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The Hindu on : Rally for the Valley

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, August 08, 1999

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Rally for the Valley

Men, women and children dropped whatever they were doing and rushed to greet the rallyists, says GARGI PARSAI who was on their trail.

``TRAVEL LIGHT. Carry a torch, mosquito repellent, rain shoes, sleeping bag and your own water.'' This advice and the programme describing a 4-1/2-hour drive from Indore to Badwani and a four- hour boat ride to Jalsindhi in Madhya Pradesh were indication enough of the long haul that the rally in the Narmada Valley was going to be.

Most of those who, along with Booker winning author, Ms. Arundhati Roy, boarded the train at New Delhi to travel to Indore belonged to the elite class curious about what was going on in the Valley. The crowd which joined from Mumbai had a sprinkling of socialites who perhaps wanted to be there because it was a ``happening thing''.

For Ms. Roy and Ms. Jharna Jhaveri, maker of the film, ``Kaise Jeebo Re'', who together conceived the idea of the ``Rally for the Valley'' under the banner ``Free the Narmada'', the more the merrier. The more the elites, the socialites and the intelligentsia tried to make an alliance with the thousands of tribals, villagers and farmers facing submergence in the Valley, the better were the chances of their survival. Yet, some people who enquired whether loos would be available in the remote villages dropped out in horror when they were told there would be none.

And that precisely is the problem in the Narmada Valley. ``All development work stops in the villages in the submergence zone once a dam is announced,'' said Mr. Sripad Dharmadhikari of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) who was in the rally. And on the `virgin' Narmada and its tributaries, 30 large dams, 135 medium dams and 3,000 small dams are being planned. The destruction and devastation that would be caused and people becoming destitute if the Governments go ahead with their plan are unimaginable. The Sardar Sarovar Project alone will displace 40,000 families, 33,000 of them in Madhya Pradesh. It will submerge 13,000 hectares of forest land and 40,000 hectares of homes and rich, cultivated land in an area of upto 214 km.

The rally was unprepared for the strength of the people's movement which built up in the Narmada Valley against the dams. The public meetings at Pathrad, Anjad, Nisarpur could be the envy of any politician. Men, women and children dropped what they were doing and rushed to greet the rallyists. At Indore an elderly person had tears in his eyes as he appealed to Ms. Roy for help. ``Why is nobody listening? We don't even know why we are being made to leave our janmabhoomi,'' the people said.

At Pathrad in Maheshwar, where residents of 60 villages are threatened by the first-ever privatised hydro power dam in the country, people came from a radius of 60 km. More than 500 boatmen ferried people from across the Narmada for the meeting. ``I can't believe this,'' an overwhelmed Ms. Roy said. ``Those who say NBA is lying should see this. So many people cannot lie.'' The public meetings were reminiscent of Jayaprakash Narayan's total revolution meetings for their spontaneity and enthusiasm.

Women are at the core of the movement. Said Ms. Medha Patkar of the NBA: ``By association, there has been awareness in women and `stree shakti jagran.'' Ms. Patkar said that in its 14 years of struggle, the NBA had had the support of mazdoors, Dalits, farmers and the middle-class, but Ms. Roy has inspired an interest in the intelligentsia. ``It is now the responsibility of the NBA to join the intelligentsia with us.''

Throughout their 550-km route, the rallyists found that people were well versed with the Supreme Court's interim decision to allow the raising of the SSP height.

During the four years that the apex court had granted a stay on the construction of the SSP, the NBA involved itself in `reconstruction activities' and founded seven schools for tribal children in the submergence villages. It intends using part of Ms. Roy's Rs. 15 lakh Booker prize money contribution for relief works in these villages.

Asked what the rally had achieved, Ms Roy said,``It has brought the movement on the boil.'' And Ms. Patkar said, ``the struggle will be taken to its peak as any non-violent war should be. It will be a fight to the finish.''

What is happening in the Narmada Valley is not fair. It is not justice. And that is what the rally has brought out in all its stark reality.

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