Drowning a history in the Narmada valley: A seat of old human settlements and evolution is now under threat

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Cut-off by waters of the Narmada reservoir, many hill villages like Kharya Bhadal, Sugat, Jhandana, Bhitada, Anjanwara etc. are solely dependent on these boats for connections to the ‘main-land’

A recent fact-finding report,Drowning a Valley: Destroying a civilisation – Report from Sardar Sarovar Project Submergence Areas in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat”, prepared by an independent commission, has found massive inconsistencies in the rehabilitation of Narmada dam oustees. At the same time,has said that the dam would lead to a sharp setback to areas which have come to be consisted as of great historical and archaeological significance. Consisting of CPI(M) MP Hannan Mollah, National India Federation of Women leader Annie Raja, ex-forest minister from Kerala Vinay Bishwom, sitting ongress MLA from Badwai, Ramesh Patel, and experts Raj Kachroo, a senior hydrologist, and Soumya Dutta, a well known expert on energy and climate issues, wonders how could the great heritage be preserved when large number of fresh areas are slated to under submergence when the dam’s height is being raisd from the present 121.92 metres to 138.64 metres. Excerpts:   

The Narmada valley is not just like any other river valley, though all rivers are in a sense mothers to human civilisations, by providing plentiful water and soil fertility.  As a result of the “Narmada Basin Paleo-anthropology Project” (NBPA), and the large scale excavations /explorations jointly undertaken by MS University Vadodara and the US based “Stone Age Institute”, it is being realised that this old river valley has harboured pre-historic human settlements, possibly even pre-Harappan primitive human ‘civilisation’. According to Prof K Krishnan, head of MSU’s Department of Archaeology and Ancient History, “This project may throw new light giving credence to the belief that the Narmada Valley could have been (one of) the centre of human evolution”.

After crossing the Narmada river by boat, the Fact Finding team gets a massive welcome from the adivasis at Khyara Bhadal
After crossing the Narmada river by boat, the Fact Finding team gets a massive welcome from the adivasis at Khyara Bhadal

Advanced stone tools and implements have been unearthed in the valley, dating back to the age of the beginning of modern humans, over 50,000 years ago, and possibly much older. Even if it is one of the oldest global sites of early evolution of ‘modern’ humans, this is a priceless heritage, certainly not fit for submerging for a few mega watts of power and some misguided mega-projects.

The NBPA project was founded with the discovery of vertebrate fossils including the only pre-modern human fossil known in South Asia from the Narmada Basin. The Times of India, while reporting on this in August 2012, says – “In 1980s, former director of Geological Survey of India (paleontologist) Arun Sonakia had created a sensation surprising the world with his discovery of the “only human fossil in Asia” from near Hoshangabad in Central Narmada Valley Basin in Madhya Pradesh which he said was that of a homo erectus (predecessors of today’s human). In recent times, however, archaeologists have argued that although the discovery has been variably attributed to different species of homo, its age remains uncertain.

Nisarpur, a big village, went under under water during an earlier flooding of Narmada
Nisarpur, a big village, went under under water during an earlier flooding of Narmada

“Through this project, we will collect more human fossils, look at the context of this fossils and go for a precise dating methodology as very little dating of fossils has been done so far,” co-director and research associate of NBPA from Stone Age Institute Parth Chauhan told TOI. “Study at Narmada Basin is important because of its geographical location which is very strategic for migration of animal population from North to South and East to West. It is not only rich in fossils and archaeological sites, but it has a long history of human occupation and this region is facing submergence due to dam construction,” says Chauhan.

Even the Narmada Hydroelectric Development Corporation Ltd recognizes (SK Dodeja and VB Bhatt, NHDCL, ‘Sustainable Management of Archeologically Important Monuments’) that “…the valley is very rich in archeologically important wealth”, but arrogantly and foolishly talks about ‘sustainable management’ of such human history by finding and relocating a few bits and pieces of this treasure.

These houses at Khalghat village are  below the marked high water levels, but families are not recognized as project affected
These houses at Khalghat village are below the marked high water levels, but families are not recognized as project affected

One can also judge the historical (both anthropological and archaeological) importance of the Narmada basin from this deep concern expressed by the Anthropological Survey of India – “This modest beginning is a challenge for future since these human fossils have world-wide interest and implications in understanding human origins. It is also acclaimed by notable scholars, like Kenneth A. R. Kennedy, that India has enormous field resources for the palaeo-anthropological investigations where the Narmada basin and the Siwaliks are in particular of great significance.

“And, we have tapped only a fraction of the same. Therefore, it is imperative that extensive and intensive systematic explorations and excavations of Central Narmada basin are of immediate concern. This is particularly very compelling in view of the inevitable submergence of the basin in the wake of Narmada Sagar Dam backwaters and monsoonal over flooding of Narmada River.”

Big village Dharampuri, which the government has declared ‘fully rehabilitated’: Barring a few families, most have been now declared to be ‘out of the submergence zone’
Big village Dharampuri, which the government declared ‘fully rehabilitated’: Barring a few families, most have been now declared to be ‘out of the submergence zone’

Apart from these pre-historic treasures, the present day Narmada valley population is also a richly diverse ethnic and cultural treasure. The adivaasi populations are Bhils, Gonds, Rathwas, Tadvis and many others, each with its unique culture and traditions. The large village of Chikhalda, with over 750 houses, faces submergence of about 688 houses, while pre-historic human settlements were discovered nearby. The entire valley is ripe with hundreds of temples doting its banks and villages, mosques dating few decades to many centuries. The invaluable treasure of the tribal gods and goddesses, mounds and hillocks are never counted!

Renowned historian SB Ota who has worked for the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has written that the Narmada valley is the only one that has precious remnants from the Palaeolithic age to the current age, at one place. His revealing findings, which were not favourable to the Government, were disregarded and even his research work was hampered by the Government which curtained funding. Eminent archaeologists Romila Thapar, Irfan Habib and others resolved in one of the national meetings of the Archaeological Congress that at least a hundred years of research would have to be undertaken, in order to unearth all the old, precious remnants, before the valley can be submerged.

The Narmada valley is thus a national treasure that should be preserved and celebrated.  It is a great misfortune for India that we have governments which value human history and culture so low, and are bent upon being the destroyers of this heritage.

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