Oral history of people’s struggle for Narmada river reflects conflict in nation building, development

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Keynote presentation by independent researcher Nandini Oza*, “Learnings from Oral Histories of Narmada Struggle: Questioning Existing Notions of Nation, National Interest and Development”, at the Fourth Annual Conference – Oral History Association of India at the Ambedkar University, Delhi,  on February 1, 2019:

One of the earliest resistances by the people of the Narmada valley against the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), a gigantic dam on the River Narmada in western India was way back in the year 1961 when the foundation stone of the mega dam was laid by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.  It was then that the lands of six tribal villages were acquired for the construction of project colony that the tribals resisted. Later as there was a dispute over the height of the dam and the sharing of Narmada waters among the riparian states of Madhya Pradesh (M.P.), Gujarat and Maharashtra, the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) was set up to resolve the dispute among the party states over the dam height and sharing of the Narmada waters.

The NWDT gave its award in 1979 which saw a powerful struggle in M.P. called the Nimad Bachao Andolan demanding height reduction of the SSP. This struggle though fierce was short lived. Then there was the Narmada Ghati Navnirman Samiti in M.P. lead by veteran Gandhians  and local leaders that had begun questioning the large dams on the Narmada in M.P. People in Gujarat and Maharashtra had also begun raising issues concerning displacement and rehabilitation in the early eighties. It was also in the early eighties that members of Kalpavriksh and the Hindu College Nature Club had undertaken a study of the impacts of large dams in the Narmada Valley.

However it was only in the mid-eighties, a more organised, coordinated and systematic organisation of the people of the affected villages came into being and this organisation spread across the to be submergence and affected villages in the three party states. Organizations like SETU, Arch Vahini, MARG, Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangathan played different, important and catalyst role in different states during this period in the Narmada valley and in the formation of people’s organisations. Finally, the united organisation of the SSP affected people of the three states and their struggle subsequently came to be popularly known as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) which has been going on for over three decades now.

The NBA, essentially a people’s struggle, delayed the completion of the dam by over two decades and has also spread to the other large dams being built on the river Narmada as part of Narmada Valley Development Plan (NVDP). However the primary struggle has been against the SSP in Gujarat.  The NBA has sustained for so long and has been so powerful essentially because the SSP alone is to submerge 245 villages with a population of two hundred and fifty thousand people, many of who are tribal, farmers and natural resource dependent communities.

Another two hundred and fifty thousand people are to be adversely impacted and many of them even displaced due to the project infrastructure like the canals, project colony, etc. Thus the SSP alone is to displace and or impact five hundred thousand people.  If all the other dams on the river Narmada are taken together then over a million people are to be displaced or lose their livelihood.

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The submergence area. Photo: Rohit Jain

Struggle against the SSP

Initially the people’s organisation raised issues concerning displacement and rehabilitation:

  1. How many people are to be displaced?
  2. Where will the people be rehabilitated?
  3. Where is the Rehabilitation Master Plan?
  4. Where is the land for resettlement?
  5. Is it possible to resettle so many people?
  6. What about those people who are going to be affected by the project but are not entitled to rehabilitation?

As no answers were forthcoming and as the NBA grew stronger, people began asking other fundamental questions such as:

  1. Have the environment impact assessment studies been done? What about impacts on Flora, Fauna, Fisheries, impacts in the Downstream of the Dam, Seismicity, Command Area Development and Catchment Area Development plans, what about the Carrying Capacity and Health impacts?
  2. What is the financial cost of the SSP? Has there been a cost benefit       analysis of the project?
  3. Who is to benefit and at whose cost?
  4. Is this dam really development?
  5. Most importantly, people began asking- is there an alternate development model based on the principles of sustainability, equity, and justice?

However there were no satisfactory answers forth coming from the government, developers and the planners. The NBA raised these issues in various forums both before the government as well as at public places.  Ultimately it was only after 3 years of consistent effort by the people to get responses in vain that in 1987, the NBA demanded halting the work on the project for a participatory and time bound review of the project. The demand for a time bound review was reasonable as the work on the SSP was at a preliminary stage.  The general response of the state and planners to this demand by the NBA was standard:

  • Big dams are development.
  • This dam is being built in National interest.
  • SSP will provide irrigation and electricity.

Any opposition to it or even raising questions regarding SSP began to be slowly called anti development and even anti-national and NBA often was met with repression.  Naturally the resistance of the people became increasingly powerful as more facts and information concerning SSP began coming in. The people of the Narmada valley then began questioning the very dominant development model that the SSP represented. People challenged the project where essentially the resources of the marginalised communities were being transferred to the economically and politically powerful communities in the name of development without even fair and proper rehabilitation of the affected communities.

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The early resistance. Photo: Shripad Dharmadhikary

As the state increasingly dismissed the NBA as an irritant and began using force against its people often, the NBA carried out powerful programs and protests actions not only within the Narmada Valley but even outside across the country. The movement even opposed the powerful international financial institutions like the World Bank which had pushed the SSP even before the Ministry of Environment; Government of India had given environmental clearance to the project.

As the struggle grew, the NBA was successful in drawing attention of people both within the country and outside to the issues of human rights, environment protection, sustainable development based on principles of equity and justice. NBA voiced the need of people’s consent and participation in development planning and projects. Due to the powerful resistance, it was also for the first time in the history of the World Bank that it had to withdraw from a project it was funding.

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Mass Program of the NBA. Photo: Shripad Dharmadhikary

It was because of the struggles like the NBA that hundreds of organisations the world over called for a moratorium on large dams being funded by the World Bank. Specially recognising the role of the NBA, this call was named Manibeli Declaration after the extraordinary struggle of the village Manibeli on the banks of the Narmada. Movements like the NBA are considered important as these struggles have brought about important changes in development discourse and development planning in India. It is movements like the NBA that have:

  • Helped bring about changes in policies and laws such as the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013, The Forest Rights Act 2006, The Right to Information Act 2005, etc.
  • Helped bring changes in Structures and Institutions for Regulation and Governance such as formation of the World Bank Inspection Panel, more power to the gram sabhas in decision making, etc.
  • Helped in changing the discourse and notions of key issues of Nation, National Interest, and Development.

Recognizing the contribution of the NBA in the development discourse of the country, Professor Shiv Vishwanathan has the following to say:

“…To me, the most important historical event of the last two decades has been the battle over the Narmada dam. The battle over the Narmada dam reflects a journey, a pilgrimage, and a recollection of 30 years of resistance. It demands a different kind of storytelling. This struggle is about a collective history of a people challenging the official history of a nation state…” (29 March 2016, The Hindu).

As Professor Vishwanathan points out, like the dominant development paradigm, there is also a dominant history of a Nation State where people’s history and voices are absent. It is the dominant history of a Nation and Development which is written, promoted and taught. People’s struggles like the NBA at the most find a cursory reference in the dominant or the main stream history, if at all. Even where there is an attempt by researches and academics to study people’s history, the people are mere respondents, subjects and or sample to be studied. The people creating history have very little place in writing this history. Even if there is an attempt to write the history of a struggle, it is often that it is only the issues the movement has raised or the prominent events of the movement or the prominent faces that find a place.

The extraordinary role, life and struggle of the people and communities do not find a significant place in this history. This vacuum and lacuna is present also when a movement writes its own history where it is often that the focus is on the prominent leaders. That people too need to have a legitimate place in the development history of a nation is also felt by the people of powerful struggles. This has been expressed clearly by senior tribal leaders of the movement like the NBA as follows:

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Kevalsingh Vasave. Photo: Nandini Oza

“The twenty two years’ of struggle of the Narmada has not been written anywhere. Whatever has been written is about the issues the movement has raised like environment impacts, cost benefit analysis of the project, displacement and rehabilitation. There is no history of how the people have fought. Such a history is not available anywhere. I feel such a history should be written by meeting the people of every village who have participated in this struggle” (Kevalsingh Vasave, Oral History Interview by the Author, August 2006).

Considering the absence of the voices of people and victims of development in the main stream history of a Nation; oral history becomes an important medium that helps to bring to fore the voices of the people who have played an important role in the development discourse. It is such oral histories that help us understand the changing notions of Nation, National Interest and Development Discourse.

It also helps us understand sustainable development models based on principles of equity and justice. Although oral history like any other history has its limitations, it is particularly an important medium to understand the history of the marginalised communities who are mostly absent from the pages of mainstream history.

Keeping this in mind, I began recording the oral histories of prominent leaders of the NBA both local and from outside the Narmada valley, of men and women belonging to tribal, farming and other resource based communities.  Over a period of 10 years, I recorded in digital format eighty interviews of senior members of the NBA in 7 different languages and dialects.

Some of these interviews have been taken over a period of 5 to 10 years. For example some interviews of the local tribal leaders of the NBA have been taken soon after their displacement and after a gap of many years after their displacement. This has helped get a better idea of the changing life of the people over the years as a result of development induced displacement. For having been an activist of the NBA and having worked and lived with the people for a decade and a half, I have had an added advantage of the trust and faith of the people interviewed for such an oral history collection.

The oral histories so collected has helped understand the powerful people’s resistance to SSP, resistance to dominant notions of development in the context of communities, traditions, religion, environment, heritage, etc. The oral histories so collected reveal many insights and I present a few here.

The dominant development model in the country follows the notion that large dams are development. While dedicating the Bhakra dam to the nation on 22 Oct 1963, Jawaharlal Nehru said:

“Bhakra Nangal Project is something tremendous, something which shakes you up when you see it. Bhakra, the new temple of resurgent India, is the symbol of India’s progress”.

This statement was made by Pandit Nehru although there already had been a powerful people’s struggle in the 1920s against a dam being built by the Tata Company popularly known as the Mulshi Satyagraha. This powerful struggle led by leaders like Senapati Bapat and Vinayakrao Bhuskute, had seen participation of women who too had been jailed and beaten at that time. The Mulshi Satyagraha was ignored back then in the development discourse as foundation stone of one dam after the other was laid after India’s independence.

Even today, it finds no place of significance in the mainstream history of the nation. The mainstream history and development studies continue to reinforce what Pandit Nehru said about dams as being the temples of modern India. The many subsequent people’s struggles across the country against large dams such as the struggle against Ichampalli, Koel-Karo, Silent Valley, Lalpur, Dantiwada-Sipu, Tehri and other dams too do not find a place of significance in the dominant discourse of Nation and National interest. Therefore dams continue to be built with impunity and even the recent climate change discourse pushes large dams as clean and green source of energy.

Against this backdrop, the voice of the people in the anti dam struggles like the NBA has something different to say about dams and rivers. If the people to be displaced in large numbers are to be heard, they throw a different dimension to dams that challenge the dominant discourse of development altogether. Santaben Yadav, who represents thousands of women in the Narmada valley, says the following about the Narmada dam (SSP) and rivers in general:

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Shantaben Yadav. Photo: Nandini Oza

“…There is only one thing in my mind, our culture will be destroyed, and our generation next will be ruined. If at all a dam is built on the River Narmada, if the Sardar Sarovar dam will be built, it is a destructive dam. It is not as if our lands or our environment or the Narmada valley will be saved. There will be no sign of our entire (Narmada) valley. Environment is getting destroyed.  There will be no trace of the whole valley. Where ever you see there are dams. Here there is the Maheshwar dam and there it is the Omkareshwar dam. The Government is bent upon destroying the whole Narmada. Is this the way a country develops? Let the rivers flow freely, Rivers are free; Rivers are a gift of nature. On one hand they say stop cutting forest but on the other side they have destroyed the entire forest – the entire Shulpaneshwar forest. It is these city people who use their brains and say build a dam here and one there! All decisions are taken in Delhi and Mumbai. It is not good to play with nature. We have said we shall not move, stop the dams and let all rivers flow” (Shantaben Yadav, Village Pipri, M.P. Oral History Interview by the Author, 2006).

Thus, while for Pandit Nehru a dam was a temple and building of a dam symbol of India’s progress, for Shantaben who represents the people of the Narmada valley, dams are destruction. For the people it is the river which is divine, a living entity and a free flowing river symbolizes progress. It is because of people’s voices that today, increasingly maintaining minimum flow in rivers has become important in planning river basin development.  The other important question that Shantaben asks is: Who decides what is development? Are all decisions to be taken by people sitting in Mumbai and Delhi? Do people living on the banks of such rivers have right to participate in the decision making and development planning process as part of this nation?

Oral histories of people’s struggles like the NBA help to understand these conflicts in building of a nation and development. It helps us understand the two different ideologies concerning development where on one side are the planners and technocrats and on the other natural resource based communities, tribals and farmers. Oral histories also help us understand that in this conflict it is the dominant ideology that prevails often as the state has the power, resources and the force. The people’s resistance to such dams is termed anti-development and even anti national and affected people seeking their rights are often ruthlessly displaced through submergence or eviction through force. Often people are also evicted without proper rehabilitation.

It is here that oral histories of the Narmada struggle also give us an insight as to how displacement and rehabilitation of victims of development are seen in a narrow sense by the development planners.  For example, development planners initially started with the premise that those who are to be displaced by such projects:

  • Have to sacrifice for the nation building.
  • It was believed that anything and everything can be compensated by paying cash to the affected people.
  • It was only as people’s struggles against development induced displacement intensified across the country that finally, as late as 2013; the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act was passed.

However for the affected communities, it is not about compensation and rehabilitation alone. When the voices of people to be impacted by such projects are heard it is clear that this is about:

  • People’s participation in development planning.
  • It is about right to know.
  • It is about consent of the people.
  • It is about the value of a river that cannot be measured in cash.
  • It is about putting value to the forests, flora, fauna, fish, grazing lands, herbs, sacred sites, etc that again cannot be measured in cash.
  • It is about the value of social capital and all that is not tangible; the culture, heritage, traditions, community living and the languages of the people.
  • It is about a different model of development based on the principles of equity and justice
  • It is about a different world view and lifestyle of the people to be impacted by such projects not consider as development.

This premise can be clearly understood from what a senior tribal leader of the NBA, Bawa Mahariya of the submergence village Jalsindhi, M.P. has to say in his letter to the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh in June 1999 (Frontline):

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Bawa Mahariya. Photo: Nandini Oza

“…We have lived in the forest for generations. Forest is our banker. We know the name and uses of every tree, shrub and herb. If we are made to leave, then the knowledge that we have cherished for generations will be useless. Narmada is our sustenance with many kinds of fish in her belly. The river brings us silt, on its banks we grow maize, jowar, melons, our children swim in the river and our cattle drink its water. The river never dries. In the belly of the river, we have live contented lives for many generations; do we have a right to the mighty river and to our forests or don’t we? How will you compensate us for our forest, river, fish, land, for the joy of living beside the river? What is the price for this? Our gods, and the support of our kin – what price do you put on our adivasi life?…”

And yet, people in the submergence villages of the SSP are being displaced by drowning of their villages, fields and homes and people evicted by use of force. At such times, senior tribal leader of NBA Kevalsingh Vasave says the following when his home and village Nimgavan submerged in the SSP:

“People truly consider Narmada a Devi… Such a revered River; we who live on her banks feel we are her children. When the waters of the Narmada came to my house, the Sardar Sarovar Dam water, at that time I literally performed pooja (of the Narmada). Such a far off river – to reach Narmada it took us 45 minutes of climbing down the hills. The River Narmada herself came to my house and I performed its pooja. In a way we had the feeling of a mother towards the River. I cannot describe her at all.  We fought for 20-22 years to live there, to stay there. We had to do all this to save the River… Who can depict Narmada? It is difficult to describe her. If the Narmada comes to my door then what else would I do but perform pooja? How can I be angry? It was not the fault of the Narmada. Whatever fault was of the human might that made her helpless and bound her. That is why she came and she drowned us. How can we fault her?”  (Kevalsingh Vasave, Oral History Interview by the Author, 2008).

Thus through the oral histories of people in the Narmada valley it is possible to understand the relation that people share with the Narmada river. It helps us understand that the people struggled and resisted the dam not to merely receive some compensation and rehabilitation but to protect a way of life. It helps us understand people’s resistance against the human might that used force to displace them from their ancestral lands, homes, forests and River Narmada herself.

The third insight from the oral history of the Narmada struggle which I wish to bring to light here is that while we talk of protecting heritage, culture, tradition and religion; the people of the Narmada Valley ask which religion, culture and tradition are we talking about protecting?  Today while the nation is caught over the debate of building a single temple in Ayodhya, hundreds of temples on the banks of Narmada are being submerged one after the other in the many dams on the river.

The Narmada like the River Ganga is considered to be one of the holiest rivers where the mere sight of the river absolves every person of all sins.  Every stone on the banks of the Narmada is considered a Shiva Linga.  As per Hindu mythology, Lord Shiva had bestowed a boon on the Narmada that she would remain free flowing for ever, her waters would never dry and no one will be able to capture or bind her. The tribals living on its banks believe that the Narmada gallops and speeds in her flow to meet her beloved- the sea.  Ignoring this rich and diverse mythology, religious and spiritual beliefs and legends the discourse today is building of one single temple in Ayodhya for a dominant belief.

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Submergence of Sholpaneshwar Temple. Photo: Not known

As opposed to this, the oral histories of the people in the Narmada valley bring to the fore that the Narmada valley is one of the richest archaeological sites in the country. Eminent archaeologists have said that it would take more than a hundred years to merely study the archaeological sites on its banks. Narmada valley for being one of the oldest river valley civilisations is rich historically, culturally and in its heritage sites. This is best explained by Rehmat, a senior NBA activist from the submergence village Chikhalda in M.P. as follows:

“The Narmada Ghati is a very old human settlement. Dr. S. B. Ota of the Archaeological Survey of India has done a very in-depth study. The area of submergence of SSP is very large. He discovered for study ninety four archaeological mounds in the submergence area. The evidences that Dr. Ota has found here have been discovered for the first time in the country. For example a wooden coin found in Khaparkheda (a submergence village) is the first of its kind in the country.  The other evidence in Khaparkheda found is an iron melting furnace.  In Pipri village, along with evidence of pit-dwellers, many types of precious stones have been found like carnelian, lepislazuli, etc. Dr. Ota’s work has been in the submergence area of SSP. Such information has come forth from the study that the government was scared that if more studies are allowed, information and evidence of the type will be out which is not available in the rest of the country. In that case, more studies would be required and then the work of SSP will have to be stopped. This is why; Navdakhedi village archaeology work was stopped midway, suddenly.  Unfortunately the work was not allowed any further by the government and truth not allowed to be presented before the world” (Rehmat, Oral History Interview by the Author, 2009).

This is how oral histories of the Narmada struggle help us understand:

  • The conflict between two development ideologies- GDP and for Profits vs. sustainable development based on equity and justice
  • The conflict between two world views
  • The conflict between two life styles , cultures, traditions within a Nation

The important questions derived from the oral histories of the Narmada struggle are:

  • Should one world view and development discourse prevail at the cost of the other and with the use of force?
  • Is give and take possible?
  • Is assimilation of the best of diverse cultures, life styles, traditions possible?
  • Is dialogue between the diverse groups of people within a nation possible?

Finally, this work of the oral history of the Narmada movement help us understand the profound influences people’s struggle have had on the large dams’ and development debate the world over. It helps us understand the changing notions of development discourse, people, communities, environment, culture, heritage, traditions, etc in the process of nation building.

This oral history is a tribute to the people of the Narmada valley whose extraordinary struggle has influenced the large dams debate the world over, and has played an important role in redefining sustainable development based on principles of equity and justice.

*Formerly with Narmada Bachao Andolan. Source: History Less Known


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