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Don’t Damn Narmada


Dams are not the temples of India, they have become its burial grounds. In dissent to the brutal refusal of state and Central governments to honour the legally-bound commitment to resettlement and rehabilitation of adivasi and other disenfranchised peoples who are made refugees by the Sardar Sarovar dam, Jamsingh Nargave, Bhagwatibai Patidar and Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) began an indefinite fast on March 29, 2006. On April 4, police forcibly took Patkar and Nargave into hospital custody charging that they were attempting suicide, and assaulted and arrested 300 Andolan activists in New Delhi.

The dam stands at 110.64 metres. On March 8, 2006, the Narmada Control Authority approved raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar to 121.92 metres. This, as per the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, will require 1.75 lakh cubic metres of concrete and cost an additional Rs 125 crores. Following a petition by the NBA in1995, the Supreme Court of India limited construction of the dam to 80.3 metres. Since 1999, the court has allowed successive jumps, even as it upheld the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA), mandating land-for-land rehabilitation of impacted families six months prior to any increase in dam height. This has never been enforced. As the dam rises and the reservoir grows in size, more villages are submerged, lives imperilled, displacing memory, difference, history.

The Narmada Valley Development Plan, imagined since 1946 and formulated in the late Eighties, designated the Narmada River — 1,312 kilometres through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Gujarat — and her tributaries as the site of 30 large, 135 medium and 3,000 small dams. These dams are turning the river into a series of lakes, devastating 20 million peasants and adivasis who call the Narmada watershed home.

Across the Narmada Valley, 35,000 additional families will be impacted at 121 metres, and have not been rehabilitated. The Madhya Pradesh government has offered cash compensation to families, violating the land-for-land mandate of the NWDTA. In Maharashtra, over 1,000 families are yet to receive rehabilitation. In Gujarat, numerous affected families are yet to receive land or have been allocated poor quality land. A ministerial team visited the Narmada Valley, yet the government has failed to act.

South Asia is home to the largest grouping of tribal peoples outside Africa, and 84.3 million indigenous peoples live in India. A diversity of cultures named “indigenous” share the ongoing reality of cultural and physical genocide. Indigenous peoples today live in states and statelessness, subject to forces of assimilation and annihilation. As peoples and cultures, the “indigenous” cannot be made uniform or essentialised. Their resistance includes assertion of native identities and traditional culture, as well as efforts to modernise and incorporate. In September 1958, India ratified the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 107 relating to Indigenous and Tribal Populations. Integrationist in character, Convention 107 attests to tribal rights based on a framework of indigenous “populations” rather than “peoples.” In 1989, ILO issued Convention 169, concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries, accepting indigenous cultures as distinct organised societies with specific identities, recognising them as “peoples.” Such acknowledgement allows tribes the right to negotiate for “sovereignty” with states in which they are situated. The Indian state remains reluctant to sign Convention 169, prioritising an assimilative approach to nation building.

Adivasi and peasant movements in India reject the assumption that development justifies cultural annihilation and the state capture of the lands and livelihoods of disempowered communities. Between 1970-1990, 45 million people were displaced by India’s experiment with large-scale hydroelectric projects.

Adivasis are 8.2 per cent of the nation’s inhabitants, 40 per cent of the displaced population. The Tenth Five Year Plan states that 8.54 million adivasis were displaced between 1951-1990, from Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. The count, activists say, is considerably higher. Only 2.12 million have been resettled.

The nation displaces ethics with/for dominance, interning the dispossessed in the process. Patkar and Nargave must be released from hospital custody immediately. The Congress government must accede to the NBA’s demand and halt construction of the Sardar Sarovar until the affected are ethically rehabilitated as per the provisions of the NWDTA and Supreme Court orders of 2000 and 2005. For 21 years, people in the Narmada Valley have struggled for justice with inordinate courage. They are the subjects of state violence, immense and egregious casualties of maldevelopment. The indefinite dharna continues, emanating a haunting call that resounds across the world: “Narmada Bachao.”

Angana Chatterji is associate professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at California Institute of Integral Studies

[Op-ed, Asian Age, 14 April 2006]

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