Home > 2016 > Narmada Bachao Andolan: Thirty Years of Resistance and Reconstruction

Mainstream, VOL LIV No 38 New Delhi September 10, 2016

Narmada Bachao Andolan: Thirty Years of Resistance and Reconstruction

Friday 9 September 2016, by S G Vombatkere

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) marks 30 years of people’s resistance to dam-projects in the Narmada valley. An icon of non-violent grassroots protest against destructive development, the NBA’s peaceful efforts for equity and justice in the face of deliberate and severe provocation, make it a shining example of Gandhian ideals in an era of extreme corruption in morals and ethics.

Resisting Rape of an Ancient Valley

In the early 1980s, people of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the Narmada valley were shocked when the government began to construct 3000 small, 135 medium and 30 major dams and canals on the 1312-km long Narmada river, cradle of 5000 years of continuous civilisation and culture. Including two mega-dams—Narmada Sagar and Sardar Sarovar—it was supposed to irrigate two million hectares, feed 20 million people, provide drinking water for 30 million, employ one million and generate electric power for agriculture and industry.

The government was silent that the projects would inundate 37,000 ha of forest and agricultural land, affecting the lives and livelihoods of lakhs of forest-dwelling and farming adivasis and other rural families, and submerge ancient temples and towns, culturally and environmentally affecting not only the people of the Narmada valley but also the rest of India. The social costs of human displacement and loss of wildlife and forest were not a part of the crude (and perhaps manipulated) cost-benefit calculations. But perhaps social ill-effects were neglected because the project-affected families (PAFs) were predominantly adivasi and rural, and they really did not matter even decades after independence.

The State and Central governments were keen to obtain loans from the World Bank (WB) for large projects, and push them through, regardless of even basic considerations of feasibility. For example, the economic feasibility of dam-projects is primarily based on correct estimation of the total annual flow. Narmada’s total annual flow, as estimated by the Bradford Morse Committee [more below], was 17 per cent less than the project-design flow, indicating that the designed benefits could not be achieved and the cost-benefit calculations were wrong or falsified. These projects promised unsubstantiated benefits of irrigation or electric power to one section of people, at the cost of the land and livelihood of another section of people, while the immediate financial benefits went to the construction industry, administrator-engineer-politician nexus and of course lending financial institutions.

As the PAFs began to realise the impact of the 3000-plus projects, they began to question its bases. Assisted by social workers and activists, the social, financial and technical bases of the projects, and the viability of the whole scheme and of individual projects were questioned. The separate organisations coalesced into the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in 1985 under the leadership of Medha Patkar, supported notably by Baba Amte and B.D. Sharma, and later, Ramaswamy Iyer, S.C. Behar, L.C. Jain, Kuldip Nayar and Swami Agnivesh among others.

In 1985, the WB funded $ 450 million of the $ 6 billion (1970 estimate) project. But because of the NBA’s cogent critique of the socio-economic-technical-environmental assumptions and effects of the projects, and the march and non-violent demonstration by the PAFs to Ferkuwa on the MP-Gujarat border in December 1990, the WB reviewed its involvement in the projects. It formed an Independent Review Committee in 1991, under Bradford Morse, a respected former UNDP Administrator. The State and Central governments provided full cooperation to the Committee, possibly expecting it to provide support to counter the growing resistance offered by the NBA. But the Morse Report (1992) was critical of the government and of the projects in general [Note 1] and caused the WB to withdraw its financial involvement in 1993, damaging the credibility of the governments’ plans.

The governments refused to re-assess the projects as recommended by the Morse Report. Gujarat, the principal beneficiary of the projects, raised funds by issuing Sardar Sarovar Bonds in 1993, to fill the $ 450 million financial gap. [Note 2] But, coupled with people’s movements in Brazil (the Amazon Highway), Thailand (mining, dams and forestry) and Indonesia (forced displacement of two million people), the NBA’s well-argued resistance drew the attention of the international community.

Embarrassed by the worldwide outcry against the WB-funded “development” projects, the USA summoned WB officials before its Congress to explain their lending policy. Following this, in an implicit admission of destruction and injustice, the WB noted that sustained economic growth was not possible without sustainable environment and just treatment of people, and even made the borrower-nations’ preparation of National Environmental Action Plans conditional to providing development loans. [Note 3]

World Commission on Dams

Apart from the NBA’s organised resistance against large dams primarily for social justice, and its critique of large dams and their adverse economic-environmental effects, there were escalating controversies on large dams else-where. This prompted the creation of a World Commission on Dams (WCD) in May 1998, with Medha Patkar as a member—truly a landmark victory for the NBA.

The WCD was financed by the WB and ADB; governments of Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, the UK and USA; corporates ABB, Voith Siemens, Manitoba Hydro, Atlas Copco, Tractabel, Enron and Harza Engineering; and civil society organisations like World Wildlife Fund. This new model of funding, by 54 public, private and civil society organisations, relied on extensive public consultation through a forum of 68 members from 36 countries representing a cross-section of interests, views and institutions. The WCD was to review the development effectiveness of large dams to develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of large dams. Thus, the WCD Report was the product of an independent, international, multi-stakeholder body, including two corporate CEOs as members, genuinely reflecting the interests of diverse groups. The WCD’s the Final Report (titled “Dams and Development—A New Framework for Decision-making”) was released in November 2000 by Nelson Mandela. It incorporated five core values for decision-making concerning large dams, namely: Equity, Efficiency, Participatory Decision-making, Sustainability and Accoun-tability.

Facing Odds

The Government of India did not accept the WCD’s unexceptionable core value recommendations, and construction of large dams continued not only in the Narmada valley but all over India, with people in their thousands joining the ranks of the PAFs.

Continuing its resistance to large dams, the NBA also moved to reconstruct the lives of the PAFs to ensure their resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R), and moved courts of law against the State and Central governments’ malgovernance and their ignoring, circumventing or violating orders of High Courts and the Supreme Court of India. The NBA also questioned the governments’ model of development and right of eminent domain.

The NBA’s policy remains peaceful resistance to injustice and oppression (sangharsh) along with social reconstruction (navnirman). People’s movements from all over India have taken heart from the NBA’s successes, and increasingly question the governments’ power of eminent domain over land. However, corporate-owned print and electronic mainstream media give little coverage to such movements and struggles, but are quick to dub resistance to infrastructure projects (including dams) as “anti-development”.

Several agencies are available to the PAFs concerning their rights, demands and grievances: the Narmada Control Authority (NCA); the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA); the Local, High and Supreme Courts; Grievance Redressal Authorities (GRAs); State governments of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat; and the Central Government. These have mostly failed to deliver justice due to collusion amongst themselves.

The NBA has also shown that governments acquiring land in adivasi areas without prior, informed consent of the gram sabhas is a violation of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act. But it has had little effect because of the corrupt politician-bureaucratic nexus.

When the Supreme Court ordered equivalent land-for-land rehabilitation to the PAFs, the governments stated in court that there was no land available for the purpose, even while they create “land banks” for industrial use and give agricultural land for Special Economic Zones (SEZs). In Madhya Pradesh, the police and administration forced evacuation of adivasi villages in the submergence zone by sealing their hand pumps, demolishing buildings with bulldozers and clear-felling trees. All this illustrates the governments’ policy and attitude concerning people’s problems. But the NBA continues to expose the wrong-doings of the project authorities including monumental corruption at many levels.

Notwithstanding such gross injustices and police violence on peaceful demonstrators, and failure by all the three pillars of the Constitution to address development-induced “involuntary” displacement, the NBA has maintained non-violence as a strategic imperative.

Persistence in a Right Cause

Maoist violence is being understood as the extreme reaction of the people to economic and physical violence from forest, revenue and police officials, seen as the first-cause. State (police) violence is the response. The violence by both sides is indiscriminate and adversely affects large, uninvolved (mostly adivasi) populations caught in the cross-fire. Escalation of violence has resulted in raising specialist forces and launching ‘Operation Green Hunt’.

However, employing the moral force of Gandhian non-violence, the NBA has been able to make the governments recognise the peaceful struggles of people. Today, thanks to the NBA’s persistence over 30 years, and perhaps under-standing its principled stand, the governments do not use gun-violence as they do against the Maoists. However, due to the machinations of the politician-bureaucrat-corporate nexus, the governments persist in malgovernance with callousness, neglect and ignorance, with corruption as the major reason for the violence inflicted upon the PAFs.

Exposing corruption

With commendable perseverance, the NBA succeeded in presenting facts of endemic mismanagement and corruption in the R&R process before the Madhya Pradesh High Court which, in 2008, appointed a Commission under retired Justice S.S. Jha to investigate and report its findings. The Jha Commission, working for seven years, brought out its Report in January 2016. It has exposed many cases of fake registries that provide compensation to unentitled people while omitting entitled PAFs, indicating monu-mental, systemic corruption amounting to around Rs 1500 crores.

The PAFs demand that the Jha Commission Report be placed in the public domain to expose the humongous corruption, and also expose the rank criminality which has derailed the R&R process, denying them rightful compensation granted by the Supreme Court and violating their constitutional right to life. However, to protect the corrupt officials, the Madhya Pradesh Government has brought obstacles to placing the Jha Commission Report in the public domain, denying the PAFs the justice and relief which it would have provided.

People’s Voices

Apart from the Narmada valley, there are many ongoing or upcoming hot-spots of resistance against human-cum-environmental disaster countrywide. Demanding development without displacement and destruction, they are inspired by the success of the NBA’s 30-year-long efforts and the exemplary non-violent struggles of the Narmada PAFs.

The NBA has led the world in redefining development-for-people, giving the lie to mainstream media reports that these people are against development, as shown by one of the many slogans of these people: “vikaas chahiye—vinaash nahin”. [Note 4] While resistance remains non-violent by design, there is anger and dismay expressed vocally, never physically, though their slogan, “rajniti dhoka hai—dhakka maro, mouka hai”, shows impatience with the politician-bureaucrat nexus.

People affected by the government-defined displacement-causing development are today aware of their rights, thanks to the NBA—witness the unambiguous slogan, “hum apna adhikaar maangte!—nahin kissi se bhik maangte!” People are disputing the governments’ power of eminent domain built into the present Land Acquisition Act 2013. This is evident from what the PAF children and adults shout with pride: “jal-jangal-zamin konyachi?—amichi!, amichi!” in Marathi, and only slightly differently in Gujarati, “jal-jangal-zamin konachhe—aamichhe, aamichhe”, staking full claim and right over land, water and forest, whatever the law may say. The governments’ injustices are responded to in the call for resistance: “har jor zulum ki takkar mein—sangharsh hamara nara hai!” And as columns of protestors move from one place to another, their lilting marching song is, “narmada ki ghati mein ab sangharsh jaari hai; chalo utho, chalo utho, rokna vinaash hai”.

The environment-ecology aspect of destructive development that threatens to destroy humanity is recognised in “narmada bachao!—manav bachao!”, and two frequently repeated calls for joining hands are “aao ham sangharsh karein—ek doosre ka saath dein” and “hum sab—ek hain”. Positivity of the non-violent revolution against the governments’ misuse of power, is in the slogan “ladenge!—jeetenge!

Social Integration

Apart from bringing the dam-displacement issue to national and international attention, the NBA has brought women to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with men at the forefront of resistance. This is acknowledged in calls of “mahila shakti aayi hai—nai roshni layi hai”, whenever a woman comes up to speak, as increasing numbers do. The NBA has also succeeded in uniting people across the language-divide of the three affected States, coining the catchy slogan “hindi, marathi ya gujarati—ladne wale ek hi jaati”. The NBA’s meetings, often held in temples, have united people across castes to resist the submergence of temples.

Existential Threat

The NBAs success in re-defining social and economic development in the national discourse has attracted diverse movements across the length and breadth of India. These have coalesced into the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), of which the NBA is a member movement. The NBA has attracted many individuals, including formally educated young women and men from urban backgrounds, to live and work in the Narmada valley alongside the PAFs. The dignified non-violent stance of simple adivasi and rural people facing oppression and suffering due to the governments’ policies and officials’ corruption and callousness, is a humbling lesson especially in present times.

Today the NBA is a moral force, and its most important contribution to India and the world is its continuing as a bastion of Gandhian truth and non-violence (satya and ahimsa) in an increasingly violent world, without detracting from the strength and vehemence of its arguments and agitations. But along with these achievements and hope, dark clouds of an existential threat to the PAFs loom with the present monsoon.

The “Development” Altar

The Supreme Court had ordered that raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) dam was to be executed in stages only after completing the R&R mandated for the previous stage. The government was to certify stage-wise R&R completion with an Action Taken Report (ATR) filed before the Supreme Court. But the Supreme Court, misled by false ATRs certifying the R&R completion, gave permission for raising of the SSP dam height at each stage, without the PAFs actually being rehabilitated.

Thus, on the basis of repeated falsehood of R&R completion, successive State and Central governments over the years have succeeded in constructing the SSP dam to its finished height of 138.68-metres and even installed the sluice gates.

The present situation is extremely critical because if the sluice gates are closed, the submergence area will increase enormously, and over 40,000 PAFs in Madhya Pradesh alone will be drowned.

This year, the nation faces an almost country-wide drought situation, and prays for a bountiful monsoon. But the 40,000 PAFs in Madhya Pradesh live in dread of that very monsoon for which we pray, because it will drown them.

While PM Narendra Modi strives to place India in a position of prominence in the comity of nations, it can become prominent for the wrong reasons with its Altar of Development claiming the lives of many thousands of the PAFs. 

NOTES

Note 1. The Bradford Morse Report to the World Bank had this to say about rehabilitation, environmental impacts and general economical viability of the Narmada projects: “We think the Sardar Sarovar Projects as they stand are flawed, that resettlement and rehabilitation of all those displaced by the Projects is not possible under prevailing circums-tances, and that environmental impacts of the Projects have not been properly considered or adequately addressed. [W]e caution that it may be more wasteful to proceed without full knowledge of the human and environmental costs.” Hence, “ ... step back from the Projects and consider them afresh ...”

Note 2. The Bonds were to mature in 2014, yielding Rs 1,10,000, but the Gujarat Government declared early redemption in January 2009, offering only Rs 50,000; evidence of huge cost escalation and financial mismanagement, both of which were pointed out earlier by the NBA. [http://www.indianexpress.com/news/Sardar-Sarovar-Bonds--Dinsha-Patel-accuses-SSNNL-of-cheating/394490]

Sardar Sarovar Bonds: Dinsha Patel accuses SSNNL of cheating—The Indian Express (www.indianexpress.com)

Union Minister of State for Petroleum and Natural Gas Dinsha Patel has accused the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) of cheating people who had put their money in the 1993 Sardar Sarovar Bonds. “Sardar Sarovar Bonds: Dinsha Patel accuses SSNNL of cheating”; Express News Service; December 5, 2008.

Note 3. That this was finally dependent upon borrower-governments’ responses to people’s real-time, real-life issues and agitations, implemented by callous and corruptible administrative and regulatory agencies, is another matter that needs to be discussed elsewhere. Indeed in 2002, to the delight of the governments, the WB reverted to financing large dams which it described as “high-risk-high-reward” projects.

Note 4. The slogans were noted during this writer’s several visits to the Narmada valley. The English interpretations for those to whom Hindi may be unfamiliar, in order of their occurrence are below:

# vikaas chahiye—vinaash nahin : we want development, not destruction.

# rajniti dhoka hai — dhakka maro, mouka hai : politicians are false—the time to strike is now.

# hum apna adhikaar maangte! — nahin kissi se bhik maangte : we demand our rights, we are not begging.

# jal-jangal-zamin konyachi? — amichi!, amichi! : whose is the water, forest and land?—it is ours! it is ours!

# har jor zulum ki takkar mein — sangharsh hamara nara hai! : we strongly resist and oppose injustice in every manner.

# narmada ki ghati mein ab sangharsh jaari hai; chalo utho, chalo utho, rokna vinaash hai : resistance is on-going in the narmada valley; arise! arise!

# narmada bachao!—manav bachao! : save narmada! save humanity!

# aao ham sangharsh karein—ek doosre ka saath dein : come, let us help one another in our struggle.

# hum sab—ek hain! : we are united!

# ladenge!—jeetenge! : we will fight! we will win!

# mahila shakti aayi hai—nai roshni layi hai : women’s power has brought new light to our movement.

# hindi, marathi ya gujarati—ladne wale ek hi jaati : whether we speak hindi, marathi or gujarati, we are together.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General, Discipline & Vigilance in the Army HQ, New Delhi, after 35 years in the Indian Army with combat, staff and technical experience. The President of India awarded him the Visishta Seva Medal (VSM) in 1993 for distinguished service rendered in Ladakh. He holds a Ph.D degree in Structural Dynamics from the IIT, Madras. He coordinates and lectures a Course on Science, Technology and Sustainable Development for undergraduate students of University of Iowa, USA, and two universities of Canada, who spend a semester at Mysore as part of their Studies Abroad in South India. He is an Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA.