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India Drowning?

By Neeta Deshpande

23 May, 2004
The Hindu

The Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada rises higher every year. With each increment, the helplessness of people affected reaches a higher level of frustration.

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 to Gujarat.

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.

"I'll tell 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 been submerged?

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.

Seven-year-old Lata 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 people go?

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 this monsoon.

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.