the Dam & the Damned – Human cost of development in the Narmada Valley


“I went to the jail as part of the jail Bharo andolan”, “I sat on a 21 day fasting”. “I was beaten up by the police”. “I sat on protest outside the district collectors office”. – said the people from the villages of the Narmada valley. It’s easy to relate such narratives with the freedom struggle but to hear them in the 21st century from the people of an independent country is quite disheartening.

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Jagannath Patidar, Kundiya village – A veteran of the Narmada Bachao Andolan movement who at the age of 88 years, still drives his two wheeler to the fields and toils hard in the sun.
Ironically the struggle for Narmada Bachao began the day after India ended its freedom struggle, of course, after more than 3 decades. In these 3 decades many political parties came and went, judicial decisions were given, various committees were formed, but none of them ever made an honest effort to listening to the people’s problems, forget solving them. If they did, the dam height wouldn’t be at an unbelievable 139 meters increasing the risk of submergence of the people of the valley, further threatening their lives and livelihoods. But that’s not the only cost the people are paying towards this big development (the big dam), there is a human cost to all this. A human cost which is so glaringly visible in their day to day lives but yet conspicuously missing from every govt. report. A human cost that only keeps increasing with everyday, every month, every year and every decade that passes by. These are the human costs of the inhuman decisions of the big development (big dam)

  • In the name of rehabilitation:
    • The rehabilitation centers that are built by the government look good on paper and executed to perfection, that is on paper. In reality these centers are built with no electricity, lack of proper drinking facilities, no Anganwadi’s, no proper schools etc. Of course, these centers have houses with four walls and a room, but that’s all they have. People cannot live in such centers, they suffer and mostly left to die a slow death.
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  • Breaking communities and breaking families: 
    • “They are trying to break us, break our families and break our communities”, said, Lakshmi Bai, who along with 20 other family members has been living in the same house in Piplod village for decades. They all share the same fields, the same farm animals, the same farm income, and not to forget the emotional bonding the family share. If the members of the same family are now expected to relocate to different locations based on some random assignments by the govt. officials, how would one share the farm and the farm animals? This in itself will have a direct impact on the family income. Unfortunately Lakshmi Bai’s story is not an isolated one. This is the story of the most of the families in the submergence zone.

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  • Enter the third generation: 
    • For the villages in the submergence zone, the Andolan, has become a part of their daily lives. From discussing the issues of displacement to debating the impact on their livelihoods to talking about Andolan, it’s strategies, it’s victories, the Narmada Bachao Andolan has become an integral part. For the kids in these villages, seeing their parents and grandparents struggle, almost their entire lives, joining the andolan is almost a natural process. Rahul Yadav, a graduate degree holder, the third generation in his family, is a full time volunteer with the Andolan. “If we don’t fight for what is our right, then we stand the risk of losing it. It is as simple as that”, Rahul reflecting on the future of the Andolan.
  • Fields of hope and aspirations : 
    • Cucumbers mixed with salt and chili powder sprinkled on them offered as a snack, cucumbers were offered as a welcome to the guests, cucumbers were offered fresh off the fields to the volunteers. But cucumbers was just one of the many vegetables the valley is home to. Corn, Bananas, sugarcane, pulses are a common sight as one passes by these villages. One can visualize yash Chopra filming his trademark songs with the lush green fields in the background, that’s how picturesque the drive in the valley was.
      To think that all these hundreds of acres of fields will be submerged under water will be a colossal loss. Farming is a lot about letting the nature nurture the plants and there is an ecosystem built with the plants, animals and humans all coexisting in harmony. These fields are what makes the families and communities to continue to till the land, sow the seeds, grow the crops and harvest them despite the imminent threat of submergence.
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  • But what about the landless?
    • It’s one of those situations where MNREGA is working, just perfect, but on paper. Or in this case not even paper. “We haven’t gotten a single job since 2007 and not a single entry in our job cards either. We survive mostly by working in the fields as agriculture labor.If me and my husband work all week then we make Rs 1200. But working all week is also not possible, since I’ve to look after home and also the kids. But at least we have got a livelihood here”, Pamal Balayee, Dhanora village, reflecting on the challenges.
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      If the R&R takes them to different locations, there is no hope that the government will do anything for their livelihood. This is not speculation but based on the 30 year old track record of the government’s indifference to the plight of the project affected people.
  • Cash(less) compensation: 
    • First divide the people, then turn them against each other and then conquer them. A pretty old and effective weapon of destruction, mastered and employed to perfection in different situations. Brokers were employed and sent in to the villagers to lure the villagers to accept the cash compensation and win their support for this program. The brokers also received commission depending on how many villagers they get them to sign the papers, take the cash and leave.
      Those who left realized very soon that cash alone is not enough to sustain their lives, making their overall situation even more precarious. Needless to say, not many villagers opted for the cash compensation, but this didn’t discourage the brokers to slow down. They instead faked the paper work, fudged the numbers and amassed as much wealth as they can. As per the recent Jha Commission report, the cash(less) compensation program of the govt. turned out to be a 1500 crore scam.

While the human cost of the inhuman development keeps rising, so is the grit and determination of the people of the valley. Exactly why the Andolan has not just survived the three decades but it thrived, making itself one of the few long standing peaceful people’s movement and certainly the longest movement in the Independent India.

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To be continued – Part II

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