Down By The Riverside

Dilip DSouza


Published in Sunday Mid-Day, September 26

It was just 10 minutes, if that, but it was still one of the more unsettling 10 minute stretches I've had in recent times. I walked up to a second floor flat near Churchgate to watch a bit of video, shot just a couple of days earlier. It shook and jerked and a fair fraction of the footage was as amateur efforts often are of the floor and the sky.

But those things hardly mattered. The video also showed a number of people holding hands, singing songs, shouting slogans. Later, it showed a number of these same people being arrested. About the only unusual thing was that they were standing, chest deep, in water.

Perhaps I don't need to tell you what this was about, but I will anyway. This little clip was shot on the banks, if that word still applies, of the Narmada River, not far from the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Nearly unknown to much of this city, a drama has been unfolding in tumbledown huts on that stretch of the Narmada. In a string of villages with names like Domkhedi, Sikka, Pipalchop and Bharad, hundreds of men and women have spent the last several days standing in water. The water has been rising through those days, into their homes and around their bodies. In the video, as I said, it was at chest level. Reports after it was shot say the water was up to their chins.

The water is rising because of that dam and because of heavy rains upriver. The people are standing in it because of that dam and because they have not been adequately, or fairly, treated by its builders. They are standing in it because they want to tell you what that dam is doing to their homes and lives. Because they are upset at being forced from their homes. As you might be, perhaps, if you were forced from your home.

By now in this article, I know I have lost a lot of you and risk losing the rest. It is an unremarkable feature of the urban Indian as the 20th Century winds down; we don't really want to know what is happening to people elsewhere.

In fact, when it is the people along the Narmada, we are even faintly irritated. We've had enough of that whole issue and that Medha Patkar woman and her Narmada Bachao Andolan, those publicity-seekers! They are trying to take us back to the Dark Ages when we had no lights and roads. It's time they gave up their silly struggle and learned to sacrifice for the nation's progress. After all, someone has to sacrifice, right? Right. Besides, they are anti-nationals, funded by foreigners.

Because I have heard those things said. I write this. I write to ask a few simple questions; what publicity-seekers would spend hours, that turn to days, standing in water? Watching the water rise about their bodies? What kind of publicity do they seek, have they found, if the overwhelming majority in our largest city does not even know this is happening a few hundred kilometres away? Where is this foreign funding when these people wear basic cotton clothes, when they struggle to hold on to ramshackle huts only because those were their homes?

I write this to ask some not-so-simple questions too: What will it take to take these people seriously? To know that they are not playing some foreign-funded game, but are fighting a deadly serious fight for their lives, for a say in their lives? Your life is not a game. Nor is mine. Why is it so hard to accept that people in the Narmada Valley are just like us?

And of course, that's the truth right there. Those poor fools standing in water are really trying to tell us this. that they are Indians just like us. Citizens just like us. People just like us.

So grant them that, if only for the time it takes you to read this article. You might just see their concerns as they see them.

One: If these people are to lose their homes and land to a dam, they want to be compensated for their sacrifice. Governments make promises about such compensation, no doubt. But these days, such people prefer to look instead at the record of such compensation that governments have built since independence. It is not a pretty record.

Two: If our 52 years tells them that they will suffer as a result of this dam, they want a say in whether the dam is built at all. After all, we are not talking here about one or two eccentric holdouts. This is about tens, hundreds, of thousands of people. Over our 52 years, over all our dams, this is about millions.

Three: Since this is about millions of people turned destitute, these fellows standing in the water want us to think about what we mean by development. None of them, let's be sure, want us to return to being cave men. But neither do they want, any more, the form of development we have had. So far, it has meant dams on their lands, submerging their homes, ignoring their needs, all so that you and I can have electricity and water in our far-off city flats. Near a dam on the Narmada in MP, I once walked through a village that was utterly dark. But its residents could see the lights on the dam, in towns nearby. Now that is the skewed way we have chosen to develop. Such people are saying while they stand in that water, enough. Enough of this kind of development.

Four: Perhaps above all, this is about people asserting that they will not be told any more what's good for them. They want to be able to decide for themselves. They want the freedom to pronounce, as we city-dwellers do so easily, that some people must sacrifice for the good of the nation. Some other people, of course. For they are tired of being those sacrificing people. What's more, they know now that the good of the nation must mean their good too. Or it means nothing.

Those are the reasons they are standing in water, there on the banks of the swollen Narmada. While they do so, you might give them a thought. They are, please don't doubt it, people just like you.