Thirty years ago, a group of students from Delhi University went on a long walking tour of the Narmada valley. The journey was arduous, and it was not undertaken for pleasure. The students wished to study, at first-hand, “the possible environmental impact of the massive hydroelectric and irrigation complex planned for the Valley, and to see and document the existing natural and cultural heritage of the [Narmada] river”. They wrote a report based on their trip, versions of which were published in the The Ecologist of London and the Economic and Political Weekly of Mumbai. Rich, fact-filled, and written in understated prose, these documents are of considerable historical interest. For it was by reading the article in the EPW that Medha Patkar, then a social activist in the city of Mumbai, decided to shift to the Narmada valley to work there.
An ambitious ‘master plan’ conceived by the government had envisaged the construction of 30 major dams in the Narmada valley. Some 135 medium-sized dams were also planned. The student researchers asked a fundamental question — had the authorities carefully studied the social and environmental consequences of these projects? They discovered that they had not. The valley had a variety of forest regimes, and was staggeringly rich in biodiversity. There had been no studies of the potential loss of forests and wildlife when these dams came up, or of their impact on the livelihood patterns of forest-dependent villagers. Nor had there been any research on the geological impact of the building of so many dams in a seismically-fragile zone.
The scientific negligence was compounded by a sociological one. The valley was also home to a vast array of peasant, tribal, and artisanal communities. The social arrangements and lifestyles of these communities had not been investigated. No account had been taken of the temples and other sacred sites that would be submerged along with the forests and the villages. Even more strikingly, the student researchers found that “at no stage have local people been involved in the planning of the project”.
The reservoirs planned to facilitate the dam would, the students estimated, displace more than a million people. Yet there had been no anthropological studies undertaken to find out the requirements of the oustees. Alternate land had not, in many cases, been identified. The compensation proposed was well below market rates. On the other side, building, construction and rehabilitation costs had been seriously underestimated, by, in the students’ view, as much as 300 per cent.
The project authorities had also largely ignored the colossal environmental damage that the projects, when completed, would lead to. The natural forests of the valley played a key role in stabilizing the soil, conserving water, and providing a congenial climate. With these forests now coming under the axe — or the water— these ecological benefits would be lost. There had been, in the past, an increase in soil salinity and waterlogging through the building of large canals. Yet the canals proposed under these new schemes took no account of such likely externalities.
The student researchers saw the Narmada projects as symptomatic of a wider indifference to environmental sustainability. In their view, the model of economic growth that India had chosen is “not only ecologically non-sustainable, it is also socio-culturally destructive. It has increased inequalities; concentrated power in the hands of a few; swamped valuable traditional cultures and knowledge systems; destroyed the spiritual part in us; broken integrative social relationships and isolated individuals from each other and from Nature”.
The report of the DU students is a largely forgotten landmark in the history of modern India. Had Medha Patkar not read it in the EPW, she would not have started the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The andolan was a major, and always non-violent, social movement, drawing its support largely from villagers in the valley, aided by sympathizers in towns and cities. It threw a sharp spotlight on the environmental and social consequences of unregulated economic growth. It particularly showcased the plight of dam-displaced people, those who were asked — or forced — to leave their homes, their hamlets, their fields and their shrines so that other people could enjoy the fruits of the projects for which these sacrifices had been made.
The NBA had focused very closely on one major dam — the Sardar Sarovar, a project whose peculiarity lay in the fact that while the benefits would flow exclusively to one state, Gujarat, the costs were to be largely born by another state, Madhya Pradesh. A large proportion of those to be displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam were adivasis. Patkar and her colleagues mobilized strongly among the potential oustees, while garnering sympathy among a wide section of the intelligentsia. Their main aim was captured in the stirring slogan: “Bandh nahin banega! Koi nahin hatega”.
There is by now an extensive literature on the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Fine books on the subject include Amita Baviskar’s In the Belly of the River: Adivasi Assertion in the Narmada Valley (1995) and Ranjit Dwivedi’s Conflict and Collective Action: The Sardar Sarovar Project in India (2006).
While I greatly admired the charisma and courage of Medha Patkar, and the commitment of her co-workers, I had some reservations about their tactics. It was, I believed, a mistake to internationalize the issue by taking it to the United States of America congress. I also thought that when the matter was being debated in the Supreme Court, the Andolan should have pressed for a compromise. Large sections of the dam had already been built, and thousands of crores of public money had been spent. Keeping this in view, a team of Pune engineers had worked out an ingenious compromise, whereby the dam would not be built to its full height. This would radically reduce displacement, while a series of specially designed ‘overflow canals’ would take the water directly to the drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra.
Had this compromise solution been forcefully put to the Supreme Court, perhaps the judges would have accepted it. Faced with the bleak alternative of constructing the dam to its full height or bringing it down altogether, the court had to favour the former option.
It is now more than a decade since the Supreme Court’s judgment. While Narmada water has reached central Gujarat, little advantage has yet accrued to Kutch and Saurashtra. The rehabilitation of the oustees in Madhya Pradesh has been extremely unsatisfactory. And the ecological costs of the deforestation and habitat destruction caused by the project continue to mount.
The NBA may have lost the battle it waged against the Sardar Sarovar Project. Yet its struggles made a considerable impact on popular consciousness. Had it not been for Patkar and her colleagues, the rights of those displaced by dams, factories, and highways would still be treated with a cavalier disregard in the press and by the urban middle class. Previously, those whose lands were taken over by public or private sector companies were paid a niggardly amount of money, which they were asked to take in the ‘national interest’. Because of movements such as the NBA, there is now a nation-wide debate on providing just compensation to those who lose their homes and lands to development projects.
All this was enabled, in turn, by that original report by the DU students. Many of the team that trekked through the valley in the monsoon of 1983 were members of Kalpavriksh, a body set up in 1979 that is still extremely active. With offices in Delhi and Pune, ‘KV’ (as it is affectionately known in the environmental community) has since done sustained, and very impressive work on a variety of issues — such as community conservation, the environmental impact of mining, urban ecology, and environmental education (for a sampling of their publications, see http://www.kalpavriksh.org/index.php/publications.html).
Although the group had already done important work in Delhi and the Aravallis, its Narmada report of 1984 brought Kalpavriksh to a wider national audience. Ever since, ‘KV’ has been a sometimes lonely, often prescient, and always original voice in the development debate in India —and beyond.