By Neeta Deshpande
23 May, 2004
Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada rises higher every year. With each
increment, the helplessness of people affected reaches a higher level
I stand on the periphery
and watch, unable to look away. I know the story of the Narmada. I know
of the more than 3,00,000 adivasis and farmers who'll be irrevocably,
horribly displaced without adequate compensation from their homes which
house them and farms which feed them, by the dam which promises prosperity
I remember visits
to Tin-Shack resettlement sites, where land was uncultivable, water
salty, fodder for domestic animals unavailable and communities fragmented.
I'm aware of the colossal environmental damage and stupefying waste
of public money, money that could've been better used for decentralised,
more effective water schemes. I understand Gujarat's water crisis but
I know the dam has a different purpose Water for the powerful,
privileged (and money for politicians and dam builders) with the side
effect of poverty for the displaced, powerless.
Their voices haunt
me when they can squeeze into my life. Is there hope, they ask. Will
there be Justice (after 15 years of relentless struggle)? Will We Survive?
I've nothing to tell them. I want to continue to believe, in Truth,
Democracy, and Justice. But I've nothing left to hold on to. Except,
perhaps, some memories.
IT was one of life's
rare moments the vast, silent-still expanse of shimmering sunlit
water, the soothing, expansive colours at dusk, the tranquil, meditative
silence of the impending night unhindered and undisturbed by
the mad rush of urbanity.
I sat beside the
Narmada at village Jalsindhi in Madhya Pradesh, lost in the divine beauty
of the evening sun setting on the quiet river. The people of Jalsindhi
probably never admire the sunset during their strenuous lives. Besides
for them, their surroundings are routine, for me, precious. I'd just
bathed, refreshed by the river.
As I sat staring,
a familiar voice called. Unhappy to end my reverie, I trudged up to
my hostess. Bagi was hospitable, feeding me Bajri rotis and comforting
me with her shy smile. But she hardly talked. My friendly gestures were
returned with stubborn silence. Tired of trying, I gave up. When I was
about to leave though, Bagi herself opened up to me.
you a story," she commanded. "Record this. An old couple got
their son married. Since the rains hadn't arrived, a well was dug, but
they didn't strike water. So they left the newly weds in the well as
a sacrifice. When the daughter-in-law realised this, she called out
to the father, `the water has reached our legs. Who'll take care of
you if we drown?' But the father didn't listen. `The water is at our
thighs and waists,' she sang. The father still didn't listen. The water
slowly reached their armpits and ears. Finally, when it reached her
hair, the girl and boy drowned."
Bagi's story said
everything she hadn't. Her hut was a short walk from the reservoir in
May 2002. After I left, it went underwater. This monsoon, 10,000 families
in M.P. could lose houses and fields at 110 metres of the dam.
The Government claims
that all families affected at this height are resettled. If that's true,
why do they live along the reservoir though their houses and lands have
She vehemently complained
that she'd been resettled only on paper, not on dharti mata (Mother
Earth). They didn't let her live nor die, she said. The submergence
was forcing her off her land to no destination, so she couldn't live.
However, when she
offered Satyagraha as a non-violent protest by staying at home despite
the rising life-threatening waters, the police pulled her out.
Two years hence,
Dedlibai hasn't been resettled. Her statement about life and death isn't
far from reality.
The Narmada has
risen due to the 100 metres dam, submerging forest and villages. This
rise has caused the formation of up to 10 feet of muddy, dangerous silt
deposits along banks, making it almost impossible for people to bathe,
wash clothes, and collect water. But without resettlement, people have
to live in their villages along the reservoir. Many cattle have died,
trapped in the silt. And not only cattle.
Shobha Wagh, an
activist of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) went to bathe at Neemgavan
on May 22, 2003. Few hours later she was found dead trapped in
silt her hopes, ambitions and aspirations engulfed by the reservoir.
from Domkhedi also died similarly on July 7, 2002. A mother of two drowned
while travelling in a small boat unsuited for the reservoir, as she
didn't have better conveyance. Another girl from Bhitada died while
filling her pot.
These deaths have
one thing in common the helplessness of people forced to live
along the reservoir though danger lurks every moment. But where can
WE'VE been told,
at the cost of four billion of our hard-earned rupees, that our India
is Shining, Glittering, Sparkling, with World Class Highways and Mobiles
For Everyone. This when half of our children are illiterate and more
than a third of our people malnourished. If India is indeed shining,
why do we have to be told? For the politically influential Gujarat districts,
its sugar mills and cash-crop farmers who'll colonise Narmada waters,
India is shining. For the 245 villages to be displaced by the dam, it's
anybody's guess. On March 17, it was announced that Sardar Sarovar would
be raised to 110 metres. At this height, submergence threatens 12,000
families. The Narmada Control Authority permitted this increase after
declining twice recently. Though stopped by the Election Commission
later, Narendra Modi had announced a yatra including a "Narmada
Pujan", violating the model code of conduct.
I LEAVE you with
these memories. Three years ago in one of the schools started by NBA
the Jeevanshala at Nimgavan adivasi students meet their
counterparts from Chennai on a clear, starry night. As I fall asleep,
I hear songs swelling in perfect harmony. "Hind Desh Ke Niwasi,
Sabhi Jan Ek Hai." I know the Neemgavan Jeevanshala could be submerged
I'm awake all night,
awake to the sound of a haunting drum playing because someone has died,
a drumbeat I'll never forget. It booms and resonates in the silence,
a slight lingering note at the end of each beat mesmerising me. Does
it symbolise the death of just one person? Or of much more?
I leave in a motorboat
of the Andolan, shattering the silence as it separates the water of
the huge, bloated reservoir. I take one last look all around. There
is finality in the air it feels like the beginning of the end.
A dead skeleton of a Mahua tree stands waist deep in water. The river
rises to swallow everything around, its rise painfully, tormentingly
gradual like a torturous, emaciating death. The people here don't have
a choice, but I do. I hop off the boat and escape.