Dams In India --
Or Burial Grounds?
By Angana Chatterji and
22 September, 2004
How do we measure progress? How are lives
improved by progress? Who benefits from -- and who suffers the consequences
of -- progress?
These are central
questions today as nation-states and corporations pursue what are typically
called "development" projects. One of the most controversial
of these in recent years is a series of more than 3,000 dams in Indias
Narmada River Valley. Government officials say these dams and an extensive
irrigation system will bring electricity and water to areas of the country
suffering from drought, and the technocrats insist that it will work.
But other voices
challenge this rhetoric of technological triumph, most notably the Narmada
Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement). Arguing that the government
exaggerates the benefits and underestimates the costs, this nonviolent
peoples movement since the mid-1980s has focused attention on
the human suffering and environmental damage that comes with "big
dams." These dams flood vast areas and displace hundreds of thousands,
mostly peasants and adivasi (tribal) people, while promises of relocation
and resources usually prove to be illusory. Just one of the dams, Sardar
Sarovar, could uproot as many as a half-million people.
In August 2004,
Angana Chatterji was one of three members of an independent commission
who went to the Narmada, visiting villages and listening to more than
1,400 people at hearings. The commission investigated violations in
resettlement and rehabilitation policies connected to the Narmada Sagar,
one of the Narmada dams. Chatterji, N.C. Saxena (a member of the Indian
governments National Advisory Council and former secretary of
the Planning Commission of India), and Harsh Mander (former director
of ActionAid India) will submit their report this fall to the National
Advisory Council, headed by Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi.
Chatterji, a Calcutta-born
anthropology professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies
in San Francisco, described the situation in the Narmada Valley as desperate
and cited one villagers statement to sum up the sense of despair:
"There is no future here; we are living out our days, focused on
survival. The Narmada gave us life; they have turned her against us."
Despite the setbacks,
Chatterji not only continues but intensifies her advocacy work through
her association with the Narmada Bachao Andolan and groups such as the
U.S.-based International Rivers Network (http://www.irn.org/),
for which she is a board member. Chatterji is passionate and sharp-tongued,
with an ability to bring the complex issues into clear, and sometimes
painful, focus. In a play on an often-quoted comment of Indias
first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Chatterji began our conversation
by saying, "Dams are not the temples of India. They are her burial
grounds." In an interview in September, she explained why the Narmada
struggle remains crucial.
Before we talk about specifics of the Narmada project, explain the larger
context. Whats at stake?
Adivasi and peasant movements reject the assumption that development
justifies cultural annihilation. Since 1947, 4,300 large dams alone
in India have displaced over 42 million. Adivasis are about 8 percent
of Indias population but more than 40 percent of the countrys
displaced. Indias record of irresponsible development has placed
its most vulnerable in peril -- 1,000 more dams are being built, even
as food, security, and self-determination remain out of reach for 350
million of Indias poorest citizens. In postcolonial India, the
promise of progress, of freedom, has been linked to techno-economic
control by the state, which provides a comfortable life for its elite.
But the disenfranchised experience this development as a war against
them. Their lands and livelihood have become collateral for the dreams
of the privileged.
In the Narmada Valley,
different imaginations of nation building collide. The confrontation
with state-sponsored big development leaves marginalized people voiceless
in decision-making, as local dreams of self-determination and survival,
of respect, heritage and history, are jettisoned. The key questions
remain: Whose lives matters? Who has a right to life? The Narmada struggle
leads us to ask: What good is a nation if it refuses to protect all
start with the question of water in India. Advocates of big dam projects
say they are the only way to provide the water needed to help regions
AC: Droughts are
a harsh reality, and the need for water is immense. India needs to provide
water to the fields, villages, towns and industries throughout the year,
without placing some communities at risk to benefit others. It needs
cost-effective and environmentally responsible technologies for water
and power. Rajender Singhs work in watershed management (http://www.tarunbharatsangh.com/about/rs.htm)
exemplifies a bioregional approach that is ethical in scale, and there
are other options. Their success will depend on the inclusion of local
knowledge, participation, and ownership, and the nations capacity
to ensure the rights of the poor. The Narmada dam projects proceed in
exactly the opposite way.
RJ: Explain the
scope of the project.
AC: The Narmada
project was first broached in the 19th century. The Narmada Valley Development
Plan, formulated in the late 1980s, decided that the river -- 1,312
kilometers through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat
-- and her tributaries would be the site of 30 large, 135 medium and
3,000 small dams. These dams would turn the river into a sad series
of lakes, devastating the lives and livelihood of 20 million peasants
and adivasis who call the Narmada watershed home, whose subsistence
is linked to their land, forests, and water.
RJ: One of the
most controversial of these many dams is Sardar Sarovar. Why?
AC: Sardar Sarovar
is one of two gigantic dams expected to irrigate 5 million acres of
land, generate 1,450 megawatts of power, and supply water to 8,000 villages
and 135 towns through the Mahi pipeline in Gujarat. Like many assertions
of the Indian government, these are highly controversial claims. The
Sardar Sarovar will cost about $10 billion, almost half the irrigation
budget of India since independence. The 133-mile-long reservoir of the
Sardar Sarovar will flood 91,000 acres of land, 28,000 acres of which
are forest. The canal network will mangle another 200,000 acres. The
reservoir will displace 200,000 people, most forcibly, and affect another
200,000. More than 1 million lives will be decimated if the project
is carried out. About 56 percent of those affected will be adivasi people,
the familiar victims of "progress" -- 15.4 million adivasis
live in Madhya Pradesh alone, from over 40 tribes.
In the Narmada Valley,
people are under siege. Stranded, eliminated. Displaced. Put out of
place. Without place. Displacements violence plunges people into
unfamiliar worlds over which they have no control. When cultures die,
languages, memories, spiritualities, ways of being and caring for the
earth die with them. Adivasi and peasant cultures of the Narmada Valley
are expected to join this death. The displaced are expected to vanish
into the crevices of city slums or resettlement colonies, to become
-- quietly -- a statistic. Unable to raise families, crops or livestock,
build homes, send children to school. They are unable to dream any other
life but that of righteous resistance. Their burden is to be the conscience
abdicated by the state.
RJ: There was
an attempt to limit the height of the Sardar Sarovar. What happened?
AC: Following a
petition by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in1995, the Supreme Court of
India limited construction of the dam to 80.3 meters. Since 1999, the
Court has allowed successive jumps, even as it upheld the Narmada Water
Disputes Tribunal Award, mandating land-for-land rehabilitation of impacted
families six months prior to any increase in dam height. This was never
enforced. Resettlement and rehabilitation is yet to be completed at
the 85 meters level. Officials in New Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra and
Madhya Pradesh have remained silent. Narendra Modi, the chief minister
of Gujarat who was complicit in the murder of 2,000 Muslims in the state
in 2002, has used the dams apparent "success" to deflect
attention from that carnage.
Today the dam stands
at 110.64 meters. As the dam rises, the reservoir grows in size and
more villages are submerged. On Sept. 9, 2004, the Narmada Control Authority
met in New Delhi to explore the possibility of raising the Sardar Sarovar
to 121 meters. Perhaps the plan is to erect the dam to the original
height of 138 meters!
India is intent
on building large dams even as other nations decommission them. As the
government deliberates "national interest," people are fleeing
back to their villages from rehabilitation sites, which are devoid of
facilities and livelihood opportunities. In response, earlier this month,
the police torched adivasi homes in Vadgam village in Gujarat, warning
that if others attempted to return to their original homes they would
be met with similar brutality.
RJ: The World
Bank provided financing for the project but later withdrew. Does it
have any role today?
AC: Yes it does.
In 1985, the World Bank approved $450 million for the Sardar Sarovar
project, and construction began in 1987. The Indian government violated
the loan and credit agreements, and in June 1992 the Morse Commission
charged the project with grievous flaws in resettlement and rehabilitation,
and environmental impact. International activism led to the Banks
withdrawal in 1993 and cancellation of the remaining $170 million loan
That existing project
loan will not be repaid until 2005, and the terms of the loan are still
legally binding. But Bank management failed to supervise the project
with respect to the environmental and social conditionalities of the
loan. The Banks India country director has confirmed that the
Bank generally does not monitor projects beyond the disbursement of
capital to the borrower. This approach neglects the terms for resettlement
and other policies supposed to alleviate the long-standing impacts of
Bank-financed projects. By failing to ensure that funds are being used
in compliance with the conditions of the loan, the Bank is abandoning
its responsibilities, ignoring its commitment to mitigating poverty.
(For more, see http://counterpunch.org/jensen04222004.html)
The World Bank has,
through its negligence, endorsed the Indian governments decision
to increase the dam height. The Banks acceptance of forcible displacement
and inadequate resettlement and rehabilitation violates its own policies,
as well as international agreements on livelihood security and human
rights affecting the poor. The Bank remains arrogant, as a recent report
by the International Rivers Network demonstrates, planning a defiant
return to financing high-risk infrastructure projects that allow governments
and corporations to marginalize civil society in decision-making. (http://www.irn.org/programs/finance/wb_at_60.pdf)
RJ: In August
you and the other commissioners visited some of the communities affected
by the Narmada Sagar Dam. What did you learn?
AC: The Narmada
Sagar (formally called the Indira Sagar Pariyojana) is the second mega-dam,
a multipurpose project under construction for decades. We spent time
with people from 10 villages, a town and seven resettlement colonies,
listening to testimonials of egregious human-rights violations. Some
came from Gulas, Abhera, Jabgaon, Nagpur -- places that only exist in
the register of dead settlements.
The Narmada Sagar
is upstream from Sardar Sarovar in east Nimar in Madhya Pradesh. When
completed, at 92 meters, 262.19 meters above sea level, it will create
the largest reservoir in Asia. The dam is failing to generate the electricity
promised. The numbers here are also staggering: It will submerge 249
villages, displace 30,739 families. The dam will destroy 91,348 hectares
of land (41,444 hectares of which are forests), to irrigate 123,000
hectares of land, a quarter of which is already irrigated! The resettlement
and rehabilitation policy includes a land-for-land clause. But even
in its present and inadequate form, these provisions are being systematically
RJ: Say more
about the experience of the people being displaced?
AC: In the past
few months, bulldozers have razed homes in Khandwa district, and peoples
belongings were dragged out and damaged. Police camps are up and running
in resettlement sites, terrorizing citizens. Activists told us that
if they protest, the police beat them and threaten families. One resident,
Atma Ram, said: "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."
Harsud town was
destroyed on July 1, 2004. In her testimonial, Sunder Bai, an elderly
woman, said: "They stood there, the guards, and ordered me to tear
down my home. It felt like my bones were breaking." Many Harsud
residents wont leave, believing that the town will not be submerged
for another year or two. The authorities accuse people of getting in
the way of their own rehabilitation. But Laloo Bhai, in whose house
I stayed, said: "Where will we go? We have lived here for generations.
Here I am somebody. When something happens, people come and stand by
us. Elsewhere, we are nothing."
Harsud is partly
vacated, partly living. From Laloo Bhais house I could see the
neighbours courtyard -- a heap of bricks, scattered with the remnants
of life, a childs toy, a fragment of a brightly coloured sari,
a painted window trim, things of meaning, now lifeless in the ruins
of a 700-year-old town.
RJ: So, its
not just a question of being compensated for houses and land lost?
AC: The struggle
to force the government to meet its obligations for resettlement is
important. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award requires the government
to provide a minimum of 2 hectares of irrigated land to all those classified
as landed and adequate cash compensation to others. This has not happened
for the 85 villages submerged in 2002-03, and 32 expected to submerge
this year. Construction of the remaining 16 of 20 gates to be built
must be stopped until the 132 villages awaiting submergence are rehabilitated.
Cash compensation -- 40,000 rupees for non-irrigated, 60,000 rupees
for irrigated land -- is inadequate to purchase new land, and people
have often not been given the authorized sum. In the absence of livelihood
opportunities, the money withers away quickly, leaving people destitute.
They resort to middlemen and loan sharks, to alcohol.
The landless are
not being provided agricultural land; displacement leaves them impoverished
without access to livelihood resources. Laborers are not provided livelihood
opportunities. Seasonal migrants are often not included in compensatory
schemes. In many instances people are waiting for compensation checks,
while others arent allowed access to their money even when it
has reached the bank. Women have not been listed as co-title holders
to new land. Widows and divorcees are excluded. The affected have filed
a case with the Madhya Pradesh High Court. Submerging land owned by
the government is not being assessed for the livelihood resources that
these lands (such as forests) provide the disenfranchised -- grazing
for livestock, fruit, firewood and other sustenance.
The violence of
the everyday defies comprehension, as the states mistreatment
of the poor is intensified by hierarchies of caste, tribe, religion,
and gender. At the core of the resistance is a desire to protect a way
of life. On Sept. 28, 1989, I was in Harsud at the rally of 30,000 people,
as the town echoed with, "Kohi nahin hate ga, bandh nahin banega"
(No one will move, the dam will not be built). That cry reverberated
across the Narmada Valley, as village upon village committed to the
resistance. This summer, what I saw in Harsud was the destruction of
lives and futures, without consent.
RJ: What are
resettlement sites like?
AC: Chanera, a resettlement
site with rows of houses in a desolate location, was like a prison complex,
a place of exile. There is no water, electricity, roads, sewers, bazaars
or health care. There is a temporary school with no teachers. Some homes
have already crumbled. A makeshift shelter of a few tin sheets and saris
stretched into fragile walls threatens to collapse at the hint of rain.
I met a young woman whose husband had died, caught in the open electrical
wires that run parallel to their home. She is left alone to care for
her children, and the authorities refuse to accept responsibility for
his death. In this "new Harsud" there is no employment. Many
wealthy citizens have moved to distant places -- Indore, Gwalior, Bhopal,
Udaipur. The resettlement camp is populated primarily by the economically
disenfranchised, making it easy for the authorities to dismiss their
A mother of three
told us: "What shall I do? I received 25,000 rupees and no land.
I was forced out of Harsud. My adult sons were listed as minors. They
are 23 and 25. They did not receive land or money. I showed authorities
ration cards, voter identification. They ignored us. I am alone. My
husband left a long time ago. How will I survive? I was a mazdoor (wage
laborer). In Harsud I paid 300 rupees rent. Here I have to pay 700.
I have been using the compensation money to live. It will run out very
soon. After that?"
RJ: Was what
happened to Harsud unusual?
AC: The surrounding
villages also are devastated. In Barud half the village is waiting to
sink during these monsoons, with the rest taken apart by a railway line
that was shifted due to the submergence. Residents have been told that
they are not entitled to land compensation. In Jhinghad, people were
informed that the village would partially submerge. Half its residents
were ordered out, many others left in fear. We stopped at Bangarda and
visited a man whose house caved, injuring and leaving him bedridden.
A woman said that she contemplates suicide. A Gond adivasi elder said:
"I am landless, so they said they are not responsible. My sons
are far away. I am old and very poor. My wife passed away. They have
given me nothing." So many faces etched with anger and sadness.
Parbati Bais voice echoes: "There is no future here; we are
living out our days, focused on survival. The Narmada gave us life;
they have turned her against us."
and global capital have created incredible suffering and destroyed not
just human life, not just part of our cultural heritage, but also the
natural heritage of the Valley. It is cruel and criminal. We drove to
Purni, beyond which the land is engulfed by an infinite stretch of gloomy
water. Narmada Sagar exemplifies the violence of nation-making in India
today -- a demonic, calculated rush for homogenized, unsustainable futures.
This is what cultural genocide looks like.
RJ: Is the movement
to resist these dam projects essentially over?
AC: No. The Narmada
Bachao Andolan continues mobilizing people to dissent. The Narmada people
and allied activists hold the struggle together in its diversity. Their
work is incomprehensible to most of us. In 1991, Medha Patkar undertook
a 21-day fast. In Maan, one of the 30 large dams, Ram Kunwar, Chittaroopa
Palit, Vinod Patwa and Mangat Verma assumed a 29-day hunger strike in
2002. In Sardar Sarovar, Medha and other activists continue unrelenting
resistance (http://www.alternet.org/story/17954). In Narmada Sagar,
Chittaroopa Palit and Alok Agarwal travel from village through devastated
village, day after long day, seeking to collectivize the struggle. It
is an unyielding commitment to justice, to holding the state accountable.
Chittaroopa emphasizes that the right to life here is linked intimately
to the right to land, to the survival of cropping patterns, water rights,
food and shelter. Land is critical to the capacity of these cultures
These are desperate
times in the Valley. But that is testimony to the failure of the state,
not the movement. As we left Khandwa, the echo of, "Hum sabh ek
hein" (We are all one) and "Jete raho, sangharsh karo"
(Keep living, continue struggling) followed us. The resistance lives.
As with any struggle against institutionalized power, there is no quick
RJ: What can
AC: Visit the Valley,
if you are able. Be in solidarity. Protest if your city has invested
in World Bank bonds. The Friends of River Narmada (http://www.narmada.org/)
and the Association for Indias Development (http://www.aidindia.org/)
list actions available to us.
RJ: What would
you say to people who ask why we should continue to have hope?
AC:The Indian state
acts with impunity, replacing the British imperial colonizer, inheriting
and regularizing injustice. Conditions of inequity fuel social suffering
across India, disproportionately acted out on the bodies of women, adivasis
and disenfranchised caste groups. Why we should hope in the face of
that? Because we must. The struggles for justice across the world that
link us together are the only means to produce equity. Freedom is an
ongoing practice, something we work for.
Robert Jensen is
a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author
of "Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity."
He can be reached at email@example.com