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The Hindu on : Farmers and dams - I

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, July 12, 2000

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Farmers and dams - I

By Gail Omvedt

It's a mighty hard road that my poor feet have trod,

My poor feet have travelled a hot dusty road,

Out of your dust bowl and westward I roam,

Through valleys so hot and through mountains so cold

California, Arizona, to harvest your crops,

Then north up to Oregon to gather the hops;

To the Grand Coulee Dam where the waters run down.

I've cut grapes from your vine, I've dug roots from your ground,

THIS OLD ballad sung by Harry Belafonte romanticises the migrant labourers' life (it ends, ``green pastures of plenty will always be free''), but it reminds us that migration is not new, that people have always left dust bowls and drought-stricken farms to find valleys green from irrigated water, and that dams have provided that water. Such dams were built in the U.S. from the 1930s onwards and seen as the very symbol of the New Deal, and were been built in independent India where they were seen as modern temples by Nehru and others. They are now falling into disrepute in environmentalist circles throughout the world and have become controversial as never before.

But they are not controversial to farmers. If anything, there is a build-up of anger against environmentalists who are seen as stalling dams. Now that the monsoons have come, the immediate problem of water for farmers in the drought-prone areas of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and elsewhere seems to be solved. Further, the fact that the Supreme Court recently issued orders allowing a small but significant raising of the height of the Alamatti and Sardar Sarovar dams, the most controversial currently indicates that farmers may feel the political situation is swinging their way. But the long-term issues of drought and water distribution are as controversial and complex as ever.

Farmers everywhere want water for their fields. Specifically, they want irrigation water, or big dam water, and the arguments of eco- romanticists like those in the Narmada Bachao Andolan - that big dams by themselves are destructive and that local rainwater harvesting can be sufficient - have absolutely no appeal to them. One example of this is the support for restructured irrigation systems among farmers of the Krishna Valley in southern Maharashtra, whose movement accepts the need for big dams and who recently won both massive gains in rehabilitation for dam evictees and extension of irrigation water to drought-prone areas. An even more stark proof of this is the involvement of otherwise warring leaders of the farmers' movement in India - on the one hand, the Shetkari Sanghatana leader, Mr. Sharad Joshi of Maharashtra, and on the other, Prof. Nanjundaswamy of the Karnataka Rajya Raithu Sangh - in `kar seva' demonstrations calling for raising the height of dams.

Mr. Joshi led a campaign in late December 1999 to take farmers of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab to the Saradar Sarovar site and pour water in buckets to symbolically fill the canal leading from the reservoir to the drought-prone areas of Gujarat. This unusual agitation was decided upon after discussions among Gujarat farmers and Mr. Joshi and other Shetkari Sanghatana activists from Maharashtra in October 1999, and resulted in the formation of a Narmada Jan Andolan in November that year. The NJA was the first mass counter-movement to the world-famous Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) led by Ms. Medha Patkar. Earlier, the opponents of India's most notorious big dam had confronted only the State Governments and the police of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. A vocal, if under-publicised, pro-Narmada movement among farmers, as contrasted with efforts from above by the Gujarat Government and business supporters to mobilise support for the Sardar Sarovar dam, is a new worry for the NBA and its environmentalist supporters.

The NJA campaign was effectively repressed by the Gujarat police, with tens of thousands of Maharashtra farmers halted at the border, Punjabi farmers arrested in the gurudwara they were staying in, and Gujarati farmers stopped by the police from leaving their villages. The Gujaratis were also partly convinced by their Government's plea that it was successfully fighting the case in the Supreme Court and any agitational activity would queer the pitch. Still, 23 people including Mr. Sharad Joshi and the Mrs. Urmilaben Patel, widow of a former Gujarat Chief Minister, managed to evade the police cordon and reach the site on December 4 for at least a symbolic victory.

The pro-Narmada campaign seems to have established a practice of using the term ``kar sewa'' as a theme for agitations in favour of dams. When farmers gathered under the banner of the Alamatti Horati Samiti on March 26 this year to agitate for raising the height of the Alamatti dam, they also used this term to name their campaign. The Karnataka ``kar seva'' included Prof. Nanjundaswamy along with the Rajkumar Fans Association and a number of Bijapur district leaders. The agitation came after a long period of frustration for Karnataka farmers over the stalling of the dam's height by the Supreme Court due to the controversy between Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh over division of Krishna waters.

Both ``kar seva'' agitations were said to have been foiled by the police and the pro-Narmada movement was practically blanked out of all papers outside Gujarat. Farmers' organisations tend to get bad publicity. Nevertheless, these two demonstrations, with participation of otherwise conflicting organisations such as the Shetkari Sanghatana and the Rajya Raitha Sangha, represent a new phase for the major organisations of the 1980s new farmers movements. These have been known in the past for campaigns over remunerative prices or prices of farm inputs such as fertilizer and electricity. Now they are being pushed to take up issues of water, dams and drought.The leadership of both Mr. Joshi and Prof. Nanjundaswamy of the ``kar seva'' campaigns is intriguing. On all other issues they are staunch opponents. The Professor considers the WTO, the World Bank, the IMF and multinationals to be forces of destruction of farmers, and opposes biotechnology and new seeds using modified genes, as symbolised by his effort to uproot the cotton plants of Monsanto. He and people of similar mind throughout India consider Mr. Joshi something of a demon for his vocal support of liberalisation and globalisation. Mr. Joshi in return argues that world trade will help agriculture, points to negative subsidies in which the Indian state exploits agriculture through holding prices low, wants new technology and feels that the Indian farmer, even more than the Indian capitalists, are capable of taking on MNCs, or at least coping with them. To him, Prof. Nanjundaswamy, Vandana Shiva, Ms. Medha Patkar and the like are a crowd of medievalists whose prescriptions of limiting themselves to traditional ways of farming and living would spell disaster for Indian farmers. In spite of these bitter differences, on the issue of raising the height of two important dams, they seem to be of one mind. Mr. Joshi wants the Sardar Sarovar height raised, Prof. Nanjundaswamy wants the Almatti dam raised. Given recent court decisions , they seem to be winning.

Farmers, then, seem to agree on wanting water. They see big dams as a public good; they can be ecstatic about water running down the dams and flowing through the canals to pour into their fields, they are unreconstructed Nehruvians as far as dams are concerned. Still, it has to be asked, are they justified? Are they right in believing that India could not grow enough food and other crops without added irrigation water? Even assuming that those who lose their land and homes to the building of such huge projects can get just compensation, is it really necessary to have big dams? And, can they be simply taken as the Government planned them or should proposals for restructuring be considered? These continue to be big questions, questions that the farmers and their leaders have to answer.

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