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Narmada - A Symbol

Rivers are symbols of the self replenishing, self purifying, life sustaining cycles of matter and energy on earth. Basically all rivers are the same with very little differences. But because a river is fluid in motion each one of them is ever changing. Rivers are the best manifestations of the dynamism of land and they all merge with the sea. They transform the very face of the land over which they flow. Rivers are habitats for a wide spectrum of life and they also provide water so essential for life. They are critical modulators that decide other limiting factors in the environment. Although rivers are restricted to the land they are crucial for the nutrient cycles of the oceans. The birth, growth and death of civilizations are inextricably bound to the rivers and the valleys carved out by them. More ancient the land, one can be sure that the river will also be old. Older the river, possibilities are that civilizations along its banks will also be old. Older civilizations usually have greater harmony within and without, in the individuals and collectively. Those civilizations that have lasted longer evolving along with a live river we can be sure have mastered the true art of survival. For the people of such cultures the river becomes sacred, etched in their racial memory as the provider, sustainer and as one who shows the way. Narmada was all these not only to those who lived in that ancient central Indian rift valley but for all who had access to the common Indian cultural matrix. Until there came about a basic change in human attitudes...

From harmony and viability of mutually dependent inter-relationships we have drifted away to concerns of short term profitability and immediate utility. Hence rivers were killed or they died as a consequence of our wrong doings upon them or around them. Yet paradoxically all the stark changes the rivers reflected as a consequence of our own wrong doings only spurred us on to more wrong doings. Everywhere in the world rivers are in the same plight. So now there is almost a feeling of unavoidability, irresistibility or a fatalistic design beyond us to intervene to this rising tide of self destruction.

We in India had been for a very long time worshippers of our rivers. For us all our rivers are sacred. The names we adorned our rivers with reflect our attempt to bring down to earth around us the Gods we conceive of inhabiting the heavens. Time erodes and weathers down cultures and mountains alike. They transform the rivers also. The river Saraswathi is an example which can now be located only in mythology and traced on earth only by specialists like geomorphologists. Practically every river in India is dying in front of our eyes. Erosion has silted up their beds. So during the monsoons they cause disastrous floods. Dams have simultaneously drowned their reaches and amputated parts of their bodies. The denudation of the hills have desiccated their sources and starved them to death. Over-exploitation of their waters have emptied them. Uncontrolled pollution has converted them into sewage channels. As the freshwater discharge becomes less sea water is moving inland through them. Mechanical manipulations of their form in the name of flood control, navigation etc. have mutilated their graceful shape.

Narmada, our biggest west flowing river had escaped till recently. Our east tilting sub-continent gets most of its rain from the south. So the western portions in general have copious fresh water. For a complex set of reasons Kutch and Saurashtra alone, located at the extreme north west are becoming drier and drier. The forests in the Vindhya, Satpura ranges are gradually receding. Yet, Narmada continues to flow unfettered. All other peninsular Indian rivers and even their tributaries have been dammed. Mahanadi, Godavari, Krishna, Cauvery and many others already have their flow tapped. Careless technological capability and lack of understanding of long term biospheric processes coupled with distorted visions of continually increasing linear growth and development have got us to erect barriers across practically all our rivers. Invariably as in the case of all other modern problem solving, here also we turn a blind eye to the root cause of the problem which we know is within us , in our attitudes. But we attempt to suppress the symptoms of our disease and seek magical cures. Solutions for our explosive population growth, distorted land ethics and boundlessly growing needs for the fruits of the earth are sought in irrigation, biotechnology, reliance on toxic chemicals and market manipulations.

The attempt to dam Narmada is yet another symptom of the same collective diseased human mind. It too has all the aspects of other modern developmental schemes. The real long term costs are masked or simply overlooked if not altogether suppressed. Empty promises are copiously given which can never be fulfilled nor are intended to be kept. The all pervading corruption, inefficiency and unjust sharing of meagre benefits give it a banal familiarity. Only the dimensions of the development are mind bogglingly huge. The gullibility of the trusting, common people who are patiently waiting for some relief from the increasing crushing poverty has now become the weapon in the hands of the exploiters who masquerade as agents of development. The inability of the common people to understand issues going deeper beyond the deceptions and empty promises, to organise themselves and defend their resources, with the political machinery opting to be with the exploiters further fuels the vicious cycle of destruction and exploitation. A country of almost 900 million people has become a mute witness or a mere indifferent background for the destitution of a few million of them and the destruction of an extensive rich part of it. This is the terrible tragedy of what is happening in Narmada.

What is happening to Narmada is a clear indication of what is happening to each one of us and to our future. Humankind has come far enough to be able to take stock of what we have gained and what we have lost in the blind pursuit of development and progress. Each one of us must take the moral responsibility to ponder and take a stance, a stance not merely for or against the dam but for the whole future prospects of our species. We have the ability to foreclose the choices of the posterity. Our hope and promise to those yet to be born is inextricably linked up with this stance. We can either be on the side of viability, sustainability and equitability across barriers of time and space or we can be selfishly exploitative, destructive for a very short time. Narmada offers us an opportunity for this self realisation.

River Narmada

Narmada river originates in the Amarkantak plateau located in the Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh. It flows 1300 km west through sal and teak forests, through gorges and broad valleys to merge with the waters of the Arabian Sea in the Bharuch district of Gujarat. It is one of the most sacred rivers in India. With many short tributaries flowing into it from north and south, the Narmada basin forms a very important topographic feature of peninsular India. At a time when the Indus and Gangetic valleys were uninhabited wilderness, Narmada valley was the home for a rich mosaic of human cultures. Since those times lost in antiquity till today a very large human population including a variety of tribal societies such as Bhils, Gonds, Saigas, Kurkus, Bhilalas have continued to live depending on Narmada. In short the Narmada basin forms an ideal microcosm of our country with its extraordinary rich natural heritage supporting cultures ancient and more recent. People of India venerate Narmada river as the epitome of freedom and sanctity. Even pumping the waters of Narmada for any purpose is considered by many as sacrilege.

The Narmada Valley Project

As part of the developmental policy our country adopted since independence, to meet the requirements of the growing population for water, power and marketable commodities there has been the demand to utilise the waters of Narmada more and more, in particular after the commencement of Five Year Plans. Since Narmada flows through the States of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat this led to disputes between the involved States. In 1969 to solve this thorny problem, the Government of India constituted the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT). Almost after 10 years of legal wrangling the Tribunal came out with its final verdict. Massive schemes to tap the water potential of Narmada were given shape to by planners, technologists and engineers thereafter. The thrust of all these developmental measures was mega river valley schemes geared to meet power and water needs of the growing industries, urban centres and the needs of the rich cash crop farmers. Not only the technologists and planners but also the politicians were exclusively for such costly, unjust, short term resource mining. According to current plans, the Narmada basin will have more than 3200 dams of which 30 will be major dams, 135 medium and the rest small. In fact the whole construction activity envisages a century long phase. Of this enormously destructive 'developmental blueprint' the most destructive dams will be the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) under construction at Vadgam in the Bharuch district of Gujarat and the Narmada Sagar Project (NSP) envisaged at Punasa in the Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. But today Narmada is no longer an issue revolving around a dam or a number of dams. It has become the fountainhead of questions and thoughts related to the whole of human responsibility and human goals. Through Narmada, we are beginning to see the course we have opted for the future of the whole of humanity. The interrelationships between economic development and the life supporting environment is better understood now. The issue of the sustainability of human survival dependent on natural resources particularly water, soil and easily accessible and less pollutive forms of energy, are being looked at critically. Social and political issues such as survival rights of tribal societies, the immorality and impossibility of relocating people who are unable to compete with us in the current world, the need to and the means of truly democratising the decision making, the issue of involving people in the developmental processes are being brought up by the currently raging controversy regarding Narmada. Over and above all these tangible issues, there is the ethical, almost philosophical question of our right to destroy a river which could have flown eternally supporting a wide variety of cultural and natural landscapes for the short term despoilation of urban consumerism.

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