The government of India came out with a plan to construct a series of dams over the Narmada River. Thus was started a multi crore project that would generate a big revenue for the government. The Narmada Valley Development plan is the most promised and most challenging plan in the history of India. The proponents are of the view that it will produce 1450 MW of electricity and pure drinking water to 40 million people covering thousands of villages and first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, once called dams the ‘‘temples of modern India.’’ This unrealistic analogy, given by him, is often invoked to support the view that building large dams is essential to meeting India’s mammoth development needs. Though he later retracted his statement and called large dams ‘‘a disease of gigantism’’ that India must abandon, the drive to build large dams for the sake of building large dams continues to blind the government to their human and environmental costs. The biggest implication of this was viewed along the banks of the Narmada river.
The Narmada River traverses three of India’s north-western states: Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. In 1978, the Indian government sought the World Bank’s assistance to build a complex of dams along the river as part of the Narmada Valley Development Project (‘‘Narmada Project’’). The Narmada Project included the creation of thirty large dams, 135 medium dams, and 3,000 small dams. The Indian government promised that the dams would help provide potable water for almost forty million people, irrigation for over six million hectares of land, and hydroelectric power for the entire region.
The Sardar Sarovar Project (‘‘SSP’’) in the state of Gujarat includes the most controversial large dam. The government claimed that the Sardar Sarovar dam alone would irrigate almost 1.8 million hectares of land in Gujarat and an additional 73,000 hectares in the dry neighbouring state of Rajasthan, in addition to providing potable water to over 8,000 Gujarati villages and 135 urban centres. The benefits, however, would come at a high cost, including the displacement of tens of thousands of individuals and considerable environmental damage. Despite these foreseeable consequences, and in the absence of consultation with indigenous communities that would experience the environmental impact and involuntary displacement, in 1985 the World Bank agreed to finance the Sardar Sarovar dam to the tune of $450 million, approximately 10% of the total cost of the project. Thus not only the Indian Government, but also an International Organisation, the World Bank, was keen to complete the project, and so it granted the required funds.
The idea of building dams in the Narmada river basin predates independent India. In 1946, India’s Central Waterways, Irrigation, and Navigation Commission constituted a committee to study the feasibility of such a project. Fifteen years later, Prime Minister Nehru inaugurated the Narmada Valley Development Project. The Narmada Project’s costs have been both human and environmental though the most important issue remains the displacement of the Narmada basin’s inhabitants.
The Narmada basin is almost 100,000 square kilometers in size and is home to twenty-one million people. The Sardar Sarovar dam’s impounding of water in a 455–foot–high reservoir would ultimately submerge 37,000 hectares of land in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and MadhyaPradesh, and divert 9.5 million acre feet of water into a canal and irrigation system. According to unofficial estimates, the Sardar Sarovar dam alone has displaced 320,000 people. Added to these human costs is the considerable environmental damage to a valley that was once blossoming with plant and animal life. The Indian government has not reported official statistics on the number of displaced individuals, reflecting a level of disregard for the seriousness of the problem that continues to date.
The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (‘‘Narmada Tribunal’’) was set up in 1969 to resolve the river water sharing dispute between Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. Additionally, the Narmada Tribunal aimed to set out conditions regarding the resettlement and rehabilitation of those displaced by the dams. It was chaired by then-sitting Supreme Court Justice V. Ramaswami. The Tribunal was assisted by a number of technical experts. However, this team of experts lacked sociologists, anthropologists or environmental engineers, which cannot be left unnoticed.
In 1978, the Narmada Tribunal approved the Narmada Project and final planning and the work started. With regard to the treatment of the displaced population, the Narmada Tribunal made it mandatory for the state of Gujarat, as the primary beneficiary of the project ,provide ‘‘land for land’’ to those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam. While the Narmada Tribunal’s Final Order aimed to alleviate displacement, commentators have critiqued both the judgment and its implementation by the government of Gujarat. The judgment, for instance, only guaranteed compensation for legal landowners even though many dam-affected villages kept poor land records. In addition, many displaced persons were tribal community members who lacked formal land ownership rights under Indian law. A more general indictment suggested that ‘‘the [Narmada] Tribunal was itself a creature of politics that was incapable, ab initio, of delivering justice.’’ First, the Narmada Tribunal focused on the interstate dispute between riparian states and insufficiently considered the affected communities themselves. Second, political deal-making between the states limited the Narmada Tribunal’s terms of reference, including consideration of whether alternatives existed to achieve the project’s objectives.
In December 1979, the Narmada Tribunal’s final award came into effect, and finally in 1987 construction began on the Sardar Sarovar dam. Problems soon emerged with Gujarat’s resettlement policy, which formally sought to award each eligible family settling there at least five irrigable acres, housing, and various entitlements to facilities. In reality, there was not enough land available for distribution; amenities were substandard; and settlers had difficulty integrating with host communities. As a result, though 196 families had accepted the resettlement offer, many settlers ended up returning to their homes, which were already partially submerged, because of the waters from the river flooding the banks.
Since the early 1980s, the Narmada Project has faced mounting opposition from a variety of sources. Protest groups formed in all three affected states and included or were supported by individuals facing displacement, students, social activists, Indian environmental NGOs, international NGOs, and transnational networks. In Gujarat, nineteen villages, whose submersion the Sardar Sarovar dam ensured, formed the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini, a youth protest group. The group engaged in protests and initiated court actions, ultimately forcing the government of Gujarat to offer a more generous resettlement package. The group’s belief that Gujarat’s water needs made the dam project necessary guided its decision to focus on rehabilitation efforts and to ensure that the government adhered to its promises.
In contrast, groups in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra opposed the dams altogether. Two such groups, the Narmada Ghati Navnirman Samiti in Madhya Pradesh and the Narmada Ghati Dharangrastha Samiti in Maharashtra, subsequently merged to form the Narmada Bachao Andolan in 1989. Under the leadership of the principal figure associated with the movement, Medha Patkar, the NBA initially sought to verify the claims regarding the benefits that would flow from the construction of the dams. In the process, it focused on securing access to documents from the government and the World Bank to ensure greater transparency.
The success of the NBA campaign resulted from its innovative strategies of resistance that operated simultaneously at the grassroots, national, and international level. As such, the campaign’s significance as a social movement extends far beyond India’s national borders. Balakrishnan
Rajagopal—a leading scholar on development and social movements and a long-time observer and researcher of the Narmada struggle— notes that globally, the NBA is ‘‘regarded as one of the signature public contestations of the twentieth century that redefined the terms of development, democracy and accountability.’’ While the NBA originally employed ‘‘Gandhian methods’’ such as peaceful marches and protests,after a high-profile hunger fast in 1991 failed, the NBA announced a ‘‘noncooperation movement’’ in the Narmada valley. This movement campaigned against the payment of taxes and sought to deny entry to the villages to all government officials, except teachers and doctors. The NBA subsequently began to consider litigation as an additional option for a variety of reasons. Their tactics up to this point had frequently drawn violent reactions from the government. In addition, other disadvantaged groups had successfully moved the Supreme Court, inspiring the NBA to do the same.
One of the biggest reason for the success of the NBA was the excellent leadership provided by the most able persons of the country. The NBA, a broad-based participatory movement, flourished under the leadership of visionary environmental champions. One of India’s most vibrant and best known living activists, Medha Patkar (or Medha didi (big sister) as she is called) has led the Narmada movement for over two decades. Her uncompromising stance against government apathy toward the human and social costs of dam construction and her ongoing efforts to ensure that transparency and accountability remain hallmark features of development projects have helped fashion the NBA into one of the most dynamic social movements of our time. A ‘‘veteran of several fasts [and] monsoon satyagrahas [civil disobedience] on the banks of the rising Narmada,’’ she has endured police beatings and jail terms in her quest to secure the right to life and the right to livelihood for the over twenty million people whose lives would be adversely affected by the Narmada Project.
Other women have also played central roles in the campaign. The NBA’s struggle against the Maheshwar Dam in Madhya Pradesh state, for instance, has been led by the Narmada Shakti Dal, a separate women’s organization within the NBA that was set up on March 8, 1988—International Women’s Day—and is comprised of female villagers from Maheshwar. Alongside Medha Patkar, social activist Baba Amteprovided moral leadership to the cause to preserve the Narmada River. Though renowned for his work against leprosy, beginning in the early 1980s he involved himself in the struggle against mega dams. Amte first achieved national prominence for his work on dams with the publication of Cry O Beloved Narmada in 1989, an elegiac booklet that made the case for a dam-free Narmada.
Medha Patkar and Baba Amte together let a series of protests, some of which failed while the others achieved success. In September 1989, Amte led a 60,000-person anti-dam NBA rally in Harsud—a town of 20,000 people in Madhya Pradesh that faced submersion. In May 1990, a massive NBA five-daydharna (sit-in) at then-Prime Minister V. P. Singh’s residence in New Delhi forced the Prime Minister to agree to ‘‘reconsider’’ the project. In December 1990, Amte, along with 5,000 protestors, began the Narmada Jan Vikas Sangharsh Yatra (Narmada people’s progress struggle march), marching over a hundred kilometers from Amte’s headquarters near Barwani in Madhya Pradesh to Ferkuva on the Madhya Pradesh–Gujarat border. The government reacted by deploying the Gujarati police force and by bussing in thousands of governmentsupported pro-dam demonstrators from urban centers in Gujarat. Following the government’s announcement that rising waters from the dam would begin to submerge villages, domestic protest intensified and with it the resulting backlash from the state. On January 5, 1991, Amte began a ‘‘dharna [sit-in] unto death.’’
The most popular slogans of the NBA were Vikas Chahiye, vinash nahin! (‘‘We want development, not destruction’’) and Koi nahi hatega, bandh nahi banega! (‘‘No one will move, the dam will not be built’’).
According to one NBA partner, the campaign against the construction of dams on the Narmada River is ‘‘symbolic of a global struggle for social and environmental justice,’’ while the NBA itself is a ‘‘symbol of hope for people’s movements all over the world that are fighting for just, equitable, and participatory development.’’ Though the NBA has yet to achieve the goals for which it has so tirelessly fought, its victories against the mammoth odds have earned it the reputation of being one of the most dynamic social movements of our time and one that the government continues to expend considerable resources to fight against. As noted by Medha Patkar upon her release from jail on August 6, 2007: ‘‘It’s obvious that the Government [of Madhya Pradesh] is all out to kill our right to land and also [our] right to agitate.’’