the valley still continue to put their faith in the state assumes larger significance when the faith of the people in the peaceful means is dwindling in the wake of growing state violence and the reactions to that by the Maoists in Central India or the insurgent groups in the North-East and Kashmir. The Indian state at its own peril has chosen to engage with the armed groups and refused to engage with the civil and democratic voices in these regions. The struggle in the Narmada valley will continue to have a 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 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 the NBA can in no way be restricted to the question of completion of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, it has to be seen in its 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 reflective of what it has accomplished. Every time when the naysayers thought the Andolan is finished, more so after the verdict of the Supreme Court in 2000, it has risen like a phoenix and shown the power of the people; the events of April 2006 was one such occasion. The Andolan and its leadership have displayed 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 forefront shall keep the struggle alive with their slogan and spirit of ‘Ladenge! Jeetenge! [We shall fight! We shall win!]’.

Madhuresh Kumar is the National Organiser, National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM) and can be contacted at

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