An article by Ajoy Ashirwad Mahaprashasta, Frontline, Vol. 27 – Issue 23 : Nov. 06-19, 2010


At Dhadgaon in Maharashtra on October 22, Medha Patkar piercing the ground with an arrow, in a tribal gesture of solidarity, at the beginning of the public meeting to mark the 25th anniversary of the Narmada Bachao Andolan


ON the full moon night in October, hundreds of people from all over India gathered at Bhilgaon, one of the many tribal villages in Nandurbar district of Maharashtra, in the foothills of the Satpura mountain range and on the banks of the river Narmada. The place resounded with jingles, revolutionary folk songs and strains of indigenous musical instruments. It was an occasion to mark the completion of 25 years of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), India’s largest organised protest movement against the construction of big dams and the displacement of people.

The people who gathered at Bhilgaon were en route to Bhadal village, which was submerged in 1997 by the Sardar Sarovar dam – the largest dam planned on the Narmada. Bhadal, in Madhya Pradesh, can be reached only by boat, like many other villages that were submerged by the dam. Refusing to leave the village without proper rehabilitation, Bhadal’s residents resettled on a hill.

Earlier in the day, thousands of farmers and tribal people facing displacement, and supporters of the NBA, who had gathered for a rally at Dhadgaon, 30 km from Bhilgaon, vowed to continue their struggle until the government implemented a proper rehabilitation programme for the 51,000 families affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal had initially estimated that only 7,500 families would be affected by it. If fully implemented, the Narmada project will have 30 big, 135 medium, and 3,000 small dams.

In the past 25 years, the people of the valley have struggled to carry on their fight against the government’s failure to implement rehabilitation and resettlement programmes. Their demand is not just for a better rehabilitation package (land for land, house plots for house plots) but for a complete review of the project; they question its economic, environmental and social viability.

The NBA was formed in 1985 with Medha Patkar and a few other social activists organising the disgruntled villagers of the Narmada valley into a movement against the Sardar Sarovar Project. The first major event of the NBA was on August 18, 1988, when the people of the valley staged a protest rally in six different places. It received tremendous support from all classes of people. In the mid-1990s, the protest movement caused a stir in the centres of power.

The NBA will always be remembered as a people’s movement that triggered an anti-dam and anti-displacement discourse in India. State-sponsored development, characterised by big projects and industrialisation, has had to face resistance from the NBA, which emphasised the rights of the displaced.

Before this, other big river projects such as the Bhakra Nangal in Punjab and the Damodar Valley Corporation in West Bengal, despite having displaced large numbers of people, had faced no such resistance.

Though there were small resistance movements against some other dams on the Narmada, the NBA became the first broad coalition of people to highlight the displacement aspect and emphasise the idea of rehabilitation. These ideas have become common slogans in the social movements against corporate industrialisation today.

The NBA started as a Gandhian non-violent movement and still remains so. “Our weapon is our movement and struggle, and not arms,” said Medha Patkar. The massive strength of the NBA, however, could not stall the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam. But what it did, through its persistent struggle, was to force the States concerned – Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh – to take up the issue of rehabilitation. Governments had ignored this aspect in earlier dam projects. The NBA continuously highlighted the economic fallacy of having big dams and its social costs. This ultimately led international financial agencies, the most important being the World Bank and USAID, to withdraw funding for the project.

The NBA also directly addressed the issues of casteism and communalism within people’s struggles. It was decided unanimously that there would be no discrimination on the basis of caste or religious identities while pursuing its struggle. Small steps such as holding meetings of Dalits in Hindu temples and including Muslims as partners in the struggle in Hindu-majority villages attracted public attention in the early years of the NBA.

In Nimad (the region around the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh), where the Hindu Patidar community ruled the roost, Dalits were not allowed to enter temples. However, the NBA was successful in building a programme through which such practices were pushed to the background by the larger cause of the fight against submergence and displacement. “The most important thing is that the people of the area accepted the NBA’s programme in its full spirit without any resistance and continued their struggle together,” said Medha Patkar.

Similarly, the NBA forged a strong communitarian alliance in the area irrespective of caste or creed. For instance, when people in the tribal villages, which were the first ones to get submerged, were left high and dry with no rehabilitation efforts in sight, the big farmers of Nimad rushed to their aid with grain.

One of the biggest successes of the NBA is its mobilisation of women in the struggle. So much so that in many villages women have become leaders of the movement. Only the Chipko movement of Uttarakhand had seen such a big participation of women.

‘Anti-dam agenda alone’

However, the NBA faced criticism that it could not build a broader political agenda and awareness beyond anti-dam politics. The anti-dam protesters are often divided along party lines. In most elections, NBA supporters have turned campaigners for either the Bharatiya Janata Party or the Congress, both of which have by and large remained apathetic to the people’s cause in the Narmada valley.

The NBA has been launching agitations against governments led by either of these political parties. This has been a great impediment to the NBA and is considered the primary reason for its gradual weakening. In other words, it has always remained a personal struggle against displacement and not a political one against the state’s policies.

Narmada Bachao Andolan activists at a rally in Dhadgaon on October 22.
For the past five years, the NBA has been trying to address this issue. “When we began, the idea was to forge an alliance of people on the norms of a broader participatory democracy. It is not that we think of electoral politics as untouchable. But many who ventured into that territory have become a part of the imperialist regime. We fought on multiple-front strategies and were successful in taking the anti-dam politics from the local to the global level. We built an argument against unplanned big dams and its economic fallacy and talked about concrete issues to unite people. We needed to make the developmental divide an electoral issue, which we are still trying,” Medha Patkar said. She, however, agreed that the NBA was unsuccessful in building one big platform for all the anti-dam protests and other people’s movements.

According to Medha Patkar, other things that the NBA could not do were to focus on empowering grama sabhas and ensuring forest rights to the tribal people. These, she said, could have given a big boost to the movement. However, she said the NBA was able to force the government at least to act in the case of the Sardar Sarovar project. “The rehabilitation in the case of Indira-Sagar [a big dam on the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh], is worse than in Sardar Sarovar. This [the success in Sardar Sarovar] is because of the NBA’s struggle in the past years. Despite the state’s indifference, the NBA has been successful in pressuring the government to take many steps,” she said.

After the initiation of economic liberalisation in the 1990s, not just the state but corporate mining companies and other private industrialists too have become responsible for the displacement of people. Many localised people’s movements are making themselves visible in all the States of India. The individual agendas of these may be local but the larger political agenda is the fight against indiscriminate globalisation.

It is for this reason that the NBA is now a part of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), an umbrella organisation of all people’s movements in India. This platform seeks to make people aware of their own problems and highlight the state’s anti-people programmes in different parts of the country.

The Bahujan Samaj Party’s success as an electoral party and its efforts to create political consciousness among the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh is cited as an example by many to highlight the NBA’s failure in creating an alternative political space for itself.

The spread of Maoism among the tribal people is also seen as a result of the people’s quest for an alternative to the methods followed by the NBA. However, Medha Patkar says that the NBA still believes in broad participatory democracy and in fighting its battles in a non-violent way. It will definitely try to build an alternative political force within a democratic framework, she maintains.

“We are coming up with a concept of people’s parliament as an alternative to the Indian Parliament, where people will be heard directly. It would be a platform where broader concepts of communalism, globalisation and environment laws are taken into account. It would be a platform where social movements have a national policy and a constitution of their own. This is the need of the hour because while local movements are strong in their respective areas, they become weak at the national level,” she said.

The immediate agenda of the NBA, however, is to resettle the 40,000 families left out of the rehabilitation process. “We must see that proper rehabilitation is done. For instance, Bhadal village has been resettled, according to government documents. But the agricultural plots given to the people there are 100 km away from the house plots they have been given. Examples of such mistakes are many. Our immediate struggle is to push the government legally and politically to correct these,” she said.

Women at a rally in Badwani in Madhya Pradesh on October 23. One of the biggest successes of the NBA is its mobilisation of women in the struggle.
“The resettlement of 11,000 families [of the 51,000] was done only by Gujarat. A comprehensive review of resettlement sites is essential. In Maharashtra, for example, lands were allotted four years ago, but the titles have not been given,” she said. The NBA is now focussing on getting the residents of Adivasi villages their rights as they are completely dependent on the government’s rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, movements against other big dams on the Narmada, such as the Maheshwar dam, the Omkareshwar dam and the Indira-Sagar dam, have seen a great resurgence. The Maheshwar dam alone is set to displace around 70,000 people. The work on it is almost 80 per cent complete, but the rehabilitation and resettlement plan is not yet ready.

In its 25th year, the NBA has seen many successes and some failures, but it still is the biggest inspiration for many social movements that began in the last decade. At present, the changed political discourse of the nation is reshaping the NBA, and it remains to be seen how it will face this challenging situation.

If it has not been able to get what it wished for when it began, that is more a failure of the Indian state in meeting people’s aspirations than the NBA’s. The value of the NBA should be seen at a particular historical juncture rather than in terms of its successes and failures, because it is the only social movement to have introduced an alternative development discourse in the Indian polity at a time when no mainstream political party was doing so.



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