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Contempt of the people - [8/08/99] - The Hindustan Times
  The Hindustan Times
Updated 02:00 IST[Late CitySunday, August 8, 1999, New Delhi


Contempt of the people
(Sumir Lal accompanies Arundhati Roy’s rally to the Narmada and finds the citizens justly angry)

I’m lunching with Gajanand Patidar in Pathrad village, in the Nimad Plain along the Narmada. He owns a three-storey house, with coolers, fans, a TV set and telephone. Gajanand and his brothers farm 55 fertile acres on which they grow cotton, sugarcane, soyabean and vegetables, harvesting several crops a year.

The village itself boasts of a school, hospital, post office and two satellite dishes. Almost everybody is literate, including the girls.

They are going to submerge this prosperous community in order to take the river to a desert in Gujarat.

The Nimad Plain is in the black cotton soil belt, among the country’s most fertile tracts. All the farmers produce a surplus. But they are going to be destroyed because the nation wants development.

Next morning, I meet Mansa Ram of Kothara village, who owns 18 highly productive acres. At night, I stay with Mohan Patidar in Nisarpur. His huge house contains a remote-controlled TV and a sophisticated music system. All these homes and rich lands are going to be submerged because the nation must remove poverty.

I am not qualified to take a position for or against big dams or to discuss paradigms of development. But there is a fundamental flaw here: a most productive agricultural belt is going to be sacrificed in an uncertain attempt to water a sandy tract hundreds of miles away.

Asserts Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar: “You cannot uproot a self-reliant people in order to give false promises to others. The displaced have the first right to question the costs and benefits of such projects.”

Adds Baba Luaria, a tribal leader of Jalsindhi village: “Why doesn’t the government give the poor people of Gujarat land, instead of taking ours?”

The tribal villages up in the Vindhyas and Satpuras are, of course, not rich like those in Nimad. But, crucially, they are self-sufficient. Now their people are being forced to become destitutes.

Over 90 per cent of the cultivable land in Kutch and Saurashtra is out of the project’s command area so only a fraction of this needy region will benefit, if at all. Is the huge sacrifice being made upstream worth it?

The Narmada Valley Project is gigantic: 30 large, 135 medium and over 3,000 small dams along the river’s 1,300-km length and all its major tributaries. That is, a huge river system that has evolved over aeons is going to be suffocated into a series of lakes. Amazingly, no cumulative impact study has been done. Some individual projects have been studied, but piecemeal and after work has commenced.

The people in the submergence zone are adamant they will not move: “Koi nahin hatega, baandh nahin banega” is their slogan. The NBA has adopted Gandhian modes of protest: non-violence, satyagraha, fasting. Patkar has threatened that she and the villagers of Jalsindhi and Domkhedi, which could sink any time now, will drown rather than move.

There are repeated stories of how villages learnt only by chance that they were in the submergence zone; how others were declared safe (so that their populace did not qualify for compensation) only to find that the slated water height was above the level that inundated them in normal monsoons; how land offered in compensation either did not exist or was uncultivable; how some rehabilitation sites themselves have been submerged; how government surveys have deliberately under-reported the number of families and acreage affected in each village, and ignored entire categories of affected people; and how most have simply not even heard from the government.

The experience of Bargi Dam near Jabalpur, the first of the big projects to be completed, is on everyone’s mind. The authorities said 101 villages would be submerged. But 162 were.

“The trauma of displacement begins the day a project is announced,” explains an NBA worker. With the sword of submergence hanging over its head, investments in a village dry up. Houses and schools fall into disrepair. Land prices fall. Young people lose eligibility for marriage.

Over the years, many people, their will broken, have accepted compensation and moved. “Those who are losing only a part of their land are taking compensation,” says Jodarao Chauhan of Manwara. “But those whose land is being totally submerged refuse in protest.”

Mohan Patidar, who hosted me in Nisarpur, says he’ll accept compensation for his house but not his land. Dalits, who live in flood-prone lower reaches of the villages, and others with less stakes are also more likely to accept compensation. But they all bank on the NBA to get them a just deal.

A tribal policeman of Dharamrai village says part of his family has moved to a rehab site in Gujarat, while the rest remains here cultivating till as long as it can.

Three young teenagers returning from a meeting addressed by Baba Amte shrug that since the dam is now inevitable, they might as well accept the compensation and escape. In other words, the government’s sole strategy is to wait till its people’s will breaks. But it won’t be easy. Those with the most direct dependence on the resource base — farmers, fisherfolk, tribals — form the unbending backbone of the movement.

The 15-year agitation has led to the landed Patidars (an upwardly mobile Kurmi other backward caste) allying with tribals and Dalit fisherfolk and agricultural labourers, in a movement guided by urban middle-class activists. Women are equal participants, and at the forefront in rallies and meetings. This, in turn, is transforming gender relations within families. If Arundhati Roy’s involvement brings in the urban intelligentsia, it will indeed be a unique alliance.

But what is depressing is the complete disillusionment with the political system. The struggle is confined to a 5-7 km wide ribbon along either bank of the river. The protesting villages are split among different voting constituencies, and have only a marginal influence.

“We are as oppressed as under the British. This sort of development is devoid of human values,” laments Mansa Ram, the farmer from Kothara. “Our political leaders have been bought out,” adds Jodarao Chauhan. “Why does no government do its job?” asks RG Kaushal, a lawyer in Maheshwar. “The BJP and Congress support us when in opposition, but forget us the moment they are elected. And they have different stands in different states.”

Agrees Karan S Pawar, a Congress MLA of Madhya Pradesh: “We are an imperialist democracy. Apart from the minute-long act of casting his vote, a citizen has no voice.”

The last word is Baba Amte’s: “The highest court is the court of the people. To go against its will is contempt of the people.”

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