Gail Omvedt

Dear Arundhati,

I'm sorry to have to write a critical letter to you. I very much liked The God of Small Things. I also appreciated your intervention on the nuclear issue. I was impressed on reading in Indian Express that you had decided to donate some royalties to the Dalit Sahitya Academy.

However, when it comes to the issue of "big dams", I can understand the urgency you feel for the people of the valley and the victims of misguided development projects everywhere, but I feel that you're missing many things. There are important questions not only regarding the dam-afflicted but also the drought-afflicted, issues of water for agriculture, and of democracy in people's movements. I would like to share with you some of my experiences, mainly in Maharashtra, on drought and water issues, on movements for opposing eviction and for building small dams, among farmers and agricultural labourers of various castes and among adivasis in northern Maharashtra, near the Narmada.

The first time I even heard of the Narmada dams was around 1984. The CPI(M), the Shramik Mukti Dal (SMD) and the Shramik Sanghatana- an organisation of adivasis in Dhule district had organised a demonstration in Akkalkuva, where they presented a petition to the government demanding mainly that Maharashtrian evictees be given alternative land in Maharashtra itself and calling for alternatives to the Sardar Sarovar. I remember that it was during the monsoon season; we walked miles afterwards through drizzling rain to enjoy discussions, intellectual puzzles with matchboxes and a simple meal in one of the many remote villages of the area.

A little after that, in 1986, many of the same activists of the Shramik Sanghatana and SMD organised an "Adivasi-Forest Conference" in Shahada. I had come to Dhule to help in rallying support among the social and political activists of the district.This was just after Medha had made her first visit to the district. She had crossed the Narmada with Achyut Yagnik of Ahmedabad; their boat had capsized but somehow they had made their way down through the district, stopping off at Shahada to meet Shramik Sanghatana people the main organisation of adivasi toilers in the region-and then coming to Dhule where she formeda support organisation. All this was fine. There were only two critical questions raised. One was mine: Medha at that time was following the guidelines of the World Bank in demanding justice for evictees, and these guidelines identified only male heads of families as eligible for alternative land. We were at the time already starting to raise the question of land for women, and I felt it was too bad that the landlessness of women was being neglected in the process of rehabilitation and building anew.

But that was minor. Looking back, probably a more important negative reaction came from Waharu Sonavane, at that time the leading young adivasi activist of Shramik Sanghatana. Waharu had been in the movement since 1971-72, working with Ambarsingh Maharaj, a truly unique indigenous leader and with the Shramik Sanghatana and Shramik Mukti Dal, a Maharashtra-wide organisation of Marxist activists. Waharu is a poet and an intellectual though he has never had the opportunity to learn English, and I will quote for you a few lines of one of his poems which came out of his years of experience with movements. It is given as a title the English word (a word that also has come in Marathi) "Stage."

We did not go on to the stage,
Neither were we called.
We were shown our places,
told to sit.
But they, sitting on the stage,
went on telling us of our sorrows,
our sorrows remained ours, they never became theirs.

There is more but that is the main point. Waharu's main objection was that in all her discussions on the anti-dam movement, Medha never gave credit to those who had organised on the issue before her. More recently also it was Waharu who raised the question to Sanjay Sanghvi (sic) of the NBA, "Why is it that there is no top ranking adivasi leadership in the NBA?" This was at a seminar organised by the Pune University Women's Studies Centre. Sanjay could not answer except to say "But all our village leaders are adivasis." This is no answer, I hope you understand, when you are dealing with villages that are nearly 100% adivasi. Why are all the leaders from the urban elite, and how democratic exactly is their relationship to the rural poor they are organising?

There were and are real questions about the way in which the leadership of the NBA relates to and "represents", uses, its adivasi and non-adivasi farmer following. One of these has to do with an area you should be an expert in : words. Why the term "tribal"? I know, nearly every English speaker in India, apparently including supporters and activists of the NBA, uses "tribal" for adivasis when speaking in English. (In Indian languages all now use "adivasi" or some equivalent). But, though established now, the term "tribal" is an insulting and demeaning word, inaccurate even from a social-scientific point of view; and I don't know of any group of indigenous people the world over who would accept it for themselves. (I won't here go into the debate about whether or not "adivasis" should be called "indigenous people.") The only reason it survives in India is that because of the abysmal state of education in general among adivasis and even worse state of English education, there is no one really in a position to protest. Otherwise there would be massive objections, just as Dalits have thrown out the term "harijan." Those classified as "scheduled tribe" in northeast India - people like Mr. Sangma made clear long ago their feelings about being called "hill tribes". The fact "tribal" is still a widely used word in English, I think, has something to do with the way people are a little careless about the identities and real feelings of those they represent. And if this includes you and the NBA, then you should think about it.

In any case, Waharu's earliest objection was in terms of non-recognition of what they had done before; and this was very early on in the anti-Narmada movement, when there was no NBA as such and Medha and others were still talking mainly of rehabilitation and not of total opposition to big dams as such. But the tendency of not recognising the work of others, or really being willing to admit that there has been a history of struggles, has remained. You write very easily of "people's organisations" in different states coming together to form the NBA. These were organisations set up by Medha and her associates. In Maharashtra the largest "peoples' organisation" or alliance working on rehabilitation issues is the Maharashtra Rajya Dharangrast va Prakalgrast Shetkari Parishad (Maharashtra State Conference of Dam and Project Affected Farmers), which has been working since the 1970s. It has been a broad platform in which various local struggles have united. Its leaders from the beginning were people like Baba Adhav, a socialist and also a man very much involved in anti-caste campaigns; Datta Deshmukh, a communist of the Lal Nishan Party (now deceased); Naganath Naikaudi, an independent Marxist and freedom fighter from southern Maharashtra; Bharat Patankar of the Shramik Mukti Dal; many others. These have nearly all been involved on issues or irrigation and water as well as problems of dam evictees.

The Meaning of Water

People in these organisations were concerned about the social justice of dams and the sustainable use of water from very early. But they never opposed dams as such. The main slogan of the people involved in their struggles was "first rehabilitation, then the dam". Later this was linked to "equal water distribution" the demand that irrigation projects should be restructured to provide water to every family in every village in a watershed area. Movements are going on for this, for example in regard to the Krishna Valley dams.

Bharat Patankar (my husband, to keep things in perspective) and others were involved in a fight for one rather well-known peasant built small dam in Sangli district in Maharashtra, the Bali Rajya Memorial Dam, irrigating two villages. This was even taken as a kind of model of the type of dams the NBA would approve of. But they, we, have never opposed "big dams" as such. Bharat, at the time when Medha turned from simply agitation for rehabilitation to opposing big dams as such, was also active in a movementof Koyna dam evictees working with farmers who had lost their land decades back at the time of construction of the Koyna dam. He very simply felt that there were at least some big dams - Koyna was one - which were not by any means inherently destructive and which did not submerge significant areas of forest.

Why does anybody need "big dams" or "big irrigation projects"? Arundhati, there is a very simple issue here that urban people - I hope this doesn't sound too sarcastic - find hard to understand. Water is needed, not only for drinking, but for agriculture. NBA documents have talked a lot about drinking water, but they have not had much to say about water for agriculture. You cannot grow crops without water, and when there is only 500mm of water per year - this is true of three-fourths of the Krishna valley area in Maharashtra and of much of Gujarat including Saurashtra and Kutch - then some external water, provided by canals, is necessary to supplement rainfall. "Rainwater harvesting" is not enough in such areas of low rainfall. The millions of people living in such areas are the drought-afflicted, suffering from years of parched earth and damaged crops; they are driven off their lands to the cities to live, or migrate to work as labourers, for instance sugar canecutters, in areas of irrigation. But they would prefer to be able to prosper in their homes just as much as those threatened by damand project eviction want the alternative of not moving. You say that the thousands of dams built in India since independence have simply led to eviction on one hand and waterlogging on the other, but this is not true. So many farmers have benefited from irrigation water, and millions who have not can see this, and want such benefits also. Our arguments are not against big irrigation projects as such, but against badly conceived ones; big projects can be sustainable and work in a decentralised manner.

It may well be that, hundreds of years ago when the low rainfall regions were mainly occupied by pastoralists, people could carry on traditional livelihoods. That is no longer true. Population has multiplied, and the ways of using natural resources, converting them into food and materials for living, have to be developed. Productivity has to be increased, and this means that some form of irrigation projects as well as other kinds of technological development are necessary. In areas of very low rainfall, even villages which have become famous for "watershed development" and using rainwater - such as Ralegan Siddhi in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra - are supplementing this with canal water.

In any case, most of those who stand to lose their lands for dam projects are farmers, whether adivasis or non-adivasis, who understand the need of water for agriculture. Their refusal to be victims of development does not mean an opposition to development; they would like a share in it; they would like it to be just and sustainable. (Indeed, one of the achievements of the Maharashtra Rajya Dharangrast-Prakalgrast Shetkari Parishad was to win acceptance of the principle that those losing their land in the catchment area of dams should get alternative land in the command area - a share of the water of the dam).

I visited Ferkuva in early 1991. I had come from the Gujarat side, from Surat along with a representative of a farmers' organisation which would be considered a "rich peasant" organisation by most of NBA supporters. He was staunchly for the dam, and when I brought up the usual objections, he simply responded, "there's is a cup of water which is half full. You say it's half empty, I say it's half full". Gujarat so badly needed the water, he felt, that it could deal with flaws. He, like most Gujaratis I know, was adamantly against any compromise, and could not be argued with. However, he was an old Gandhian and wanted to visit Baba Amte and Medha, both of whom he knew. We approached from the Gujarat side, where the government had organised itself large rallies both of adivasi and nonadivasi farmers. Well, they were "brought there" I suppose. On the Maharashtra side, where the NBA was camped out, were a band of adivasis and also some farmers from the Nimad area. Medha's fast had started. I talked a bit to the Nimad farmers-I suppose they are the ones who call themselves "Rajputs," though this honorary title is mainly a claim to status and they may not be much different from the mainly Kunbi-Maratha families in the Maharashtrian village where I live. They said, "people of both sides should sit down and talk it over." "People" not the government, not just the organisation leaders. People like themselves, from both sides.

This never happened.

Arundhati, you see the NBA as a "small rag tag army" confronting the mighty forces of government and the World Bank. I see it as a worldwide alliance with considerable money and backing from upper middle class people in North America and Europe, not to mention Delhi and Mumbai, along with a rather small local base in the Narmada valley. Medha Patkar stands in between, at the intersection between the two. You are calling for the people of the world, doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants whatever, to join the NBA you don't need to call them, they have been there almost from the beginning. So what is the NBA? an adivasi organisation? ask Waharu. A movement of those threatened by eviction due to the dam? ask some of the evictees many of whom have gotten land through other organisations working for rehabilitation, both in Gujarat and Maharashtra.

There is nothing wrong with going out to organise people, with throwing oneself into a cause or supporting a cause, with rallying world opinion. NBA has succeeded in giving great power to a "no big dam" position and in putting a big question mark before the whole issue of "development". You have every right to support them. But in doing so, please think about one thing: when you go as leaders to people in the valley, or when you represent people in the valley to the world outside, what are the consequences for them of the arguments you make? what does it mean when you put your own arguments, either explicitly or implicitly, in their mouths? are you so sure your sweeping opposition to big dams is in their best interest, or that you are democratically representing their real feelings on the matter?

Talking about alternatives

The NBA has begun to talk of "alternative development." But they have not been much interested in alternatives that depart from their particular line.

There are people working on alternatives some in southern Maharashtra struggles and campaigns, based in struggles, drawing on popular initiatives and on technological innovations proposed by radical engineers and others in Mumbai and Pune of various kinds. They use some very simple principles in suggesting alternatives.

These are: minimizing the height of dams and the areas to be submerged; ensuring that all of those who will lose lands or livelihood to the projects get compensation, land for land wherever possible; and ensuring that the all drought-affected who look hopefully for benefits will get access to water. The slogan of "equal water distribution" calls for the widest possible availability of water and for concrete, technologically viable methods of doing this.

You see, to have a really powerful people's struggle against unjust dams and the horrors of losing one's home, you have to build such a wide unity - of the drought-afflicted along with the dam-afflicted, of those in the command area of dams as well as those in the catchment area. Otherwise, the state will simply use the longings of those millions of drought-afflicted against dam evictees; this is their game of divide and rule, and it cannot be defeated simply by the support of middle class urbanites outside the area of the project, however fervent and idealistic they may be.

An alternative along these lines had been proposed for the Sardar Sarovar Dam. It has been published by Suhas Paranjape and K.J. Joy, in a book titled Sustainable Technology: Making the Sardar Sarovar Project Viable. (They would be glad to send it to you if they had your address). Their proposal is based to a large extent on work done by the groups of engineers working with K.R.Datye of Mumbai and on struggles and experiments in Maharashtra. The themes of this are simple: lower the height of the dam drastically; construct a barrage below the present Sardar Sarovar dam to take water to Saurashtra and Kutch. Instead of storing water the year around in a huge reservoir, most of the water would be distributed to farmers and stored in farmers' fields there to be converted into biomass. The biomass can provide not only food, fiber, fodder etc. but even electricity: instead of a centralised electricity generating dam, electricity can be generated on a decentralised base using gasifiers and other very modern technological devices BY THE FARMERS themselves, and sold by the farmers to the central grid.

Such an alternative would not do away with the dam, but it would lower its height and drastically reduce the number of people who would lose their land. It would also unite people, the drought-afflicted especially in areas such as Saurashtra and Kutch, and the dam-afflicted.

But the alternative was never seriously considered. The government of Gujarat of course was opposed; by now most opinion has hardened and positions have hardened. No change in the dam. Well, we might expect that from the repressive State. But the alternative was also never considered, never taken up, never publicized by NBA either. They may have been upset by the idea of "making the Sardar Sarovar Project viable" - giving a new lease of life even though in a radically altered form, to something they were trying to totally destroy.

Could we conclude that they are not really interested in alternatives?

Was the NBA not playing into the hands of the State which has systematically and continually tried to divide people, which has built for itself a support base against the farmers of the valley among the millions in Gujarat hoping for water to maintain theirlivelihood? Isn't talk of only using rainwater harvesting a cruel joke on the people in the areas of Saurashtra and Kutch?

Krishna valley alternatives

Similar issues have come up regarding the dams in the Krishna valley region of Maharashtra. Take Koyna dam. There is one activist, Avinash B.J., a long time NGO worker, who is considered part of the NBA group, working in the area. I believe he even attended a world conference in Rio and talked of Koyna and Krishna valley dams. He has little local base. But his position in regard to the farmers of the region who still have some lands around the reservoir itself, was that they should not move. The main committee of Koyna evictees has had employment provision as one of its demands. But Avinash B.J.'s position was that the farmers should stay and carry out their life near the reservoir. Whether or not it sounds good to say that people should not join the flood going to live in questionable conditions in the big cities, the fact remains that in this particular case the result would be that the landless and land-poor farmers would have no other occupation that to provide agricultural labour to the bigger landowners.

In the Krishna Valley as a whole the NBA has no support; there is a large people's movement under the leadership of Naganath Naikaudi and Bharat Patankar and others, mainly organised through the Shetmajur Kashtakari Shetkari Sanghatana sorry to bother you with a lot of long names, my publishers always say its bad for readers from abroad, they get confused, and quite understandable; talking only of the NBA and of no big dams is a much simpler message; unfortunately, however, people organisethemselves in a multitude of organisations and with a multitude of ideas and aims. Anyway, some of the movements have been of villagers standing to have their lands flooded by construction of dams. In Urmodi (in Satara district) people have held a dharna for over two months stopping construction of the dam because their rehabilitation is not assured; in Azra taluka of Kolhapur district the construction of the Uchangi dam was halted to give the villagers a chance to present an alternative proposal.

Overall, the movements has taken up the demand to complete the dams in the Krishna valley so that the water allotted to Maharashtra can be used before the deadline set by the Bachawat Award, in May 2000. But, the people are insisting that the government's method of building dams-top down, bureaucratic,capitalistic should be changed to provide a distribution system that would give water to every village and every family in the Krishna valley, not just to create green islands of development in a sea of drought. And they have amassed experiments and data to show that this can be done. A Marathi booklet on this by Bharat Patankar sold 10,000 copies on the day of the conference when it was brought out. (There is an English translation, not yet published). Within this framework of demanding sustainable dam construction, full rehabilitation, and equal water distribution, people of 13 drought-prone talukas in five districts of southern Maharashtra have organised themselves. But they are better at communicating in Marathi than in English, and the urban middle class component of this particular movement is very weak. The local papers (that is, the local editions of papers) publish news, the government pays attention, but the Bombay and Pune editions do not publish their news. Even when five days of demonstrations by nearly 100,000 people in the area, simultaneous demonstrations by both the dam-afflicted and the drought-afflicted, were held in late October 1998, there was no reporting in the big metropolitan press.

So I ask myself, what kind of movement is this, what kind of movement is the NBA? Whose movement is it, anyway?

On Bags of Grain and the Meaning of Development

That requires a few comments about the question of development. You are, like many urbanites and many people in Europe and North America who buy food from the market every day, very pessimistic and even antagonistic to the idea of Indian farmers getting into "commercialised agriculture". (Oh yes, starvation in the midst of plenty: I was in Kalahandi, also, in 1996 when I spent a few months at an institute in Bhubaneswar; its problem is not commercialised agriculture, but the total and abysmal lack of any industrial development in the district, along with the fact that 40% of forest land is owned by the state). It somehow seems an destruction of a beautiful, perhaps poor but nevertheless rich in variety and emotion, traditional way of life. You wrote of the "bags of grain" in the farmers' household, and how they bragged about them.

I would like to say a little big about bags of grain. I've married into a farming family, perhaps not too different from these. We have 15 acres on the banks of the Krishna, and we have a lot of bags of grain that have sometimes filled even the "living room" of the house after harvest. But, bags of grain are not worth all that much. Maybe 1000 rupees a bag, depending on the crop. Farmers don't make much of a living off of agriculture. They do not do so now, they did not do so either in traditional times. That is, in times before "modern" commercialised agriculture and all the paraphernalia of contemporary society entered their lives. We can say both good and bad things about the agriculture and industry and society of today but let's examine the traditional one a bit.

There is a Marathi saying: "Knowledge in the house of the Brahmans; grain in the house of the Kunbis; songs in the house ofthe Mahars (dalits) ". One meaning of course is that the Mahars, the Dalits, are the worst off, they hardly have food to eat. But the other is that both the Mahars and the Kunbi peasants along with all the vast middle castes who were identified as "shudras" traditionally were deprived of knowledge and education. They were subsistence producers traditionally, growing their own food except for the surplus eaten up by the Brahmans and the feudalists and merchants so they had grain. But little else. It was a caste-stratified society. Then, as today, "knowledge" was the most valuable; knowledge could command grain and songs. Kunbis were looked down upon as shudras and servants, dalits were even worse off. Economists have even argued that the average wage for agricultural and basic manual labourers at the time of the Arthashastra represented the same in money terms as the average wage during colonial times; and it has not changed very much in the 50 years of independence.

That is your traditional, non-commercialised society. Do you really think the adivasis, dalits and shudra or Rajput farmers of the Narmada valley want to keep that? Are you so convinced that the thousands of dams built since independence have been an unmitigated evil? Or that the goal should not be to restructure and improve them rather than abandon them? Or that the struggle should not be to unite all the rural people aspiring to a life of prosperity and achievement in the modern world, drought afflicted and dam afflicted, rather than to just take up the cause of the opposition to change? Development to so many people in India means getting out of traditional traps of caste hierarchy and of being held in a birth-determined play. It is not simply economic progress, but the capacity to participate in a society in which knowledge, grain and songs will be available in full measure to everyone. When you so romantically imply that such development is not possible, when you give all publicity and support to anti-development organisations, are you not yourself helping to close such doors?

Hoping to hear from you,

Gail Omvedt
District Sangli
India 415404