Report on the Jeevan Yatra

L S Aravinda

"Your yatra will not go in vain"

With these words of hope conveyed over the phone by President K. R. Narayanan's Secretary, 70 children made their way from Delhi back to the Narmada valley. From the jeevanshalas, or elementary schools run by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in the tribal region of Nandurbar and Jabhua districts, from Malegaon and Dhulia where the tribal students continued in high school, from the Mann dam region, and from the fertile plains of Nimad, students from 3rd - 9th standard met at Baba Amte's ashram in Kasaravad on 16th August to embark on a journey across the country, to defend their way of life, their childhood and their future against the death and destruction imposed by large dams.

With the support and signatures of the thousands of children whom they met in Indore, Bhopal, Shivpuri, Raipur, Gwalior, and Balaswa, the Narmada children presented a memorandum and spoke to Mr. Sharif, Secretary to President K.R. Narayanan, for 40 minutes in Rashtrapat Bhavan on 23 August 2001. They also presented a handmade greeting card wishing the President a speedy recovery to good health along with the traditional jeevantokri (basket of life) and hand painted tapestry depicting the life and struggle of the Narmada Valley.

While in Delhi they also visited the National Railway Museum, 30 January Marg, Lal Kila, Qutub Minar, monuments to the great journey of freedom and progress. It may as well have been the history of some other country, because it certainly had little to do with them or what they saw during their yatra.

What did they see? Whatever it was, they have made it part of the chronicles of our time. The journals kept by these first generation writers from the adivasi communities of the Vindhyas and Satpuras, will become history. After the children's presentation at Jawaharlal Nehru University one night, while students were busy trying out steps to the tribal dance, one could spot young Kalu Singh from village Gaman standing in a ray of light and writing ardently. That urge to write which all of us have known at some time or another was evident in these children throughout.

They met working children in Bhopal, who struggled every day to spare some time for schools run by an NGO called Muskaan. They met the families working in the stone quarries of Raipur, just outside Gwalior, who heard the story of the jeevanshalas taking root after thwarted attempts to get the fictitious government school to function. They asked the Jeevanshala teacher, "Brother, tell us more about your struggle, because what you are saying about the government teachers coming only for flag hoisting is the story all over this country."

They met the families evicted by bulldozer from Delhi?s slums to make way for a park. In their new colony, Balaswa, waterlogging rendered the floors of people's homes soft to the step. Keeping the bedding dry and the drinking water clean was a daily chore. dal dal to honi hai goes the Narmada rally song. The community had struggled for electricity, school and student bus pass, but still worried about snakes and sanitation, and where to go when their ten-year lease expires.

Report of the rally in Delhi

Shy 13 year old Kalsingh from village Khedi Balwari, announced sarkar hamse darti hai! police ko age karti hai! (The government is afraid of us, so it sends police). His eyes sparkled, startled at the clarity of his own statement ringing out into the air. In the back of the bus waiting to get out, I hardly knew that it was not a mere slogan but the plain fact he was stating. A force of police equal to the number of children erected a barricade, preventing their march to Mandi House to meet children of Ankur, a child rights group in Delhi.

While racing through possible scenarios to think of how to deal with the police -- hold our ground and appeal to the public from behind the barricades? risk arrest? chart out a retreat and reach Mandi House by bus? police bus or our bus? how to oppose the police cameras, invading our privacy? -- I spotted several children, notebooks open and pens furious.

Youth let the police know that they had faced jail before and would do so again. After an hour the police brought a document stating "Narmada Bachao Andolan is in the habit of staging spot demonstrations and sneaking into government offices." So the permit was cancelled.

The students denounced the police action and the use of surveillance cameras. I pointed out the chronicling children to the police, telling them, "This jeevanshala is not something that can ever be submerged or destroyed, as you can see wherever the children are, they are learning and here they have traveled all this way to the nation's capital, and this is what they are learning, thanks to you. Rather you should be learning from them to fight for your rights and not let the state use you for suppressing the voice of the people."

Indeed the education brought to life through the struggle of the people of Narmada is something we all need. What we call the "submergence zone" is really the source of awakening for an active and self-reliant citizenry, and a sane path of development which can steer us away from the terrorism which world leaders today claim they want to fight. That can only happen when we hear the voices of peace and justice.

Today more than 1500 representatives from 80 tribal villages affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project are on a dharana and relay fast in Mumbai?s Azad Maidan, demanding the implementation of the Justice Daud Committee report. During Satyagraha of this monsoon everyone from the Collector of Nandurbar District to the Special Representative to the United Nations supported NBA's basic stand against forced eviction by means of illegal submergence. These included SC/ST Commissioner Dilip Singh Bhuria, Ministry of Social Justice Secretary Asha Das, the Narmada Control Authority, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Dig Vijay Singh, and Maharashtra government appointed fact-finding committee headed by Retired Justice Daud.

Translation of the children's memorandum to the President

Honourable President of India,

We children from the Narmada Valley would like to talk with you. Due to the Sardar Sarovar and other dams being built on the Narmada River, our life is in a shambles. Our homes and farms are flooding. Our jeevanshala is flooding. Our land, forest, river and all the life they nurture are being destroyed.

For our rehabilitation there is no adequate land on which we can live. Let alone our river and forest. If we are removed from our villages then where will we ever get all that Mother Narmada has given us?

The development that is said to come from the dam, will this development really reach the poor people? Will the thirst of Kutch and Saurashtra really be quenched? Or will only the sugar cane factories, big cities, and wealthy quarters get the benefits of this irrigation and electricity?

Please, before uprooting us, give us the answers to these questions and please do not drown us without rehabilitation.

We children would like to have education and other avenues for development. But instead our future is plunged in darkness.

In the struggle for our right to life and for saving the Narmada Valley, we children have also taken part. When our jeevanshala was drowning we children did not leave. Our brother Rehmal was martyred by a police bullet. Our little sister Lata met a pitiable end, trapped in the quicksand rising because of the dam. It is the sacrifice of our companions that inspires us to struggle.

We hope that you will witness the truth and boost our strength. Please review the construction of the dam and stop the destruction in the name of development.

With warmest wishes for your good health,

Yours truly,

Children of Narmada Valley

Inside Rashtrapati Bhavan: What the children said

23 August, New Delhi
With a handmade greeting card and a hand-painted tapestry, the children wished the President speedy recovery to good health and invited him to visit their villages. They presented him the traditional jeevantokri, a basket comprising a variety of grains grown in the Narmada Valley. Mr. Sharif, Secretary to the President, received these and conveyed the President's warm appreciation for the children's visit as well as deep regret that he could not meet them personally.

Snips of the children's conversation with Secretary Sharif:

Doorsingh, 9th class, Domkhedi: Our resource base includes the wide variety of grains you see here, the forest where we get wood, medicine, fruits and nuts, and the catch from the river. We invite the President to our valley to see our bountiful life and the truth.

Rajendra, 5th class, Savariya: We have everything we need in our villages. We go to the city only for salt and clothes. Now our homes, farms, forest and school will be submerged. Will we ever get such a life again? The government should not force us to go to the cities.

Shobha Wagh, activist, begins to translate

Secretary Sharif: I understand the children. I served as Prant (SDM) in Thane District.

Giridhar Pavra, Guruji, Nimgavhan: 16 years ago we began this struggle, seeking information on the Sardar Sarovar project. After studying its costs and benefits, we concluded that the project itself was unjust and destructive. At that time there were few literate people in each village. The government school existed only on paper, the teacher showed up only for flag hoisting on 26 Jan and 15 Aug. We wanted education for our children. So we, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, started two schools, finding teachers from our own villages. Now there are 11 schools and hundreds of children are studying. There is no land for rehabilitation of our villages and schools. If this dam goes ahead their education will suffer acutely.

Siyaram 9th class, Chimalkhedi: On 6 August 1992 we opened the first jeevanshala in Chimalkhedi. When bulldozers came to evict our village we children lay down before them. In the monsoon of 1994 as water rose we remained on the roof of the jeevanshala. Now it is submerged and we go to Manibeli. After 4th standard we go to study in Malegaon and Dhulia. We have risked our life to save the valley before. Our brother Rehmal was killed by the police and our sister Lata was trapped in the silt. We will not allow our schools to be submerged. We have faith in the President who speaks with such love for adivasis in his Republic Day addresses.

Jaymal, 5th class, Jalsindhi: I belong to the first generation of learners from my village. Next year I will go for further studies in Alirajpur Tehsil.

Kalsingh, 6th class Khedi Balwari: Even while we are living in our village the government removed the materials from the school. We went to Bhopal to enquire on the rehabilitation, but we found the gate locked and were told to wait 15 minutes. They kept saying 15 minutes all day. When we demanded entry they beat us and put us in jail, even the women and children. When we ask for land, why do they beat us?

Sapna Kanera, B.A. 1st yr., Kaparkheda: I was born into the struggle. I can still hear the sounds of police lathis from my childhood. Now I am ready to die for the struggle also. I appeal to the President to use his constitutional authority to save the Tribals and Dalits, for this authority should not simply remain in the books but must protect the people.

Shobha Wagh, activist: The affidavits claiming complete rehabilitation were false. The Justice Daud committee has independently found that rehabilitation is not complete, nor is land available for all the families affected up to the present level. Furthermore the process of issuing land rights in 73 villages was halted and almost cancelled so as to deprive people of rehabilitation due to them.