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Resistance in the valley

Frontline Volume 16 - Issue 18, Aug. 28 - Sep. 10, 1999
India's National Magazine on
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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Resistance in the valley

Activists and supporters of the Narmada Bachao Andolan allege that by arresting the anti-dam satyagrahis the government tried to create a situation that it hoped would draw attention away from the Sardar Sarovar Project.


ON August 10, satyagrahis at Domkhedi village watched a tree, which carried the pale blue flag of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), sink in the rising waters of the Narmada. That marked yet another stage in the NBA's 14 year-old struggle to prevent the c onstruction of big dams on the Narmada.

Domkhedi in Maharashtra and Jalsindhi in Madhya Pradesh were chosen for the satyagraha as they would be submerged this monsoon. The waters rose to 127 metres at Rajghat bridge, upstream of Domkhedi, forcing the police to stop all traffic. At Domkhedi wat er entered the satyagraha hut and homes nearby. Across the river, at Jalsindhi, fields were submerged and waters entered the satyagraha hut.

The next day 61 satyagrahis, including NBA leader Medha Patkar, were arrested. "It was a test of our commitment," said Anita S. from Kerala who was among those arrested. Medha Patkar and three dam-affected people had started the satyagraha on June 20 aft er the Supreme Court revoked a four-year stay on the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam, the largest among the 3,200 dams planned on the Narmada river. It is estimated that 2,500 families in nearly 60 villages in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh will b e displaced when the dam height is raised by five metres as a consequence of the court order.

Heavy downpour in the upstream regions of the Narmada Valley, particularly Jabalpur and Mandla in Madhya Pradesh, caused the water level to rise further, beyond the submergence level. Near Hafeshwar, the nearest access point to the villages involved in t he satyagraha, the level was around 98 m. The situation worsened when water was released from the three large dams upstream: 30,000 cusecs from Bargi, 28,000 cusecs from Tawa and 30,000 cusecs from Barna.

Arundhati Roy, author and NBA supporter, said: "The sad thing is that it was an artificially induced flood, a man-made flood. They waited for the rally to leave and then released water from the Bargi, Tava and Barna dams. The only heavy rain that had bee n recorded was in Jabalpur." Arundhati Roy, who had visited the same site a week earlier as part of the Rally for the Valley (Frontline, August 23) in which more than 300 anti-dam protesters participated, returned to the satyagraha sites on August 12, the day after the satyagrahis were arrested.

NBA leader Medha Patkar and other satyagrahis at Domkhedi as flood waters enter their hut.

She said that she was struck by the "poignancy of the half-submerged and half-dry fields" of Luwariyabhai - "added evidence that the flood was man-made" - and by the "upbeat mood" of the people. "There were the Nimadis and adivasis standing together," sh e said. According to her, there have been attempts by the government to drive a wedge in the anti-dam movement by pitting the Nimadis, essentially wealthy farmers of the Nimar plains of the Narmada Valley, against the adivasis. Arundhati Roy's two-day vi sit bolstered the spirits of NBA supporters. Anita S. said: "Her coming was an affirmation of her integrity and commitment."

Activists of the NBA allege that the flood was caused deliberately by the government to create an emergency situation in order to break the satyagraha, which was once again drawing attention to the beleaguered Sardar Sarovar Project. The timing of the sa tyagrahis' arrest they argue, shows that the Government had planned the situation carefully. The police waited for three hours on high ground, some metres from the satyagraha hut, while the satyagrahis stood in chest-deep water. When it became clear that the water level had not risen in the three hours, the police moved in to arrest them.

The police presence was confined to Domkhedi and Jalsindhi. The act of 'rescuing' Patkar and other satyagrahis, according to NBA activists, was a ruse to avoid embarrassment and a public outcry. They wonder why the same 'concern' was not extended to the villages such as Pipalchip and Sikka, which were also affected by the flood. The flood submerged four houses in Pipalchip, two in Sikka and two in Bharad. The NBA is conducting a survey of the effects of the submergence.

IT is not known how many people will be displaced eventually by the 139-m Sardar Sarovar dam. Four years ago the NBA pointed out that even as the construction of the dam proceeded at a healthy pace the resettlement of the displaced people was neglected. The Supreme Court ordered a stay on the construction until the displaced persons were rehabilitated.

The NBA said that misrepresentations by the governments of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat on the extent of resettlement achieved had led to the latest court order, which lifted the ban on construction. The reality, they said, was that the famili es that had been displaced when the dam height was below 80 metres were yet to be resettled.

A message of protest: "Our rule in our village".

On June 1 and 2, people of the valley approached the Narmada Control Authority (NCA), the apex multi-State body that monitors the project, and questioned it on the availability of land and the claims made by the State governments that they were ready to carry out the resettlement.

It is clear that there is not enough land to resettle all the displaced people from the three States as per the directives of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal or the Supreme Court. For instance, the Maharashtra Government claimed that only 220 familie s in the State would be affected by this monsoon; however, an NBA survey revealed that the number was 685. The State Government claimed that it had 456 hectares of land to resettle all the affected families. But the NBA found that only 285 ha was availab le - that too uncultivable land. In Rozwa and other areas, around 169 families, which had been shifted three or more years earlier to resettlement sites, had not been allotted land. Twenty-one families from Junane and Selagda villages returned home sayin g that they preferred to face submergence rather than stay at the resettlement sites.

In a suit filed in the Supreme Court, Madhya Pradesh has admitted that the quantum of power the State will receive from the project will be 23 per cent less than what was projected initially. New estimates for water availability reveal that the earlier e stimate was higher by 18 per cent. Madhya Pradesh's suit has sought a new tribunal to re-evaluate and redesign the Sardar Sarovar dam.

Support for the NBA is growing in the valley and elsewhere. Residents of villages in the non-submergence zone came to the satyagraha site at Domkhedi and stayed there as the waters rose. Anita S. said: "Medha's strength comes from the people. They have g iven her strength and direction." The people have vowed to stay and fight.

Arundhati Roy said: "For them there are no options. They're not planning any move and they're very clear about that. All the confusion is outside (the area)."

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