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Abeja Dispatch

Endangered: The Ancient Communities of the Narmada River
May 10, 2000

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Bali beyen, Amba beyen and Kapila beyen speak with Medha Patkar
The small group of huts sat on the edge of Kevadia Colony, a dreary settlement of rows of concrete block apartments. I slipped off my sandals and ducked out of the hot morning sun, into a large thatched home. On the dirt floor, a group of about 30 men and women sat around, speaking in serious voices. The women, wrapped in colorful saris, welcomed me to sit with them. One face I recognized from pictures as Medha Patkar. She is one of the many heroes I have met in the last several days, as I journey along the Narmada River in Western India.

Smaller and darker than the Indians I've met in Bombay, these people (except Medha) are known as Adivasi, or tribals. They are descendants of the ancient tribes, which settled along the Narmada River valley in prehistoric times. Their ancestors were here long before the Aryan people swept into India around 1500 BCE. Human civilization is so old in the Narmada River Valley that archaeologists have even found the remains of Homo Erectus!

These villagers had been farming and fishing along the Narmada River in much the same way as their ancient ancestors - until very recently. Older villagers could tell me the story from the beginning, but anyone younger than 40 could only tell me of the consequences.

You see, until 1961, there was no such thing as Kevadia Colony. Back then, this land supported six Adivasi villages. Little did people know that big plans were being made for their land.

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Mohan Caka remembers a time before the dam. Now he struggles for his grandchildren's future
One day, while the crops were growing tall, some government officials showed up, followed by bulldozers. "Someone very important is coming," the villagers were told, and their crops were bulldozed into the ground. Then a helicopter came, and a man stepped out, surrounded by so many guards that he could barely be seen. This man was Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of Independent India. He made a speech and then pushed a button, causing an explosion on the other side of the river.

Nehru climbed into his helicopter, and went back to all the meetings, speeches and traveling that politicians do. I wonder if he had any idea what he started that day. Did he know that almost 40 years later, the 900 families displaced by this colony would still be landless, living as squatters and working as wage laborers on the land that once was theirs? Did he know that this huge dam he wanted would still not be finished? Could he have possibly imagined this group of poor, mostly illiterate peasants, with little experience in the ways of "the modern world," organizing to fight the government for their rights?

Kevadia Colony is a good place for me to start this journey, because it is where the work on the Sardar Sarovar Dam began, as a colony for dam workers. Medha introduced me to Bali beyen, Amba beyen and Kapila beyen, the three ladies sitting in front of me, and the oldest man in the room, Mohan caka. I later learned that beyen means "little sister," and that didi, which is what everyone calls Medha, means "big sister." Caka means "uncle."

"These women have fought very hard. They have all been very active in the struggle from the beginning," Medha told me. Her admiration and love for them was clear in her words and in her eyes. We wanted to stay and chat longer. I wanted to hear their story for myself. But that day I was traveling with Medha, and we had other villages to visit.

In the car, Medha began to tell me the story of the struggle to save the Narmada River Valley and the people who live here. The car bumped and weaved and honked its way through rural India, past fields and dry hills, around buffalo-drawn carts and motorcycles carrying entire families, with saris blowing in the breeze and children hanging on tight. I pulled out my tape recorder, since I couldn't take notes bouncing around like that, and began to learn a story that I am still trying to understand.


Homo Erectus - the first man to walk upright, approximately 250,000 - 1.6 million years ago
Third World - the underdeveloped nations of the world
submerge - to put under water
inundated - covered by a flood
irrigation - supplied with water

After India gained its independence from Great Britain in 1949, the government wanted to modernize. It followed the examples and the advice of Western countries and development agencies on how a Third World country should develop. Large scale, ambitious plans for dams were made for almost all of the rivers in India. Nehru believed that dams would solve India's water problems, increase agricultural production and provide energy to growing industries. "Dams are temples of modern India!" he claimed.

Big plans were made for the Narmada River. There would be 30 large dams, 135 medium-sized dams, and 3,000 small dams. Miles and miles of canals would bring water for irrigation to farmers far away. Huge reservoirs would be created to hold drinking water for the large cities, and hydroelectric plants would give the energy necessary to bring India into the modern world. Sounds like a great idea, doesn't it?

Well, this is the largest democracy in the world, so what do the people think? The city people who were promised water and electricity - and were not told of any of the social or environmental costs of the dams - thought it sounded great. But what about the nearly one million people who live in the Narmada River Valley, who will lose their homes, their livelihood and their communities? And what of those countless thousands who will lose their land to the world's largest planned canal system? Are they willing to make that sacrifice?

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This huge canal is part of the largest canal system being built in the world. But where's the water?
Who cares? Not the Indian government, obviously. On paper, it intends to resettle everyone displaced by the dam projects. In reality, it didn't even bother to TELL the people that their homes would be submerged, much less ask their opinion or resettle them!

When the Bargi Dam, the first large dam, was finished in 1985, the government thought that 101 villages would be submerged. When the waters rose, 162 villages were inundated, as the surprised people scrambled to save what they could from their homes. The government had set aside some land for these people, but 22 of these sites were also submerged. Other resettlement sites were either too rocky to farm or had no source of water, or already had people living on them. Today, not one of the thousands of families displaced by the Bargi Dam has received rehabilitation from the government. The slums of nearby cities are home to these impoverished, landless people.

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Where will these boys go, once the dam is built?
But now there is this dam, right? Can't the people farm all that rich land that is being irrigated by the water from the reservoir? Unfortunately, only five percent of the expected irrigation has been achieved. The cost of the canals wasn't figured into the dam cost. And since construction of the dam already cost almost nine times as much as was expected, there is no money to finish the project.

But, it seems, there IS money to continue building MORE dams.

Medha came to this valley as a social worker in the mid-1980s, concerned about whether the people to be affected by the next dam, the Sardar Sarovar, were being rehabilitated properly. This dam started in 1961 with the construction of Kevadia Colony. "When we walked through the villages for about two and a half days, and met the became obvious that the villages were not informed about anything, and no one knew what would be their fate," Medha said. "And they did not know about the project, nor about the rehabilitation. So this was totally unjust. I just made up my mind, the first visit itself, to come here...I felt that this was a small replica of the macro issue."

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These fisherfolk offer me chai (tea), in a village that will be inundated by the Sardar Sarovar dam
Medha walked from village to village along the Narmada River, informing people of the government's plans and helping them organize themselves. Many of the villages organized into the Narmada Bachao Andolan (or NBA), which means "Save Narmada Coalition." At first the NBA people didn't oppose the dams; they only demanded information on them and on the resettlement programs. When the government refused them information, they gathered it themselves and found that the government statistics were very wrong - from underestimating how many people and how much land would be affected, to overestimating how much energy would be produced and how much water would be saved. The Bargi Dam disaster only serves to prove them right.

Food for Thought
"At the very least, without complete and just resettlement of all those who have already been displaced; without a review of the project through a new tribunal with people's hearings, if work on the dam proceeds, to such injustice we shall give the ultimate nonviolent challenge. That is Sacrifice in Water.

"This is not frustration, fear or helplessness, exhaustion or defeat. Nor is it escape from the struggle, rather it is taking the struggle to its height, for the sake of true development. This war will be fought with equanimity instead of hatred, peace instead of violence.

"If this situation does not arise, we also want to live intensely and with all the joy and beauty of life. We have to bring in the people's rule in this country sans exploitation and oppression; we want to flourish with nature and nature with us."

--Medha Patkar, 11 July 1999, concluding 8 days silence and fast
Medha and other activists and villagers have told me incredible stories of courage and strength. For the next few weeks, you'll meet these villagers and hear, in their own words, about their lives and about their struggles. So many villagers have risked their lives over this issue. Hundreds have refused to leave their villages as the water behind the dam rises each monsoon season, chanting, "We will drown but we won't leave." Some have gone on hunger strikes, demanding that the government acknowledge their concerns and study the true impact of the programs. Several female protestors have been raped by police, and one young boy was shot and killed by the police during a protest. I am humbled and inspired by the things I am learning.


Grassroots organization to save the Narmada River Valley
International Rivers Network website

Right now, there is a case being heard in the Supreme Court of India, where the NBA is challenging the government and trying to stop the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam once and for all. I asked Medha if she was planning on going to the hearings, and she said that she wasn't. "I decided not to go to the court, because of an announcement that I am sacrificing my life if this dam goes higher. And now going to the court and sitting in front of them all is not necessary for me."

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The car bumped, the horn beeped, India sped by outside the car. At first, I didn't hear. Only later did it hit me. "If this dam goes higher, I will dedicate myself to the river." She said it so calmly, as if it were just any simple fact. Medha Patkar, this strong and compassionate woman, so loved and admired by everyone who meets her, is pledging the ultimate sacrifice. If the villages get submerged - if the Sardar Sarovar goes even one inch higher - she will give her life to the river. The judge knows this. The people of the villages know this. And now I know this. I am awestruck, speechless.

My pledge to myself, so minor in comparison, is to use my writing to help save this river, to save the forests and the croplands that line her shores, to save the ancient communities. Won't you help me?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at

Jasmine - The Lovely and Legendary Ms. Suneeta Rao
Monica - Development That Works
Andrew - I Don't Care if that Croc is Vegetarian - I'm Still Not Swimming with Him! And Other Forms of Refreshment in Udaipur

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