Vol. 2 No. 5                                "India is the cradle of the human race... " - Mark Twain
December 2007 "Canada is one of the oldest federations the planet still has up and running." - Roy MacGregor

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 The Narmada Struggle:
The Fight to Secure Rehabilitation Rights for the Oustees 
in the Face of Democratic Crises
- Part I I

Ashwin Parulkar 

I attended this year’s Bhopal dharna from June 29 through July 10.  It was evident to me that state reform on rehabilitation is a struggle on multiple fronts.  I observed the intensity with which the dharnas are carried forth; the persistence an indication that ceaseless protest and action is the only chance the valley has in combating the multiple ills presently in opposition to their goal of achieving just rehabilitation.  These include false surveying, state deforestation, institutionalized violence, and inadequate dialogue between the state and the Narmada inhabitants.  

Before arriving in Bhopal I spent an entire day with Laxmi Narayan Bhai, a villager from affected area of the Indira Sagar site, and Pradeep, a Delhi University undergraduate student. We  helped load people from neighboring villages near Khirkya into the train on their way to the dharna for Bhopal. Laxmi Narayanbhai’s village was submerged in 2004.

I asked him “What do you believe the outcome of your participation in the struggle will be? How has the movement impacted your life?” 

He replied “The Andolan has given us a voice which was not there before. We cannot stop fighting for what is right and what is ours because we have no choice.  This fight has been going on for twenty or so years and will continue to go on until we get our rights.”

The conviction of his statement was matched by the intensity of the rally to Tin Shed in Bhopal and the events thereafter involving villagers, activists, and visitors who came in support; including a youth group who sung protest and folk songs while the 5,000 Narmada oustees in attendance sung along nightly beginning at around 8:00 and lasting sometimes for two hours. 

The major impediment to the villagers – and what allows for the previously mentioned behavior to continue - is the culture within the state, whose vision of governance, society, and the future of the nation, is based on exclusion. In other words,  state inaction and indifference to the people’s needs is an indication that the decision-makers responsible for executing legislation, and yet refuse to do so, believe that adivasis are disposable because they aren’t integral to growth of the national economy, and thus the “development” of a modernized nation. 

Failure to comply with legislation is perhaps also influenced by the belief that the elimination of poverty en route to a fully developed society  requires eliminating those who live in those conditions by expropriating their resources for profit instead of measuring development on the basis of the quality of life lived by  its citizens. 

Increased agitation amongst oustees, the NBA, intermediate organizations, activists, students, writers, increases the visibility of an alternate model of nationhood.  Progressive change in the name of development cannot exclude populations within the nation; in the same nation.  We’re thus constantly reminded of the association between local needs (or problems) and national needs by a network of dissenters within the Narmada Valley (the NBA and the oustees)  and outside of it (various parties mentioned above) who close the perceived gap between the notion that problems existing in one locality bears no importance to those in a neighboring or separate one. 

This connection between local crises and national ones has just as much of a social significance as an economic one; as well as a combination of the two therein. 

 It’s no secret that 70% of India’s economy is agrarian.  The country is also currently self-sufficient in food supply.  Yet, even cash-crop farmers trading their surplus in the market are struggling with zero subsidies in the post 1991 liberalization era (farmers in developed economies such as the US receive up to 70-80% subsidies) since the rapid emergence of Special Economic Zones.  SEZs provide tax free land and natural resources utilized for agricultural production to large multi-national companies for industrial use. 

Since the opening of the economy there has been no gradation or ease of entry of foreign capital into the country (recent disasters in Nandigram should highlight this point). Natural resource confiscation is the modus operandi for centralized development projects (i.e. large dams) and Special Economic Zones (SEZ) alike. In the case of dams it’s land is sacrificed for water confiscation to sell to industrial and urbanized companies.  In the case of SEZs land is directly confiscated for commodification; both processes achieve the same end: displacing people who’ve used the land in an equitable capacity, at no expense to the market economy. 

What, then, does the transformation of the nation’s changing landscape - due to the current situation- entail for the Indian national economy?  How do these transformations affect those that live in those areas most and how will the impact on their livelihood and quality of life as well as those of their descendants in the long run? How will this change impact society at large?  And how – through enacting substantive, inclusive democracy outside the conventional channels offered by the state – will the people ensure their rights so that future economic, social, and cultural stability is revived, retrieved and assured? 

The Narmada Valley is home to  both cash-crap farmers as well as subsistence level adivasis. With regard to the Indian economy it’s no mistake that nearly all of the areas under submergence are inhabitated by subsistence based adivasi farmers.  The state view is that the adivisas’ maintenance of their once cultivable land offers no generative utility to the national economy as a whole; which – in their eyes – justifies the expropriation of their resources (most notably, water) for profit; masking these reasons behind electricity generation and water distribution to the masses.  Yet, as we’ve seen in the case of the Indira Sagar and Omkrashwar dams significant electricity generation has yet to be measured.  Water distribution in the case of Sardar Sarovar has been a failure as the most drought prone regions of Kuch and Sarushtra have received no relief and only a negligible percentage of the water distribution was marked for those territories in the first place.  Sanjay Sangvai had also pointed out in his extensive study, River and Life, that several petro chemical plants as well as sugar cane factories had been commissioned in and around the Narmada Valley. Though the adivasis do not participate in the traditional market economy as such, their maintenance of the fertile lands and their commitment to preserve its generative capacity without violating it through wasteful agricultural methods provides the country an environmental benefit, at a time when heavy industrialization employs water intensive practices (i.e. sugar cane) and the burning of fossil fuels surpassing industrial/environmental standards. 

 If the government offers no cultivable land to the oustees, the region could experience a boom in poverty unseen in modern development as well as the economic drawbacks of the dam’s inability to fulfill obligations on equitable water distribution and electricity generation through a public goods capacity.  This would  then give the upper hand to those private companies who’ve a stake in the water sources they’ve bought, creating a situation of water privatization seen in countries like Bolivia in 2000. The NBA’s fight for rehabilitation is in the interest of securing cultivable land so the villagers who’s lives are based on subsistence can continue living in those ways for the indefinite future.  To assure the right to a just and equitable life to those who live within the society.  

Currently, their mode of living has been completely reversed.  Instead of living completely sustainable lives through the utilization of their own resources, they’re now completely dependant on the will of the government.  Or, the lack thereof.  If the government does not comply with the orders set forth, the oustees will be completely dependant on the power-brokers in control of the natural resources they once owned for their own use (without disturbing or exploiting anyone in the process) and hence, forced into the market based economy against their will in order to survive. And once more, there will be added pressure on the public goods sector to own up to their promises then; but it will likely be unable to with the astronomical increase in demand should there be no adequate rehabilitation implemented.     

I think the next two questions would best be supplemented by a personal narrative.  The following is my own experience in the submerged regions in the Narmada Valley, where I first asked myself the questions to begin with, and believe now, that no answer is possible without proper visualization of the problems which cause one to ask the question to begin with.  

When traveling through the submerged regions the first thing one notices is how much of the valley is simply gone. Trees indigenous to the valley such as the Teak, Neem, Mauwa, and Peepal, utilized for furniture making, house building, oil extraction, and medicinal purposes, once – before deforestation and of course backwater submergence – grew in abundance are scarce. One has to travel from village to village by boat.  Sometimes – as was the case during my trip – you must wait all day for one to arrive.  It’s strange seeing the tops of trees poking out of the water, but it’s a reality when traveling by boat from one village to another. 

Those living in these areas have been forced into the hills. I’ll admit, before I saw it with my own eyes, I couldn’t visualize the landscape, with little understanding of the terrain.  These hills were rocky. Mountainous. As I moved further up, the fear gathered in me while looking down, realizing they were more like small mountains and cliffs, with nothing between me and the ground but jagged rocks and barren, broken trees sticking out of additional cliffs on the underside. Walking from one person’s house to the next and is a hard journey in and of itself. Sometimes, the journey can take an hour, or more. This was the case in Badul. Sometimes the homes are built on the slant of the hill. And when the rains are hardest during the monsoons, as we’d experienced, the water gets into the house creating mud inside, weakening the reeds and thin woods used to make the house, which was made in haste out of necessity in the first place.  While in Jal Sindhi, the rains were so hard the roof of the NBA Jeevanshalah came off completely.

Part I


To be concluded...




Ashwin Parulkar, currently a graduate student at Syracuse University in Syracuse, NY, USA., has spent two consecutive summers ('06 and '07) in the Narmada Valley in India, analyzing, researching, and observing development policy in the region as well as crises in local and state democracy, and social movements interaction with the state to wrest or negotiate rights of those they represent. Through this lense, he's followed closely the events of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the ousted villagers they represent
in the area.



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