The Hindustan Times
Last updated[METRO]01:35 IST Sunday, January 16, 2000, New Delhi

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How ‘private’ cops crushed a magical protest
(By Arundhati Roy and Jharuna Jhaveri)

IT HAS been distressing to read the completely false accounts that have appeared in both local and national newspapers about the Narmada Bachao Andolan's capture of the Maheshwar dam site.

Obviously, these accounts are based on information received in press releases handed out by the Government and S. Kumar's, the textile company that has won the contract for the dam.

To suggest that there were only 400 people, most of them "outsiders", is nothing but an outlandish lie. We both were there to express our solidarity with the struggle of the local people and not to "lead the march" as some papers have suggested. (Winning a prize for literary fiction does not automatically qualify a person to "lead" a people's movement that has existed years before she came along.)

This is a brief, first person account of what happened. There are photographs and documentary film footage of the event for anyone who wishes to check the veracity of what is stated.

On the night of January 10, men and women from the 62 affected villages gathered in the village of Sulgaon. By midnight, between 3,500 and 4,000 people had assembled. They planned to capture the dam site of the Shri Maheshwar Hydel Project, the first privatised hydel project in India for which the Government has signed a power purchase agreement with S. Kumar's.

The 3,500 local people were joined by about a dozen "outsiders", most of whom were independent filmmakers, photographers and reporters. Among the supporters were the veteran Gandhian Jyotibhai Desai, Krishna Raval and ourselves.

The march set off from Sulgaon at 4 am on January 11. It was exactly two years ago to the day that villagers occupied the Maheshwar dam site for more than 20 days. In order to avoid the police, we walked in darkness and in pindrop silence for about 6 km through fields and on little-used footpaths, across streams and marshland.

Not a throat was cleared, not a beedi lit. The sound of 3,500 quiet feet, the absolute single-minded determination and discipline, was magical. Those of us who were "outsiders", both the skeptics and the romantics, knew we were participating in something historic. We arrived at the dam site just as dawn was breaking.

The policemen who had been patrolling the actual dam structure were taken by surprise, and could not prevent the first 2,000 people from occupying the site where excavation work on the powerhouse pit was underway. However, they managed to head off 1,500 people, who were forced to remain in Jalud, the first village in the submergence zone.

Soon after the site was occupied, the Collector Mr Bhupal Singh, the SP (whose name we don't recall), and the Additional Collector arrived and tried to persuade the people to leave peacefully.

The Collector was asked why the Madhya Pradesh Government had chosen to permit S. Kumar's to push ahead with the project, and ignore the recommendations of its own Task Force Report, which prescribes a complete re-evaluation of the project.

He was asked whether police repression was the way to deal with the fact that there was no land available for the resettlement of displaced people.

The Collector tried to trivialize the seriousness of the situation with pathetic humor and some tired soap opera dialogue. ("Hum do bhai hain, aur ek ghar main do bhaiyon ke alag alag vichaar ho sakte hain…/main bhi aap ka hun, yeh prashaasan bhi aap ka hai aur yeh police bhi aap hi ki hai…")

This was greeted with derisive laughter from the people, who called him "S. Kumar ka dalaal."

The people restated their demands:

a)What will each unit of electricity generated by the project cost? (According to the NBA's calculation, it would be more than Rs 10 per unit)

b) According to the escrow clause in the contract that the MP Government is negotiating with S. Kumar's, the Government will have to pay the company Rs 600 crore a year for the next 35 years, irrespective of how much electricity the project actually generates. We demand to know where this money is going to come from.

c)The MP Government's relief and rehabilitation policy for the Narmada Project, which is legally binding, says the displaced people must be given land for land. We demand to be shown exactly where this (non-existent) land is.

The Collector then said he would go back to his office and return with his written reply. Instead, he returned a little later and ordered the police to take up positions to begin the arrests.

In response, the people moved to a lower level in the excavated pit. They perched dangerously on the jagged edge of a rocky, 50-foot precipice.

Any fall from there would have been fatal. Sensing the mood, the Collector withdrew the police at about 8.30 am. There was a palpable easing of tension. For the next two hours or so, people spoke, sang, and the "outside supporters" (numbering about four) introduced themselves and spoke briefly.

Several local people spoke at length about the struggle and the violent repressive regime of the government and S. Kumar's. Again and again they said they would rather die than lose their lands and homes.

Suddenly, without warning at about 11 am, the police returned and the arrests began. Women were dragged and carried into waiting buses. We (Jharana and Arundhati) were dragged away, carried up the hill, dumped in a private Tata Sierra and driven away.

The driver of the vehicle admitted that it belonged to the "project" (administered by S. Kumar's). It was a humiliating revelation —is this the first, faltering step towards a privatised Indian police force and administration?

We protested about this and were then transferred to a police Gypsy. We were first taken to a resthouse. We refused to get out of the vehicle and demanded to be taken to the jail along with everyone else. We were then driven from place to place for over three hours, and eventually we were taken to the Mandleshwar jail where the rest of the people were waiting.

They had refused to get out of their buses until they knew where we and Ms Chitaroopa Palit (a beloved NBA activist) were. The male policemen had booze on their breath. While driving away after dropping us, the driver of the police jeep knocked down a man, a drunk constable.

His unconscious body was unceremoniously dumped in the back of the police Gypsy. We have no idea whether he is dead or alive.

Altogether, more than 2,000 people were picked up. There were not enough vehicles to take them away in. There was no place in the prisons to keep them. Eventually most of them (including ourselves) were released.

However, 973 people were arrested and lodged in the Maheshwar jail. (The Press is advised to check police records). We learnt that there was no electricity and no water and no facilities.

Today, five days later, the situation borders on farce. The jail has been left open and abandoned by its own workers. The people have vowed to return to the dam site and stop illegal construction work. It's not surprising. Their lives and livelihoods are at stake.

To the rest of the world, the Shri Maheshwar Hydel Project may be a dam, but to the affected people, it is nothing but a gun to their heads. There could be no bigger lie than the misinformation that the movement has no local support. S. Kumar's and the Government both know they have a full-blown civil disobedience movement on their hands.

The Press would know it too, if it would only go and see for itself, instead of basing its reports on government handouts or false accounts by compromised journalists on the payroll of private companies (of whom, according to local people, there is no shortage).

It is a disturbing development, this. The Press would do well to look into it, or risk having its good name tarnished by unscrupulous people masquerading as journalists.

One last word: What the people of the Narmada Valley are asking for is honest, reliable information about their future. Is that so unreasonable?

For the government to treat such a historic, spectacular and spectacularly non-violent peoples' movement in the way it has done, is to undermine the very principle of non-violent protest. Is it only when a plane is hijacked that people get taken seriously? Or not even then?

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