“Movements are not like governments that come and go”: 34 years of the Narmada protests

14 October 2019
On 17 September, over a thousand people rallied at the Kasrawad Bridge to protest the filling of the Sardar Sarovar reservoir ahead of schedule for the prime minister Narendra Modi's birthday.
Courtesy the Narmada Bachao Andolan
On 17 September, over a thousand people rallied at the Kasrawad Bridge to protest the filling of the Sardar Sarovar reservoir ahead of schedule for the prime minister Narendra Modi's birthday.
Courtesy the Narmada Bachao Andolan

In early September, Chikhalda, a small village in Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district, drowned. A week later, I saw what was left of the submerged village from a boat. The boatman first rowed over a stretch of flooded corn and wheat fields. As he turned the boat to the left, we glided over what used to be a tar road—a state highway connecting the nearby town of Kukshi to another small town, Barwani. The boat floated over a watery graveyard of shops that used to sell kachoris, samosas and sweets. We passed a bus stop where farmers, labourers, boatmen and shopkeepers would wait to be taken places. Further up, as we entered the main square of this drowned village, the boatman pointed to a bust of Mohandas Gandhi perched atop a blue pillar, also submerged.

Chikhalda was a bustling rural settlement at the time of its sinking—750 houses, 56 shops, three schools, a large playground and 36 religious sites, including a Jain temple, two dargahs, and a Muslim graveyard. Locals took pride in the village’s archaeological history which suggested that the area’s rich black soil was home to the first farmers of the central Indian region. All of it went under water. Chikhalda, situated in the Narmada Valley, is just one of 178 villages of Madhya Pradesh that have been partially or completely submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Dam. The Sardar Sarovar is the largest dam on the Narmada River.

But why and how did Chikhalda drown?

In June 2019, the Gujarat government closed the gates of the Sardar Sarovar and started filling the reservoir to its limit of 138.68 meters, to test the dam’s capacity and strength. According to the award passed by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, or NWDT—a central-government appointed tribunal that adjudicated the sharing of the river’s waters—and various rulings by the Supreme Court, the rehabilitation of families affected by the dam’s construction had to be completed at least six months prior to the filling of the reservoir.

The schedule for filling the dam was laid out by the Narmada Control Authority—the main administrative body of the project, which comes under the central government. The NCA is responsible for all matters pertaining to environmental protection, land acquisition, the river’s waters and the rehabilitation program, among others. According to each of its annual reports since 2011, the NCA has maintained that all families in the valley have already been resettled and rehabilitated. Consequently, as per the NCA’s schedule released on 10 May, the dam would reach its full capacity by 15 October.

Nikhil Eapen is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.

Keywords: Narmada Bachao Andolan Sardar Sarovar Dam rehabilitation Narendra Modi
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