EPW    Commentary November 11-17, 2000

Globalisation and Narmada People's Struggle

L S Aravinda

'Don't talk like illiterates!’ thundered justice Kurdukar when asked about the responsibility of the Maharashtra government towards displaced villagers of Maharashtra being relocated to Gujarat. As the newly appointed grievance redressal authority for rehabilitation of Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) oustees in Maharashtra, he was, at the behest of the Supreme Court of India, making his first visit to the villages. Gujarat, whose grievance redressal authority began work in May 1999, had already declined to consider the grievances of oustees from other states. Some of these villagers who came to meet Kurdukar in Kevadia Colony (in Gujarat) on the night of August 7 had accepted resettlement in Gujarat only on paper. Once again it seemed that government records took priority over ground reality as to where and how people were living. A tribal person who does not defer to these records is called an illiterate ... what do you call a judge who disregards the people in favour of the records?

Dangerous Signals

More lethal than nuclear bombs are the weapons globalisation has produced for gaining control of people – not only their markets or their labour power, but their power to know and judge. The potential of global trade agreements to dishonour nations has been clearly revealed in recent cases like Ethyl Corporation vs Canada which the Canadian government lost. A more dangerous signal than the repeal of the ban on MMT – the chemical produced by Ethyl – or the $ 18 million ‘fine’ that the government paid to the corporation was the public apology that prime minister Cretin issued for ever saying a word against MMT. Global trade agreements, like strains of the AIDS virus, are ever more subtly assailing people and their institutions of free expression. Recent mass protests against globalisation have focused on its political and economic aspects, particularly objecting to the erosion of democracy in favour of rules imposed by multinational trade and finance interests. Less grasped is the urgent need to resist its intellectual repression. Granting private, multinational corporations a status on par with democratically elected governments pushes the use of international standards for fact finding and dispute resolution in international languages. People not conversant with such languages and technologies of information – which is the vast majority of the world’s people – find that they must struggle to validate their own lives on their own terms.

Living in the mountains and plains of the Narmada river valley, stretching for 1,300 km through Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra, the natural resource based communities including tribal people also known as adivasis have, since 1985, mounted a tenacious struggle against displacement, state repression, and the destruction of natural resources resulting from the Narmada Valley development projects. The projects comprise 30 large dams, 133 medium size dams, and 3,000 small dams, along with 75,000 km of canal networks to direct the waters of the Narmada River to wherever the state decrees. The project plan appeared in 1979 after 10 years of deliberations of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal. Sardar Sarovar, the last dam before the Arabian Sea, is a kingpin of the project. The people living in its ‘submergence zone’ got the first hint when surveyors arrived in their villages in 1985 (the year the World Bank agreed to finance the project, but before the government of India gave clearance for it). After three years of village level organising, seeking information on the extent of displacement and the plans for rehabilitation, the people decided to oppose the displacement and question the projects’ claim to ‘public purpose’. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Movement to Save the Narmada), the first people to evict the World Bank, must fight not only for rights over economy, environment, and livelihood, but also for personhood, for humanity itself.1 Holding firm to the policy of ‘Amra gaon ma amra raj’ (our rule in our village) the villagers resisted state collusion with globalisation through their own institutions of survival. To make legislations such as the Tribal Self Rule Act2 meaningful, tribals, especially those confronting unjust displacement, must continuously evolve their own systems to resist imposition of globally standardised agriculture, health, education, vocation, and other products of development fundamentalism. To assert that the villagers’ own ways of conceiving their life’s aspirations can be implemented in their own structures – for example, to run a primary school in a language other than one of India’s official languages, taught by people not recognised as ‘teachers’ by the government administration – is at the heart of the resistance movements. A frightening feature of globalisation is the thrust to measure progress and development according to universal indices, to represent all human experiences in standardised formats that presume literacy and computation.

The August encounter in Kevadia was not the first time people have faced a struggle just to have their presence counted and their voices heard over the barrage of papers. In February 1999, the Supreme Court’s interim order permitted the Gujarat government to raise the height of SSP dam from 80 to 88m, bringing 55 villages under partial or total submergence. Of what use was this incremental height increase when the benefits of the dam begin only at the 110m level? The counsel for Gujarat called for a ‘signal’ from the Court that the project was on. Only then, he explained, would foreign investment flow into the state. Representatives of the 33 affected villages of Maharashtra, all in Nandurbar district, met the collector demanding to see the land that the state of Maharashtra had declared in its Supreme Court affidavit as available for resettlement. What was on the affidavits and maps was not there on the ground. On paper the same land can be declared as available for any number of families.

Such wonders of literacy are what the Bhil and Bhilala villagers found out on March 17, 1999, when after two nights and three days outside the collector’s office the people went in truckloads, accompanied by the deputy collector, to see the only resettlement site which the office was prepared to show. There they were met by hundreds of women and men already allotted this site. Officials unrolled maps and it soon became clear that wherever the office recorded vacant land, people were cultivating. The government had yet to issue the land titles. At last deputy collector Vasave, took the people into confidence. “I am also a tribal, affected by the Ukai project, so I will tell you the truth. We have stated in our affidavit that we have 285 hectares. As you can see there are prior claims on this and only after we settle these can we inform you how much land we actually have.” At once the people cheered, ‘Adivasi ekta Zindabad!’ (Long live Adivasi Unity). Unity has served the villagers well in confronting the all too familiar tactic of allotting multiple families, even multiple villages the same plot of land and setting the poor and dispossessed against one another. The people refuse to be divided or intimidated by the numbers thrown at them. ‘Ham sab ek hain!’ (We are one) they declare.

Fast Guns

Such declarations were prohibited by Justice G G Sohoni, the grievance redressal authority appointed by the Supreme Court to look into resettlement and rehabilitation for Madhya Pradesh. He made his rounds to the resettlement sites in June. No slogans, he repeated, threatening that he may have to cite the Narmada Bachao Andolan for contempt. Along went the ‘independent’ judge with his motorcade of government officials and police jeeps. Why so many guns? asked an observer. ‘I didn’t ask for them,’ he replied. Asked if he would be willing to visit a village without police, he said, “I don’t interfere in these policies. They are appointed for security.” Slogans are a security measure for the people. Their nonviolent resistance against injustice draws its strength from unity. Speaking in one voice, the villagers are able to articulate their analysis of the situation with an authority that the judge, surrounded by official information, could not otherwise recognise in 15 minute halts at each site. The analysis is clear: the loss the adivasis and farmers will suffer cannot be compensated. Therefore rehabilitation according to law is not possible, and the project itself must be questioned. ‘Punarvas niti dhoka hai. Dhakka maro mauka hai’. (This resettlement policy is a fraud, kick it out, here’s the chance!) The journalists, the activists, the curious onlookers, all realise that villagers living and cultivating for generations know more about soil, rocks, weeds and marshes than any of the officials travelling with the judge. The same government official who answers Sohoni’s questions with bald figures from official records walks away mumbling, ‘this site is hopeless’. Yet the judge insists, “Let us find out if this soil can be made cultivable, even if it requires expenditure of crores of rupees.” He tells his secretary, “Send samples to our agricultural institutes and seek their advice.”

Who will gain all these crores of rupees? Only the literate enlist agricultural expertise in the cause of displacing farmers. How would the judge really be able to assess the quality of the land, on which the lives of the people facing displacement depend? Are farmers not agricultural experts? Should tribals practising organic, subsistence agriculture for generations consent to cropping patterns recommended by government agencies in collusion with multinational seed, pesticide and fertiliser suppliers? Until students and faculty of higher education resist enlistment and reclaim academic research from the clutches of a Monsanto or a Cargill, globalisation will continue to undermine the people’s knowledge. Meanwhile refugee camps, without farmlands, without access to transport or markets, without schools, handpumps or health facilities, pass as resettlement sites and minimum survival becomes the new standard for rehabilitation. During a site visit, Uppal of the Narmada Valley Development Authority distracts some villagers with the question, “If we put you on this land and said that you have to live here, would you not grow anything here?” ‘Objection. Irrelevant’ should have been the reply, since the Narmada Tribunal Award talks not about bare survival but restoring families’ earlier standard of living. But when big men in gleaming cars and suits, with gun toting police nearby ask questions in a language the villagers speak with difficulty, there is no debate. ‘Yes’, the villagers reply, ‘we would grow something’. ‘That is my point!’, the officer rolls up his tinted glass window and drives away.

We Are All One

A direct attack on the government’s strategy of divide and conquer, the villagers’ unity generates greater unity. As leaders emerge from the village level organisations, the government may take aside a family and offer them a plot of land to appease them. Surviving two rounds of government sponsored deforestation, severe soil degradation, drought, and threats that those who don’t accept resettlement now will get nothing later, the family is in a very vulnerable position. It seems they lose either way. Gaining strength from unity, they reply that they must see the plan for the entire village. When a village as a whole becomes too strong to ignore, the government may again try to lure the village with promises of community resettlement as required by the Narmada Tribunal. At this time the village demands to see the plan for all the 245 villages to be ousted by the Sardar Sarovar Project, all the while raising questions as to the merits of the project, the fate of oustees of other dams along the Narmada, and of other projects throughout the world. ‘We are one’, they insist.

Stumbling over numbers was again the order of the day on August 9 when Kurdukar met with villagers individually in Dhadgaon (the block level headquarters). He began, ‘Remember to tell the truth. How many children do you have?’ ‘Seven’. ‘State their names’. Names were listed. ‘That is only five’. ‘Two children died’. ‘When were they born?’ he asked suspiciously. While villagers came prepared to discuss the holistic issue of livelihood, ecology and human rights with respect to the unjust displacement, now they supplied their children’s dates of birth. Thousands waited outside in the scorching sun, but only a dozen could meet the judge that day. All returned the way they came, walking for hours through the Satpura mountain ranges.

Common Sense and State Innumeracy

It would be wrong to contrast the sentiments of the villagers with the cold mathematical reason attributed to government planners. A dam could never be built on reason alone. Whether on cost, irrigation, or power generation, calculations speak against the building of more dams. Amount of land irrigated is less than double the land lost to submergence and waterlogging. The cost of such inefficient irrigation runs to 10 times the cost of local watershed development.3 Factor in soil degradation, loss of forests, biodiversity, and livelihood; spread of diseases and geological instability, and one questions the rationality of even proposing a large dam. Even politicians when not in power have declared that with a small fraction of the budget allocated to one mega dam they could implement small-scale projects in water harvesting and power generation that would achieve results in one to five years. In contrast, the ministry of water resources stated in 1993 that the waters of Sardar Sarovar would reach the drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra in 2025.

Nehruvian metaphor fuels the fervour to build these ‘temples’.4 Dam builders have not scored high marks in the math department. The experience of the Bargi dam rings loud and clear with government innumeracy. The first mega dam on the river Narmada, near Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh), the project displaced 100,000 prosperous farmers and fishworkers. Engineers first declared that the reservoir would submerge 101 villages, but when filled it actually engulfed 162 villages and some resettlement colonies as well. How to account for the lives of 61 villages? The literate answer with a friendly letter and fresh paint on the project notice board. And what about all the farmers who were to benefit? The Bargi dam has irrigated only 5 per cent of the land it promised to irrigate. Even temples manage water better than this.

Once proud farmers now pace the pavements of Jabalpur. Living in slums, pulling rickshaws, labouring for daily wages, they lament, “Our hands are used to giving, not taking. Had we been organised we would never have let this project go through.” The paper pushers of this country should witness the honour that glows in the eyes of one who knows how to cultivate the land. “Even when 50 ‘parikrama vasis’ (pilgrims to Narmada) came we would welcome all of them.” People who can feed 50 guests on short notice can tell you a good deal about the Narmada Valley Development Projects. “Just as we must assess how much grains, ghee, wood, etc are required and from where we will get them, in planning such a project one must first measure the water...” from there the comparisons begin. With river volume now known to be 18 per cent, or five million acre feet less than originally calculated, Narmada Sagar (the feeder dam) in doldrums, and government survey levels off by three metres, the project is in total chaos (also known as centralised planning). While peasants would never dream of welcoming 50 people without having enough grains, the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited is fully prepared to drown thousands on the basis of erroneous calculations. Another parameter used in assessing displacement is the once in hundred year flood level. The government of Gujarat has calculated this using the HEC-2 computer simulation programme. However if one compares the results with the observed flood levels (on record with the central water commission), one finds that water has risen above this level three times since 1970, even without the dam. Had the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal during its 10 years of deliberations (1969-79) ever consulted the tribals or farmers, it would have had better measurements of flood levels and the governments might not be blundering so badly in assessing the extent of displacement today.

Three-Metre Mystery

People always suspected that there were errors in the government surveys, not only due to the experience of Bargi, but due to persistent inconsistencies in government information regarding flood levels. Survey markers on the same field would indicate submergence at different reservoir levels. In some villages, houses received notices that their land would be submerged while houses lower than theirs received no notice. To all except those relying on government records, something was obviously and seriously wrong and no grievance redressal authority would ever hear the woes of those rendered homeless and without livelihood unless they were listed as project affected persons (PAPs) in those records.

Ravi Kuchimanchi, who tracked down the error in the government’s survey had to set aside his training as a civil engineer and work according to the people’s knowledge to solve the mystery of the three metre level difference. Surveying the heights independently, he had two sources of reference. One was the government benchmarks, supposed to be accurate to the milimetre. The other was the people’s reports...but they never reported the height of their home or field above mean sea level. They would point out where the waters reached in the 1970 flood. Not mean sea level, but their house was the reference for measuring the water level. What struck him was that people in different villages would all indicate the same level of water of a flood 30 years ago. Their measurements were as accurate as any survey instrument. At last Ravi got what he needed – an alternate frame of reference from which to check the validity of the government surveys. People’s knowledge is more than the oft-displayed medicinal herb and bamboo craft, but the very basis and defence of their independent, adventurous life. An error of three metres across the entire submergence zone would mean an additional 18,000 project affected people. When these survey errors were brought to the attention of officials in a meeting with Madhya Pradesh chief minister Dig Vijay Singh,5 officials were intrigued but confirmed that they would continue according to the benchmarks and computer simulations in their records.

Resisting Globalisation

The fight against centralisation of knowledge and natural resources is a fight against globalisation, in which people’s knowledge – in their own language and with reference to their own experience – is an essential survival tool. In India the battles over patents on neem, turmeric, and basmati rice have drawn attention to the wholesale attack on people’s knowledge. Dams further reveal the extent of the attack. The desperate attempts to attract finance for the Maheshwar dam (also on the Narmada) highlight the mutual dependence of resource-centralising projects upon multinational finance which seeks distance from the democratic processes of any single country. During Clinton’s March visit to India, US company Ogden signed a deal to invest in the Maheshwar dam. After three German companies – VEW, Bayernwerke, and Siemens, withdrew from the project based on reports from independent human rights organisations, the owner of S Kumars, the Indian private capital behind the Maheshwar dam accompanied Vajpayee on his September visit to the US. Even higher than Maheshwar on the agenda of Indo-US trade relations has been the software and telecommunications industry, whose remote security and surveillance systems are the bedrock of globalisation. While India rides this information superhighway, the right to information is still denied to the vast majority of its citizens. This is only to be expected – though when the urban educated try to hear the excluded voices, the government’s response may surprise them.

The Gujarat police detentions of August 23 and 24, drawing condemnation from organisations within Gujarat as well as Amnesty International, demonstrated to the world that the issues the Narmada Bachao Andolan has raised over the past 15 years pertain not only to victims of submergence in Sardar Sarovar, they impact upon society as a whole. The chance to hear people of the Narmada Valley speak in their own idiom in their own place, the ‘Saga of Narmada’, a day-long seminar organised in the village of Nimgavhan, in Maharashtra’s tribal belt drew women and men from all walks of life. Those with prior experience of Gujarat repression where Narmada was concerned took circuitous routes through cornfields and gushing streams on that monsoon day. Those who travelled openly to hear the story from the people of the valley, were detained en route and denied their right to information. This right was the first demand of the struggle they came to hear about. It was now their struggle too.

Further Struggle Ahead

At the recent independence day ceremony in Nimgavhan, the Indian flag was hoisted by 93-year old socialist activist Siddharaj Dhadda, exercising a right for which he had himself gone to jail in 1935. Before several hundred schoolchildren6 and guests, he inaugurated the first alphabet book for this region’s tribal students. Among those repeating after him were the two government-appointed teachers who could not communicate with the children there, who speak not the state language Marathi, but their own language, Pavri.

Asserting the value of mother tongue in children’s education, the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s jeevanshalas (primary schools) have published primers in Pavri, the local language. Asserting their own language has not at all isolated them; it has on the contrary earned them respect, and visitors to this region coming from all over India feel glad to learn even a bit of Pavri. The World Bank once thought itself unquestionable where development was concerned, but embarked on ‘reform’ measures thanks to its experience in Narmada; similarly the institutions of justice and governance will have to reform at the hands of the people’s movements.

The people’s movements of India hold fast to the slogan they raised in the momentous Harsud convention of 1989: ‘vikas chahiye, vinas nahin’ (‘we want development and not destruction’). The mainstream has had to learn (though slowly) from these mass movements to recognise the difference. Voices are rising everywhere against the rampage of large dams, mines, polluting industries, sweatshops, airports and expressways, designs for health care delivery – all packaged and publicised as third world aid, while destroying natural resources, traditional knowledge, and vibrant communities. The annual mea culpas of the World Bank,7 while hardly interrupting this trend, do appeal to that segment of the first world that can no longer ignore the problems in dominant development policies. Hundreds of thousands of survivors of Union Carbide corporate crime in Bhopal, still waiting for compensation for illnesses resulting from the gas leakage 15 years ago, and suffering to this day from groundwater contamination due to the leaked toxins, remind us that ‘We all live in Bhopal’. There is no more urgent call for solidarity than the recent decision of the New York Federal Court to dismiss their class action lawsuit against Union Carbide Corporation.

Like the survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster, those confronting the unjust submergence of Sardar Sarovar, and the deceptive development policies and false affidavits that dismiss their voices, are fighting with their lives. For the government, completion of Sardar Sarovar is significant as a signal that people’s democratic actions cannot stop projects, no matter how poorly conceived, rather than as a means for supplying water or electricity (even to industries). With the dam at 88m height, the villagers and their supporters remain in satyagraha throughout the monsoon, not leaving the lowest houses of Domkhedi (Maharashtra) and Jalsindhi (Madhya Pradesh) even as the waters rise, just as they have done in villages facing submergence at earlier heights. ‘Dubenge par hatenge nahin’, we will drown but not move out, has never been merely a slogan, but has been repeatedly proven by the people. Growing this year is an assertion of people’s right to recreate their lives on their own terms, not as ‘submergence villages’ but as the forefront in energy, education, and health initiatives appropriate to the contemporary socio-economic conditions. In the energy of struggle is the genesis of the alternative.

The political lines of globalisation are marked by language. Those fluent in the first world’s first language, risk confinement into its ways of knowing, judging and imagining, whose repressive streak has become more visible. The dignity and victory with which the fourth and third worlds are resisting these representations are a light of hope for all who experience globalisation as repression, for all who live in Bhopal, for all who stand behind the people’s own global standards, such as ‘aguas para vida, nao para a morte’, declared in myriad languages in the Curtiba Encontro International de Atingidos por Barragens (Convention of People Affected by Large Dams), for all who know that ‘amu akha ek se’.


1 For a brief history of the struggle see Sanjay Sangvai, The River and Life: People’s Struggle in the Narmada Valley (Mumbai: Earth Care Books, 2000).

2 Passed in December 1996, the legislation gives tribals ‘substantial and significant’ local self-governance rights, including control over natural resources that had been denied them by planners. It recognises that indigenous peoples have developed cultural systems that ensure judicious use of their natural resources.

3 Union Water Resources Ministry, Government of India Report, December 1991 cites cost of irrigation through large irrigation projects as Rs 40,000 per hectare. In contrast Agha Khan Rural Support Programme (in Gujarat) cites cost of locally managed watershed development as Rs 3,000-5,000 per hectare. Individual farmers cite even lower costs.

4 India’s first prime minister Jawaharlar Nehru is famous for saying, ‘Dams are the temples of modern India’. His later speeches expressing reservations with large projects and calling for small, locally managed initiatives are far less remembered, but can be found in C V J Sharma (ed), Modern Temples of India: Selected Speeches of Jawaharlar Nehru at Irrigation and Power Projects, Central Board of Irrigation and Power, Delhi, 1989.

5 Meeting of Narmada Bachao Andolan, Narmada Valley Development Authority, and Government of Madhya Pradesh in Chief Minister’s office, Bhopal, September 20, 2000.

6 The Narmada Bachao Andolan runs a system of jeevanshalas (primary schools) in the tribal region of the Narmada Valley. The government schools in the area exist only on paper, apart from such special appearances.

7 Excerpts appear in Multinational Monitor, June 2000.

October 6, 2000.

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