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Saving the Narmada
by Lynette Dumble

In April, 2000, the International Monitory Fund and the World Bank were confronted by a global campaign, “Mobilization for Global Justice.” Bringing together activists from a wide range of ideologies and concerns--from feminism to environmentalism to worker’s rights--the campaign’s goal is to end present day capitalism’s destruction of mother Earth and her marginalized citizens.

India’s Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the “Save the Narmada” movement, featured prominently in the Washington gathering. The NBA movement in many ways exemplifies the Global Justice campaign’s principled fight against exploitation sponsored by the IMF and World Bank.

One of the leaders of the NBA movement is Medha Patkar, a social scientist and environmental and human rights activist who has lived among the tribals of the Narmada Valley since the mid-1980s. Patkar played a crucial role in starting the non-violent, grassroots, Gandhian-style movement which, for the past two decades, has resisted the destruction of rural villages and the displacement of traditionally poor and underprivileged tribals by the State and its allies, the global financial institutions and accompanying corporate interests.

Medha Patkar recalls that her initial concern, back in the early 80s, was to ensure a fair and humane deal for the villagers whose land and housing were set to be submerged by the Narmada Valley Development Projects. She knew that India's largest westward-flowing river, the Narmada, had deep religious and cultural significance for those living on its banks. Yet the Projects proposed to capture the waters of the entire Narmada River, including the waters flowing in its tributaries, through the construction of 30 large, 135 medium, and 3000 small dams.

Patkar's investigations gradually revealed that the Government's World Bank-funded proposal couldn’t have cared less about the displacement of villagers. After all, dams were supposed to be the Temples of Modern India. Following Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru's speech of 1947, dam-building was seen to be the same as nation-building. From then onwards, dams of every dimension sprouted up across the subcontinent, the vast majority of which deny village communities their centuries-old traditions of successful water management. As many as 33 million people, mostly tribals and impoverished Dalits, have already been displaced with little or no worthwhile compensation by the 3,300 dams constructed in post-Independence India. India currently ranks in the top three of the Earth’s busiest dam builders. Yet two hundred million of the country’s one billion people await the delivery of safe drinking water, and twice that number, six hundred million, lack basic sanitation.

NBA ally and 1997 Booker Prize winning author Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things) has highlighted the abject political lunacy which undermines her nation's quest for grain and water security:

“Big Dams account for only 12 percent, 24 million tonnes, of India's total foodgrain production! In 1995 the state granaries were overflowing with 30 million tonnes of foodgrains, while at the same time 350 million people lived below the poverty line. According to official figures, 10 per cent, 20 million tonnes, of India's total foodgrain production is lost to rodents and insects because of bad and inadequate storage facilities. We must be the only country in the world that builds dams, uproots communities and submerges forests in order to feed rats. Clearly we need better storerooms more urgently than we need dams.”

By modest estimates, the Narmada Projects will displace 300,000 people, and cause immense ecological damage through the inundation of forests, some of which are the prime habitats for rare species. There are real doubts that people who are displaced will ever be adequately resettled, or that the promised hydropower, irrigation, and drinking water will ever be delivered. It is practically certain that the ecological impact of the Projects will be neither reversible nor repairable.

Back in the mid 80s, when Patkar alerted villagers about the dams, and the bleak destiny that had befallen those who had already been displaced by India's flawed water agenda, numerous people’s movements arose in opposition to the Narmada Projects. By 1988, the same year that the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam--the linchpin of the Narmada Valley Development - truly got underway, these movements merged to become a single unit now known as the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

Arundhati Roy’s most recent book, The Cost of Living, passionately chronicles the NBA’s courageous struggle. In 1988, the NBA called for an end to the Narmada Valley Development Projects, vowing that they would drown rather than be ousted from their homes by “Destructive Development.” Within a year, in September 1989, 50,000 activists from all over India came to the Narmada Valley to join the NBA in their struggle.

In response, the government clamped the area surrounding the Sardar Sarovar with a Section 144. With gatherings of more than five people thus prohibited, the whole area became a giant police compound. But one year further on, in September of 1990, thousands of villagers had made their way by foot and by boat to the small town of Badwani to reiterate their pledge to drown.

With news of the NBA’s opposition to the Narmada Projects spreading outside of India, the government of Japan succumbed to pressure from Friends of the Earth and withdrew its 27 billion yen loan. Simultaneously, international pressure mounted for the World Bank to withdraw its 1985-sanctioned 450-million-dollar loan for the Projects. Unfortunately, this success was met with backlash. As the international opposition grew stronger, so too did the state-authorized violence against the NBA.

On December 25, 1990, six thousand NBAs, accompanied by a sacrificial squad of seven promising to lay down their lives for the river, trekked more than one hundred kilometers. They were met at the Gujarat border town of Ferkuwa by battalions of armed police and a squadron of dam proponents, some with vested interests in the Narmada Projects, others naively trusting the Government's promises of water security from the Projects vast network of dams, and still others actually hired for the occasion. The NBA were denied entry to the dam site which was set to submerge their past, their present, and their future.

Their hands bound to emphasize their commitment to non-violence, the NBA villagers defied the battalions of police, but were beaten, arrested, and cast into trucks which literally dumped them kilometers away in the distant wilderness from where, time and again, they recommenced their trek back to the dam site.

The confrontation continued until January 7, 1991, when, as the sacrificial squad announced an indefinite hunger strike, the unfavorable glare of national and international cameras forced the World Bank to announce an Independent Review of the Sardar Sarovar Projects. Such a review of a World Bank-funded was unprecedented, and no other has since been sanctioned. Though mistrustful of the World Bank promised review, the Ferkuwa fast was called off on January 28, and the courageous Narmada army returned to their homes, proclaiming victory with their chant, “Our Rule in Our Villages.”

In June of 1992, after almost a year of comprehensive inquiry into the water management, human and wildlife health, water-logging, salinity, drainage, and the upstream and downstream aspects of the Projects, Bradford Morse, the official appointed by the Bank to lead the investigation, published his historic Independent Review. The core recommendation of the Morse Report turned out to be a damning indictment of the relationship between the Indian State and the World Bank.

Still, rather than abandoning the Projects, the World Bank continued its funding (originally set at $450 million). In 1993, however, after the Indian Government failed to meet the Bank’s minimum salvage conditions, the World Bank finally pulled out of the Sardar Sarovar Projects.

A tattered, battered, unsalaried, unarmed, woman-led army from one of the world's poorest countries had, for the first time in World Bank history, forced the defunding of one of its commissioned projects. Faced with a $200 million deficit for the Projects’ budget, the Government increased its pressure to have the NBA-occupied areas of the Narmada Valley evacuated to deter the effective opposition to the dams.

Yet, in the face of countless broken resettlement promises from the State, several unfavorable Supreme Court judgments, innumerable police arrests, maulings and humiliations, transnational corporation investment in the Sardar Sarovar Projects (the latest being the New York-based Ogden Energy Corporation in March 2000), and the annual threat of rising waters to their lives and livelihoods, the NBA and its followers remain firm to this day in their resolve not to budge from the Valley.

At the dawning of the third millennium, the NBA’s commitment to social and environmental justice, together with Medha Patkar’s fearless leadership, and Arundhati Roy’s inspirational pen, has brought the brave struggle of those slated to be ousted from the Narmada to international attention. Who better than the NBA to challenge the inhumanity of the World Global Order, led and manipulated by North American and European Governments, Transnational Corporations, and the World Bank and IMF on April 16, 2000, in Washington, DC? In a word, none!

For further reading:
    1. Roy, Arundhati. Nehru Memorial Lecture, Cambridge University, UK, November 8, 1999.
    2. Kothari, Ashish and Ram, Rahul N. Environmental Impacts of the Sardar Sarover Project. Kalpavriksh, 1994.
    3. Roy, Arundhati. The Cost of Living. London: Flamingo, 1999.

Lynette Dumble, Ph D, M Sc, is the international coordinator of The Global Sisterhood Network.

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