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

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
14 October, 2019

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.

But, on 27 May, the chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh, SR Mohanty, shot off a notice to the NCA that 76 villages still had at least 6,000 families who were yet to be rehabilitated. Despite this notice, the Gujarat government and the NCA went ahead and closed the gates, and started filling the dam. Then, in September 2019, the Gujarat government rushed the filling of the reservoir to its limit, about a month ahead of schedule, to coincide with the prime minister Narendra Modi’s birthday on 17 September.

Unable to flow forward, the 1,300-kilometre-long Narmada River broke its course and ate up whole riverbanks—known as the submergence area—dotted by homes, farms, shops, schools, temples and mosques. On his birthday, Modi offered prayers to the river at the dam site, during an event that was telecast live. Across the border in Madhya Pradesh, men, women and children in the Narmada Valley watched anxiously, angrily as the basin waters flushed residents out of their homes and on to the streets. They rushed to arrange alternate accommodation in temporary tin shelters, neighbours’ houses and rented homes.

The lives of those affected by the Sardar Sarovar are a continuing tragedy—one that the world has largely chosen to row past. The plight of the valley’s people would have been far worse if not for the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The NBA is a 34-year-old social movement against the damming of the river, which has fought for the rights of the affected communities. According to a July 2019 survey by the NBA, 31,593 families in Madhya Pradesh have rehabilitation claims pending. Fields have flooded, homes and shops have collapsed and crumbled in the deluge brought on by the dam being filled. In shock, families await cash compensation for their lands, their shops and houses. Landless labourers still wait to be paid a livelihood grant, porters have not been allotted plots of land, fish workers and boatmen wait to be registered and given licenses to carry on their craft. Many are entitled to an alternate plot of land and cash compensation to build their houses. Several thousand hectares of farmland in the valley has been marooned and farmers have no road access to their ready-to-harvest cotton, bananas, chillies, corn and wheat crops. The marooned land has neither been surveyed nor acquired by the government.

The past three decades have witnessed a dogged fight between the state’s most ambitious hydroelectric power and irrigation project, and a gutsy group of activists and locals under the umbrella of the NBA. This battle has played out in courtrooms and jails, at hunger strikes and road rallies, and in Jal Satyagrahas organised in small villages and big cities across the country and abroad. Over the years, the focus of the Andolan shifted from blocking the construction of the dam to ensuring proper rehabilitation and resettlement guaranteed to the affected families by the NWDTA, the Supreme Court and the state governments’ rehabilitation policies and action plans.

The mass non-violent resistance in the Narmada Valley represents the hallmark of what a group of committed activists can achieve with peaceful methods and limited resources. But the struggle has been all-consuming. Three generations of families in the valley have been held hostage. Over 34 years, its brave activists have grown older, their minds and bodies wounded—from watching their homes and fields flooded several times over, from standing in courtrooms, from lathi charges, from long hunger strikes and from overwork. But most significantly, they have suffered from the callousness, the humiliation and the apathy of the state. Yet, they are still fighting.

Chikhalda was a small village of around three thousand people in Madhya Pradesh's Dhar district. It drowned in mid-September this year as the Sardar Sarovar Dam was filled to it's capacity. Amjad Khan

Days after Chikhalda drowned, members of the NBA went to the village to recover the sunken bust of Gandhi. It was a symbolic act of resistance—one that the movement borrowed from Gandhi and adapted to suit their struggle. I watched eight men toil for an hour, in waters at least twelve-feet deep, as they used a lever, a rudimentary pulley-system, coir ropes and a couple of rods to tie, secure and lift the bust out. Volunteers helped drop a new metal-pillar into the reservoir and reinstalled the statue. Devram Kanera, one of the first members of the Andolan, was one of several activists and locals who offered prayers at the statue. Kanera is a resident of Khapar Kheda, a village six kilometres down the road from Chikhalda.

Kanera first met Medha Patkar, a social activist and the leading spokesperson of the NBA, on a Sunday in October 1986, at a tea shop in Rajghat—another small town in the submergence zone, across the river from Chikhalda. He was on his way home after buying groceries. Three years later, in September 1989, Kanera was among tens of thousands from around the country who gathered in Harsud, a 700-year-old village, to protest the damming of the Narmada. The social activist Baba Amte was there, as was the famed actor Shabana Azmi. Thirty years later, Kanera is still around. But the television cameras, film stars and international journalists who once thronged the valley have turned the other way.

Today, Kanera is over seventy years old and a grandfather. In 2007, he sold all his land, seven acres of lush cotton and wheat fields, as he was unable to balance his responsibilities at the NBA with the farming seasons. We sat on the roof of his house because the ground floor was submerged. On the wall behind us there was a painting of a scene along the Narmada. He told me about the Jan Vikas Sangarsh Yatra—March of the Struggle for People’s Development—that he was part of in December 1990. “The Andolan demanded that all work on the dam, the riverbed, and the cutting of forests be stopped, pending a thorough review of the Sardar Sarovar Dam,” he said.

Kanera described how a 5,000-strong procession carried a banner that read, “Koi Nahi Hatega, Bandh Nahi Banega”—We will not leave our land, the dam will not be built. It was a slogan to protest work on the dam. When the protestors reached Ferkuwa, a small town on the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border, armed police stopped the group. “We asked the police to let us pass,” Kanera said. But they were not allowed through to the dam site. The protestors tried to push forward past the barricades erected by the police. All of them had their hands tied—an acknowledgment to their pledge of non-violence. Many were beaten, arrested and forcibly moved kilometres away from the border. When the protestors returned, they resumed their efforts to push through.

“After a couple of weeks of being denied entry, when our efforts of non-violence were met with violence, we declared an indefinite hunger strike,” Kanera said. It was his first hunger strike and he was among six others, including Patkar. The hunger strike, which began on 7 January 1991, brought the Narmada confrontation to a new precipice. International journalists, national newspapers—according to the Economic and Political Weekly, the sole exception was the Gujarati-language media—and documentary filmmakers wrote and filmed biting accounts about the conflict on a daily basis. In Washington, activists lobbied the World Bank, which had sanctioned a $450 million loan for the Sardar Sarovar projects in 1985, to take action.

In mid-January 1991, abashed by the limelight, the World Bank announced an independent review of all Sardar Sarovar projects. This was an exceptional move unprecedented in the bank’s history. But the protestors, who were still on the hunger strike, were not permitted to the dam site.

In June 1992, the independent review committee published a comprehensive, balanced but scathing report—referred to as the Morse report—on the Sardar Sarovar projects. But the report’s findings, damning as they were, did not compel the bank to pull out. The bank persisted with funding the project, and in October 1992, it gave the Indian government a set of minimum criteria that had to be fulfilled within six months. On 29 March 1993, a day before the World Bank’s deadline, the Indian government cancelled the loan.

The protestors had a major win—till 1993, the bank had not pulled out of a single project from its dossier of 6,000 project applications. In 1995, the Supreme Court ordered the suspension of work on the dam, stating that the rehabilitation of displaced people had been inadequate. It was another significant win for the movement.

Devram Kanera, now over 70 years old, was one of the first members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Akshit Sharma

“Getting the World Bank to stop funding the dam projects and the halt on further construction by the Supreme Court gave me hope that we could stop the building of the dam,” Kanera said. “It looked like we were winning.”

All further work on the Sardar Sarovar was stopped for the next five years. In October 2000, the Supreme Court set certain conditions as a pre-requisite for further work on the dam. As per the apex court, the NWDT’s decision and the states’ rehabilitation policy and action plan had to be implemented in concurrence with the dam’s construction. Five years later, in March 2005, the Supreme Court added further provisos and granted agricultural land and housing-plot entitlements to adult sons or adult unmarried daughters of residents, from the date the land was acquired. “With the Supreme Court orders in place, I believed then that in a few years the majority of families might be adequately rehabilitated,” Kanera told me.

His optimism was not misplaced because despite the relentless devastation in the valley, many families in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat have received partial rehabilitation benefits. Patkar told me, “The rehabilitation benefits received under the Sardar Sarovar projects have not been achieved for any other dam in Narmada Valley, in this country or even in many other places around the world.” According to her, the NBA has “helped ensure that close to 15,000 families, including Adivasis from hilly regions have received five acres of alternate farmland in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.” There were a total of 19 affected villages in Gujarat and 33 in Maharashtra. Both the states have rehabilitated nearly all affected families. On the other hand, Madhya Pradesh, the worst-affected by the dam, has rehabilitated just a fraction of the people affected.

“In Madhya Pradesh, only 53 families have been resettled within the state,” Patkar said. Of these, 22 families “have received disputed land.” A total of 5,536 families from Madhya Pradesh have received land in Gujarat. According to an affidavit filed by the state government before the Supreme Court in September 2019, even in Madhya Pradesh, close to 4,000 families from the valley have been paid cash compensations ranging from Rs 60,000 to Rs 60 lakh, based on the amount of land submerged. The affidavit also said that almost ninety percent of 7,114 families that are entitled to receive Rs 5,80,000 to construct a new house have already been paid, while 2,387 families will receive new allotted plots of land. The Andolan’s campaigning has also ensured that landless families and fishermen—who were excluded in the NWDTA—are entitled to livelihood compensations and have permission to fish in the reservoir.

Many members of the NBA told me that they felt compelled to join the movement as they witnessed the injustice meted out to people elsewhere in the Narmada Valley. Their commitment to the Andolan was sustained by the realisation that what happened to other people could easily happen to them. Sanavar Mansuri, a mother of two children from Chikhalda and a member of the NBA, said her visit to the Bargi Dam site and meetings with displaced villagers gave her a taste of the destruction creeping at her doorstep. “In Bargi, the families got nothing,” Mansuri said. “One day, their homes were flooded, and they picked what they could gather and ran.” She believed that if people do not fight for their rights, they will not receive anything.

In 1990, the Bargi Dam was the first project to be completed on the Narmada River. It was a disaster. By 1997, the dam irrigated a mere 24,000 hectares of land—5.4 percent of the original layout of the proposed 4,37,000 hectares. The dam displaced 162 villages and 1,14,000 people without any notice, as opposed to the official estimate of 101 villages and 70,000 villagers. A majority of the families did not receive any compensation or rehabilitation benefits. Some received small cash compensations from the government, varying from Rs 500 to Rs 9,940 per acre. Twenty-seven years later, in 2017, those who lost their land and fields to the Bargi Dam did not have roads or electricity in their new villages.

Kailash Awashya was a teacher at a government school in Piplud village in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district when he joined the Andolan in 1990. During the monsoon of 1991, he witnessed the devastation caused by flash-floods in Manibeli—a low-lying group of three settlements about 192 kilometres from Barwani and closest to the Sardar Sarovar in Maharashtra. The floods were exacerbated because the dam raised the water levels in the reservoir. In July 1991, locals from Manibeli decided to solicit “death by drowning” as a protest against the state, even as flood waters gushed into their homes. They defined their resistance as a jal samarpan—surrender to water—and refused to accept the government’s offers of resettlement. The police had to drag protestors out of their homes. Between April and August 1991, Manibeli witnessed multiple incidents of mass arrests, lathi charges, harassment and intimidation of local residents.

“My heart stopped when I felt the water surge around me, and I thought, oh god, the dam is going to kill us,” Awashya recalled. From where he stood in Manibeli, he could see the Sardar Sarovar Dam. By the time he returned to Barwani, he had made up his mind. “I felt we had no option but to fight.” In 1996, Kailash resigned his job as a teacher and joined the NBA full-time.

On 17 September this year, the NBA protested on the Kasrawad Bridge, which connects a two-lane state highway over the Narmada River. I watched as over one thousand people from the valley sat on motorbikes, atop tractors, on buses or had walked to the site. A microphone blared speeches, songs and slogans as the protestors occupied the bridge under the afternoon sun. The NBA reminded the protestors that they were there to denounce Modi’s birthday celebrations at the Sardar Sarovar.

Residents of the Narmada Valley protest on the Kasrawad Bridge on 17 Septmeber, even as the prime minister Narendra Modi inspected new projects built to boost the dam’s tourism appeal. Akshit Sharma

“We have come with our demands, our sorrows, our stories. We want to spread the news in the villages and in the cities that our villages are being drowned—the bananas and cotton fields that have neither been surveyed or compensated have been submerged,” Mansuri spoke into the microphone, her anger and emotion crackling in the breeze. “Many farmers and labourers have died, but today, they die because they are being drowned.” The Narmada had broken her banks, swallowed a temple, and eaten into the river-facing huts of the Kasrawad village right behind where she stood.

On the bridge, I spoke to Jagdish Gansham, a farmer from Bagut village in the Barwani district. Gansham lost his home to the rising reservoir waters. One acre out of his two-acre landholding drowned in August this year; the remaining land was marooned by the reservoir waters of the river. In a pattern common among farmers who have lost farmland in the region, Gansham now worked as a construction labourer in Barwani town. He described the Andolan as a family. “We have been fighting for people’s rights for the last 34 years.” He has been a member of the NBA for the past 15 years. “When my father died, I took his place.” Over the years, he went to meetings and protests in Indore, Bhopal and Delhi. “The village is united in this struggle; even people who have received compensation are standing in solidarity with those who have been excluded.” A day before the Kasrawad rally, NBA workers had rushed to mobilise protestors. “Find a tractor and come in large numbers,” Kailash Yadav, a farmer from the Kasrawad village who has been involved with the movement for the last 28 years, said. “We need to fight this together.”

In every village I visited before the rally, residents asked Andolan workers if Patkar will be present at the protest. To the people of the valley, Patkar is the movement’s leader. She is the voice of the NBA in court rooms, to the media, to the government and on the international stage. She is also everyone’s elder sister. They are inspired by her courage, energy and campaigning power.

Kamla Yadav, another founding member of the NBA, was a labourer in the fields of Chhota Barda in the late 1980s. Chhota Barda is a village on the banks of the Narmada, 30 kilometres upstream from Chikhalda. She recalled the first time she heard of Patkar. Her mother told her that a girl had petitioned women in the village to oppose the building of the Sardar Sarovar. She recounted how she told her mother, “We are labourers. How can we oppose the dam?” But the next time Patkar came to their village, Kamla and her sister attended Patkar’s meeting.

Kamla described Patkar’s crucial role, in mobilising the women of the region during the initial years of the Narmada movement, in a book titled Rewa: Yesterday, Today and Tomrrow. “At first, women would not leave their homes,” she said, “but didi would visit each house and call on women personally to come. She would say, ‘Come on kaki-bhabi, it’s just a matter of one or two hours, you can attend and come back.’”

The day before the Kasrawad rally, residents of the Barwani district rushed forward with documents that proved their pending claims of land, house plots and compensation. The NBA activists did a perfunctory review and insisted they did not have the authority to process the documents further. They asked claimants to pressure the district collector and the nodal district authority to conduct a fresh survey in their village. Their message was—go in large numbers and stand outside the offices till the administration agrees to meet. “If they go alone,” Kailash Yadav, another NBA member, told me, “they will likely be ignored.” Kailash, a farmer with a five-acre landholding in Kasrawad, was not even aware of the Sardar Sarovar when he first heard of Patkar and her work.

Kailash joined the NBA in 1991, and over the last 28 years he has worked hard to find a balance between his life as an activist and his profession as a farmer. He has been detained by the authorities several times—sometimes for periods lasting up to 20 days—during his years with the Andolan. He told me that in 1998, he was arrested under Section 151 of the India Penal Code—joining or continuing in assembly of five or more persons after it has been commanded to disperse—with a hundred other activists. “This arrest coincided with the planting season and I could not plant on time,” Kailash said. “It was a big loss.” He told me that he had to hire two labourers to work his fields to compensate for the time spent working with the NBA. “There have been seasons when the yield has not even been sufficient to pay the farm workers and I have had to borrow to pay their wages,” he said. But he does not rue a single moment of it. “We believe in each other,” he said and added that “Medha Patkar believes in me and has expectations for us and I want to meet them.”

Today, his son Rahul Yadav is one of the main leaders of the NBA. But Kailash said that this life was not what he had in mind for his son’s career. Rahul was pursuing a degree in law when he volunteered with the Andolan to provide data and documents to a commission headed by the judge SS Jha. The Madhya Pradesh High Court constituted the commission in 2008 to investigate corruption and irregularities in the construction of resettlement sites, and the trading of fake sale-deeds of agricultural land bought by project-affected families.

In January 2016, the commission released its findings. The report, which I accessed, is damning: 993 fraudulent registries were executed to claimants in the Narmada Valley for land titles that did not in fact belong to the seller—for land that did not exist, or titles for government land that could not be sold. It further noted that 561 registries took place where the seller and the buyer colluded to register a sale, only to withdraw its cash payout. The report has not been made public.

Although the commission noted that it did not uncover direct evidence against government officials, the report said these fake registries would not have been possible without a nexus between corrupt brokers and the Narmada Valley Development Authority—the state government body that oversees projects in the Narmada Basin. The commission also rapped the NVDA for not maintaining transparent records of funds related to livelihood grants and alternate livelihoods. The report indicated that there was large-scale corruption in the disbursement of these grants. The NBA had contributed significantly to the report over a period of seven years. At its heart, the 144-page final report showed the NBA’s activists that even rehabilitation packages that it had fought long and hard for could be squandered away in state corruption.

In the middle of September this year, ten activists from the Zindagi Bachao Abhiyan—a peoples’ movement opposing the Morand-Ganjal joint irrigation-project in Madhya Pradesh—visited the NBA office in Barwani to learn about the Andolan, and the impact of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. “Movements are not like governments that come and go,” Rahul told the activists. “Movements are permanent; they have a life of their own: children join their parents, new volunteers are recruited when old ones leave. If you do well, your children will join you, and in the fight, lies success.”