Whose is Mother Narmada? Ours, ours. So goes one of the many evocative slogans coined by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in the tribal reaches of the submergence zone.
The battle between the NBA and the governments of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh has grown to encompass many dimensions. At its most fundamental, the debate is about the very definition of development: whether the Western pattern of huge
consumption based on extravagant use of natural resources is suitable and sustainable in a country like India.
More specifically, the battle is about big dams and whether they are at all necessary. Medha Patkar, and now Arundhati Roy, argue that the social, environmental and financial costs of big dams far outweigh the promised benefits of power, irrigation and
drinking water. (And most dams have delivered only a fraction of what they promised.) Besides, there are alternative ways of meeting these requirements.
Both these issues have cogent arguments flowing for and against, and the jury is still out. But there are other questions the Narmada struggle has thrown up on which citizens should be unanimous.
Who owns the rivers, the forests, the common resources?
This is the question raised by the “hamri chhe” slogan. Just as farmers have tilled the land, tribals have been living in self-sufficient harmony with the forest for generations, and fishermen have used the river. Can a clutch of bureaucrats sitting
thousands of miles away arbitrarily decide one morning that the forest must be drowned and the river diverted, thus impoverishing one community and enriching another?
In short, does the government own the resource or the community that uses it? This question raises itself often in cities, when the municipality suddenly awards a park or some other common area to a “development” project that will benefit only the builder
and a select clientele.
The right to information
In village after village in the Narmada submergence belt, the people complain that the first they learnt that their homes and lands were going to drown was when government surveyors landed to take a count. That is, they perchance learnt their fate after
the project had been approved.
They have repeatedly been kept in the dark about the dimensions of the project, to what extent they will be affected and their compensation. In many cases, a village has learnt it is in the submergence zone only when a milestone or some other mark is
suddenly put up. In a democracy, can the government be so callously secretive?
Who decides the national interest?
Is it in Delhi’s interest to submerge Mayur Vihar with Yamuna waters in order to solve south Delhi’s water problem? Let’s argue that it is. Understandably, the people of Mayur Vihar will not agree, and will demand that they at least be consulted before a
decision is taken.
The thousands of families affected by the Narmada projects were never consulted, never informed, never included in the decision-making process. In fact, no citizen of India affected by any development project ever is.
The biggest flaw the Narmada projects show is the lack of a rehabilitation policy in India. The compensation has been raised in recent years only because of the NBA’s pressure. But this too is only on paper. Much of the promised land does not actually
exist or is bad. There are no special schemes for forest-dwelling tribals who cannot adjust to life in rehab sites or city slums.
There is still no firm count of the total number of families who will be affected, persistent attempts by the government to under-report the number and exclude entire categories of people whose livelihoods are in danger, and documented cases of the
government going back on promises.
Once again, this happens with every such project in India — a flyover, a road, a dam.
The issues raised by the Narmada protest concern every citizen. To remain indifferent would be to injure oneself.