The Narmada Bachao Andolan started its work 30 years ago. Today, it is a moral force, and its most important contribution to India and the world is its continuance as a bastion of Gandhian truth and non-violence in an increasingly violent world. By S.G. VOMBATKERE

Article published in Frontline, Issue dt August 19, 2016 

THE Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has completed 30 years of people’s resistance to the dam projects in the Narmada valley. In the early 1980s, the people of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the Narmada valley were shocked when the construction of 3,000 small, 135 medium and 30 major dams and canals was begun on the 1,312-kilometre-long Narmada river, which flows through an area that has had 5,000 years of continuous civilisation. The projects, which included two mega dams, Narmada Sagar and Sardar Sarovar, were supposed to irrigate two million hectares, feed 20 million people, provide drinking water for 30 million people, employ one million people and generate electric ity for agriculture and industry. The state was silent on the fact that the projects would inundate 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land, affecting the lives and livelihoods of lakhs of forest-dwelling and farming Adivasis and other rural families, and submerge ancient temples and towns with cultural and environmental significance for not only the people of the Narmada valley but also the rest of India. The social costs of human displacement and the loss of wildlife and forests were not a part of the crude (and perhaps manipulated) cost-benefit calculations. Perhaps the social ill effects were neglected because the project-affected families (PAFs) were predominantly Adivasi and rural, and they really did not matter even decades after Independence.

The State and Central governments were keen to obtain loans from the World Bank and push through large projects, regardless of even basic considerations of feasibility. For example, the economic feasibility of dam projects is primarily based on a correct estimation of the total annual flow. The Narmada’s total annual flow as estimated by the Bradford Morse Committee was 17 per cent lower than the project-design flow, which meant that the designed benefits could not be achieved and the cost-benefit calculations were wrong or had been falsified. These projects promised unsubstantiated benefits to one section of people at the cost of the land and livelihood of another section of people, while the immediate financial benefits went to the construction industry, the administrator-engineer-politician nexus and, of course, the lending financial institutions.

As the PAFs began to realise the impact of the 3,000-plus projects, they began to question their bases. Assisted by social workers and activists, the PAFs questioned the social, financial and technical bases of the projects and the viability of the whole scheme and of individual projects. The separate organisations coalesced into the NBA in 1985 under the leadership of Medha Patkar, supported notably by Baba Amte and B.D. Sharma and, later, by Ramaswamy R. Iyer, S.C. Behar, L.C. Jain, Kuldip Nayyar and Swami Agnivesh, among others.

In 1985, the World Bank provided $450 million of the $6 billion needed for the project (1970 estimate). But because of the NBA’s cogent critique of the socio-economic-technical-environmental assumptions and effects of the projects and the non-violent demonstration by the PAFs and their march to Ferkuwa on the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border in December 1990, the World Bank reviewed its involvement in the projects. It formed an independent review committee in 1991 under Bradford Morse, a respected former administrator at the United Nations Development Programme. The State and Central governments gave the committee their full cooperation, possibly expecting it to help them counter the growing resistance from the NBA. But the Morse Report (1992) was critical of the government and of the projects in general.

The report had this to say about rehabilitation, environmental impacts and the general economical viability of the Narmada projects: “We think the Sardar Sarovar Projects [SSPs] as they stand are flawed, that resettlement and rehabilitation of all those displaced by the Projects is not possible under prevailing circumstances, and that environmental impacts of the Projects have not been properly considered or adequately addressed…. [W]e caution that it may be more wasteful to proceed without full knowledge of the human and environmental costs…. [Hence,] step back from the Projects and consider them afresh. …” The World Bank withdrew its financial involvement in 1993, damaging the credibility of the state’s plans.

The State and Central governments refused to reassess the projects as recommended by the Morse Report. Gujarat, the principal beneficiary of the projects, raised funds by issuing Sardar Sarovar Bonds in 1993 to fill the $450-million financial gap. But, coupled with people’s movements in Brazil (the Amazon Highway), Thailand (mining, dams and forestry) and Indonesia (forced displacement of two million people), the NBA’s well-argued resistance drew the attention of the international community. Embarrassed by the worldwide outcry against World Bank-funded “development” projects, the United States summoned the bank’s officials before its Congress to explain their lending policy. Following this, in an implicit admission of destruction and injustice, the World Bank noted that sustained economic growth was not possible without preservation of the environment and just treatment of people and even made borrower-nations’ preparation of national environmental action plans conditional to providing development loans.

World Commission on Dams

Apart from the NBA’s organised resistance against large dams primarily for social justice and its critique of them and their adverse economic-environmental effects, there were escalating controversies on large dams elsewhere. This prompted the creation of a World Commission on Dams (WCD) in May 1998, with Medha Patkar as a member, a landmark victory for the NBA. The WCD was financed by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank; the governments of Australia, Canada, China, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Japan, the Netherlands, Norway, South Africa, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the U.S.; the corporates ABB, Voith Siemens, Manitoba Hydro, Atlas Copco, Tractabel, Enron and Harza Engineering; and civil society organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund (now also called World Wide Fund for Nature). This new model of funding through 54 public, private and civil society organisations relied on extensive public consultation through a forum of 68 members from 36 countries representing a cross section of interests, views and institutions.

The WCD was to review the development effectiveness of large dams to develop internationally acceptable criteria, guidelines and standards for the planning, design, appraisal, construction, operation, monitoring and decommissioning of large dams. Thus, the WCD report was the product of an independent, international, multi-stakeholder body that included two corporate CEOs as members, genuinely reflecting the interests of diverse groups. The WCD’s final report (titled “Dams and Development: A New Framework for Decision-making”) was released in November 2000 by Nelson Mandela. It incorporated five core values for decision-making concerning large dams: Equity, Efficiency, Participatory decision-making, Sustainability and Accountability.

The Government of India did not accept the WCD’s recommendations, and the construction of large dams continued not only in the Narmada valley but all over India, with people in their thousands joining the ranks of PAFs. Continuing its resistance to large dams, the NBA also worked to reconstruct the lives of the PAFs to ensure their resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) and moved courts of law against the State and Central governments’ mal-governance and their ignoring, circumventing or violating of orders of High Courts and the Supreme Court of India. The NBA questioned the state’s model of development and right of eminent domain. The NBA’s policy remains peaceful resistance to injustice and oppression (sangharsh) along with social reconstruction (navnirman). People’s movements from all over India have taken heart from the NBA’s successes and increasingly question the state’s power of eminent domain over land. However, corporate-owned print and electronic mainstream media give little coverage to such movements and struggles but are quick to dub resistance to infrastructure projects (including dams) as “anti-development”.

The PAFs can approach the following agencies with regard to their rights, demands and grievances: the Narmada Control Authority; the Narmada Valley Development Authority; local courts and High Courts and the Supreme Court; Grievance Redressal Authorities; the State governments of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat; and the Central government. These have mostly failed to deliver justice owing to collusion between them. The NBA has shown that governments acquiring land in Adivasi areas without the prior informed consent of gram sabhas is a violation of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act. But it has had little effect because of the corrupt politician-bureaucrat nexus. When the Supreme Court ordered equivalent land-for-land rehabilitation of the PAFs, the State and Central governments stated in the court that there was no land available for the purpose, even while they create “land banks” for industrial use and give agricultural land for special economic zones. In Madhya Pradesh, the police and the administration forced evacuation of Adivasi villages in the submergence zone by sealing their handpumps, demolishing buildings with bulldozers and clear-felling the land. All this illustrates the state’s attitude towards people’s problems. Notwithstanding such gross injustices, police violence on peaceful demonstrators and the failure by all three pillars of the Constitution to address development-induced “involuntary” displacement, the NBA has maintained non-violence as a strategic imperative.

The Maoist violence in some States is being understood as the extreme reaction of people to the economic and physical violence they face from forest, revenue and police officials. State (police) violence is the response. The violence by both sides is indiscriminate and adversely affects large, uninvolved (mostly Adivasi) populations caught in the crossfire. The escalation of violence has resulted in the state raising specialist forces and launching Operation Green Hunt. However, thanks to the NBA’s persistence over 30 years, and perhaps understanding its principled stand, the state does not use gun violence against it as they do against the Maoists. However, because of the machinations of the politician-bureaucrat-corporate nexus, governments persist in mal-governance with callousness, neglect and ignorance. Corruption is the major reason for the violence inflicted upon the PAFs.

Exposing corruption

With commendable perseverance, the NBA succeeded in presenting facts of endemic mismanagement and corruption in the R&R process before the Madhya Pradesh High Court, which in 2008 appointed a commission under the retired Justice S.S. Jha to investigate and report its findings. In January this year, the Jha Commission brought out its report, which has exposed many cases of fake registries that provide compensation to people not entitled to it while omitting the PAFs, indicating monumental, systemic corruption amounting to around Rs.1,500 crore. The PAFs demanded that the Jha Commission Report be placed in the public domain to expose the corruption and criminality that have derailed the R&R process and denied them the rightful compensation granted by the Supreme Court and violated their constitutional right to life. However, to protect the corrupt officials, the Madhya Pradesh government prevented the Jha Commission Report from being placed in the public domain.

People’s voices

Apart from the Narmada valley, countrywide there are many ongoing or upcoming hot spots of resistance against human-cum-environmental disasters. Demanding development without displacement and destruction, the protests are inspired by the NBA’s success. The NBA has led the world in redefining development-for-people, giving the lie to mainstream media reports that these people are against development, as shown by one of the many slogans of these people: “Vikaas chahiye, vinaash nahin” (We want development, not destruction). While resistance remains non-violent by design, there is anger and dismay expressed vocally, never physically, though their slogan “Rajniti dhoka hai; dhakka maro, mauka hai” (Politicians are false; the time to strike is now) shows impatience with the politician-bureaucrat nexus.

People affected by displacement-causing development are today aware of their rights, thanks to the NBA—witness the unambiguous slogan “Hum apna adhikaar maangte! nahin kissi se bhik maangte!” (We demand our rights, we are not begging). People are disputing the state’s power of eminent domain that is built into the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, and staking their claim to and right over land, water and forests, whatever the law may say. The state’s injustices are responded to in the call for resistance: “Har jor zulum ki takkar mein, sangharsh hamara nara hai!” (We strongly resist and oppose injustice in every manner). And as columns of protesters move from one place to another, their lilting marching song is “Narmada ki ghati mein ab sangharsh jaari hai; chalo utho, chalo utho, rokna vinaash hai” (Resistance is ongoing in the Narmada valley; arise! arise!).

The environment-ecology aspect of destructive development that threatens to destroy humanity is recognised in “Narmada bachao! Manav bachao!” (Save Narmada! Save humanity!), and two frequently repeated calls to join hands are “Aao hum sangharsh karein; ek doosre ka saath dein” (come, let us help one another in our struggle) and “Hum sab ek hain” (We are united!). Apart from bringing the dam-displacement issue to national and international attention, the NBA has brought women to stand shoulder to shoulder with men at the forefront of resistance. This is acknowledged in calls of “mahila shakti aayi hai nai roshni layi hai” (Women’s power has brought new light to our movement) whenever a woman comes up to speak, as increasing numbers do.

The NBA has also succeeded in uniting people across the language divide of the three affected States, coining the catchy slogan “Hindi, Marathi ya Gujarati ladne wale ek hi jaati” (whether we speak Hindi, Marathi or Gujarati, we are one). The NBA’s meetings, often held in temples, have united people across castes to resist the submergence of temples.

The NBA’s success in redefining social and economic development in the national discourse has attracted diverse movements across the length and breadth of India. These have coalesced into the National Alliance of People’s Movements, of which the NBA is a member movement. The NBA has attracted many individuals, including formally educated young women and men from urban backgrounds, to live and work in the Narmada valley alongside the PAFs. The dignified non-violent stance of simple Adivasi and rural people facing oppression and suffering because of government policies and officials’ corruption and callousness is a humbling lesson, especially in present times. Today, the NBA is a moral force, and its most important contribution to India and the world is its continuing as a bastion of Gandhian truth and non-violence (satya and ahimsa) in an increasingly violent world, without soft-pedalling the vehemence of its arguments and agitations.

The Supreme Court had ordered that raising the height of the SSP dam was to be executed in stages only after the R&R mandated for the previous stage was completed. The government was to certify stage-wise R&R completion with an Action Taken Report (ATR) filed before the Supreme Court. But misled by false ATRs certifying R&R completion, the Supreme Court gave permission to raise the SSP dam height at each stage without the PAFs actually being rehabilitated. Thus, on the basis of repeated falsehoods regarding R&R completion, successive State and Central governments have, over the years, succeeded in constructing the SSP dam to its finished height of 138.68 metres and even installed the sluice gates. The present situation is critical because if the sluice gates are closed the submergence area will increase enormously and over 40,000 PAFs in Madhya Pradesh alone will be affected. This year, the nation faces an almost countrywide drought situation, and prays for a bountiful monsoon. But the 40,000 PAFs in Madhya Pradesh live in dread of that very monsoon because it will drown them. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi strives to place India in a position of prominence in the comity of nations, it can become prominent for the wrong reasons with its altar of development claiming the lives of many thousands of the PAFs.

Major General S.G. Vombatkere retired as the Additional Director General, Discipline & Vigilance in Army HQ, New Delhi. He holds a PhD in Structural Dynamics from IIT, Madras and is an adjunct associate professor of the University of Iowa, U.S.


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