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The Hindu on : Gujarat created 'emergency-like' situation

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Friday, August 06, 1999

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Gujarat created 'emergency-like' situation

By Gargi Parsai

NEW DELHI, AUG. 5. It must be said now. The role played by the Gujarat and the Madhya Pradesh Governments in the progress of the ``Rally for the Valley'' from here to the submergence villages of Jalsindhi in MP and Domkhedi in Maharashtra. Both are across the Narmada river, about 190 km from Indore, and both will be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar dam being constructed in Gujarat.

The Gujarat Government positioned itself as an adversary to Narmada Bacaho Andolan (NBA) and used every tactic in the book to stonewall the rally. What made it worse for them was that the rally comprised besides, author Arundhati Roy and film-maker Jharna Jhaveri, professors, artistes, musicians, painters, architects, media persons and hordes of students under the ``Free the Narmada'' banner. A lot of participants were foreigners who could not be arrested or discredited on flimsy grounds.

Yet an Emergency-like situation was created to stop the rally from proceeding to the village where Ms. Medha Patkar of the NBA was on protest for over a month now. Unable to deter the rally, by saying that the route was arduous or that Narmada was swollen and the boat carrying the rallyists might overturn in the strong currents, the Gujarat Government closed its borders.

But one thing must be clarified here, if only to set the record straight: The rally was never meant to pass through Gujarat. The rally's route was announced two weeks in advance and a boat ride of four hours to cover 40 km from Kakrana in MP to Jalsindhi was part of the plan. A glitch in the programme occurred when one of the two boats arranged by the NBA developed a snag on the eve of the rally. With only a 50-seater smaller motor boat available for ferrying the rallyists 40-km along the river, the NBA requested several participants to either undertake a marathon walk through the forests to Jalsindhi or stay back at Kakrana.

Against the backdrop of Gujarat Government spreading the word that the river was in spate and a boat ride would be risky, some media persons, mainly Indian photographers, almost chickened out. They individually began probing the possibility of driving upto Hapeshwar in Gujarat and taking a 30-minute boat ride to Jalsindhi from there, despite NBA advice against it. Indeed, some presspersons even reached the border, only to be turned back by the Gujarat Administration.

At Kakrana, Ms. Roy had the choice of either walking for five hours at a stretch to reach Jalsindhi or take the four- hour boat ride. Initially she sat in the bus, but later decided to walk which was just as well because about 250 persons joined her. En route the rallyists were stopped by tribals residing in hamlets who offered them water. Even after the five-hour walk, those on foot had to be given a 30-minute boat ride from Chikalda to Jalsindhi, which kept the boatman, Bhagwan Das busy through the night, as he took six rounds till next morning to complete ferrying all those who walked.

The Madhya Pradesh Government appeared to have given a tacit support to the Rally. The State had a police van accompanying the rally till Pathrad and after that three vans and some more on mobikes. It kept a barge ready with divers, and two small boats to escort the boat people, without really lending a helping hand. And once Ms. Roy got off the boat, while others kept pouring through the night, the State boats were nowhere in sight.

To make sure that no boats were made even commercially available to the rallyists, the Gujarat Government had issued a stern warning to the boatmen on their side of the waters that if any boat was found in Madhya Pradesh, it would be confiscated. Gujarat had even turned away a German media film crew, `Mona Lisa' from their shores.

There was this incident at Maheshwar where the Collector, Mr Bhupal Singh, reached the banks of Narmada where the rallyists prepared to float oil-lamps on the river. He got into, what turned out to be a meaningless argument with NBA's local workers, Alok Agarwal and Chittarupa Sylvie, in a bid to draw attention of the international press. At the end of it, Mr Singh retreated into a corner of the bank with his band of policemen to sip mineral water. The local press next day reported that NBA activists tried to push the Collector in the river!

The Gujarat Government comforted itself with confiscating an empty NBA vehicle parked inside Hapeshwar and arrested the driver.

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