“I don’t need a cloak to become invisible.”

― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

The Narmada issue and the project affected people present in one forum the developmental dilemmas that beset our country today. In the news again over the past few weeks, it has been in and out of national consciousness – and conscience – for over two decades now. Over these years, Medha Patkar, and countless dam-affected people, concerned individuals and committed NGOs such as Manthan and the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) have helped articulate fundamental perspectives on social and environmental accountability related to large dams: Whose land? Whose forest? Whose water? Who loses? Who gains? Why? They have presented damning statistics on the environmental sustainability and cultural and displacement costs of the Sardar Sarovar Project.

Are there some things we are missing today as citizens when we bear witness to this extraordinary conflict, where people deprived of homes and livelihoods refuse to become faceless and formless, where people whose ancestral wealth and way of life have been irrevocably submerged refuse to accept defeat despite 40 years of struggle? What can be learnt from their spirit, that refuses to die? Is there a vital link to a larger India, a dynamic India that we have lost in the process of getting better all the short-term time? What does the Narmada struggle say about other similar struggles across the country? What choices does this whole paradigm of development place before us, as individuals? For our young?

In 1996, a film director friend brought Anand Patwardhan to the school I was then associated with. He had then just produced his poignant and telling indictment of the Sardar Sarovar project, Narmada Diary.

A few senior students, 16-17 years old, desired to see for themselves whether what he was showing them about the challenges presented by mega-dams, and the intrepid struggle of the people risking displacement, facilitated by the Narmada Bachao Andolan, was indeed the truth. A colleague and I accompanied 13 students to the Narmada valley in November 1996. It was a ten-day trip, and included the government tour of the Sardar Sarovar Project. Ahead of the trip we interacted with the options to the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) presented by S.J. Joy and Suhas Paranjape, invited P. Sainath, heard Dr.Nirmal Sengupta (Madras Institute of Development Studies) and grew aware of the pros and cons of large dams across the world.

The trip allowed for crucial discussions on almost every aspect of life, and the choices we make in living the way we do. Students who came back spoke poignantly of what they had learnt. For five years after that trip, we took batches of Class 11 students to the Narmada, as guests of the NBA, unaligned and free to question and to dialogue, allowed into panchayat discussions and important meetings with adivasi representatives, but also interviewing willing government officials to gain clarity. At school, this was framed in the Class XI programme as understanding equity in a socialist democracy, building ecological sensitivity and evolving awareness of social accountability through observing and learning from a non-violent grassroots struggle. As J. Krishnamurti said, ‘You are the world, and the world is you.’

One group of students connected the Narmada issue of displacement to urban resettlement, and visited rehabilitation sites around Chennai as well. This batch had many perceptions and many things to say, and tried to capture it in an hour-long film titled Damming all Futures.

I share a few excerpts here from journals that remain with me, as a loosely knit write-up on history-in-the-making that we attempted to capture more than a decade ago around young people’s experiences of the Narmada struggle.

The dam was built for several major purposes which don’t seem so important after one sees what it has done to the entire area and the entire mass of people living along the river.” — Student Journal entry, 1998

“The next morning, we got to go to Manibeli. For a part of the distance our boat was moving over villages. I can’t explain the feeling that it evokes in you. Your stomach feels hollow and your chest feels very dense and heavy. Manibeli (upper) was frighteningly quiet. It was like walking through a ghost village – a people who were living with their dead. Every leaf, every stone in Manibeli whispered the sadness of the drowned village.” — Student Journal entry, 1998

The effort of the trips to the valley had been to evolve a way by which students could be ‘spectactors’ to history-in-the-making. When the young are given the opportunity to do this, they move out of cynicism and hopelessness – they understand that life need not be a rat race, that there are many strong people acting with courage and integrity in places we often do not look to find them.

Far away from any township, or modern civilisation, Neemgavan seemed blessfully unaffected by the world around it. I have always heard that villages can be totally self-sufficient. Not until now, did I really understand that it was possible, and that communities had done it for centuries. I was totally blown by their sense of connection and analysis. Their information levels about the diversity they had lost, the conflict raging around them, were phenomenal and they wove for us a story of their fight, framing it simultaneously in a local as well as global context. I was wondering then, if we had people like [them] as our newspaper editors, what mind-blowing analysis we would have. — Student Journal entry, 1997

Baba Amte is a man with a great deal of determination, motivation and confidence. He was going to be 84 years old when we met him on the banks of the Narmada – yet he spoke of himself as being in his late youth! He looked so old and he couldn’t even sit! – yet his eyes in some way looked younger than any of ours. When he said that he saw himself in his late youth it somehow made me realise that I had lost hope, which he has now given to me. — Student Journal entry, 1996-1997

The people are powerful  more powerful than I could ever imagine. Their voices have in them a strong feeling for the generations of customs and unequalled love and respect for the age old earth. — Student Journal entry, 1999

More than anything else, what the Narmada struggle represents is the imperative we have as a nation, to include diverse perspectives, and be able to enter into meaningful dialogue around them. This seems vitally important for young people to learn, in a world torn apart by monolithic and hegemonic world views. As Suhas Paranjape and K.J. Joy shared in their introduction, “We are writing it to highlight some of the different approaches which made it possible for us to work out an alternative at all and which gave us the strength to dare to present an alternative at all. For those are relevant, not only in respect of the SSP, but in a much wider context. And whatever the public stands adopted, we have found a positive attitude and keen interest in these ideas in a wide spectrum of both the pro- and anti-dam camps, a middle ground that the war of attrition does not allow to consolidate.” At what cost, this war of attrition?

Every morning the very people taking these decisions, and all others with vested interests, must be standing in front of their mirrors. How can they possibly go on in their lives without asking themselves some basic human questions like – why did I take the decision I took? or the decision I took yesterday took away the lives, houses, fields, cultures and traditions of a thousand people. How could I have done it and look myself in the eye? But then again I guess all of us do it at one level or the other when we turn on the water tap or the lights in our urban rooms. Is there another way of moving ahead? I truly hope so! — Student Journal entry, 1998

Through the chequered history of this amazing struggle, what seems striking is also that it has been non-violent, despite the unimaginable indignity and denial that were involved.

Their idea of struggle is one I never ceased to be amazed by… They see that only a non-violent struggle can never be fought against, and a violent struggle invariably is easily defeated as it takes place only in short bursts and is never long lasting, when sides are so unequal. — Student Journal entry, 1997

It is difficult to predict the future course of events. What is scary perhaps is the ease with which the human mind accepts violation of basic human rights as unavoidable, maybe even a right. This seems, among other things, to link to the aspirations we build into schooling, to what we call knowledge. As one way forward, perhaps the biggest myth we have to break for ourselves is the myth of one path to any knowledge, and only one broad gradient of knowledge, as legitimate. Mainstream schools foster it. Universities foster it. Life – and knowledge – seem like a profit arrow in a corporate account: it needs to move upward.

But life seldom does! It might be interesting to study in this context, the Jeevanshaalas along the Narmada. Life is around us, we live it with the choices we make, the relationships we build, the things we learn in the process of living from day to day. What we lose cannot return.

(Having been a teacher in The School KFI in Chennai from 1988 to 2013, the author is now coordinator at Pathashaala school, under the umbrella of the Krishnamurti Foundation India. Email: sumitra.m.gautama@gmail.com)

Web: http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/living-lessons-from-the-narmada/article19565926.ece