By Angana Chatterji
19 August, 2004
there, the guards, and ordered me to tear down my home. It felt like
my bones were breaking.
Bai, Harsud, 2004
ago, in a time of hope, on September 28, 1989, I was in Harsud at the
rally of 30,000. "Kohi nahin hate ga, bandh nahin banega (no one
will move, the dam will not be built)" had reverberated across
the Narmada Valley as village upon village committed to resistance against
destructive development promulgated by large dams. Almost 15 years later,
I travelled to Harsud to witness the rape of cultures and histories,
memories and futures, as people are forced into destitution. On August
3 and 4, hundreds from 10 villages, a town and seven resettlement colonies
registered their grievances at public hearings. Chenera, Harsud, Bhavarali,
Chikli, Jhinghad, Ambakhal, Barud, Kala Patha, Balladi, Khudia Mal,
Purni, Bangarda, Jhabgaon, Jalwa, Dabri, Borkhedakala, Bedani, Borkheda.
And, those from Gulas, Abhera, Jabgaon, Nagpur, places that are no more,
chronicled in the register of dead settlements from which the Narmada
Sagar dam draws its life force.
The Narmada Sagar
(formally the Indira Sagar Pariyojana), a multipurpose project, has
been in construction for decades. It is one of the 30 large dams on
the Narmada River as it passes through the states of Madhya Pradesh,
Maharashtra and Gujarat. The Narmada watershed is home to 20 million
peasants and adivasi [tribal] people whose subsistence is critically
linked to land, forests and water. At 262.19 metres, the Narmada Sagar
is located in east Nimar in Madhya Pradesh. It will submerge 249 villages,
displace 30,739 families, 91,348 hectares of land, 41,444 of which are
forests, to yield 1,000 MW of electricity and irrigate 123,000 hectares
of land, a third of which is already irrigated. The resettlement and
rehabilitation policy, shaped especially by the Narmada Water Disputes
Tribunal Award, includes a land for land clause. In its present and
inadequate form, resettlement and rehabilitation provisions are being
Over the last few
months, bulldozers razed homes across Khandwa as belongings were dragged
out and mangled. State apparatuses are precise in their execution of
forcible displacement. Adivasi and peasant lives are under siege in
the Narmada Valley, their annexation into maldevelopment justified as
necessary to national advancement. "We are like waste to the government.
You do not rehabilitate waste, you bury it. Our town and souls are being
buried. We have appealed to the government, to the courts, to the country.
Our pleas are thrown away. We are left to decay," says Atma Ram.
"If we protest, the police beat us. They threaten us, our families,"
states a youth activist.
Harsud, the 700-year-old
town, was broken on July 1, 2004. Yet, all its citizens refuse to leave.
Some believe that the town will not submerge for another year or two.
"Where will we go?" asks Laloo Bhai. "We have lived here
for generations. Here I am somebody. When something happens, people
come and stand by us. Elsewhere, we are nothing." The town is partly
vacated, partly living.
Chanera, a resettlement
site, orders rows of houses amidst desolation, a prison complex, a place
of exile. No water, electricity, roads, sewers, bazaars. A temporary
school with absent teachers. A swing stands in a hollowed out yard in
front. Children play, seeking to forget. A home has imploded into itself,
crumbling under the leaden skies. A makeshift shelter of a few rectangular
tin sheets and saris stretched into fragile walls threatens to collapse
at the hint of rain. "I was divorced through talaq," says
Chhoti Bibi, "but authorities have refused me compensation."
We met a young woman, her husband died caught in the electrical wires
outside their home. The authorities have refused to accept responsibility
for his death.
In "new Harsud"
there is no employment. The wealthy have moved away to Indore, Bhopal,
Udaipur. The resettlement camp is populated by the economically disenfranchised,
making it easy for the authorities to dismiss their concerns. "What
shall I do? I received Rs 25,000 and no land. I was forced out of Harsud.
My adult sons were listed as minors. I showed authorities ration cards,
voter identification. They ignored us. I was a mazdoor. In Harsud I
paid Rs 300 rent. Here I pay Rs 700. I have been using the compensation
money to live. It will run out very soon. After that?" asks a mother
A Hindutva [Hindu
extremist] organisation has posted a sign, promising relief. The Sangh
Parivar seeks to repeat their performance in Gujarat (after the earthquake
in 2001) and Orissa (post cyclone in 1999). There, relief work undertaken
in a sectarian manner by Parivar organisations provided the soldiers
of Hindutva with a foothold through which to exploit disaster to foster
a politics of hate.
The violence of
the everyday experienced by people defies comprehension. Brutality infiltrates
into the imagination of the acceptable, as oppression lives through
the states mistreatment of the poor, made intense by hierarchies
of caste, tribe, religion and gender. Beyond Harsud, surrounding villages
are devastated. In Jhinghad, people were informed that the village would
partially submerge. Half its residents were ordered out. In the other
half, hand pumps were wrecked, even as residents were told that they
are not going to drown. Why then were public services destroyed and
disrupted? We stop at Bangarda. "I am landless, so they said they
are not responsible," says a Gond adivasi elder, his body taut
with despair. "My sons are far away, I am old and very poor. My
wife passed away. They have given me nothing." Faces etched with
anger and sadness. Who bears responsibility for the multitudes a nation
In the absence of
a movement that unifies resistance, people are wary of each other. Chittaroopa
Palit and Alok Agarwal of the Narmada Bachao Andolan [Save the Narmada
Movement] travel from village through devastated village, day after
long day, seeking to collectivise the struggle. "Hum sabh ek hein
(we are all one)" echoes as we leave Kala Patha. "The struggle
for justice is about the right to life," Chittaroopa says. The
right to life here is linked intimately to the right to land. Relations
to land shape knowledge, dignity, income, ways of being. Land is critical
to the capacity of these cultures to endure.
that the Narmada Sagar will be completed ahead of schedule, in 2004
rather than 2005, even as the conditions prescribed for resettlement
and rehabilitation have been dishonoured, along with the prerequisite
that the state provide a minimum of 2 hectares of irrigated land to
those landed. Cash compensation Rs 40,000 for non-irrigated,
Rs 60,000 for irrigated land is inadequate. Women are not listed
as co-title holders. The landless are not provided land as displacement
leaves them bereft of livelihood resources. Seasonal migrants are often
excluded. Submerged land owned by the government has not been assessed
for livelihood resources that it provided the disenfranchised. Terror
inflicted through deracination.
gave us life. They have turned her against us," grieves Parbati
Bai. Rehabilitation for the 85 villages partially and fully submerged,
and the 32 scheduled for submergence in 2004, the people charge, must
ensure that the displaced are provided compensation in accordance with
the Land Acquisition Act and the Narmada Award. The remaining 132 villages
must be rehabilitated prior to the completion of the dam, even if it
requires halting construction.
Beyond Purni the
land is engulfed by the reservoir, an infinite stretch of gloomy water
beneath which lies the Atlantis of the Narmada Valley. Daunting questions
of cultural survival and self-determination of adivasi and peasant peoples
persist. Narmada Sagar exemplifies the violence of nation-making in
India today. Unnecessary social suffering dispensed by national dreams
and global capital distributed among peoples, cultures, flora, fauna,
birds, trees, animals. One thousand more dams are promised us, even
as freedom remains distant for 350 million of Indias poorest citizens.
Shall we ask them what this means to their lives?
* Angana Chatterji is associate professor of social and cultural anthropology
at the California Institute of Integral Studies