Gujarat Pogrom












Contact Us


Development in the Narmada Valley:
An Edifice to Injustice

By Angana Chatterji

Since early August 2002, the waters of the Narmada have been rising violently. The construction of large dams on the Narmada river has generated critical social and political debates in contemporary India. The Narmada river in its passage through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, is the site of 30 large, 135 medium and 3,000 small dams. Sardar Sarovar is one of the 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.

At what cost? These are highly refuted and controversial claims, and ones that could have been met through alternative and sustainable development. The dams continue to rise, flawed markers of an archaic modernism, a testimony to irresponsible technology, social corruption and unsound judgement. The 133 mile long reservoir of the Sardar Sarovar, a multipurpose hydroelectric project, will flood 91,000 acres of land, 28,000 acres of which are forest lands, and render destitute 43,000 families. About 50 per cent of those who will be affected are adivasi (tribal) people. The Narmada watershed is home to about 20 million peasants and adivasi people whose subsistence is critically linked to their land, forests and water. Minimally, a million people will be severely affected if the entire project is carried out. Since the mid 1980’s, the people of the Narmada Valley and the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) have protested the dams, and mounted an empowered and prolific resistance to the unjust development brokered by dam advocates.

Those in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh will be the worst affected by the Sardar Sarovar. In violation of rules, since May 2002, the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam has been increased to 95 meters at the behest of the Narmada Control Authority, while resettlement and rehabilitation has yet to be completed at the authorized 90 meter level. The Supreme Court and the Central government have remained predictably silent. The Narmada Bachao Andolan satyagraha (non violent resistance) sites at Domkhedi in Maharashtra and Jalsindhi in Madhya Pradesh are since under submergence. The water level has crossed the 100 meter mark. The submergence in the Sardar Sarovar is the most recent in a long list of casualties. Activists and villagers await the rising water as the police, masquerading as saviors, forcibly arrest them. Ironically, the state, in the role of purveyor of death, plans to charge the 20 activists who were arrested for aiding in suicide.

Arguably, droughts are a damaging reality in India and the need for water is immense. India needs a water program that will provide water to the fields, villages, towns and industries throughout the year, without placing certain communities at risk to benefit others. India needs cost effective and environmentally responsible technologies for the networking of her water bodies. The success of such endeavors will depend on local participation and the nation’s capacity to ensure the rights of the poor.

The decision to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam has been manipulated to show progress and completion in Gujarat, a state devastated by communal carnage. Former Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi hailed Sardar Sarovar as India’s testimonial to progress, bringing much needed reprieve to wounded Gujarat. It is perhaps a convenient strategy of deflecting attention from his government’s abysmal complicity in the murder and subjugation of Muslim minorities earlier this year. It is meant to communicate that all is well in the State, progress is on track and there are elections to be won. What is the price of ‘progress’ if fetched on the backs of the poor, arrived at through cultural and ecological genocide? The power elite in India are betraying all basic norms of democratic governance, abandoning the rule of law and abrogating the constitutional rights of disenfranchised people.

Any further increase in the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam cannot be permitted. An independent committee must be set up to review the status of displacement and rehabilitation in Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. The Central and state governments must act to implement the 2001 recommendations of the Daud Committee, the July 2002 report on public hearing in the Valley, and the Maharashtra government’s task force report on rehabilitation and rights.

What good is a nation if it refuses to protect its citizens? State sanctioned development in the Narmada Valley will leave the marginalised without the right to life and livelihood, resettled, at best, on lands unfit for cultivation, fleeing the present in squatter settlements and slums, scattered and nameless, with no past to remember or future to grasp. That is living death. The state, the institution most responsible for their well being, is condemning them to it. Injustice has become the shameful and prevailing legacy of India. Voices of resistance ring from the Narmada Valley, resonant with commitment, barely audible in the present. At Domkhedi, Medha Patkar, awe inspiring activist of the Narmada Movement, stands in knee deep water. About 50 other people keep vigil with her. Almost all the houses in Domkhedi are submerged. Dams are not the temples of India, they are her burial grounds.

(Angana Chatterji is a professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.