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Issue Dated: September 18, 2000

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Domkhedi Diary

Dilip D’Souza

Fame on a Hill

I’m trudging up a narrow path behind a village in Akrani taluka, a remote and hilly part of Maharashtra. It’s just 9 am, and I’m already sweating from the fierce sun. Behind me, a voice carries on, explaining the features of a "micro-hydel" plant we are going to look at.

Suddenly, one of the more famous faces in the world comes trotting down the path towards us. Murmuring "Excuse me, I have a boat to catch" through a shy grin, bright red scarf on her head and tiny pack on her back, returning from seeing the plant herself, Arundhati Roy negotiates her way past us and is gone. Ah, I think, now I finally know what they mean by a "brush with fame".

Roy is here because of her personal commitment to the cause the Narmada Bachao Andolan has fought for a decade and a half. This monsoon, the nba is holding what it calls the "Saga of Narmada", an appeal to the "conscience of the nation". Given the years that have gone by, given middle-class and urban fatigue with the issue, this is an attempt to spark interest once more. To show that just because years have gone by, the concerns are hardly dead. That there are many people whose very lives still depend on what happens with the Sardar Sarovar dam.

Hundreds of such people have gathered here on the banks of the Narmada, telling their stories, sharing experiences, finding solidarity. There are tribals with long flutes, farmers in large phetas, women wrapped in radiant saris. Come to meet them and show their own support, there are academics from Canada, the US and England; photographers from France and Germany; activists, writers, mathematicians, editors, and film-makers from all over India. And there are print, TV and dotcom - yes, dotcom - journalists.

Certainly Roy is a famous face, but here in Domkhedi hers is just one more in the crowd. Which is just the way it should be. For this show belongs not to us city folk, but to the people of this Narmada Valley. And if their spirit is any indication, their show will go on.

Stream of Conscience

THE Narmada has seen gatherings like this for many years now. This monsoon, a small difference: Domkhedi has electricity. Yes, this village which is scheduled to disappear into the Sardar Sarovar reservoir, which is to be wiped off the map by a dam that will send electricity to far-flung corners of Gujarat, which has never in our 53 years seen electricity itself: this little village now has several working light bulbs. No thanks to Sardar Sarovar or its builders or any government.

They’re powered by that micro-hydel plant I mentioned. Two young engineers from Kerala, Anil and Madhu, came here on July 15. They surveyed the surrounding hills and found a tiny stream trickling through the undergrowth a few hundred yards away. It’s the kind of trickle that, on a hike through the hills, you might step over and forget. But two young men saw light in it.

With a team of villagers, they built a metre-high dam across the stream. Ran pipes from the resultant reservoir to a tank halfway to the village. Ran another pipe 30 metres downhill from the tank to a small shed. Installed a turbine there, fed the pipe into it. Strung wires from the turbine to six Domkhedi huts.

And one recent Tuesday, they turned a valve and voila! On Independence Day, 2000, a mere month after the two engineers had arrived in the Valley, six Domkhedi families had light for the first time ever. The very light 53 years of independent Indian government had not brought them. The very light Sardar Sarovar will turn on hundreds of miles from here, in part by asking these families to drown their homes, land, lives and hopes in a rising river.

So when Anil gets on the boat with us to go back home, and an old woman whose house is now lit comes to the bank to wave to him, I know why she’s weeping. She now understands that it’s not that she must sacrifice for the country to progress, an empty mantra she’s heard for years. No, it’s her progress that must measure the country’s. You might say: Khatri Vasave’s seen the light.

Temples in the Mind

MANY pilgrims make a Narmada parikrama, visiting sacred sites on its shores. With the sprouting dams, some of these ancient temples have also disappeared into reservoirs. I have long wondered: if one temple in Ayodhya raised passions so high and if a party rode those passions into power in Delhi, why does the drowning of these temples cause so little fuss?

Apparently others in the Valley wonder similarly. When I arrived in Domkhedi, one of those farmers in large phetas was speaking to the crowd. They shouted so much about Ayodhya, he said, and so many people died. But here they drown our sacred mandirs, and they don’t say one word.

The next morning, I join in as he, Roy, Medha Patkar and a few hundred others sit watching sunrise over Narmada. Someone begins a gentle song. "Vikas ki sahi soch ho," she sings, "is mein hi Ram Rahim ho." In my less eloquent English: "Thoughts about real progress; that’s where Ram and Rahim truly are."

Diced Destiny

ELEVEN of us crammed in a Sumo to return to Baroda, but we barely notice the discomfort. Our chirpy driver keeps us entertained with a stream of peculiar commentary on the Indian scene. "Madam" - all his remarks begin with a nod to our female colleagues in the front seat - "Madam, that kbc is a foreign conspiracy to take over our country! See how they give such exact information about places in India? Suppose there’s a question: ‘Where is Kutch?’ People in Washington and London are watching the show and writing down answers. After a few years, they’ll know enough about us and then they will come and take over. Amitabh Bachchan is betraying the country!"

And now there’s Zee TV’s proposed "KB Dus C", a show that is, we hear, "rooted in the Indian ethos". Wonder what our Sumo driver has to say about that.

That -Word

WAITING for the train back to Bombay, a huge hoarding outside Baroda station catches the eye. Somehow it seems strangely fitting for the trip we have just finished. "FRFFDOM AT MIDNIGHT", it says.

Yes, FRFFDOM.


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