Indian dam protests evoke Gandhi

This quiet village of tribal farmers and fishers lies far off the map on the banks of the mighty Narmada River, at the end of a dirt road that must be forded in three places and that passes through rich fields of cotton and sugar cane.

Yet this past week, the villagers in this isolated valley found themselves at the heart of one of the largest and most disciplined peaceful citizen movements in India since independence.

At one level, this protest is about an enormous, half-built dam, the Sardar Sarovar, some 75 miles down river. But the anti-dam effort also touches deeper issues - justice, equity, class struggle - that resonate in Indian society. And it is prompting comparisons to the protests of Mohandas Gandhi.

The Sardar Sarovar is part of one of the largest and oldest dam building projects in the world - and one so controversial that earlier this decade the World Bank, in an unprecedented move, withdrew from the project, citing a lack of believable resettlement plans for those being displaced.

Last February the Supreme Court of India lifted a four-year stay on construction of the dam - finding that new resettlement plans are now adequate.

If the Sardar Sarovar is completed, the town of Dehar, like some 245 villages and towns along this valley, will be flooded under the Narmada - one of India's main rivers, whose waters rise in central India and empty 700 miles later into the Arabian Sea. Villagers in Dehar say they haven't been consulted, don't know where they will go, and are distrustful of official promises to give them good land.

Now, new dam construction, a passionately critical essay by popular Indian novelist Arundhati Roy, the rising waters of the monsoon, and a rally along the Narmada have breathed life into the anti-dam movement.

Yet the recent stir gets to questions concerning the nature of justice in Indian society and policy: How will the country develop supplies of water and power, satisfy the rising demand of urban elites and middle class for consumer goods and comforts - and at the same time equitably treat its enormous population of poor and lower-caste peoples, most of whom are rural?

An India of extremes

It plays into an India, experts point out, that still lives in great extremes, an India of nuclear tests and fashion models and cell phones. Yet it's also an India where 70 percent of the people have no toilets, and where jungle peoples in the Narmada valley live with no schools or hospitals.

This week as activists, including Ms. Roy, traveled through the Narmada valley, entire towns greeted their convoy - throwing flowers, making protest speeches, singing, dancing, reciting poetry, calling for the end of construction. In Nisampur, a town of 12,000 that will be submerged, the crowds were so thick at 11 p.m. that one senior Indian journalist stated that no politician in the country could match the turnout.

"This rally is not just about dams, it is about safeguarding the public against injustice," says Devaki Jain, a retired economy professor from Bangalore who followed the convoy. "I'm reminded of Ghandhiji, who wanted a movement where people learned to want this for themselves."

In the village of Jalsindhi, 30 miles downstream where the land turns to inaccessible jungle and the waters are rising, the protest is even more serious. One of India's toughest Gandhians, Medha Patkar, is conducting a protest called jan samarpan that may lead to her death by drowning. Ms. Patkar, for 14 years the spiritual leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) protest group, is refusing to leave Jalsindhi as the waters rise.

The Sardar Sarovar is only one of some 3,100 dams in the Narmada valley. Since 1961, at the height of India's "nation-building" period when the father of modern India, Jawaharlal Nehru, once said that "dams are the modern temples of India," the valley has produced water and power for the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra.

Indeed, for many officials and elites in New Delhi, and in the three state capitals, the NBA protest and Roy's involvement is nave and ill-considered. They point out that in states like the Punjab, three large dams made possible India's famed "green revolution." The dams redirected water for irrigation, making it possible for the Punjab to singlehandedly feed India.

India specialists, like Gail Omvedt at Pune University near Bombay, and others feel that the views of Roy and the NBA mask an antidevelopment approach. In urban centers, one of the most strongly held views is that at this point tribals are better off being moved, educated, and made to understand the modern world - rather than being romanticized as "noble savages."

"Contrary to the images of pre-modern humans living in ecological balance and at peace with nature," Dr. Omvedt argues, "the age of agriculture in every country has been one of attempted control of the natural environment."

NBA leaders say they are not against dams per se, but against big dams that are constructed without genuine consultation with local people. They advocate for the Narmada River Valley a series of smaller dams created with input from the villages.

NBA leaders are split over how to think about the tribal question, however.

Some do romanticize the jungle people, known as adivasis, as wiser in their own world than city people are in theirs, and say they should be left alone. Others want them educated or to become literate - though within their own world, not on reservations where they would be dumped.

The bottom line for Roy and others is that all arguments aside, the policymakers in Delhi don't really care about what happens to the villagers or their children, and that once they are off their land, they will be forgotten.

Where villagers will go

In this sense, the biggest issue at hand is resettlement. In lifting the stay on construction in February, the Indian Supreme Court accepted promises made by the three states that adequate land had been set aside to resettle and house people equitably.

The issue is sensitive because a hard-hitting World Bank report in 1992 pointed out that Indian estimates for three previous dam projects claimed 146,000 villagers would be displaced, but 530,000 actually were.

This spring, after the court order, the NBA invited the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra to show the land they promised to give. Gujarat declined the offer. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra offered land that NBA said is not cultivable.

When the Monitor asked if displaced villagers would receive acceptable land, the deputy director of the Narmada Valley Development Association, A.K. Khare, said, "Acceptable is a word that varies from man to man. It is impossible to do what the NBA wants. Do you think we have the surplus cultivable land in this country? This is India, we are crowded.

"Right now you can't vacate people to cultivable land in any part of the country. But any land can be made cultivable and we are going to do all we can to make the new land better."

Under the court order, the Sardar Sarovar is being constructed in 16-foot increments - from a height of 262 feet to an eventual height of 453 feet, making it one of the largest in the world.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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