The Narmada Valley

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has been fighting against the development of big dams in India’s Narmada river valley. Big dams have displaced tens of millions of people already and disrupted much of rural India, without solving any of the problems they claim to solve. The NBA is a genuine people’s movement that has grown and tried to fight on behalf of those displaced and threatened with displacement by the dams. Alok Agarwal is an organizer in the NBA, based in the Valley. He was interviewed in Porto Alegre during the World Social Forum.

What are some of the latest developments in the Narmada Valley?

It is a complex situation. We are fighting many dams. The development plan for the Narmada Valley is for 30 big dams, five of which are the major ones: The Sardar Sarovar, the Maheshwar, the Upper Veda, the Lower Goi, and the Man.

After the October 2000 Supreme Court decision, the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam continues to rise. This was a bad judgement and it empowered governments to be even more repressive against our movement, to be totally unconcerned about rehabilitating people. The Sardar Sarovar is half-built now. Thousands have been displaced already. But because of our fight we have slowed construction, and they haven’t been able to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar and displace people the way they would have wanted to.

After people are dislocated it becomes very, very difficult to organize them. They are scattered. Hundreds of villages of people have been scattered in Gujarat, and we just lose them in many cases.

In the Maheshwar struggle, we have had victories. The Maheshwar project has been going on for six years—it was the first private hydro project in India. The state had to pay 6 billion Rs. The money was to come from the multinational corporations at first, but because of our mass movement, we captured the dam site on ten separate occasions. We blocked roads for 3 and a half months, made it impossible for materials to get to the site in spite of arrests and beatings. Now the funders—Bechtel, Ogden, Pacgen in the US and Bayernwerk and Seimens in Germany all left this project. The German government wouldn’t give export guarantees to any corporation for the project. The private promoters then took recourse to using funds from Indian public institutions.  Scrutinizing that over the past two years we found many financial irregularities. As a result, the Madhya Pradesh State Industrial Development Corporation has just attached all the property of the dam to auction it and recover their dues.

We are also fighting power sector reforms. We held a big yatra, a long march, for fifteen days last month against it. The government is trying to unbundle the Electricity Board for privatization. Rates are increased every year. Farmers can’t pay their bills. This is a conspiracy against farmers. The WTO imposes trade regulations that prevent the government from protecting the domestic market and subsidizing farmers, so the prices farmers get for their products collapse. Meanwhile all of their inputs—seeds, electricity , fertilizer—are going up in price! The idea is to destroy the agricultural economy and capture the world market. And the result is that there are hundreds of suicides of farmers every single month in India.

Our mobilizations on issues like this bring out large numbers of people. The Maheshwar dam protests regularly drew 10,000, sometimes 25,000, to take over the dam site.

The Upper Veda and Lower Goi dams could still be stopped. In Man, we are still fighting for the rehabilitation of people displaced by the dam. There was a long sit-in in Bhopal, a hunger strike for 30 days, ending when a commission was set up. We have just received the orders by the commission on the grievances of the dam-affected people. They are most unsatisfactory, so the struggle must go on.

What kinds of repression does the government use against the people?

You cannot uproot people who do not want to leave their homes without doing violence to them. Where people are not ready to move, the police just use force. Recently the lands in the upper hamlets of a village called Bhavariya in Madhya Pradesh was supposed to receive dam-affected people from the lower hamlets, for building homes only, without any replacement of their lands. The people of Bhavariya didn’t want to give their land up for the dam-affected. The dam-affected didn’t want to leave their homes and build new homes without any land, and hence no livelihood. But this was the government’s plan for ‘rehabilitation’. So 500-600 police came, destroyed crops, beat people, and arrested and jailed people, to try to intimidate them to accept this sham of rehabilitation.

So there is this kind of direct repression. There is also a repression in forcing people to take cash compensation instead of agricultural land as compensation. Not rehabilitating people and raising the height of the dam and flooding people out is itself repression.

What are the demands of the NBA?

Our demands are very clear. From a social, environmental, even a financial point of view these project is not viable.  They are also not required.  The power produced by the Maheshwar project will be so expensive that it will be of no use to anyone and a waste of public funds.  With the Sardar Sarovar, the promise was that the water would reach the drought-prone areas of Gujarat—the Kutch, and Saurashtra. But the command area map shows that only 9% of Saurashtra and 1.6% of Kutch get any water from the dam. Instead, the water goes to the already rich areas of Ahmedabad and Baroda. So the project does not deliver what is promised and is not viable. We do not want this project.

For dams that have already been built or submergences that have already taken place, we want the state to fulfill its own laws. The state says no displacement without rehabilitation, and rehabilitation means land for land, that people move as a unit, as a village. All that is in the law but it has not been fulfilled.

How does the NBA work?

We work at various levels. Most of our work is at the grassroots. But we now have state, national, and international-level work that we do. There are academic tasks, studying plans and reports, and media work of all kinds.

Our primary work is in the villages, maintaining constant touch with people, developing leadership and trying to have, and empower, many good activists. We are fighting the state, and the state will always try to attack and weaken an organization like ours, so it’s very important to develop broad leadership that can withstand such attacks.

Part of your work is in Gujarat, which saw a devastating earthquake two years ago followed by a horrific pogrom last year. Has the rise of the Hindu Right in the state, and the communal violence, like that of the pogrom in February-March 2002 and the attack on the Hindu temple in September, changed the context in which you are trying to organize? And also, do you believe there is a link between the globalization model of the big dams and communalism?

Is it more difficult to work in Gujarat? Yes. We have been made enemy #1 because of our anti-communal stand. People are afraid, there is more repression, our meetings are broken up by goons and disrupted, so it is more difficult to organize.

Is there a relationship between globalization and communalism? Look. 36% of Indians don’t get one meal a day. There are 60-70 million unemployed people. There’s violence against women. Children dying from preventable diseases. Of course politicians want to create an illusion. They play the communal card so these issues don’t come up, all these issues that are products of globalization. To suppress them, to keep them off the agenda, politicians use communalism. That’s why we mobilize against both communalism and globalization.

Do you think the same is true of war? Between India and Pakistan, for example? Or the US war against Iraq?

It is the same thing. In India, we have a government that is fundamentalist. On the other side, in Pakistan, we have the same. Both sides are interested in tension. The people on either side of the border, ordinary Indians and Pakistanis, are not interested. Neither people wants war. But politicians talk about war so they don’t have to deal with the real problems of poverty and violence in the country.

This is true with Iraq also. How could it be about weapons of mass destruction, when the whole world knows most of the weapons of mass destruction are in the US? It is about oil. We talk about this in the Valley. It is important. We are organizing events against the war in Iraq as part of our work.

The NBA is an integral part of the NAPM, the National Alliance of People’s Movements. NAPM in turn, along with other forces, was a key part of the Asia Social Forum in Hyderabad. What is the relationship between the NBA and left political parties?

I’m not very active in the NAPM, so I can say only a few things. The NBA used to be very distant from left parties and trade unions of the left parties, because of their position on dams. But they have been supportive in the anti-privatization fight in Maheshwar and on other actions. We were all together at the ASF, so we have a certain amount of contact.

The social forums, like the World Social Forum here, is so important because it shows that the same process is going on everywhere. You don’t get that feeling in India. Just yesterday—on January 26, in Indore in Madhya Pradesh, 100,000 RSS members (Hindu Right organization) marched, armed with swords, in the streets. There is no way we can fight that without strength at the grassroots. We can talk about coordinating our efforts, because to fight a global enemy we have to have a global movement, but the most important thing is to build that strength at the grassroots.

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