Why People Oppose Dams

Environment and Culture in Subsistence Economies

Vinod Raina

(Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi)

The history of social movements goes very far back in India. They have ranged from religious reform movements to Maoist type left-wing armed insurrections, and include the adivasi (tribal), peasant, worker and dalit (low-caste) movements. For a long period of time, over fifty years, they were overshadowed by the mostly non-violent nationalist independence movement, led and inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, that enabled the country to oust the British colonialists in 1947. Many of these movements, in different forms, still continue in many parts of the country, supplemented by two mostly post independence movements, the women’s and the environmental movements. The sustenance and vibrancy of these movements is perhaps a better indicator of the deep rootedness of the democratic ethos in India, than the rituals of increasingly frequent assembly and parliamentary elections. As Priya Kurian[1988] notes, ‘rarely have we seen the democratic process at work so palpably and so effectively as in the growing mobilisation of people against large dams’. But the continuation of these diverse movements also indicates that even after fifty years of independence, many sections of the society forming a majority of the population are still fighting for their rights and for justice in the social, economic, and political spheres. Most of these movements are therefore collective assertions for economic, political or social justice, or taken together, as struggles in the sphere of development. Very often, however, the developmental aspects of the struggles are the surface, the exterior, of a very complex agenda, and if one clicks, like on a hypertext, one might unravel layers of complexity and discover that the less visible roots lie somewhere in the sphere of values, customs, traditions and philosophies, which taken together constitute the cultural identities of the people involved.

Since similar movements abound world over, it is interesting to examine what distinguishes the ones in one country, say India, from those of other countries, as also to explore the similarities between them. Once we exhaust such an examination from considerations of the universal kind, like the particular impacts of the globalised market economy and so on, the significant points of differentiation and similarity are more likely to emerge from these underlying cultural elements. The particular movement we shall concern ourselves with here is the movement against big dams. During the past ten years or so, anti-dam movements, particularly the one against the Narmada dams, has received national and international attention, both in terms of support, as also severe criticism from those who see this as anti-developmental Luddite revivalism (for a recent example see Verghese (1999)). Before, however, we get into the specific issues of the anti-Narmada dam movement, a brief overview of dams round the globe may provide an illuminating backdrop

Dam building has a very long history. Nearly eight thousand year old irrigation canals found near the foothills of Zagros mountains in the eastern side of Mesopotamia suggest that the farmers there may have been the first dam builders. These primitive dams might perhaps have been small weirs of brushwood and earth to divert water into canals. Evidence of dams, nearly 3000 years old, however is found in modern day Jordan, as part of an elaborate water supply system. Here, the largest dam was perhaps 4 metres high and 80 metres long. By about 1000 BC, evidence of stone and earth dams are to be found in the Mediterranean, in the Middle East, China and Central America. Romans excelled in the area, and their best works are to be seen in Spain. A 46 metre high stone dam near Alicante began in 1580 and completed 14 years later was the highest in the world for the better part of three centuries.

River work and dam building also has a long history in South Asia. The canal system from the Cauvery river in South India, the anicuts, continue to be an engineering marvel even today. Long embankments have existed in Sri Lanka since fourth century BC. One of these embankments was raised to a height of 34 metres and was the world’s highest dam for a millenium. Another embankment was raised to a height of 15 metres and had a length of 14 kilometres!

One however witnesses a frenzy in dam building since the Second World War. According to the ‘World Register of Dams’ maintained by the largest dam-industry association of the world, the International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD), the world’s rivers are now choked by more than 40,000 large dams, an incredible 35,000 of them having been built since 1950! A large dam is usually defined by ICOLD as one measuring 15 metres in height. The frenzy is most evident in China; it had eight large dams at the time of revolution in 1949, 40 years later it had around 19,000! The US is the second most dammed country in the world with around 5,500 large dams, followed by the ex-USSR (3,000), Japan (2,228) and India (1,137). Not only did the number of large dams increase since 1950, so did the size. ICOLD defines a major or mega dam on the basis of either its height (at least 150 metres), volume (at least 15 million cubic metres), reservoir storage (at least 25 cubic kilometres – enough water to flood the country of Luxemborg to a depth of one metre) or electrical generation capacity (at least 1,000 megawatts – sufficient to power a European city with a million inhabitants). In 1950, ten giants fell in this category, by 1995 the number had risen to 305, the leaders being US (50), ex-USSR (34), Canada (26), Brazil and Japan (19), with China and India at 10 and 7 respectively.

The increase in dam building has not been haphazard. “Better river planning’ has implied identifying and siting dams to cover an entire river basin, of which the Tennessee river valley development project became a dam builders blueprint. Consequently, most of the world’s river basins are now choked with dams. As McCully describes, ‘many great rivers are now little more than staircases of reservoirs’. A meagre 70 kilometers of the 20,00 kilometres of the Columbia River flows unimpeded by the slackwater of the 19 dams that cut across it. In France, a dam impounded the only free-flowing stretch of the Rhone in 1986. As for other European rivers, like the Volga, the Weser, the Ebro, and the Tagus, none of them has a stretch more than a quarter of length that has escaped being turned into a reservoir.

Movement against Dams

Where as dams have a very long history, large scale and concerted opposition to them is evident only since the seventies, world over. May be that is because the impacts of the post war dam building mania took about two decades to sink in. The early movements, notes McCully, were mostly inspired and led by conservationists in order to preserve wilderness areas, and many did not succeed. The notable of these struggles include the hard fought but unsuccessful campaign against the 191 metre New Melones Dam during the 1970’s, the struggle of Cree Indians against Quebec’s mammoth James Bay Project (the last two phases being abandoned due to the struggle in 1994); that against Norway’s Alta Dam between 1970 and 1981, the ongoing campaign against dams planned for Chile’s spectacular Biobio River; the Katun Dam campaign in Russia (the dam has been suspended); the violent protests by the Igorot ethnic minority in the Philippines which stopped the Chico river dams and the struggles of the local people and their supporters against dams in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Nepal.

These are examples of opposition and struggle from democratically constituted countries. Anti dam struggles in countries with closed political systems also became a symbol for the fight against the system itself. In September 1988, forty thousand Hungarians took to the streets of Budapest demanding an end, not to the communist rule, but to the damming of Danube at a place called Nagymoros. Yet one result of the anti-Nagymaros dam movement was that it helped the Hungarian people to gain confidence to speak against the prevailing political system. Similar stories lie behind the fall of authoritarian regimes in several other Central and Eastern European states, with environmental protests – and opposition to dams in particular – acting as a lightning rod for public mobilisation against deeply unpopular regimes.

The struggle against the Narmada dams in India since the mid eighties has, in the words of Washington Post become a global ‘symbol of environmental, political and cultural calamity’. But Narmada is only one of a long list of examples of resistance to large dams in India. In 1946, thirty thousand people marched against the Hirakuud dam, the first huge multipurpose dam project completed in independent India. In 1970, some 4,000 people occupied the Pong Dam construction site to demand resettlement land. The dam was completed, but fifty years later; a majority of the oustees are still to be resettled. The campaign against the Tehri dam in the Himalayas began in mid 1970s and still continues. In nearly all the cases, the opposition to the dam could not stop it, even though the people resisting were not far away conservationists, but those directly affected by displacement. It is therefore curious that the first successful anti-dam campaign in India, against the 120-metre Silent Valley dam in Kerela, was not due to displacement, but conservation. Unlike most Indian dams, few people would have been displaced by the project, but it would have destroyed a major rainforest of the country. In the end, the concern for rainforest and its endangered inhabitant, the lion tailed macaque, persuaded the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi to intervene and stop the project. The campaign against the dam is significant in political terms too. The political left in India has generally kept itself away from the anti dam movement. But one of the groups in the forefront of the Silent Valley campaign was the left oriented people’s science organisation, the Kerela Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP; the Kerela Science and Literature Society). The success of the Silent Valley campaign spilled over to proposed dams on the Godavari and Indravati rivers, at Bhopalpatnam, Inchampalli and Bodhgat that together would have displaced over 100,000 adivasis and flooded thousands of hectares of forests, including a tiger sanctuary. Local people, adivasis and supporting environment and human rights activists combined to have the projects suspended.

Dam building in India after independence in 1947 became a major symbol of modernisation, scientific progress and a matter of national pride. ‘Temples of modern India’ is how the first Prime Minister of the country, Jawahar Lal Nehru described them. At the time of opening of the 226 metre high Bhakra dam in 1954, Nehru, ever eloquent, put his excitement thus: ‘what a stupendous, magnificent work – a work which only that nation can take up which has faith and boldness! As I walked around the dam site I thought that these days the biggest temple and mosque is the place where man works for the good of mankind. Which place can be greater than this, this Bhakra-Nangal, where thousands of men have worked, have shed their blood and sweat and laid down their lives as well? Where can be a greater holier place than this, which we can regard as higher?’

Dam construction was combined with river basin planning for the first time to form the Damodar Valley Corporation. Modeled on the Tennessee River Corporation, the project envisaged many dams on the river Damodar and other works on a number of rivers in the eastern Indian state of Bengal, Though there was no visible campaign against this project, a former civil engineer, Kapil Bhattacharya, in a series of brilliant articles, little known outside since they were written in Bengali, and based on the project documents, analysed the consequences of the project, as it later on turned out, with magical prophecy (Raina, 1998). Though not necessarily opposed to dams in general, Kapil Bhattacharya contented that the Calcutta port remained functional only because of the flushing of silt that the rivers that flowed into the port managed during floods, and by damming these rivers for flood control, the port would become non-functional, reducing trade and commerce; which is exactly what happened. He predicted that in order to overcome the problem, the government engineers would be forced to divert water in to the port from the an upstream river flowing into the then East Pakistan (Bangladesh) through a barrage, the Farraka barrage, which would create international tensions, which is exactly what happened. And due to silt, when the Calcutta port’s bed rose, the sewage flowing into it from the Calcutta city would have a back flow, and that again is what happened. He even mentioned that in such an eventuality, people will blame the local Municipal Council, little realising that it was a consequence of dams built far away from the city, outside the control of the Council that was the culprit. Damodar projects today are seen as a curse by hundreds of thousands who were affected by them but no one realises that one of the best social, economic and environmental impact analysis, perhaps in the world, could have saved a lot of misery, but Kapil Bhattacharya was writing much before anyone bothered about such things. He was in fact preceded by many years by the outstanding Indian physicist, Megnad Saha, who between 1922 and 1934 wrote extensively and brilliantly on the rivers of Bengal and the misery they were causing due to various impediments in their flow, at that time due to the embankments of the freshly laid colonial railway system. His models of river planning, written some eighty years ago could be an environmentalist’s delight today, even though he remained a staunch developmentalist till his death in the mid fifties. It is significant that technical writings that have questioned impediments to river flow, either through dams or through other means have had a history longer than people’s campaigns against dams in India, and the relative success of the anti-dam movement today is not only because of participation of affected people and others from a broad spectrum of ideologies, but also because of the association of technically and scientifically trained professionals, who not only provide economic and technical criticism of state plans, but also suggest alternatives.

So what is the general background in which the environmental and anti-dam movements need to be located in India? From its inception, the Indian state was confronted by two different visions of reconstruction; the Gandhian project of reviving the village economy as the basis of development, and the Nehruvian plan of prosperity through rapid industrialisation. Gandhi put his views together as early as 1921 in his book Hind Swaraj (India’s Self Rule). Many years later, on the threshold of India’s independence (October 5, 1945), Gandhi wrote a letter to Nehru in which he outlined his dream of free India. “I believe that, if India is to achieve true freedom, and through India the world as well, then sooner or later we will have to live in villages - in huts not in palaces. A few billion people can never live happily and peaceably in cities and palaces...My villages exist today in my imagination.... The villager in this imagined village will not be apathetic.... He will not lead his life like an animal in a squalid dark room. Men and women will live freely and be prepared to face the whole world. The village will not know cholera, plague or smallpox. No one will live indolently, nor luxuriously. After all this, I can think of many things, which will have to be produced on a large scale. Maybe there will be railways, so also post and telegraph. What it will have and what it will not, I do not know. Nor do I care. If I can maintain the essence, the rest will mean free facility to come and settle. And if I leave the essence, I leave everything”.

‘God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation in the manner of the West’, Gandhi observed. ‘The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom (England) is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million (nearly a billion today) took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts’. He had earlier in 1940 already expresses his misgivings regarding centralisation thus, ‘Nehru wants industrialisation because he thinks that if it were socialised, it would be free from the evils of capitalism. My own view is that the evils are inherent in industrialism and no amount of socialisation can eradicate them … I do visualise electricity, shipbuilding, ironworks, machine-making and the like existing side by side with village crafts. But … I do not share the socialist belief that centralisation of production of the necessaries of life will conduce to the common welfare’. The appeal of Gandhi lay in his programme of revitalising village communities and craft production by employing simple technologies to provide jobs and a decent livelihood to a predominantly rural population. The liberation that Gandhi promised was not merely an economic independence; it was, most profoundly, an assurance that the cultural traditions of the Indian peasantry would reign ascendant.

Gandhi’s vision struck no chords in the mind of Jawaharlal Nehru, who replied rather brusquely to Gandhi’s letter of October 1945: ‘It is many years since I read Hind Swaraj and I have only a vague picture in my mind. But even when I read it twenty or more years ago it seemed to me completely unreal ... A village, normally speaking, is backward intellectually and culturally and no progress can be made from a backward environment’. Having dismissed Gandhi’s plea thus, Nehru’s own ambivalence was to surface only a few years later when he talked of the evil of gigantic and mega projects.

The Nehruvian developmental agenda has predominated for over fifty years now. There has of course been a great deal of industrialisation in these years and a basic technical and service infrastructure laid for self-reliant development. Poverty however persists unabated. Of a population of about a billion persons, more than half would have to be termed poor, which in absolute numbers is much larger than the total population of the country in 1945 that Gandhi was talking about.

As a person associated with the struggle and the issues surrounding the Narmada dams I come across a large number of well meaning professionals, intellectuals as also ordinary middle class people who, in spite of not necessarily being actively pro-dam, have voiced a certain concern regarding the anti-dam movements with questions like, ‘Where will then power come from?’, or ‘How can we do without irrigation – what about food?’, and so on. These concerns, which need to be differentiated from similar sounding strident and aggressive postures of vested interests, of a politician, bureaucrat or a construction agent and their supporters in the media and academia, need to be considered seriously because they are at the heart of the development debate everywhere. It becomes necessary then to situate the movement against the Narmada dams within the larger socio-economic, political and cultural realities of India.

It is generally believed, particularly by the governments, that any kind of development is finally for the benefit of the ‘common man’. But who is a common man, or woman in India? The general consensus would be the ‘poor’ man. Though a poor woman would be poorer in many ways, we shall assume that the word ‘man’ is being used here as an equivalent to the often-used gender-neutral term ‘person’. I believe that an adequate definition, in political and economic terms of the poor common man is missing in India, and the best approximation is that of the cartoonist, Laxman, that appears daily in the Times of India. In developmental terms, the Government of India defines all those who do not get to eat 2200 calories or more per day in terms of food as poor. It is highly debatable, methodologically, whether something like poverty should be characterised by an exact line, defined by a single parameter like ‘less than 2200 calories of food per day’. Such imported mathematical exactness in a highly complex socio-political issue would seem to be particularly irrational from a scientific viewpoint. In particular, enumeration of people on this criterion is liable to be extremely error prone. For example, in order to get a rapid assessment of poverty under this criterion, field agents of the National Sample Survey often ask poor adivasis and villagers : ‘Do you get to eat two square meals a day?’. The answer is supposed to decide whether the questioner consumes around 2200 calories per day or not!

In the absence of reliable data, orders of estimates, based on qualitative criterion might be a better alternative in assessing the nature of poverty in India. Indigenous people, or adivasis, are at the poorest rung in the economic ladder of India. Out of a total population of nearly 1000 million in the country, they number about seven percent, which is around 70 million, or more than half the population of Japan. At par with them on this ladder are the landless labourers and marginal and subsistence farmers with up to an acre of land. Similarly, there is a large population of people who subsist on their traditional artisinal skills, as potters, iron smelters, bamboo and grass weavers, small scale handloom workers, leather flayers and tanners, wood, metal and stone craft persons. If we add to these the slum dwellers of the cities, living in abject poverty, the total may add to about 600 million people. India can therefore be seen as divided between a two third population that somehow manages to survive and subsist, and another one third, totaling around 300 million people, that is composed of lower, middle and wealthy classes.

Except for the urban slum dwellers, the rest of the poor population of India subsists mainly from the availability of some or the other form of natural resource – land for subsistence farming, bamboo, grass, leather, minerals for artisinal occupations, various biomass sources for fuel and housing needs. The best example is that of the adivasis. Living mostly in or close to the forests, their economy, culture and society is organically linked to these forests. The material that goes into making their dwellings or huts, most of the food, fuelwood for cooking and water is obtained as a free common resource from their immediate physical surroundings. Their encounter with the market is mostly at the weekly travelling haats which provide essential items like salt, kerosene for domestic lighting, and a few times a year, bare minimum clothing. Items like cooking oil, cereals, and pulses, sugar, spices and soap are luxuries, to be indulged in once in a while.

Fifty years ago, when the country gained independence after a colonial occupation of more than one hundred and fifty years, the expectations of the people were boundless, in terms of better chances for economic and social upliftment. The state, opting for a mixed economy of private and public, embarked on a massive industrialisation and infrastructure building programme with the hope that the benefits would eventually trickle down to the common man. In the process absolutely no thought or concern was given to populations that were displaced through dam building, urbanisation, setting up of industries and the like. The basic premise has been that national development can not be achieved without a certain amount of sacrifice. Estimates suggest that around forty million people have been made to sacrifice through involuntary displacement during the fifty years of national development, many of them being adivasis. Since most of the minerals, sites for dams and hydel projects, timber etc. exist in the environments these people live in, it is not surprising that they have had to face maximum displacement and hardships. Whatever benefits have accrued from these projects, in terms of increased electricity, irrigation or finished products from industries, instead of trickling down to those who need them most, have generally enriched the richer one-third population more. Consequently, increasing polarisation of wealth, facilities, control and inequity between the two population groups has been the visible manifestation of the development process in India.

There have been other adverse effects on the large ‘common man’ population too, apart from displacement. Since many of them subsist as communities with free access to common natural resources, increasing legislations that have transferred these resources to the state - forests, minor forest produce, land, water, minerals etc. have rendered many of their subsistence and life securities, like food and housing, as also the use of their traditional artisinal skills to produce for the local market, fragile. For example, the absolute control of the state on the forests has deprived most of them easy access to the only source of domestic fuel, firewood. Contrary to government allegations, the firewood gathering method of adivasis is either by loping branches or collecting dead wood, rarely clear felling of trees. However, clear felling is the major source of fuelwood to big cities, undertaken by contractors with permission from the same forest department that harasses and denies the poor access to their traditional common resource in the name of environment protection and conservation. This conflict was most dramatically illustrated in the early seventies by Chipko movement in the Himalayan villages, with local women clinging to trees to prevent contractors from clear felling them. Saving and conserving forests have therefore to be seen in terms of the basic energy needs of the majority of poor in India, without which they can not subsist. In a study of energy consumption patterns, Balaji (1987) calculated that of the total energy consumed in India, forty per cent came from fossil fuels, four per cent from electric power and a mind boggling fifty six per cent from biomass. With depleting and increasingly expensive fossil fuels, even though kerosene and cooking gas is subsidised, it is clear that biomass is going to continue as the main source of energy. Investments to switch from biomass in any substantial manner, particularly for domestic energy in rural areas, even in the present globalisation and privatisation era require mind-boggling investments. So forests have to be conserved so that they can be used in a sustainable manner, otherwise most of the Indians will be unable to cook their food.

As an aside, it is difficult not to comment on the timber policy of another nation in the Asian region, which one hopes no other nation is allowed to follow namely Japan. It has retained an incredibly thick forest and biomass cover, on over seventy per cent of its land, even as its use of timber, particularly for housing is one of the highest in the world. How? Simply by importing high quality timber, which in the process has denuded countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand. This is why the North countries tried to call forests a ‘global resource’ in the aborted Forest Convention at the Earth Summit in 1992, to ensure that national control would be confined to management, where as the use would be global. The situation is quite similar within India, whereby middle class needs for timber for fuel and construction have been met by denuding forests, depriving a majority whose need for the same resource is for subsistence. This has in a sense created two conflicting ‘countries’ within the same nation. The situation is similar with respect to other resources too, be it minerals, water or land. The control, ownership and use is either in the hands or in the interests of a smaller elite where as a larger majority, whose very life depends on these resources has been increasingly marginalised from them. Like power, planned irrigation from all sources, including dams, benefits only a few, servicing just about twenty per cent of the entire agriculture in India, leaving the rest, eighty per cent, to the vagaries of rainfed irrigation.

One of the promises held out while embarking on massive industrialisation just after independence was to provide an avenue for the uncertain agricultural labour to shift to more secure industrial labour. That promise has proved particularly false. Estimates of the Ministry of Labour in 1990 suggest that of a total worker population of 310 millions, those in the organised sector number a mere 30 million. The rest, with a high percentage of women and agricultural labour, form the unorganised or the informal sector, subsisting on insecure and low wages. With liberalisation and globalisation as buzzwords today, employment in the formal sector may effectively decline because of the stress on labour saving technologies by foreign investment agencies.

It ought to be clear now as to why people who are likely to be adversely affected by a development project are forced to agitate and struggle all over India. Against dams, against trawler fishing, against siting of power plants or hazardous industry, against parks and sanctuaries, missile and artillery ranges – the list can go on. Each of these development projects either takes away or pollutes one or the other natural resource critical to their subsistence, without providing them with a viable alternative. For example, the rehabilitation policy for the Sardar Sarovar dam on Narmada envisages, for the first time in India, land for land compensation, which sounds a fair policy. Many concerned persons, including the anti-dam leader Medha Patkar got involved initially to ensure that the policy was properly implemented. It soon became apparent, however, that the policy was unimplementable since compensatory land was not available for the volume of displacement, which prompted many, including her, to take an anti-dam stand. More irrigation, more power and so on are therefore not neutral and just demands in a country divided thus in class terms. Each of these projects brings misery to large populations who have little political clout. Unless the economic costs and benefits of these projects do not include social and ecological costs, which are not mere conservation fancies of environmentalists but constitute the livelihood and subsistence economy of the affected marginalised populations, the iniquitous distribution of benefits can not but bring in increased social and political strife and disorder.

The Narmada dams

The loosely used term ‘Dams on the river Narmada’ does not imply just a few dams on the river, but refers to the plan for the development of the entire Narmada river basin, which includes all its tributaries. The plan envisages 30 major, 135 medium and 3000 small dams to harness the power and irrigation potential of the basin, or to choke the entire river system, depending on which viewpoint one holds. If the plan goes through, about twenty million are likely to face displacement. Only two dams from this plan have been completed, the Tawa and Bargi dams, in mid seventies and eighties respectively, with widespread displacement that is still not resolved and water logging from the Tawa dam that has disenchanted even the farmers who benefited from irrigation. Two mega dams, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and Indira Sagar Project (ISP) are under construction along with the Mahashwar dam. Five other dams are in various stages of preparation for construction.

The Narmada river flows mainly through the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India, but also touches the state of Maharashtra, and the last hundred kilometres pass through the state of Gujerat before discharging into the Arabian sea. Its development plan became a matter of serious controversy between these states because of contending claims regarding sharing of waters. Various plans were drawn up right after the independence, but rejected by one or the other state. The central government had to finally set up the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) under federal law, to resolve the issue. The three main terms of reference for the Tribunal were to assess the total water availability in the river, fix the height for the SSP, and work out a water sharing formula for which the non-riparian but drought prone state of Rajasthan was also included. The Tribunal gave its award in 1978, which is binding on the contending states. I read this award in 1985, before the movement really started. It was enough to raise doubts about the project. The award notes that as far as the first term of reference is concerned, a major technical matter on which most of the other design parameters, including dam heights rest, it was the Chief Ministers of the contending states, politicians, who decided on this vital issue and asked the Tribunal to use the figure of 27.88 MAF (million acre-feet; one acre-foot is the amount of water it takes to cover one acre to a depth of one foot; equivalent to 325,900 gallons or 1,233 cubic metres) for its subsequent work. The basis for the politicians’ agreement was an error prone and outdated hind-forecasting method based on rainfall data rather than actual river flow data. Since this technical parameter had become a major source of contention, suitably, it was the politicians who settled it! This is an important issue since the proponents call the Narmada plan as the best technical plan in the entire world. More than twenty years since the Tribunal award was announced, better estimates based on actual river flow measurements suggest that the annual flow of water in the river, at seventy five per cent dependability is only around 23 MAF, about seventeen per cent less than the value on which all the design parameters of the plan are based. This single factor is enough to demand a complete review of the entire plan.

After chopping and churning regarding the sites and heights of the major dams on the river, the other major recommendation of the Tribunal award concerns the heights of the SSP and the ISP. The SSP height was fixed at 455 feet (about136 metres). Curiously, at the same site, Navgam, construction work for a dam of a height of 162 feet had been inaugurated by Nehru in 1961! Work was stopped on that to await the resolution of the inter-state dispute. The history of the evolution of the project since around 1948 therefore reads like a TV sit com where the plot changes continuously, only the change in plot had more to do with the changing political clouts between the contending states, rather than matters technical or scientific. These were mostly tailored to fit the changing political demands. The impact of the dam heights on the quantum of displacement was never never an issue. In fact the logic of the Tribunal determined 453 feet as the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam (Raina 1994), but the chairperson proposed the figure 455 as an aesthetic rounding off, and no one in the Tribunal bothered to recognise that the extra two feet at that height meant an increase in the submergence area by around nineteen thousand hectares of densely populated land! So much for detailed scientific planning!

The World Bank entered the scene through a loan agreement in 1985, after being invited by the Gujerat state government just after the final orders of the Tribunal were passed in1978. The Loan Agreement had some novel features. First it provided for the landless and the encroacher oustees which the Tribunal award had not provided for. Secondly, it made separate loan agreements for the rehabilitation component. This was to ensure that paucity of funds should not hamper the implementation of rehabilitation programmes. A conditionality clause was included whereby the Bank could withhold the loan if environment impact assessment and rehabilitation pre-conditions were not fulfilled according to the predetermined schedule. These clauses proved to be decisive since, forced by the movement to set up an independent review of the SSP, World Bank withdrew from the project in 1994, citing the violation of these clauses and flaws of the project as the reason.

The Making of a Movement

Though it is difficult to pinpoint when the movement against the dam started, events in 1986 started the ball rolling. The Narmada Dharangrastha Samiti (Association of the Narmada dam Affected ) was set up in Maharashtra, focussed on SSP. Independently and during the same year, some of us who were involved in the aftermath of the Bhopal Gas Disaster set up CAISA (Campaign against the Indira Sarovar), and volunteers went to stay with the threatened oustees of Harsud town. Their very strong views against the proposed dam, gathered over a year’s interaction were published in the form of a booklet ‘In Sorrow and Anger’, in 1987. In September 1987, the Multiple Action Research Group (MARG) based in New Delhi initiated field studies in the villages of Narmada valley. They published a series of reports titled ‘Sardar Sarovar oustees of Madhya Pradesh, what do they know?’ The objective of their reports was ‘to access the extent of information communicated to the inhabitants of these villages by the concerned authorities and how far the information conveyed was accurate’. Their major conclusion was that the villagers were largely ignorant of the implications of the dams on their livelihood and existence. Around the same time, Medha Patkar, at that time working with the group SETU in Gujerat traveled through the valley and made contact with local people. These events triggered a spurt of protests from all over. Medha, along with a few others decided to live full time with the threatened villagers and gradually, they began to organise against the dams. In August 1988, the oustee organisations from two states issued memoranda to the local offices, tehsils, of the government opposing the SSP and launching a movement for non-cooperation, along Gandhian lines, against all survey and construction work. The supporters of the campaign reacted spontaneously in all parts of the country issuing memoranda, staging rallies and sit-ins (dharnas). On September 12 1988 over 300 scientists, academicians and prominent citizens submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister asking for a complete reappraisal of SSP.

A series of actions, including at the dam site drew a larger number of people into the movement. The state reacted as it always does, through repression, in the form of police action as also clamping the Official Secrets Act on information and sites relating to the dam. These actions actually helped in the furthering the momentum of the movement and the government was compelled to withdraw the Act in 1989. Two major turning points of the movement came in 1989. A massive rally of about 50,000 people at Harsud, with representatives from hundreds of organisations from all over the country, local people and the presence of national and international media galvanised the movement. Sometime later, thousands staged a sit in on the Khalghat bridge over Narmada, completely blocking traffic on the Delhi-Bombay highway for three days and forcing the government to negotiate. Since 1988, the movement has been spearheaded by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a loose confederation of groups from all across the country, led by individuals from the oustee villages and their associated activists who have been living full time with them. Amongst these activists are professionals like engineers and sociologists.

Though NBA consists of individuals from diverse professions and ideologies, from right wing BJP to the extreme left-wing Maoists, one could perhaps say that socialist and Gandhian thoughts dominate. There is however an acute awareness regarding the need for a more inclusive ideology, and a Trust set up from the funds received by the NBA from the Right Livelihood Award has been organising annual brainstorming meetings for the purpose. The attitude of the mainstream parties is on expected lines, they view the movement largely as anti-developmental. Traditionally, the left parties have been wary, or even opposed, to non-party groups, whether NGO or movement type, and in particular those espousing environmental causes that can impede developmental projects. Such stances are mostly seen as anti-worker. However, the degree of mobilisation under the NBA banner has been difficult to ignore for most of the mainstream parties, and individuals from these parties have covertly and overtly supported the movement from time to time, and have increasingly expressed a desire to initiate discussions at party forums. Same is true for the bureaucracy, many amongst them providing help and support for the issues in various ways. Local candidates in the valley have been forced to take a stand at the time of elections to the state assembly or the national parliament because of the pressure from the electorate.

Support has come from a large section amongst artistes, film makers, writers and poets, journalists, university students and faculty, middle class housewives and of course engineers and scientists. The main strength of the movement comes naturally from the thousands who are affected by displacement, but the professional support is critical in confronting the state and its allies, as in the NBA petition to the Supreme Court in 1995, which froze the construction of SSP at 80 metres. It is only after four years that the stay on construction was lifted a few months ago and permission was granted to increase the height to 85 metres, ensuring all those affected have been adequately resettled. Since that has not happened, the struggle has intensified against the Court’s order just now. In the meanwhile, recognising that a major portion of the dam has already been constructed, alternative plans ranging from height reduction (Raina, 1994) to a comprehensive restructuring (AIPSN, 1994 and Joy and Paranjpaye, 1995) have already been suggested. In a recent lecture, however, the noted novelist Arundhati Roy suggested to leave the dam wall as it is, unfinished, as a monument to the twentieth century foolishness of big dams! The government of Madhya Pradesh has in fact also requested height reduction. Restricting the height to about 95 metres would, while ensuring water sharing in the same ratio as suggested by the Tribunal, reduce the displacement of about 200,000 people by about seventy per cent. It is true that power generation would also reduce, but that anyway is a questionable component of the plan (Reddy and Sant, 1994).

The question of the height of the dam is critical since the area of submergence entirely depends on it. As noted earlier, it had been fixed at 162 feet, about 50 metres for SSP in 1961, but was consequently raised to 136 metres in 1978. The greed to set up a few large projects, without any thought regarding their human consequences finally upset even Nehru. In a hard hitting inaugural address at the twenty-ninth meeting of the Central Board for Irrigation and Power in November 1958 (Baldev Singh, 1988), the same Nehru who was so eloquent while inaugurating the giant Bhakra dam a few years earlier had this to say:

“ For some time past, I have been beginning to think that we are suffering from what we may call the ‘disease of giganticism’. We want to show that we can build big dams and do big things. This is a dangerous outlook developing in India… We should always remember that it is the ten thousand small tasks that count ultimately much more than a few big ones. It is the small irrigation projects, the small industries and the small plants for electric power, which will change the face of the country, far more than half a dozen big projects in half a dozen places… You have said (referring to the President of the meeting) that the cost of production of power in a small project is great. I am not at all sure if that is so, because the cost of a small project has to be judged after taking into account all the social upsets connected with the enormous concentration of national energy, all the national upsets, upsets of the people moving out and their rehabilitation and many other things, associated with a big project. And it also takes a long time to build a big project. However, we are not so much interested in the economies of it as in the fact that we would like to develop the resources all over India rather than in one place…. Real value of development lies in spreading its influence all over India so that more and more of people can benefit by it. Thus the social value of a vast number of small projects is much greater than that of one, two, three, four or five big projects.”

Anticipating the clout of the construction and contractor lobby, the Jai Prakash’s and S.Kumars who almost control the Narmada projects, he went on to say, “It is not good enough just to see that we succeed by getting some big contractors to do the job. The contractor is not interested in knowing the man who is actually working, nor in his progress… Therefore, I should like, apart from whether you are doing a big scheme or a small scheme, always to think of human beings involved. How they would be profited and to get their sympathy and understanding in the job… From this point of view also I would urge you to take up the small schemes which are easier for a person to understand and comprehend, and also to help in working it out… My submission is that the engineer’s work should not be just to construct a building or a canal or a dam, but in addition he has to look at the scheme in an integrated way, visualising all future consequences of it, both social and economic”. If half of what Nehru said in 1958 had sunk into the Narmada Tribunal people in 1978, there may have been no need to write any of this.

A Question of Cultures and Beliefs

Movements are formed by the coming together of a large number of human beings, not only because of their rationalities but also, or mainly, because of their emotions. People have faces and names; by analysing their actions and agendas mostly through aggregates (like, thousands are opposing the dams) we get a skeletal description, bereft of the living elements. It must though be hastily added that it is not as if generalities are not in order and indeed important to arrive at. But that has to be done with caution, without damaging the essence, or making it invisible. The idea here is not to allude to some shadowy debate between modernism and whatever is called postmodern, but to confess to a personal dilemma. For a person trained professionally in mathematics and natural sciences, the overlaid experience of participation in movements creates an extreme tension. A tension that demands that the smiles, tears, valour, fear, values, philosophies, cultural identities and the living elements of the humans that form a movement be evident in the analysis of the social, economic, and even technical issues raised by them. Clearly such a methodology does not exist, though Arundhati Roy’s recent long essay ‘The Greater Common Good’ may be considered as an impressive attempt to achieve such an integration. The alternative, that of a participant observer, the anthropologist, is generally considered less positivistic, only that such a participant is normally a professional intellectual motivated more by a Ph.D., or publications that would advance his or her career or bring prestige, which is clearly different from the motivation of the ‘observed’, for whom the struggle may be, as it often is, a matter of life and death. Such motivational differences, combined with the cultural differences between the observer and the observed often produce end results that are less than satisfactory, and also become a cause of tension between the two, the activist and the academician. When the activist and the academician is the same person, the internal conflict has to be extreme .

The interconnection between the global and the local, and of culture and struggle, as George Marcus contends is that “The issues in social science reflect a world increasingly pulled asunder by the expansive tendency of the global capitalist economy to incorporate everyone into itself. The world of larger systems and events no longer merely impinges upon and constrains ‘little communities’; it is becoming integral to them. ‘Little communities’ - and subordinated people in general - are the besieged strongholds of autonomous cultural traditions. The research of critics of capitalism scales the bounds of beleaguered consciousness, for the quest for the native’s point of view has now become a search for an authentic critical theory, embodied in the lives of those on the margins of capitalism. Thus, ‘it is a seductive idea at the moment to liberal and radical culture critics in search of some direction that the necessary insights are there in the lives of subjects, to be unearthed by careful interpretation...’. Such an understanding tries to synthesize two divergent perspectives: one, the anthropological understanding of culture as autonomous, enduring over time, ‘not without its own internal contradictions, but at least with its own integrity against the world’; and the other, the Marxist view of culture as a product of struggle. This merging, when successful, endows the research enterprise with a new legitimacy, for it can claim to make a localised critique known to the rest of the world’, (in Baviskar, 1995). Since every social movement is almost always a cultural movement too, to understand it better, it is imperative to reflect on its cultural roots. It is perhaps particularly true for environmental movements since ‘environmentalism’ deeply imbues cultural practices and values.

Any observer who spends time with the people of the Narmada movement wonders what motivates people to keep on going for years. I believe the strength and sustenance of the movement is derived from these deeper concerns. Rivers have been an integral part in the rise of civilisations all over the world. Most of the Indian cities, big or small, have a river associated with them, and both in folklore and recorded history, these associated rivers are seen as a source of life for the natural elements, including humans, existing in their vicinity. This has resulted in a deep-rooted reverence for rivers. Riverbanks abound with temples and holy sites in every nook and corner of the country. Exalted to the form of a goddess, bathing in most rivers is seen as a process of washing away one’s sins. The flow of the river is basic to these beliefs, the goddess associated with each river is seen as virginal, and the purity is supposed to be maintained because of the flow. Impeding the flow of a river is therefore seen as an irreligious act, and if such obstacles occur naturally, as in the Himalayan rivers due to massive land and rock slides, it is the general belief that the goddess river will mightily hurtle down the obstacle and restore its flow, as most often happens in these mountain rivers. In addition to the rituals followed regularly by millions of people in temples on the river banks daily, these beliefs find an expression in the numerous songs, stories and literature that form an integral part of the cultural milieu of the people living close by. In a majority of these songs, specific to fishfolk, peasants and women, the image of the river is mostly of that of a provider, a giver. In many women’s songs the allusion is to that of an empathiser; it is only the river that will understand the sadness of a woman’s existence, and its constant flow signifies steadfastness, a constant companion whose life sustaining qualities act as a balm in her life. This is not surprising since a woman in India spends a large part of her life in and around the river, fetching water, washing clothes, and bathing furtively in groups, wary of male intrusions.

The more dominant adivasi cultural value, or belief, that needs a brief exposition here relates to their relation to their land, their dwelling place. As is well known it is the natural elements, the forest, the fire, thunder and rain, sun, moon and stars, animals etc that generally dominate the adivasi belief system. In many ways they see these as external elements that can influence their lives, for good or for bad. Most of their ritual is based in appeasing and keeping peace with these elements. Long conversations with many of them, in the Narmada area and outside has formed a somewhat ridiculous simile in my mind about the very militant possessiveness they feel for their traditional land, in which, as they say, lie the bones of their ancestors, whose spirits hover above. Just as in satellite based global communications technology, the ground stations provide the necessary and critical link to the invisible satellites, so it seems, they see the spirits of their ancestors as the link to these external elements that influence their lives. Their ritual, centered around the totem pole placed at the burial site, suggests a considerable dependence on these spirits to keep the external elements calm, which provides them with a sense of security. Since the proximity of the sites where the ancestors are buried is critical to this belief system, displacement from such sites is such a puzzling, alien and incomprehensible thought to them that it can arouse immediate militancy. Imagine if the land where all the ground stations for satellite communication are situated was to be acquired for other purposes, say agriculture, what would happen. In many ways, the adivasis see their lands as similar ground stations for their belief systems and naturally try to resist attempts at displacement. And they feel puzzled and angry when offered land-for-land compensation. For a non-adivasi farmer that may be a viable choice, provided the land in exchange is adequate and of good quality. But for the adivasi, land is not merely material, so how do you exchange one piece for the other?

I am reminded here of an encounter of the modern with the traditional that was related to me in Bastar, another adivasi area, though far removed from the Narmada valley. Some years age, the electricity department, implementing the government policy of providing single point electric connection in villages started putting up wooden poles in the area. Only the poles would be found uprooted in the morning. This went on for some time and finally it was decided to summon the police since government property was being tampered with, to teach a lesson to these uncouth idiots who were opposing the fruits of modernisation from entering their homes. A local journalist, who has done commendable work as a human rights activist there heard about it and pleaded with the Collector to let him speak to the adivasis – he speaks their Maria language. He came back in a day or two and told the Collector that the people had nothing against electricity, in fact they were keen to have it in their homes. The only problem was that a vertical wooden pole in the ground could not be dug in without a ceremony since it disturbed their dead ancestors. They pleaded to be allowed to perform a short ceremony around each pole, as it was erected and no more. The plea was accepted and to their joy, electric lines reached their homes. How can one displace such people from their lands without doing and inviting violence?

The Indian reverence for rivers, where damming is akin to the rape of a virgin goddess, and the adivasi’s reverence for its ancestral lands are just two examples of what could be considered as the propelling elements for the local people involved in a movement like that against Narmada dams. These remain mostly invisible since the language of discourse is mostly developmental, which does not recognise beliefs as part of human development. But these are matters of controversy because in many ways the agenda of modernisation is not only developmental, but philosophical too. In such an agenda, traditional and ritual beliefs are indicators of backwardness that need to be altered; scientifically tempered. May be that is why Nehru saw village based cultures backward. And in a mechanical Marxist framework, such belief systems constitute the ‘false consciousness’ of people that hinder a ‘proper’ understanding of the material basis of life and existence. The developmental agenda from both these points of view would consist of purging the concerned populations from such beliefs, and physical displacement, one may well argue, might even help in such a pursuit!

This is a major accusation of the dam proponents, who hurl the question more like an abuse at their opponents: Should the traditional social groups, the adivasis, live as they have for centuries, as animals in forests, as museum pieces, with their cultures and beliefs intact? Do they not have a right to progress? The answer is very simple and best illustrated by the electricity example of Bastar. Of course any social group must have the right to change, to imbibe and to assimilate. But that must be through a just and democratic process, that ensures that the concerned population is socially, economically and politically empowered to decide on the processes of assimilation and integration. A police action would have forced electricity on a population who actually did not oppose it. A process that ensured their dignity and participation made the encounter between tradition and modernity assimilative rather than violative, it showed respect for their beliefs. A curt order to vacate traditional habitations issued under the Land Acquisition Act, in the name of a project of national interest can in no way allow the marginalised to progress and modernise, if that be the logic of the proponents. It can and does, however, further alienate them. A much wider and deeper debate seems necessary to explore and understand the notion and importance of ‘belief security’, in the same manner as we recognise it in the material sphere, as for example, food or housing security. Recognising also of course that just as the nature of material securities can change and transform over time, so can that of beliefs.

Lest the allusion to something like belief security be misconstrued as a glorification of misconceived irrationality, we need to remind ourselves of the active role beliefs play even in the domain of the rational, the sciences. Though tomes can be written on that and Einstein’s essays on the subject remain seminal, a view expressed by the great physicist Max Planck should suffice here. Reflecting on the severe opposition to ideas of quantum mechanics, about which he himself was initially skeptical even though he was the first to uncover them, he maintained that it wasn’t as if logical arguments or experimental evidence changed previously held beliefs immediately. The opposition to new views he maintained, wanes simply because the older generation of scientists dies and the new ones grow up with these new ideas. An idea not much different from the Kuhnian notion of paradigm dominance and shift over periods of time in the evolution of scientific knowledge. These shifts, however, take place over generations in an atmosphere that provides the freedom to explore and exercise choices. When that freedom is taken away, or attempted to be fitted into a particular belief system even momentarily for a few years, as was done in Nazi Germany, the opposition and resistance of people who were otherwise supposed to be pursuing ‘value-neutral rational science, unaffected by social and political beliefs’ was heroic, as the displaced refugee scientists demonstrated.

The question of resistance to dams is therefore not that of Luddite revivalism, as Verghese would like us to believe. It is more a question of choices. Choices determined not through a rejection of rationality, but as far as I am concerned, choices within science and technology itself. But choices that are not autonomous of the material, cultural and belief systems of the affected populations. That modernisation and science and technology can not be integrated and harmonised with such systems and must be institutionalised and bureaucratised so as to remain alienated from them is an extreme form of scientific positivism, which I am afraid is the essence of Verghese kind of arguments that needs to be rejected, as even science has, since the rejection of the philosophy of logical positivism, the Vienna school, that surfaced for some years.

Cultures, beliefs and local life systems can not after all be mutated through coercion, no matter how competent the coercion is technologically. Nazi Germany found that out in a different setting, why must we replicate the experiment in the name of development?


(My knowledge of issues regarding big dams is largely because of my association with the NBA over the years and Medha, Sripad, Alok, Arundhati Dhuru, Nandini, Himanshu, Sylvie, amongst others, have greatly contributed in this journey, both factually and philosophically. Debates on science-society interphase, dams, and work on developing local watersheds, local production systems, micro hydel units as also different forms of literacy and school education within the People’s Science Movement has kept one’s hopes for alternatives alive; M.P.Parameswaran’s infectious optimism and eye for technical detail being inspirational. The draft of this paper was first orally discussed with activists opposing the Mei Nung dam in Taiwan, during an interaction session in their beautiful yellow butterfly infested surroundings. Their questions and insights have greatly helped in shaping it. Lau Kin Chi from ARENA Hong Kong read the drafts and provided many useful insights.)

References and Select Readings:

1. P. McCully; Silenced Rivers, The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams, Zed Books,

London, 1996 (An inspirational work, freely used here)

2. V. Paranjpye; High Dams on the Narmada, INTACH, New Delhi, 19903.

3. Enakshi G. Thukral (Ed); Big Dams, Displaced People, Rivers of Sorrow, Rivers of

Change, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 1992

  1. N. Smith; A History of Dams, Peter Davies, London, 1971

  2. ICOLD; World Register of Dams, Paris 1988

  3. E. Goldsmith and N. Hildyard; The Social and Environmental Impacts of Large Dams, Wadebridge Ecological Centre, 1984

  4. M.Lameshev; Bureaucrats in Power, Ecological Collapse, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1990

  5. M.Reisner; Cadillac Desert, The American West and its Disappearing Water, Secker and Warburg, London, 1986

  6. B. Morse et al; Sardar Sarovar, The Preport of The Independent Review, RFI, Ottawa, 1992

  7. F. Pearce; The Dammed;: Rivers, Dams and the Coming World Water Crisis, Bodley Head, London, 1992

  8. W.F.Fisher (Ed); Towards Sustainable Development? Struggling Over India’s Narmada River, M.E.Sharpe, Armonk, NY,1995

  9. Priya Kurian; Land and Water Review, 1988

  10. Baldev Singh (Ed); Jawaharlal Nehru on Science and Society, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, 1988

  11. V.Raina; Sardar Sarovar: Case for Lowering Dam Height, Economic and Political Weekly, April 2, 1994, Bombay

  12. V.Raina; Waters of ConflictAlternatives in River Valley Projects; Rediscovering Kapil Bhatacharya and Megnad Saha, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 1998(mimeo, forthcoming publication)

  13. V.Raina et al (Ed); The Dispossessed, Victims of Development in Asia, 2nd Edition, ARENA, Hong Kong and Manohar Publications, New Delhi, 1999

  14. All India People’s Science Network (AIPSN), Report on the Consultation for Restructuring the Sardar Sarovar Project (in mimeo), New Delhi, 1994. Available on the net at www.irn.org

  15. A.K.N.Reddy and Girish Sant; Power from Sardar Sarovar – An Inefficient Plan, The Hindu Survey of Environment, 1994, Madras

  16. K.J.Joy and S.Paranjpye; Sustainable Technology – Making The Sardar Sarovar Project Viable, Centre for Environmental Education, Ahmedabad, 1995

  17. A. Baviskar; In the Belly of the River – Tribal Conflicts over Development in the Narmada Valley, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1995

  18. Satyajit Singh; Taming The Rivers – the Political Economy of Large Dams in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1997

  19. B.D.Dhawan (Ed); Big Dams – Claims, Counter Claims, Commonwealth Publishers, New Delhi, 1990

  20. Arundhati Roy; The Greater Common Good, IBH Publishers, Bombay, 1999. Published simultaneously earlier in the magazines Outlook and Frontline and available on the net at www.narmada.org

  21. B.G.Verghese; Poetic License (response to Arundhati Roy), Outlook July 5, 1999. Also available at www.narmada.org

  22. B.N.Ganguli, Gandhi’s Social Philosophy, Indian Social Science Research Council, New Delhi, 1973

  23. B. Nanda, Gokhale, Gandhi and the Nehrus, Allen and Unwin, London, 1974

Address for communication:

Vinod Raina

Eklavya/All India People’s Science Network

E1/25, Arera Colony

Bhopal 462 016

Tel/Fax: 91-755-562 007

Email: vinod.raina@vsnl.com