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The Narmada Bachao Andolan

Narmada Bachao Andolan is a social movement consisting of adivasis, farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists against a number of large dams being built across the Narmada River, which flows through the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, all in India.Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat is one of the biggest dams on the river and was one of the first focal points of the movement. Their mode of campaign includes hunger strikes and garnering support from film and art personalities (notably Bollywood actor Aamir Khan). Narmada Bachao Andolan, with its leading spokespersons Medha Patkar and Baba Amte, received the Right Livelihood Award in 1991.

After 1947, investigations were carried out to evaluate mechanisms for using water from the Narmada River, which flows into the Arabian Sea after passing through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat. Interstate differences in implementing schemes and sharing of water made the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal be constituted by the Government of India on 6 October 1969 to adjudicate over the disputes. Thetribunal investigated the matters referred to it and responded after more than 10 years. On 12 December 1979, the decision as given by the tribunal, with all the parties at dispute binding to it, was released by the Indian government.

As per the tribunal’s decision, 30 major, 135 medium, and 3000 small dams, were granted approval for construction, including raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam.

In 1985, after hearing about the Sardar Sarovar dam, Medha Patkar and her colleagues visited the project site and noticed that project work being checked due to an order by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. The reasons for this was cited as “non-fulfillment of basic environmental conditions and the lack of completion of crucial studies and plans”. What she noticed was that the people who were going to be affected were given no information but the offer for rehabilitation. Still, the villagers had many questions from why their permission was not taken to whether a good assessment on the ensuing destruction was taken. Furthermore, the officials related to the project had no answers to their questions. While World Bank, the financing agency for this project, came into the picture, Patkar approached the Ministry of Environment to seek clarifications. She realised, after seeking answers from the ministry, that the project was not sanctioned at all and wondered as to how funds were even sanctioned by the World Bank. After several studies, they realised that the officials had overlooked the postproject problems.

Through Patkar’s channel of communication between the government and the residents, she provided critiques to the project authorities and the governments involved. At the same time, her group realised that all those displaced were given compensation only for the immediate standing crop and not for displacement and rehabilitation.

As Patkar remained immersed in the Narmada struggle, she chose to quit her Ph.D. studies and focus entirely on the Narmada activity. Thereafter, she organized a 36-day solidarity march among the neighboring states of the Narmada valley from Madhya Pradesh to the Sardar Sarovar dam site. She said that the march was “a path symbolizing the long path of struggle (both immediate and long-term) that [they] really had”. The march was resisted by the police, who according to Patkar were “caning the marchers and arresting them and tearing the clothes off women activists”.