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BABA AMTE'S VANAPRASTHA
The Agony and Ecstasy of Late Youth


PART 3

No big dams

Hemalkasa was the place that truly shaped the politics of Baba's 'late youth'. It was also his most daring act of valour, defying his physical pain. In 1973, barely a year after he had undergone surgery for his back problem, Baba pitched a tent at Hemalkasa, a place deep in the forests about 350 kilometres south of Nagpur. This took him back to the carefree days, in his teens, when he had roamed these forests on his hunting expeditions. He liked being among the adivasis. Their innocence and cheer delighted him. But, at the same time their material existence appalled Baba. For thirty years he had dreamt of ways to help the adivasis to benefit from modern civilization without becoming estranged from the beauty and strengths of their own culture. Now, he submerged the agony of his body to work vigorously to realize this dream. Travelling from village to village he began to work for improving health among the Madia Gonds.

In 1974, Baba and Tai's younger son, Prakash, graduated from medical college and came to work in Hemalkasa. Soon Prakash and his wife Mandakini, who had been a fellow-student, decided to settle there permanently. Like the senior Amtes, this couple faced many years of struggle with severe hardships, shortages of food, medicine and susceptibility to many diseases.

Gradually, the hardships decreased and a community of workers came together based on a shared bond with the local people, the wild animals and the abundant fauna and flora. This community includes Renuka, whom Baba and Tai had adopted as an infant, and her husband Vilas Manohar. Vilas later recorded the enriching explorations of the Hemalkasa family in a popular Marathi book entitled Negal, Tiger Cub. European friends who visited Hemalkasa saw Prakash and Mandakini as the Albert Schweifzers of India. In the late-80s some of these admirers convinced the principality of Monaco to issue a special stamp commemorating the young Amtes' work.

By now Baba had further fine-tuned his understanding of how 'development' was making the life of tribal communities more difficult. Two major hydel power projects were coming up in the area around Hemalkasa the Inchampalli dam on the Godavari River and the Bhopalpatnam dam on the Indravati River. These projects would submerge about two lakh acres of land, half of which was prime forest. As a member of the District Planning Board Baba sought relevant information on the projects and examined their impact on the tribal communities. On the basis of this study, he persuaded his colleagues on the Board that the projects would wreak havoc on the local cornmunities with little benefit to society at large.

In July 1983, Baba wrote to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, and urged the government to consider other ways of generating electricity. Why spend so much money on gigantic projects, Baba questioned? 'A series of smaller dams could, I submit, adequately meet the water and energy needs of the people, including electricity for industry, without degrading the environment. My discussions with government technocrats familiar with this region strengthen this view,' he wrote. In a polite reply the prime minister promised to 'pursue the matter'. She directed the Planning Commission to carefully examine the case. Meanwhile, opposition to these projects was mounting from several different quarters. Environmental activists questioned the data on which the cost-benefit ratio of the project was based. For example, the Maharashtra Forest Department estimated the loss of 40,000 acres of standing forest at Rs 9 crore. But if the calculation was made on the basis of the recurring annual yield, enhanced by proper management, the estimated value was close to Rs 2,500 crore.

Baba joined the effort to mobilize a popular opposition to the projects and in 1984 thousands of tribals marched to the District Collector's office demanding that the projects be withdrawn. Eventually a combination of this local action and lobbying in the corridors of power led to the cancellation of these projects. This sangharsh drew Baba one step closer to his destined home on the banks of the Narmada.

Narmada bachao

Rising partly from the bed, resting his weight on one elbow, Baba looked out of the window of the van in which he was travelling. The year was 1990. The van moved slowly across a bridge over the Narmada. A string of tractor trolleys preceded the van and several more were following behind it. Sky blue flags, carrying the emblem of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), fluttered all over the procession. The men, women and children crowded into the tractor trolleys were repeating the key slogan of the Andolan: 'Koi nahin hatega, bandh nahin banega (No one will move, the dam will not be built)'.

The sun was setting in a bright orange splash over the river waters below, as Baba's van reached the centre of the bridge. Suddenly the tractors swerved sideways and came to a halt, blocking the road. The NBA now informed the accompanying policemen that they intended to block this bridge, and thus the Mumbai-Agra highway, till their demand for a review of the Sardar Sarovar Project was heard.

For the next thirty hours hundreds of people from different parts of the Narmada valley made the bridge their home. The specially-fitted van, which had earlier carried Baba to the corners of India on the Knit India March, now became the nerve centre of this protest action.

A few days earlier, Baba had taken yet another big leap into the future and bid farewell to his beloved Anandwan. Few people in that gathering on the bridge realized just where Baba was coming from, both literally and metaphorically. Some of the villagers were surprised to find that this 'baba' didn't look like any holy man or 'mahatma' they had ever seen. After the rasta-roko on the Khalghat bridge, a smaller procession led Baba's van with proper fanfare to the little village of Kasravad, some five kilometres from the town of Badwani in the western corner of Madhya Pradesh.

Soon the jubilant crowd melted away and Baba was left to quietly examine his new home. Before him, on the barren sandy slope, was a two-room cement and brick structure-which the local villagers had constructed for him. For a flash, time seemed to melt away. He seemed to be back at the beginning when he had first stood staring at the scrub land near Warora. Baba retreated into his van, away from the anguish of this inhospitable site. Already he missed Anandwan, his home for forty years. Then, slowly the river, Rewa Maiya, began to work her magic on him.

For all appearances the move to Kasravad was a political, strategic manoeuvre, a kind of public relations coup for the Narmada Bachao Andolan. But, like every other action in Baba's life this one was a response to a pukar, a calling. Once again, he was drawn not by an external cause but the inner pull of the eternal beauty of the Narmada 'so pure, so holy, that the mere sight of her absolves one of all sins'.

Baba's involvement with the issue of mega-dams had been growing through the 1980s. In the summer of 1988 the Anandwan community hosted a meeting of over a hundred environmental activists from all over India on this issue. The 'Assertion of Collective Will Against Big Dams', also called the 'Anandwan Declaration', became a landmark in the emerging movement against big dams.

With characteristic flair Baba had articulated the case against the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) in a booklet entitled Cry 0 Beloved Narmada, published from Warora in July 1989. Addressed 'To the People of India' the booklet, for all its poetic overtones, gave a concise account of why the SSP was a social, economic and ecological disaster-in-making. In 1987-88 the final cost of the project was estimated at over Rs 11,000 crore. The submergence caused by the reservoir would displace about one lakh people. In addition thousands more would be displaced by the network canals. Baba used official data and tables to show that the benefits of the SSP had been greatly exaggerated and its costs grossly underestimated. He pointed out that the government had made a farce out of the statutorily mandatory environmental clearance. The booklet went on to argue that proper rehabilitation for all oustees was an impossibility. It also recounted the emerging protests against the mega-dam and government efforts to suppress the agitation through use of the Official Secrets Act and police force. Baba concluded with an appeal to 'My Beloved State of Gujarat' - pleading that the various alternatives to big dams on the Narmada be actively examined :

When the frontiers of science are pushing relentlessly towards technologies as dispersed as the golden rays of the sun, I will not let my beloved state of Gujarat fulfil a death wish by adopting an antediluvian technology. The science of large dams now seems to belong to the age of superstition; the coming century belongs to the technology of mini and micro dams and watershed development ensembles. I want Gujarat to join in this bright future.

By the end of 1989 Baba had decided to move to the banks of the Narmada:

The time has come to leave Anandwan, the place where I entered into the world of joy, the place that symbolizes the very meaning of my existence. I am leaving to live along the Narmada ... to attain a peace that all mankind desires. The struggle for a New India is taking place in the Narmada valley. Today the Narmada valley has become the arena for a new imagination and creativity, for a society in which there must be sufficiency for all before there is superfluity for some.

Now living on the banks of the Narmada, Baba heard the echoes of a pervasive violence against all forms of life, including the river herself. Can the mighty blessings of the mother goddess help us to yoke all our forces to shelter her?' Baba asked himself and his contemporaries:

Will we be able to blaze a divine halo around her that no power on earth can defile ? Or will her cries never be heard again? Will we bequeath to her only tombstones with a sad tale to tell?

While he pondered such unanswerable questions Baba got busy in, quite literally, sowing the seeds of a mini-Anandwan. Accompanied by Tai and helpers from his old home Baba planted carefully selected trees and bushes all around the two-room house. Soon a makeshift shed was added on the east side of the house, expanding the space to accommodate the inevitable stream of guests. But in the first year Baba was often on the road as activities of the NBA reached a peak.

Facing the 'other'

Ferkuwa, a small kasba on the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border, was an unlikely place for a historical showdown and one of the most fretful moments of Baba's life. Yet here were scores of people from the submergence zone of the SSP marching towards police barricades with their hands folded and tied. Leading them, his hands also tied, Baba appealed to the police that they be allowed to pass peacefully into Gujarat. But the reply was a menacing waving of lathis. Hundreds of people standing just behind the police shouted pro-dam slogans and with angry fervour told Baba to 'Go Back'.

In the last week of 1990, thousands of people affected by the project had set off from Badwani, M.P., on a march to the dam site. The 'Sangharsh Yatra' was halted at the Gujarat border. The yatris squatted by the roadside and refused to move. Medha Patkar and five others began a fast to draw attention to their cause. On the other side of the barricade, the wife of the Gujarat chief minister led a dharna of those in favour of the SSP.

For almost three weeks, both sides shouted slogans and allegations at each other across the police barriers. Baba, with his van stuck between the two camps, was caught in more ways than one. He knew that confrontation was not the solution. And he despaired at his own inability to convince, to persuade, the 'other side' about the folly of the dam. For almost thirty years the people of Gujarat had been told that the SSP would transform the state and become its 'life-line'. This dream was not easily challenged. On the anti-dam side, some of the younger activists doubted persuasion as a means and saw a tougher confrontation as the only way of resolving a conflict.

Baba persevered in persuading them that this was not a war between the people of Gujarat and M.P. Every sundown he became more anxious for the well-being of the activists who were fasting. As the fast crossed the three-week mark, supporters of the cause all over the country began to panic.

Medha's kidneys were rumoured to be in danger of collapsing. The Central government was deluged by national and international phone calls and telegrams, urging it to call for a comprehensive review of the SSP. There is no question of a review, insisted the Gujarat chief minister Chimanbhai Patel. Medha refused to break the fast unless a review was promised. And so the stalemate deepened.

Eventually, supporters of the NBA mobilized a team of eminent citizens to hold a review of the SSP. Thus, the fast was called off and the almost month-long road-side gathering of thousands at Ferkuwa was dismantled. The dharna had failed in its effort to get an official review of the SSP. But the month-long action, competing for media attention with nothing less than the Gulf War, put the struggle of the NBA firmly in public view. Medha now became a national public figure, featuring on the cover of several magazines. Baba returned to Kasravad convinced that the battle may have been only partly won but the tide of the war had turned in their favour.

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