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The History of Suffering and of the Resistance of the people of Narmada Valley

Like all other developmental projects in the country, in the case of Sardar Sarovar Project also, the people who are directly affected by the project came to know about its impact much after the work had begun to dam the river. The illiterate, marginalized, disorganized farmers and tribals living in secluded villages scattered across the hills and forests came to know of what was coming only when the felling of forests and forced eviction started on the adamant insistence of the then Gujarat Chief Minister, Chimanbhai Patel for the speedy implementation of the project. When the massive felling and uprooting caught the media attention, many national and international organisations for the protection of nature, for the protection of tribal societies and for human rights started raising their voice against it. All over the world particularly in the less developed nations, most of such massive development projects for the exploitation of nature and traditional societies are funded by the World Bank. World Bank was funding the Sardar Sarovar Project also. Hence naturally the World Bank became the target of the anti-dam movement.

Here, rather than the complex and poorly understood impact of the gigantic project on the ecology of the area, its destructive impact on the fragile tribal societies and the poor people of the valley was highlighted. As the human rights violations mounted in the valley, the issue became better known outside. The immorality of uprooting and destroying traditional communities who have lived in harmony with their milieu in an egalitarian healthy social order, for the sake of ephemeral goals of the modern man and for what is considered as progress came to be realized by more and more people. We the people outside the valley who find our satisfaction in crass materialism, priding ourselves in providing tin sheds as rehabilitation for "those tribals" whom we consider as having nothing essentially reflect our inner poverty. The security given to countless people by the living river Narmada and the happiness their self reliant lifestyles had always provided them can never be equated with the surroundings we recreate in the rehabilitation centres. Uprooted from their motherland the tribal communities perish. But this holds true for us too in a more broad ecological sense. Possibly as mega development sweeps more and more of us also off to destitution in its accelerating momentum, there is a growing realization all over the world of what is really happening everywhere, including in Narmada.

Perhaps it is this collective growing consciousness that prompted even the World Bank to send to India in 1991 a two member team to assess the rehabilitation aspect of the Sardar Sarovar Project. Bradford Morse and Thomas Berger after visiting most of the places affected by SSP submitted their report which came to be well known as the 'Morse Report'. This report in no uncertain terms, with factual accuracy severely criticises the unpardonable failures of the State and Central governments in the rehabilitation measures adopted for the project affected people of the SSP. The Morse Report was the strongest weapon the activists who opposed the dam could get. The renewed vigorous campaign by the activists across the world and the Morse Report together forced the World Bank to stop further funding for SSP. But the Gujarat government with its then Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel, as well as the Govt. of India simply refused any reassessment. The State machinery brought all forces at its disposal to crush resistance against the dam. As the country was sucked in deeper and deeper into financial crisis, with the emphasis on projects like the SSP, which were nothing but enormous drains of scarce public money, not only all other developmental work slowed down, but the daily lives of people also became a continuous misery.

Promises and offers to the people both affected by dislocation and expecting benefits from the project have been continuing for decades. But those detrimentally affected started losing all that they have in the world as the waters started rising. The realization that promises on the part of the government will not be kept, while overnight their lives were turning upside down, forced the people to organise themselves in the Narmada Valley. During the 1993 monsoon season confrontations between the PAPs and the governmental machinery started. Those who have been promised the life giving waters in distant Saurashtra and Kutch continue to wait neither believing nor disbelieving the promises they have got while the urban and industrial lobbies, land speculators and the rich farmers closer to the dam and sure of early benefits mount their pressure and lobbying for accelerating the construction of the dam. The complex web of the construction lobby with its conduits of bribe and corruption with ramifications in both the administration and political machinery remains the most vociferous proponents of mega developmental projects everywhere in India.

The rest of the population are either indifferent, supporters or silent sufferers. No political party or national level political leader has so far dared to commit themselves on the side of the suffering ordinary people. During June-July 1993 when Manibeli village in Maharashtra became the first village to be totally submerged under the SSP reservoir, the villagers along with NBA activists led by Medha Patkar were forced to take the stance that rather than face eviction they will drown themselves in the rising waters. They were forced to take such a stance due to the indifference of our society to the basic right for survival of its own weaker sections, in this instance living in the valley of Narmada. Even such an ultimate expression of non-violent commitment for the cause of survival was met with unprecedented brutal police oppression. The broad public support to NBA's 'jalsamarpan' agitation evoked a stalling response from the Central Government which constituted an independent review committee under the chairmanship of the Planning Commission Advisor Sri. Jayant Patil. The Committee had its public hearing and invited expert Narmada opinion from any willing expert. Gujarat violently opposed the Central Government's gesture and refused to co-operate. The report of this committee which was to have been released in November 1993 is yet to see the light of the day.

In spite of the fact that the Supreme Court had given a directive against forced eviction of the PAPs and in spite of the fact that the Central Ministries of Environment & Forests, Social Welfare and the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe Commission have demanded a total review of the project and the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal, Narmada Control Authority and the World Bank also recommended total reviews, the Gujarat government disregarding all these directives, recommendations and opinions have continued the construction of the dam submerging more and more forests and villages. The unprecedented heavy monsoon during 1994 caused severe floods in Narmada resulting in water level of the reservoir rising to unexpected heights. This caused even more misery as many villages which even according to the SSP authorities would not be affected were submerged. As the suffering of the ordinary people increases, their hope for justice from the State recedes. As the actual experience of the so called rehabilitated trickle back to those who are yet to be displaced, the resolve on the part of the latter not to accept governmental rehabilitation increases. These people have no history of organised resistance to the all powerful opponents like the State. The spectrum of human societies directly affected by the dam are non-homogeneous, afflicted by internal contradictions and conflicts. Yet the support of the people for the NBA and the stance that "even if one is to lose one's life one shall not abandon one's land" has been unanimous and strong.

The real nature of the so called rehabilitation has been largely neglected by national media for long. There has been a high power costly advertisement campaign aimed at confusing the general public outside the area. Yet as the people's resistance in the valley continued it has caught the attention of many thinking people in this country and abroad. Our country has been basically a tolerant open society where the problems of our poor are sought to be considered national problems to be solved and not to be masked or erased through annihilation. Yet the anti-people policy behind mega developmental concepts such as SSP which affects directly, adversely such an extensive area and the lives of so many people have not been questioned so far. This indicates a major failure of our political process. Ironically but sadly in spite of the fact that we have a free press, a socially committed intelligentsia, an adequate number of unrestrained technical expertise and a basically independent judiciary, we owe it to the World Bank's so called Morse Commission to bring out the shocking failure and disregard for people on the part of the State. The environmental movement in this country has had an adequately effective span of time to develop the vision, the expertise and the machinery for an alternative communicational network. They should also have developed the ability for mass mobilisation. But the absence of these highlights a serious failure on the part of the people's machinery.

In the years to come, more and more supportive evidence will accumulate for the people's case against SSP. Similar stories will be reconstructed about the past mega developmental projects in this country. We are also rapidly becoming the most populous and the most impoverished country in the world. As we become more and more unable to take care of ourselves the people may decide to dissociate themselves from the race after the mirage we currently call progress as promised to us. Then perhaps we can return to an ideology of survival, social justice, equal collective responsibility and holistic harmony.

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