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The Hindu on : In the valley of discontent

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Saturday, October 02, 1999

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In the valley of discontent

THIS was the second time I was visiting the Narmada valley. Two years ago curiosity drove me there to understand the situation in the Valley. I went again because I felt I had to be there. Not that my presence would make a difference. As we neared Baroda, the train crossed the river Narmada. Looking out of my train window, the murky water made me think. I didn't know what was in store for me. I was going there to participate in the Satyagraha. But what did Satyagraha really mean? I suppose fasting and silence, police encounters... may be even submergence! I looked at the river again.

It was July 30. My friend Aparna and I went to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) office in Baroda. Sanjay, an activist, greeted us. He gave us an update of the situation. People in the valley decided to challenge this unjust submergence and confront the governments who had produced false affidavits in court regarding the status of resettlement and land availability. "We have more than adequate land", they seem to have said. And when the people of the valley marched to the Collectors' offices, asking them to show them the land they were told "There is no land."

The Satyagraha-passive resistance had been launched on June 20. From July 31, I would become a part of this historic satyagraha. Medha Patkar and a few others in the tribal hamlets of Domkhedi and Jalsindhi were on a fast from July 4 to 11. Immediately after Medha had broken her fast, she and members of the Samarpit Dal (dedicated squad) declared Jal samarpan (sacrifice in water), if the dam height was allowed to exceed 88 metres, without reopening the Tribunal with people's participation and without full rehabiliation of those who had already been ousted due to submergence, canals project colonies and sanctuary. After that the villagers and activists formed a human chain around the Khad river (a tributary of the Narmada), to symbolise protection of the river. A replica of the Sardar Sarovar was demolished amid slogans against the dam.

We decided to go to Domkhedi directly as that was where the Satyagraha was going on. We had to get off at Khadipani. A fellow passenger helpfully enquired, "Do you want to join Medha? Then you will have to get off in the next stop." "Where are you from"? "From Chennai," we answered, enthusiastically. We meant, "Even we care, we are with you." Then his tone changed. "Aap sab yahaan kyon aate ho?" Why do you come here? I realised that he was not making an innocent enquiry but was asking, "Why the hell are you here? Don't you want us Gujaratis to prosper? Will you allow us to do a similar thing in your state?" I turned away. In this acquaintance, I felt I had encountered the thought of the people of Gujarat. Yes! They would be angry because they have been made to believe that Sardar Sarovar would be their life line.

We walked to Hapeshwar from Kadipani. The country side was a lush green. We walked to the river. To my right I saw a roof of a concrete house, submerged. This was the powerhouse. During my last visit we had walked past the powerhouse to call out for the doonga - the tribal boat. Now there was only the concrete roof. "Raath ko magar us chat par aathe hain." (At night, crocodiles climb up there), a villager said.

I saw the red motor boat with a blue flag. It was the boat the NBA had acquired recently to ferry people coming for the satyagraha. The villagers no longer use their doongas on this wide river. It had become risky. They can no longer call out to each other from either sides of the river. It was no longer the river they knew. It was a reservoir.

The boat left the banks of Gujarat. It was dark and after half an hour ride we heard slogans. Close to the waters, under a tent, lighted by a petromax lamp, a historic struggle was on. Adivasis, activists, satyagrahis and Medha. "Doobenge par hatenge nahin" - they had resolved to face the rising water, face the injustice and to face defeat.

Many students from Maharashtra, M.P., Karnataka, Kerala, the nearby villages of Nimad... doctors, engineers, bank officials, members of various NGOs had come to be a part of satyagraha. Youngsters were given the responsibility to make arrangements for the rallyists who would reach on the evening of the 2nd. We made posters, banners, fetched water, made nphoto exhibition charts, and decorations in Neemgavan where the main meeting was to be held... Neemgavan and Jalsindhi have "jeevanshalas" - schools of life, initiated by the NBA. Guruji, the school teacher showed us what the children had made. Toys, story books, calendars. Despite following the state syllabic, they were given taught their history, taxonomy of plants and animals in their area, mapping their areas, tribal medicine and so on.

The first boat of the rally came in the evening. I was at Neemgavan and rushed to the banks to welcome them. The boats anchored at Jalsindhi on the opposite bank, as the first meeting was to be held there. The rallyists were tired and hungry. At the meeting, Baba Muharia told us about the struggle. Could there be anyone more tired than him. Arundhati Roy looked exhausted. Modest and more determined than ever.

The next morning there was flag hoisting, puja and tree planting at Domkhedi. Then they all came to Neemgavan. Medha spoke at the end of the programme of songs and skits. I noticed once again that special flavour that comes when she talks to the people - very different from the talks she gives for the public. She involves everybody in the audience with interruptions like, "What do you say, kaka?" Arundhati was gifted with 12 different seeds of plants that grow in the valley by an adivasi woman. One representative from each state was given "the seeds of struggle", to be sown in their lands. We signed a memorandum which said that if contempt charges on the NBA were thought to be just, then they should include us also in the charges.

That evening, we discussed the next plan of action, with regard to contempt charges and the way the satyagraha should proceed in future. Instead of apologising, it can be made clear that there was no intention to offend the court. Apologising would mean that we will not continue with protests and public rallies. But the truth had to reach the people.


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