A Brief Introduction to the Narmada Issue

The controversy over large dams on the River Narmada has come to symbolise the struggle for a just and equitable society in India. The story is long and complicated and will take a long time to tell. In brief, the Government's plan is to build 30 large, 135 medium and 3000 small dams to harness the waters of the Narmada and its tributaries. The proponents of the dam claim that this plan would provide large amounts of water and electricity which are desperately required for the purposes of development.

Opponents of the dam question the basic assumptions of the Narmada Valley Development Plan and believe that its planning is unjust and inequitous and the cost-benefit analysis is grossly inflated in favour of building the dams. It is well established that the plans rest on untrue and unfounded assumptions of hydrology and seismicity of the area and the construction is causing large scale abuse of human rights and displacement of many poor and underprivileged communities. They also believe that water and energy can be provided to the people of the Narmada Valley, Gujarat and other regions through alternative technologies and planning processes which can be socially just and economically and environmentally sustainable.

Through this web site we shall endeavour to present the view of the poor and underprivileged affected by the dams and the people's movements they have created (primarily the Narmada Bachao Andolan) which are leading the crusade for justice and the Right to Life of the many inhabitants of the Narmada valley.

We recognise the complexity of the issues involved. However, once one cuts through all the rhetoric, lies and subterfuge of the vested interests, the gross inequities are clear. Large numbers of poor and underprivileged communities (mostly tribals and dalits) are being dispossessed of their livelihood and even their ways of living to make way for dams being built on the basis of incredibly dubious claims of common benefit and "national interest". For us, this is simply immoral and therefore unacceptable. No purported benefits can be used to justify the denial of the fundamental rights of individuals in a democratic society. And given the evidence of past megadam schemes in India and elsewhere and what has already happened in the Narmada Valley, we believe that the promised benefits will never be realised.

A quick look at the ground reality would disabuse anyone of the real nature of the dam-builder's enterprise. Large dams imply large budgets for related projects leading to large profits for a small group of people. A mass of research shows that even on purely technical grounds, large dams have been colossal failures. While they have delivered only a fraction of their purported benefits, they have had an extremely devastating effect on the riverine ecosystem and have rendered destitute large numbers of people (whose entire sustenance and modes of living are centered around the river). For no large dam in India has it been shown that the resettled people have been provided with just compensation and rehabilitation. At a more abstract level, the questions that arise in the Narmada Struggle challenge the dominant model of development (of which Sardar Sarovar dam is a prime example) that holds out the chimerical promise of material wealth through modernisation but perpetuates an inequitous distribution of resources and wreaks social and environmental havoc.

We would like to emphasise that the water problems of drought-prone areas of Gujarat, like Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat (the Government's raison d'etre for the dam) are admittedly real. However given the nature of the plans for Sardar Sarovar, it will never solve these problems. On the contrary, in the shadow of the costliest project ever undertaken in India, it is unlikely that alternative schemes that would genuinely address these problems would be implemented. Sardar Sarovar takes up over 80% of Gujarat's irrigation budget but has only 1.6% of cultivable land in Kutch, 9% of cultivable land in Saurashtra and 20% cultivable land in North Gujarat in its command area. Moreover, these areas are at the tail-end of the command and would get water only after all the area along the canal path get their share of the water, and that too after 2020 AD. In summary, all available indicators suggest that these needy areas are never going to benefit from the Sardar Sarovar Project.

In simple terms, the struggle over the river Narmada holds a mirror to our national face and challenges our commitment to professed ideals of justice, equality and democracy.

More information: Large dams on the Narmada River