Changing the discourse is the greatest contribution of the Narmada movement

For almost four decadesthe Sardar Sarovar dam project on the Narmada River has been center of debate on the actual price that India has paid for development projects in India. This was reiterated in early September when the columnist Swaminathan SA Aiyar wrote a in two parts series in India time about the project.

In the first episode, he made an important point: mass politics works on exaggeration in order to accentuate a central claim, so taking the rhetoric at face value could be risky.

He corrected Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion that all who oppose the project are “urban Naxals”, noting that in 1992, North American members of a independent review team of the World Bank recommended that the institution withdraw from the project. It is unlikely that these experts have any idea what the word “Naxal” means.

However, by using his articles primarily to attack Medha Patkar, a Narmada Bachao Andolan leader, Aiyar wasted the opportunity to join the debate on the human and environmental costs of development. He claimed that Patkar made him a “fool” another, also called the Save Narmada campaign, for making him and others a “fool” with allegedly exaggerated claims about the project’s impending failure.

But it’s not just Patkar who convinced the world bank stop funding the project. The Narmada affair was taking place just when Nonprofit in the North and their middle-class supporters, especially in the United States, demanded more responsibility of their governments on the money they spent and the multilateral organizations they supported.

They worried about the complete disregard of the environmental the impact and human displacement due to development projects such as large dams – especially those that affect “tribal” groups, who had parallels to the way the United States had dealt with Native American groups throughout its history.

Activist Medha Patkar. Credit: Right Livelihood Prize Foundation, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons.

A project from 1961

For readers unfamiliar with the project, a little background. The Narmada largely flows through Madhya Pradesh, touches Maharashtra and enters Gujarat to meet the Arabian Sea via a steep valley. The valley is home Bhils, an Adivasi group. But the fertile plains of nimar in Madhya Pradesh are home to multi-caste villages dominated by patient Farmers.

After the launch of the project by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have been embroiled in a long dispute over how to share its benefits. The Narmada Award of 1979 by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal divided the water of the river between them and fixed the height of the SSP at 138 meters.

Studies by several water management experts including SS Nadkarni and KR Datyeneither being part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan or opponents of the project, showed how reducing the height of the dam by only a few meters would significantly reduce the submergence area in the plains with a small decrease on the part of Gujarat water.

Moreover, it is a poor project that submerges fertile plains to irrigate similar or inferior lands. This is something Aiyar carefully skipped over when haranguing Patkar.

Patkar did not work alone. Narmada Bachao Andolan’s tasks—such as offering a forensic critique of the dam’s irrigation potential, engaging the World Bank panel of experts, and leading a mass movement—required a wide range of skills, which rested on the shoulders of a range of committed people.

A militant team of young engineers, including Shripad Dharmadhikary and Alok Agrawal, was inspired official data concerning the various projects on the Narmada and its tributaries to frame the counter-narrative of the Narmada Bachao Andolan to the claims of the government.

Arundhati Dhuru, Nandini Oza and others actively raised awareness of the dangers of the project in villages that would be submerged. They have also represented the case of Adivasis and villages at international forums in Japan, Europe and North America to which they have been invited.

By today’s standards, visiting foreign countries to disrupt a government project would seem decidedly anti-national – but only to those who don’t appreciate the global nature of the multi-billion dollar investment. development industry.

Global North Funding

As seen in countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the countries of the Global North provide the technology through their local companies and the expertise to install them.

They also inject money in the form of loans through state-backed non-profit organizations such as YOU SAID in the United States and DFID in the UK and monitor funding through multilateral agencies such as world Bank and the Asian Development Bank. They fund projects ranging from roads and dams to malaria eradication programs in the South.

Major donors to the Sardar Sarovar project included the World Bank as a partial funder, while the wind turbines for its hydroelectric power stations came Japan.

The problem, even with a relatively transparent agency such as the World Bank, as I spoke to its officials and to NGO critics in the United States and the United Kingdom during my doctoral research on the Narmada project in 2007-2014 is that it was largely dominated by economists and engineers from the North.

A file photo of the Sardar Sarovar dam overflow. Credit: AFP.

These technocrats have no idea reality on the ground in rural areas of Nigeria or India about the damage a development project might cause by forcibly displacing residents or about the profits captured by a small ruling elite that controls the state. These points are now conceded by the own civil servants.

Northern NGOs were pushing for transparency in the 1980s when the World Bank decided to partially finance the Sardar Sarovar dam in 1985 while flouting its own standards on the environment and displacement. Unlike the Communist Party dictatorship in China, another big beneficiary development subsidies in the 1990s, democratic India was more tolerant of protest and dialogue.

Bhils treated as invaders

When the Sardar Sarovar project was announced, many people in Gujarat were suspicious due to the experience earlier this decade with the Ukai stem. This project on the Tapi had moved thousands of Bhil families without their consent or giving them viable compensation.

CAMBER Vahini, a group working in this region and aware of the human cost of Ukai, did pioneering work to mobilize the Bhils of Gujarat who were the first to face the submergence. Although having lived in the hills for generations, the community was considered invaders on the property of the Forest Department of the Government of the colonial period.

Until 2013, land acquisitions for development projects in India were carried out using the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. But instead of sharing data on development projects that are in the public interest, the colonial-era Official Secrets Act was used to deny requests for information.

ARCH has obtained several Indian government documents on the dam from Oxfam, United Kingdom, who funded their social activities even before the dam. Oxfam in turn obtained them from the World Bank because the institution did not believe that anything about the dam project was a secret.

The Indian state, following its colonial counterpart, has largely treated the adivasi areas in the hills and forest only as a source of raw material. For decades after independence, exploitation by loan sharks and dominant caste groups was the hard reality for the Scheduled Tribe groups living in these areas.

Contribution of volunteers

In many places, schools, health centers and roads were missing until the 1990s or only existed on paper. The first all-weather road linking the plains to the Narmada Valley in Maharashtra, for example, was not built until the early 1990s, when Bhil villages had to be evicted for the project.

Groups such as the CAMBER in Gujarat and Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath of Madhya Pradesh were active in the region before the Sardar Sarovar project came into play. Their members were urban middle-class young people with professional degrees who chose to live and provide health services and education. They also mobilized residents to demand enforcement of the laws that existed on paper.

When the Narmada Bachao Andolan intervened a little later, Patkar and the urban militants were only one layer of the organization. Patkar is an evocative speaker and a gifted manager who has boosted the reputation of the organization.

But far from being a solo show, the Narmada Bachao Andolan included several groups, including the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, Bhil rulers and many leaders of Nimari Patidar.

Urban activists attracted media attention because they were armed with facts, figures and speaking English. Many farmers in Bhil and Nimari facing submergence went on collective hunger strikes, staged dharnas (protest marches) and faced police repression, but the press chose to focus primarily on Patkar.

The reader of this article is probably from an urban middle class background and was educated in an English middle school where we read about the dams and mines that helped industrialize rural India. Back in the 1990s, my high school NCERT geography textbook didn’t mention the human cost of industrialization. But it was amended in the next decade to discuss dams and displacement.

This was Narmada Bachao Andolan’s greatest contribution.

This is the first of a two-part series on the Narmada project.

Vikramaditya Thakur is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Delaware.

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