It’s already dark when we arrive in Vadchil, and the headlights of our jeep reflect brightly off the tin sheds. The massive corrugated structure in front of us is subdivided into living quarters—these are the new homes of dozens of Adivasi families recently displaced from the village of Dhomkedi by the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Nearby, the Maharashtra government has erected similar sheds for the villages of Nimgavhan and Surung, which until a month ago occupied adjacent spots along the Narmada River. Inside the cut-out doors, women are squatting over low fires, making roti and dhal, while kids look out curiously. Some plastic chairs are produced, and with the aid of a flashlight, some of the men come to tell us what they think of their new village.

They’re not happy, although it is clear that the government took some pains to make this patch of land in the dusty plains of Maharashtra appear to be a “model” rehabilitation site. There is an arched gateway at the entrance, a new concrete medical clinic, electricity wires, and hand pumps. These surface touches, however, conceal a bleaker reality. While there is an electricity connection, the electricity lasted only up until a visit of a high-ranking minister. After he left, so did the current. While there are new hand pumps, there is no water, which must instead be brought in on tankers. And though the new concrete hospital looks somewhat impressive, there are no doctors or nurses inside. The empty wires, pipes, and hospital seem to symbolize the government’s response to Narmada oustees generally—impressive facades with little substance behind them.

Meanwhile, only one-third of the families in the original villages have been rehabilitated, with the rest left behind. Dozens of families from these villages remain without land because titles haven’t been updated, the untitled but traditional landholdings of Adivasi farmers haven’t been respected, and the government has been slow to update its list of Project Affected Families (PAFs)—the euphemism for people forcibly evicted from their homes, communities and livelihoods. An old man named Dharmabhai, at least 70 years old, tells us he’s not been declared as affected because his father—now long-dead—wasn’t declared. We are introduced to numerous people in a similar situation—displaced from their fields, forest, meadow, and river to be dumped into a tin shed with no means of livelihood.

The people of these villages are part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement, NBA), the 19 year peoples’ movement against large dams on the Narmada River. They have fought for many long years just to get this much. Only this past year, they staged two sit-ins outside of Mantralaya (the Maharashtra government offices), and a month long land occupation to make the government give them a piece of land they thought they could farm and which would be big enough to resettle their entire community. While they’re proud to have won this much after long years of unimaginably hard struggle, one doesn’t know whether to be happy or sad that what they’ve received—Vadchil—is one of the better rehabilitation sites of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). Anger and depression can be seen on their faces. They miss the valley. Some of the women say they dream of Narmada in their sleep.

* * *

A view of the Narmada from Busha, Maharashtra (near Bhilgaon). Pic: Mike Levien

It was only four months earlier in March that these villages were celebrating Holi on the large grassy maidan overlooking the river in Dhomkedi. People from neighbouring villages were joined by supporters from all over the country, knowing this to probably be the last celebration in this village, which has been at the heart of the struggle for many years. We loaded onto a full boat and, with the blue NBA flag—people with inter-linked arms standing in front of waves—flying aloft in the bow, began our way down the Narmada. The river-turned reservoir might be mistaken for a long, narrow lake if it weren’t for two incongruous features—a high water mark about eight metres above the current height, indicating where the floods came to in the previous monsoon, and scattered dead trees sticking out of the water.

After two hours of floating down this eerie waterscape, we disembarked in Nimgavhan, a village where countless NBA meetings have been held under the shade of an old Mahua tree on the bank of the river. Here the NBA runs a Jeevanshala (School of Life), which in the absence of any government school, provides Adivasi children with a meaningful and appropriate education, trying to balance their cultural traditions and language, the mainstream curriculum, and socio-political empowerment. The NBA has also, in the absence of any functioning government health clinic, created a health program based in Nimgavhan, with the help of two full-time volunteer doctors.

The walk from Nimagavhan to Dhomkedi took us through fields filled with the dry stubble of the harvest and over a rolling landscape, which, in Adivasi belief, is imbued with spiritual significance. After being invited in for tea at several homes, we arrived in Dhomkedi well after sunset. Beneath a clear night sky silhouetted by the mountains, hundreds of people had gathered to dance, drum, eat, and converse under the light of a full moon. The festivities continued through the night, culminating with men and boys in elaborate homemade costumes dancing around a large bonfire at dawn. In the morning, dry dhal and jaggery were eaten, puja performed, and processions of dancers and drummers made their way through each hamlet in the village.

In taking all this in, one couldn’t help but be moved by the vitality of these villages, made all the more poignant by the knowledge of their impending destruction. Amidst the bustle and celebration, it was difficult to imagine that this place, with all its memories and meanings, would soon be under the mute waters of a reservoir. A river goddess turned back against her supplicants.

* * *

It’s still hard to imagine these villages almost empty now. And yet, as disturbing as it is, the people of Nimgavhan and Dhomkedi have it good compared to many others. If completed to its full height of 138.6 metres, the Sardar Sarovar will displace over 200,000 families from 245 villages in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat with the reservoir alone (almost an equal number will be affected by the canal network, compensatory afforestation projects, the dam offices and colony, and other dam-related works). Only a small fraction of those already displaced have received the legally-guaranteed rehabilitation of two hectares of cultivable and irrigable land (in Gujarat or the family’s home state, according to their choice), resettlement as a community, and basic civic amenities.

In spite of this, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) decided in March to raise the dam height another ten metres to its current height of 110 metres. This, despite the legal requirement—in the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA) and subsequent Supreme Court decisions—that rehabilitation of all affected people be done before each incremental height increase, and the well documented fact that rehabilitation is far from complete in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Maharashtra even admitted as much to the NCA, which nevertheless, under pressure from Gujarat Chief Minister Modi and the Centre government during an election year, forced Maharashtra into acquiescing to a height increase anyway. Maharashtra’s own Task Force on the issue had identified at least 1,000 families that needed to be added to the PAF rolls and recommended an extensive resurvey of the area. Based on the Task Force findings and NBA surveys, there appear to be between 1,000 and 1,500 families who could be affected at the 110m dam height in Maharashtra who remain in the submergence zone without rehabilitation.

It was in this context that in early May, over 200 such families attempted to occupy a piece of government land in Maharashtra (they were turned back and staged a one month sit-in outside the site), and then in July sat in front of Mantralaya for three days during monsoon rains. These actions were withdrawn after encouraging promises from the Maharashtra government to complete the updating of the PAF list, and provide complete land-based rehabilitation. Nonetheless, this process is moving slowly, to say the least, and the long trail of broken government promises provides little ground for optimism.

Aug 7, 2004: Family on roof of submerged house in Kakrana, Alirajpur District, MP. Pic: Mike Levien

In Madhya Pradesh, where 193 of the 245 affected villages are located, the problem is far worse. Over 10,000 people are in the potential submergence zone this year. Yet, the MP government does not recognize thousands of these families as affected because they don’t have land titles or age certificates (which is very common in tribal areas), or because of faulty land surveys. Analysis of NCA documents shows that MP has chopped thousands more off the PAF list by fabricating an illegal distinction between “temporarily” and “permanently” affected families (ie. families whose lands will be submerged only during the monsoon season and those that will be submerged for the whole year), with the former not entitled to land-based rehabilitation. This distinction, suddenly introduced three years ago, has no basis in law or the practice of other states, and is illogical and callous given that crops and property will be destroyed whether flooded temporarily or permanently. It appears to be merely a strategy to erase families on paper who are inconvenient to rehabilitate in reality.

Meanwhile, even the families that the Madhya Pradesh government does recognize as affected have not been given cultivable land in the state. The government refuses to transfer public land or buy private land for oustees and is simply distributing cash compensation which is both illegal and inadequate for people to buy land with, or forcibly allotting land in Gujarat (which in many cases is uncultivable). The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA), Supreme Court decisions, and the loan agreement with the World Bank all agree that rehabilitation must be land-based, with the NWDTA further stating that the affected families have a right to stay in their home state.

The Madhya Pradesh government’s refusal to provide this has created the predictable situation in which many of those who have received cash compensation have spent it on immediate needs, and are left with no means of livelihood. Meanwhile, many who have been offered land in Gujarat have rejected it outright, demanding land in their own state, while others have returned to their original villages after finding the sites in Gujarat unlivable.

And yet, in spite of all this, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharathi and her government claim that rehabilitation is complete. One is left with the comfortless conclusion that truth, law, and justice are also being sacrificed to the dam, along with the homes of two lakh families.

* * *

The economic independence, along with the freedom and privacy of the open and unfenced expanse of the Valley cannot be found in a rehabilitation site. It's not difficult to see why project affected villages would not want to leave.
A short boat ride across the river from Nimgavhan brings you to the house of Gulabia Shankaria and his wife Pervi. Gulabia and his brothers Luharia and Gulalia are a jocular bunch, with warm smiles ready at the least provocation. The three husbands, wives, and children live in this small hamlet of Jalsindhi, Madhya Pradesh, nestled between the river and mountains. Together, they have a huge flock of cows, goats, and water buffalo, which wander up into the forest to graze in the afternoon, and return home in the morning. Sitting on a hand-made wooden cot in front of Gulabia’s house, one can take in the river, fields, and forest. These, mixed with their labour and ingenuity, provide them with food, fodder, fuel, house, furniture, tools, medicines, and the majority of their life needs. While life is not always easy, the scene is one of abundance.

Says Gulabia, “In our fields we grow many things like dhal, groundnuts, sesame, rice, corn, different kinds of vegetables and more. We can live from the work in the fields. In case we really need money, we have chicken that we can sell in the market. Otherwise we depend on ourselves.” This independence, along with the freedom and privacy of the open, unfenced expanse of the Valley, can’t be found in a rehabilitation site. It’s not difficult to see why they wouldn’t want to leave.

And indeed, the Shankarias and many of their neighbours have fought resolutely for the past 19 years just to stay where they are. They have participated in countless NBA sit-ins and rallies from Bhopal and Indore to Bombay and Delhi, where they have protested for their own sake and for that of others affected by the dam. They have fought cases in the Supreme Court (still ongoing), fasted for weeks, and been beaten and jailed more times than they can remember. Back in Jalsindhi, they have clung tenaciously to their land. The three families refused to move even when their ten-hectare front field was affected in the large floods of 1994, destroying their crops. That was the first “Monsoon Satyagraha” in Jalsindhi, where they and others faced the waters in protest, refusing to flee as the reservoir rose to engulf their homes—an action that attracted international attention and brought solidarity to the struggle.

In 1999, after a 5-year respite from dam construction during the NBA’s Supreme Court battle, Luharia’s house was flooded. During the monsoon of that year, and the three subsequent ones, their front field along the Narmada was again the site of Satyagraha. In the monsoon of 2002, they were pulled out only at the last minute with the water up to their necks.

Still, the people of Jalsindhi have not been compensated for their crop losses, and offered only meager cash compensation or bad land in Gujarat for their submerging fields and homes. The Shankaria families and many others have refused both, insisting that only cultivable land can provide a secure livelihood for them and their children. Says Gulabia, “The village is ours and we are the entitled owners of this land…. The government told us they will give us other land for what we have lost. But the land they offered to us in Gujarat was too bad to work and live on. We need our land because we live from it. Now it has already been submerged. We are not compensated for the harm that was done to our fields by the water. They have offered me money [instead of land], but I didn't take it. I need the land, that is all.”

Meanwhile, the Shankarias have shifted their homes to higher ground, and cultivate the land of other people who accepted rehabilitation in Gujarat. They remain in Jalsindhi with about 40 other families, refusing to leave. One gets the sense that they’ll never leave if the reservoir leaves them enough space to scratch out a living. Jalsindhi elder Bava Mahariya states, “By now, I do not trust the government any more. They promised to rehabilitate us, but they simply have no land that they can give to us. So no rehabilitation will take place…. I am firm and will fight. And even if all the other people from our village go away, I will stay here. This land, this whole place is so dear to me.” Gulabia affirms, ‘We will continue to fight till the end, till we die.”

* * *

With its 1400 MW of installed capacity, the SSP won't what a little generator has done —- provide a single Adivasi village in the valley with electricity.
Some two hours upstream, and 10km up the Udai, a tributary of the Narmada, is the village of Bhilgaon. By land a two hour jeep ride from the small Maharashtra town of Dhadgaon, Bhilgaon is a quiet picturesque village, with typical large Adivasi homes of earth and thatch set amidst inter-cropped fields of juvar, dhal, sesame, peanut, and numerous other crops. Bhilgaon has gained some public attention recently for a small experiment in sustainable energy. Two years ago, with the help of Peoples’ School of Energy in Kerala and Association for India’s Development, the villagers built a Micro-Hydroelectric generator, utilizing the village’s geographical position overlooking a waterfall. With their own collective labour, they built a diversion channel to bring water off stream, across some land, and into a holding tank, which in turn releases the water down through a turbine to generate electricity.

This small decentralized technology electrified every house in the village plus the school without uprooting a single tree, much less any families. The accomplishment is ironic when one thinks that the Sardar Sarovar with its 1400 MW of installed capacity won’t do what this little generator has done—provide a single Adivasi village in the valley with electricity. And when Maharashtra and MP were suffering a huge blackout, the lights in Bhilgaon shone on.

Bhilgaon village. Pic: Mike Levien

However, this small and inspiring effort—along with a large part of the village—is endangered by its exact antithesis: the massive SSP and its swelling reservoir. Upon first look, you wonder how this could be. It’s not even possible to see the Narmada from Bhilgaon. But, the village powerhouse operator assures me that the backwater from the dam at its full height will rise well above the generator and into the village above. Only after walking half of the 10km distance to the river does one come to a vantage point where you can see the gentle bend of the Narmada in the distance, beyond the winding Udai, and several high villages spread out over a large expanse of green. Then one appreciates just how massive the SSP reservoir will be (over 214 km long, and 16km at its widest), and can begin to visually understand the scale of this project, and the ambition—or hubris—behind it.

Indeed, the SSP seems not only inhuman in its level of destruction and its technological utopianism—it also seems doomed to failure. For, if anything, the SSP, with its technical complexity, profound yet vaguely understand environmental consequences, its financial mismanagement (criticised by the Comptroller Auditor General of India), the much-reported lagging construction of canal networks, and the complete failure to, in any way, rehabilitate all the affected people, shows the failure of human institutions to operate on this scale. The large, creaky, and corrupt Indian bureaucracy is certainly not exceptional in this respect. But, it’s difficult to see how any institutional arrangement of human beings could cope with the multiple effects of trying to meddle on such a large scale with complex social and ecological systems.

And thus one also understands the magnitude of the challenge that the Narmada Bachao Andolan has undertaken for the last 19 years. If the government with all of its resources can’t manage the implications of the project, how can a group of farmers and a band of scrappy activists operating on a hand-to-mouth budget possibly confront all of its social inequities and environmental impacts? The answer is it can’t, but it does its best with an impressive amount of grit, courage, and determination.

I’m reminded of this Andolan spirit while walking through the knee-high fields of juvar on the way back to Bhilgaon. Coming to a lookout over several lower plateaus, the sound of young people singing is discernible in the distance. It’s a familiar tune, one I’ve heard many times at NBA sit-ins and rallies. It’s about Adivasis, their culture, their right to the land. The young NBA activist I’m with let’s out a call to them in a mixture of Pawri, the local dialect, and Hindi:

“Jungle, jamin kudenche?” The forest and land, whose is it?

Momentary pause, followed by: “Amariche, amariche!” It’s ours, it’s ours!

“Vikas chahiye….” We want development!

“….vinaas nahi!” Not destruction!

“Hamaare gaon main….”, followed by a resounding “hamaare raj!” Our rule in our villages!

“Ladenge!” We will fight!

“Jitenge!” We will win!

“Narmadaaaaa Bachao!….” Save the Narmada!

“Manaaaaav Bachao!” Save humankind!

And so on, back and forth across the vast expanse of the valley. The spirit of the chants, echoing above the green monsoon-soaked land, spoke of a valley, a people, refusing to die. A valley galvanized and radicalized through almost two decades of fighting for its survival, and for the simple right to be left alone.

* * *

It’s been a war of both large and small battles. Beneath a tree on the border of two fields in the village of Bada Barda, one of the smaller, but no less inspiring ones is taking place. In this village of about 2000 people in the Nimad plains, outside of the glare of even local media, a group of about a dozen women are standing together in the pouring rain, chanting and singing. There’s a small group of men standing off to the side under umbrellas, but it’s not difficult to see who the moving force is here. The women have been in this spot since June 27, exactly one month ago, taking turns going home to cook, take care of their kids, and get some sleep.

The reason behind this quiet vigil is that the Madhya Pradesh government wants to relocate the houses of the 500 plus dam affected families in the village—onto their own farmland. While the government is not providing them with any alternative agricultural land or house plots, it wants them to sacrifice a large chunk of their fertile farmland for their own relocation. The villagers, led by the women, want the government to instead give them a hilly, rocky piece of government land a few kilometres away so that they can rebuild their houses without destroying any more of their fields than will already be consumed by the dam. So far, this spirited bunch of women has turned back the surveyors, electricity contractors, water suppliers, and the police. They vow not to budge until their demand is met. While in the grand scheme of things it may seem a small issue, for them it is the future of their village and what will be left for the coming generations.

Women on dharna in Bada Barda. Pic: Mike Levien

Bada Barda is one of 140 villages in the Nimad plains of Madhya Pradesh that is facing submergence by the SSP. Nimad lies east of the Adivasi hill region affected by the dam and is supposed to be the uppermost region flooded by the Sardar Sarovar reservoir. The common threat of the dam has drawn Nimad’s largely Hindu farmers into an unlikely, yet remarkably strong alliance with the downstream Adivasis, with whom they share little else in common. With wide valleys and prime fertile soils, Nimad is the most densely populated and prosperous area slated for submergence. It consists of large villages, sizeable market towns, good roads, cultural monuments including centuries-old mosques and temples, and significant medical and educational institutions.

The soils of Bada Barda are some of the best in the country, and its residents have built sophisticated irrigation systems that pump Narmada water as far as five kilometres inland. This has made it possible for farmers to grow several crops a year, including sugar cane, cotton, chilli, wheat, soyabean, chana, groundnut, dhal, maize and tobacco. Major fruits include papaya, banana, guava, lemon, oranges and sweet lime. In particular, the region is known for its papaya, or “Badwani ke Papite.” High quality watermelons also used to be grown in great quantity on the Narmada’s sandy banks, but this has reduced greatly due to the construction of the upstream Bargi and Tawa dams with their unseasonal and unannounced releases of water.

Nimad also has significant dairy production, including several dairy cooperatives. There are also at least 37 varieties of fish caught by fisherpeople in the Narmada as well as in inland lakes, although the river catch has decreased in recent years due to upstream dams. The produce of the region is sold in several significant market towns including Badwani and Anjad, which together have cotton mills, sugarcane mills, and dairy centres. Many products make their way to the markets of Indore, Jalgaon, Baroda, and Delhi.

In addition to its economic importance, the Narmada also has a large cultural and spiritual significance for Nimadis. The people living along the banks often claim that the Narmada is more sacred than the Ganga. A Hindu proverb says, “as wood is cut with a saw, so at the sight of the holy Narmada do a man’s sins fall away.” The name Narmada literally means “giver of bliss.” Believed to be born of the body of Shiva, every rock in the river is considered to be a miniature Shivalinga, and thus an object of worship. Riverside rituals and puja occur on the banks and in the many temples at various times of year. There are thousands of bhajans, or devotional songs, in praise of Narmada. To die on its banks is thought to guarantee Moksha, liberation from the cycle of birth and death. This spiritual and cultural importance of the Narmada makes people feel especially aggrieved about being displaced from it. In fact, it’s a loss not only to Nimadis—the banks of the Narmada here contain archaeological evidence (little of it preserved) that shows unbroken human habitation dating back to the Stone Age.

It is for all this that the people of Nimad, including farmer-activists such as Ashish Mandloi, Devrambhai Kanera, and Kamala Yadav, have fought with every ounce of their energy. Under the tree in Bada Barda, it is Kamaladidi, as she is known in the movement, who is providing the motivational support to this group of women. A kind, motherly, but tough-as-nails activist, Kamaladidi has been with the Andolan since it’s beginning. From a farming family in nearby Chota Barda, whose land will be affected by the dam, she has tirelessly organized women in villages throughout the dam-affected area. Since the movement’s inception, she has hardly missed an action or program anywhere, whether it be for the Adivasis in the mountains or her own community in the plains. She’s been beaten and jailed, fasted for weeks, and stood defiantly in the rising monsoon waters. Toughness and a no-nonsense wisdom, bred from long years of struggle, are written on her face. When asked what keeps her going after all these years, she says simply, “We feel we are fighting a true battle. We are not against development. What we have been saying is that throwing us from our homes is not development. This conviction has carried us through all these years.”

* * *

After a slow start, the monsoon rains have been falling steadily for the past week. In the NBA office in Badwani, Madhya Pradesh, there is a dry-erase board which keeps track of the daily increase in water height. It’s a grim measurement, as each metre means the destruction of more homes and fields. Nearby, in the hills of the Valley and the plains of Nimad, thousands of families face the prospect of dislocation this month with nowhere else to turn. Others, who will be spared this year, continue on with their lives knowing that they will suffer the same fate if the dam is built higher. In the few actual resettlement sites, people try to reconstruct their lives, and soothe the wounds of separation that will never heal. In the halls of power, meanwhile, bureaucrats and politicians hide behind procedures, statistical manipulations, and abstractions such as “development” and “the greater good of the nation.”

The struggle continues, however, and can be heard in the songs and chants echoing across the Narmada Valley. The dam can still be stopped at its present height, preventing a large part of the destruction. Dislocated families can still be justly rehabilitated.

Is anyone listening?