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

Narmada Bachao Andolan — 25 Years of Resistance and Reconstruction

Friday 31 December 2010, by S G Vombatkere


The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has reached its quarter century landmark of resistance to the mega-projects in the Narmada valley, becoming an international icon of non-violent protest against destructive development. The NBA is a mass movement; its sustained non-violent and peaceful efforts for equity and justice in the face of severe provocation, and its model of leadership make it a shining example of Gandhian ideals in an era of extreme corruption in morals and ethics.

Resisting the Rape of an Ancient Valley

MASS displacement of people due to dam construction was not new to India when the people of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the Narmada valley were shocked in the early 1980s by the governments’ beginning to execute plans formulated in British times (1946), to construct 3000 small, 135 medium and 30 major dams on the 1312-km long Narmada river, the cradle of 5000 years of continuous civilisation. Two of these are mega-dams: Narmada Sagar in Madhya Pradesh and Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat. This was possibly the largest set of dam projects on a single river anywhere in the world. 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. It was a bright picture for a rapidly industrialising India.

What was not made public at that time was that there was a flip side that affected not only the people who lived in the Narmada valley but even the rest of India in a cultural and ecological sense. The projects would inundate 37,000 ha of forest and agricultural land affecting the lives and livelihoods of forest-dwelling and farming adivasis and other rural families numbering in lakhs. The social costs of human displacement and loss of wildlife and forest were also not a part of the inherently crude cost-benefit calculations. Perhaps in the early 1980s, the environmental ill-effects were not fully appreciated (the Environment Protection Act was enacted only in 1986), but the fact is that the social ill-effects were simply glossed over because the project-affected families (PAFs) were predominantly adivasi and rural. Such people did not really matter even 35 years after Independence.

The effect of corporate power on development-fixated State and Central governments, exercised through the World Bank (WB) loans, was apparent even at that time because of the huge drive to push through large projects. Even basic technical considerations of feasibility were ignored in the indecent haste to execute projects that promised future benefits of irrigation water or electric power to one section of relatively prosperous people at the immediate cost of land and livelihood of another section of already poor but independent people. The immediate financial benefits went to the construction industry, the administrator-engineer-politician nexus and of course the lending financial institution. For example, the economic viability of a dam project is primarily based on the correct estimate of the total flow in the river. The actual annual flow in the Narmada river was estimated by the Bradford Morse Committee [see below] as 22.69 maf (million-acre-feet), which was 17 per cent less than the design flow of 27.22 maf. In simple language, this indicates that the designed benefits would not be achieved and the cost-benefit calculations were wrong or falsified.

As resistance to the 3000-plus projects grew, the PAFs gathered to question the basis of the whole scheme. Assisted by social workers and activists, the social, financial and technical bases of the projects were investigated and pointed questions regarding the viability of the whole scheme and of individual projects were raised. As various organisations of people’s resistance sprang up all over the Narmada valley, the focus of most were opposition to large dams. The separate organisations coalesced into the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in 1985 under the leadership of Medha Patkar who was 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.

The World Bank (WB) funded the $ 6 billion (1970 estimate) project to the tune of $ 450 million in 1985. But the NBA’s well-argued criticism of the details of the socio-economic-technical-environmental assumptions and effects of the projects, emphasised by the peaceful march and non-violent demonstration by thousands of PAFs to Ferkuwa on the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border in December 1990, caused the WB to review its involvement in the projects. It formed an Independent Review Committee in 1991, under Bradford Morse, a former UNDP chief. (It was the same year that India declared its New Economic Policy for reform through liberalisation, privatisation and structural adjustment in accordance with pressures from the IMF and WB.) The Bradford Morse Report (1992), which was critical of the government and projects in general [Note 1], caused the WB to withdraw its financial involvement in 1993, embarrassing State and Central governments that had provided full and generous cooperation to the Committee, possibly expecting it to provide support to counter the growing resistance offered by the NBA. This was a blow to the credibility of the governments’ plans.

To fill the financial gap caused by the WB withdrawal, Gujarat, the principal beneficiary of the Narmada projects, raised funds by issuing Sardar Sarovar Bonds in 1993. [Note 2] However, the governments refused to reassess the projects as recommended by the Bradford Morse Report. But, coupled with the people’s movements in Brazil (against the Amazon Highway), Thailand (against mining, dams and forestry) and Indonesia (against forced displacement of two million people), the NBA’s resistance drew the attention of the international community.

The USA, with strong control over the WB, was possibly embarrassed by the worldwide outcry against “development” projects funded by the WB as a reflection of its own policies. Accordingly, the WB officials were summoned to explain their lending policy in over 20 hearings before the US Congress. 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! It also went so far as to make borrower-nations’ National Environ-mental Action Plans a pre-condition to providing development loans. [Note 3]

The World Commission on Dams

APART from the NBA’s organised resistance against large dams primarily for social justice, and its studied critique of large dams and their adverse economic-environmental effects, there were escalating local and international controversies on large dams between the NGOs, governments, IFIs and business corporations. This prompted the creation of a World Commission on Dams (WCD) in May 1998, with Medha Patkar as a member representing the NBA—truly a landmark victory for the NBA.

The WCD was set up by the WB and World Conservation Union to review the development effectiveness of large dams and develop inter-nationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommi-ssioning of large dams. It was financed by the WB and ADB; by the governments of Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, the UK and USA; by corporates including the ABB, Voith Siemens, Manitoba Hydro, Atlas Copco, Tractabel, Enron and Harza Engineering; and by civil society organisations like the World Wildlife Fund. Thus, the WCD pioneered a new model of funding by 54 public, private and civil society organisations, and relied on extensive public consultation through a forum of 68 members from 36 countries representing a cross-section of interests, views and institutions. All this detail is provided to indicate that the WCD Report was an independent, international, multi-stakeholder body including two corporate CEOs as members, genuinely reflecting the interests of diverse groups. The WCD’s Final Report (titled “Dams and Development—A New Framework for Decision-making”) was released in November 2000 by Nelson Mandela. Significantly, it incorporated five unexceptionable core values for decision-making concerning large dams: equity, efficiency, participatory decision-making, sustainability and accountability.

NBA—Vibrant Icon of People’s Resistance

SADLY, the Government of India has not accepted the admirable core value recommendations of the WCD, without assigning any reasons: evidence of big-money influence on governance in India. Thus the construction of large dams continues not only in the Narmada valley but all over India, and people in their thousands are joining the ranks of the PAFs. Concurrently, the NBA’s resistance to large dams continues and grows, but it has moved from simply opposing large dams to additionally reconstructing the lives of the PAFs and moving courts of the law against the State and Central governments’ mal-governance that includes ignoring, disobeying or circumventing orders of the Supreme Court of India and various High Courts. Anti-displacement movements concerning different kinds of projects from all over India have taken heart from the NBA’s successes, and the governments’ power of eminent domain over land is increasingly questioned. However, the predominantly corporate-owned print and electronic media give little coverage to such movements and struggles, but are quick to dub resistance to infrastructure projects (dams are only one such category) as anti-development.

As far as the general public is concerned, the following organisations are available for the PAFs to approach concerning their rights, demands and grievances: the Narmada Control Authority (NCA); State governments; Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA); the judiciary, namely, the local, High and Supreme Courts; Grievance Redressal Authorities (GRAs); and the Central Government. Thus prima facie, democratic processes appear to be available to the PAFs, but this is a chimera as they have all failed to deliver justice. When the Supreme Court has ordered that raising the dam height in stages should be preceded by rehabilitation of all PAFs of earlier stages, the State governments have filed blatantly false Action Taken Reports (ATRs) in court and obtained the courts’ sanction to raise the height of the dams, thus displacing even more people; the courts appear blind to the blatant falsehoods of governments and to the increasingly desperate situation of the PAFs. When the Supreme Court has ordered equivalent land-for-land rehabilitation to the PAFs, the governments have stated in court that there is no land available for the purpose, even as they create land banks for industrial use and give away 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 is illustrative of the governments’ policy and attitude concerning the people’s problems. Recently, stung by the NBA exposing several of the wrong-doings of the project authorities including monumental corruption at many levels, the NCA has written that it does not want to have further dialogue with the NBA! [Ref. 1]

Notwithstanding such gross injustices and police violence on peaceful demonstrators, and failure by all three pillars of the Constitution to address development-induced displacement, the NBA has maintained non-violence as a strategic imperative. Thus, “... the Narmada Bachao Andolan is not just fighting Big Dams. It is fighting for the survival of India’s greatest gift to the world: non-violent resistance.” [Ref. 2]

Today, the Maoist armed violence is widely viewed as the reactive, extreme response of a section of the people to economic violence caused by the Forest and Revenue Departments’ policies and actions not unconnected with corporate interests. And Maoist violence is responded to by state (police) violence. Both Maoist and state violence are escalating and indiscriminate, and adversely affect large, uninvolved (mostly adivasi) populations caught in the cross-fire. But while the governments ignore the struggle that has spawned Maoist violence, they respond to Maoist violence with growing force exemplified by Operation Green Hunt. However, employing the moral force of Gandhian non-violence, the NBA has been able to force governments to recognise the struggles of the people, even if the governments’ response has not been very encouraging. Thus today, thanks to the NBA’s persistence over 25 years, the governments are changing from their earlier policy of stone-walling or suppressing protest to dodging or circumventing the force of non-violent struggles.

With commendable perseverance, the NBA has succeeded in presenting the facts of endemic mismanagement and corruption in the rehabilitation process before the High Court of Madhya Pradesh to the point where that Court has appointed a Commission under retired Justice S.S. Jha to make investigations and report back its findings. The Jha Commission has unearthed several cases of fake registries that provide compensation to unentitled people while omitting entitled PAFs, indicating monumental, systemic corruption that compounds the problems of the PAFs. The NBA has also shown how the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act—or PESA Act—has been violated by the governments acquiring land in the adivasi areas without free, prior, informed consent of the gram sabhas.

People’s Voices on Development-without-Displacement

THERE are many ongoing or upcoming human-cum-environmental disaster hot-spots of resistance around the country apart from the Narmada valley dams. To name only a few, bauxite mining in Orissa by Utkal Alumina and Vedanta Alumina in Kashipur and Niyamgiri respectively; a steel project by POSCO near Paradip (Orissa); Tata’s steel factory at Kalinganagar (Orissa); SEZs in West Bengal, Maharashtra and other States; the Tipaimukh dam (Manipur) and over 150 other large dams in the North-Eastern States; the Polavaram dam and Somapeta mega-thermal power plant project (Andhra Pradesh); several dams in Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh; the Sethusamudram Canal (Tamil Nadu); the Koodankulam Nuclear Power Plant (Tamil Nadu); and uranium mining at Jadugoda (Jharkhand). [Ref. 3] All these and many more are inspired by the success of the NBA’s 25-year-long efforts and the exemplary non-violent struggles of the Narmada PAFs. All these are now demanding development without displacement and destruction.

One of the many slogans of these people is “vikaas chahiye—vinaash nahin”; the NBA has led the world in trying to re-define development-for-people, giving the lie to mainstream media opinion that these people are against development. [Note 4] While resistance remains non-violent by design, there is anger and dismay expressed vocally, never physically. However, a slogan that makes one wonder whether their forbearance is reaching the end of its tether is “rajniti dhoka hai—dhakka maro, mouka hai”, which shows mistrust of the politician-bureaucrat nexus.

People affected by government-defined displacement-causing development are today aware of their rights, thanks to the NBA’s 25-year-long struggle. One oft-heard slogan, “hum apna adhikaar maangte! – nahin kissi se bhik maangte!”, says it unambiguously. People are disputing the governments’ power of eminent domain carried over from the British pre-independence days as implied in the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 cosmetically amended in 1984. 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 by the call for resistance with the slogan “har jor zulum ki takkar mein—sangharsh hamara nara hai!”. And as columns of protestors move from one place to another, their 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 by one of the commonest calls, “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”. There is a degree of optimism displayed in the non-violent revolution against the governments’ misuse of power, in the slogan “ladenge!—jeetenge!”.

NBA’s Effects on Society—Going Beyond Resistance

APART from bringing the dam-displacement issue to national and international attention, the NBA has succeeded in bringing women out of homes to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with their menfolk at the forefront of resistance. This is acknowledged when one hears the slogan “mahila shakti aayi hai—nai roshni layi hai” whenever any woman comes up to speak, and increasing numbers do so to make cogent points or encourage resistance. The NBA has succeeded in uniting people across the language divide of the three affected States, coining the slogan “Hindi, Marathi ya Gujarati—ladne wale ek hi jaati”. The NBA’s meetings are often held in temples, and all castes have resisted the submergence of temples, thus uniting people across castes which are traditionally denied entry to temples.

It is true that some people have indeed been rehabilitated, though quite ineffectively and inadequately. For example, one of the SSP rehabilitation sites called Gaothan No. 8 is in Vadchil near Shahada. Though government signage bureaucratically calls the place “SSP Gaothan No. 8” the displaced people have named it Shobhanagar after an activist who had died in the process of protest. The 70-odd tribal families, who have been translocated from places more than 300 km distant into a culturally different area, had been provided with tin sheds (which are blazing hot in summer and very cold in winter) to live in, and very poor land without individual titles, to cultivate. The land, with a “block title”, had not been surveyed and these people live in constant fear of being displaced yet again. The nearest PDS ration shop is 30 km away and they have to walk the distance (because they cannot afford even the infrequent bus transport) and are then often told that the stock has not been received, and they walk back empty handed. This takes two days and even if they do receive ration, the quantities are minimal. There is a school upto Class 4 that runs without any assistance from the government with the NBA volunteers as teachers. In other places, children go to the “Jeevanshala” that the NBA has started in their original (now submerged) home village. These Jeevanshalas, run on donations from well-wishers and with no government participation, are part of the NBA’s efforts at re-constructing the shattered lives of the displaced PAFs, taking the movement beyond resistance (sangharsh) to include re-construction (nirman). And the “marriage” of re-construction with resistance is epitomised by the children’s cry, “jeevanshala ki kya hai baat?—ladna-padna saath-saath!”

Hope for the Future

TWENTYFIVE years is a significant fraction of India’s 64 years since independence. The NBA’s influence in the social and economic areas in re-defining development in the face of rampant and destructive corporate-driven industrialisation has been proportionately large. The NBA has attracted diverse movements across the length and breadth of India, that have coalesced into the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), of which it is a member movement. The NBA has attracted many individuals, including young women and men with formal education from urban backgrounds, to live and work in the Narmada valley alongside the displaced people. The proudly non-violent stance of simple adivasi and rural people who are undergoing oppression and suffering due to the governments’ policies and the government officials’ corruption and callousness, is humbling for any right-thinking person.

Perhaps the NBA’s most important contribution to India and the world is its continuing to be a bastion of Gandhian thought and action in terms of truth and non-violence (satya and ahimsa) in an increasingly violent world, without in any manner detracting from the strength and vehemence of its arguments and agitations. Today, the NBA is a moral force.


1. Mahim Pratap Singh, “To the heart of the Narmada”, The Hindu, December 5, 2010.

2. Arundhati Roy, “Ahimsa”, Hindustan Times, June 12, 2002.

3. S.G.Vombatkere, “Managing Disasters and Displacements”, Mainstream, New Delhi, Vol XLVII, No 48, November 14, 2009, p.17.


Note 1: The independent Bradford Morse Report to the World Bank had this to say about rehabilitation, environ-mental 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 circumstances, 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 NBA. [—Dinsha-Patel-accuses-SSNNL-of-cheating/394490]. “Sardar Sarovar Bonds: Dinsha Patel accuses SSNNL of cheating”; Express News Service; December 5, 2008.

Note 3: That this was finally dependent upon the borrower-governments’ responses to the people’s real-time, real-life issues and agitations, implemented by the 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, most recently in October 2010. The English interpretations in order of their occurrence are given 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 ongoing 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 and 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 in 1993 for distinguished service rendered in Ladakh. He holds a Ph.D degree in Structural Dynamics from 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 Adjunct Associate Professor of the University of Iowa, USA.

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