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Last Updated: 03/05/2013
Voices from the Narmada River
Leon Mach

Leon Mach shares his reflections after a study tour of the Narmada River Valley with Medha Patkar, a community organizer and tireless advocate of "people oriented development", illustrated by the beautiful photography of Kelsea Schumacher.

Tags: Medha Patkar, Narma River, conservation, development, community, justice, livelihoods, ecosystem services, Sardar Sarovar Dam, globalization.

The story of the Narmada River valley is in many ways the story of India. Flowing westward from the highlands in Amarkantak and passing through three states before reaching the Arabian Sea, the Narmada River in central India is the geographical and figurative dividing line between India’s north and south. Like India, the river is both ancient and modern; a symbol of what was and what is possible – all evident in even a brief drive through the valley.

For an American suburbanite like me, the subsistence communities that have coevolved with the Narmada’s banks for centuries caught my eye first. In India, these communities are called Adivasis or tribals, and they can be seen growing and drying radiant red chili peppers across plush green fields; cutting sugarcane stalks, bundling, and carting them off; and walking sacred cows throughout the streets, their horns painted powder blue and their bells jingling slowly as they pull carts and make their way to pasture. It seems Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of an India comprising sustainable and self-reliant agriculturalists has a contemporary home.

This bucolic scene appears nestled quite neatly alongside multi-megawatt dam facilities and thermal power plants, industrial sites, and kilometers upon kilometers of manmade canals (some operative, others begun and abandoned, and many under construction): the Nehruvian dream of a secularized, industrialized, modern country (French, 2011) making its way along Rostow’s linear development path (Rostow, 1960), one infrastructural improvement at a time. The apparent equilibrium between the aspirations of these two iconic visionaries of Indian independence quickly erodes when you step out of the car and begin to hear the stories from the tribal communities in the area, an opportunity I was able to experience as an honorary member of Medha Patkar’s ad-hoc motorcade. You learn promptly that the river valley remains a battleground for India’s identity – with many projects proposed, stalled, and currently being fought over in the implementation of the Narmada Valley Development Plan (NVDP). The NVDP is an incomplete master plan that involves constructing more than 3,000 dams of varying sizes and an extensive canal network to divert water from agricultural uses in Madhya Pradesh to corporates in Gujarat, where water is scarce, but political power is abundant.

Metha Patkar’s Motorcade

I was traveling as part of a study group composed of graduate students from both the University of Delaware’s Center for Energy and Environmental Policy (CEEP) as well as Korea University’s Green School, organized by Nobel Laureate and CEEP Department Chair, John Byrne. Our nine student delegation, representing four countries (US, Taiwan, Argentina, and South Korea), was in India seeking to understand the unique and complex conservation and development issues born in one of the world’s most highly populated and rapidly developing countries. Of all the places we visited, the Narmada story proved most illustrative of how the sometimes abstract concepts of conservation and development play out in the real world.

We spent three days of this study tour visiting communities along the Narmada River Valley. Our guide, Medha Patkar, is a Right Livelihoods Award winner and activist for the people of the Narmada Valley, and she has been fighting against development injustice throughout India for decades. Medha has become the figurehead for both the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), an association for many “people-oriented development” movements, as well as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement), which is associated with the NAPM and specifically dedicated to protecting the democratic rights of Narmada Valley citizens through information sharing, community organizing, and legal representation. Medha has been beaten, arrested, and held hostage, and she has fasted, marched, and spoken at international delegations throughout her near thirty-year struggle for justice in the Narmada River Valley – an effort that began during her PhD field work at the Tata Institute of Social Science and which eventually skewed her lifework away from academia towards activism.

I knew we were to meet Medha in Khalghat, Madhya Pradesh, but I was ill-prepared for the level of fanfare that would accompany our arrival. More than fifty community members from this town swarmed our cars, showered us with confetti, chanted, and banged on drums. I knew what Medha looked like from pictures, seemingly so subdued; but when I first saw her in person she raised her fist and shouted, “Lorehngay!” The other villagers in unison responded by shouting the word, “Geetengay.” I later learned that this particular call-and-answer chant means “we will fight and we will win” and is only one of many chants I would become familiar with as part of the common language that binds linguistically diverse tribal communities together in shared struggle throughout the valley.

Everywhere we stopped it seemed Medha had organized an ad-hoc community meeting. We were typically received with flowers, local fruits and chants (and in one case fire dances), following which we would settle into a community meeting where all members gathered to learn the latest news from Medha. They would then be granted space to voice their grievances and share their thoughts. Medha helped to ensure smooth flow of the meetings and sought to elicit as many voices as possible to share with us. She seemed to have an innate sense of when someone wanted to speak but was overcome by shyness. She would call them by name and reassuringly nod her head, which proved enough to pass along the courage. During each meeting, she could be seen leading chants, asking for input, delivering information calmly as well as passionately, and even gently quieting children. Most villagers just seemed to want to tell us what was happening, in hopes that we could take their story beyond the banks of the river and beyond India to the strange places we had come from. Others seemed to find some bit of solace just being heard by foreigners and knowing that there was outside interest in their struggle.

The hardest part to process is that among all the people we heard from, what they wanted was to be left alone to live as they wish on the lands that have sustained them and their families for generations. And if they are forced to leave their land, most simply want equal compensation for what is to be flushed away from them; in other words, justice. Most of what follows is born from the stories gathered in the seven villages we visited. What I learned is that behind each development project in the valley – whether completed, up for alteration, or proposed -- there is a tale with different characters, timelines and end results. Each story, however, has a common sinew, and when the people telling these stories are organized and united, much can be achieved in the name of justice and a great deal can be learned about how to fight and win against powerful special interests armed with foreign capital.

The submerged

“Submergence area” is a zoning code bestowed upon places that will no longer be able to safely sustain human life after an anthropocentric alteration to river flow. Dam and canal creation, for hydro-electric power generation or water redistribution, are typically responsible for such modifications. When a river, like the Narmada, evolves over centuries to contain and channel the flow of water, any disruption can cause the river to flood its banks. This is why much of the land area behind a dam project becomes submerged in often unpredictable ways, not to mention the fact that the canal network, which diverts water from the river to other areas, must be carved out of fertile land where people once lived and produced. Submergence area is thus a euphemism for a sacrifice zone (Lerner, 2010). Naturally productive lands and waters that have sustained fishermen and agriculturalists for centuries, as well as the socially significant religious and cultural sites in these areas, are essentially drowned at the will of politicians and industrialists with little if any community consultation or deliberation. This process is the incarnation of accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2003) described by dependency theorists. Medha says the system of economic valuation used to justify development projects in the valley is a farce: “It is clear that the ones being deemed poor are in fact the rich…. This is why they must be robbed, looted and oppressed in the name of urban economic development.” She went on to explain that the real wealth in this world lies in the natural resources that sustain human life, but that these are constantly being de-valued in the specious cost-benefit calculations that often justify such large infrastructural projects.

One source of the undervaluation of human life and livelihoods used in the cost-benefit calculations is in understating the number of people living in a region to be submerged. There are government programs associated with relocating and rehabilitating those who must be displaced. The associated costs must be included in the overall cost of a project, but there is little effort to gather an honest tally of the number of people who will be affected. Further, many of the displaced complain that they are not given land comparable to what was taken from them. Many of the displaced people we heard from said that they were relocated to land with rocky soils and unreliable municipal water access.

Land for Land

One strategy undertaken by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) movement has been to move towards a more accurate and holistic cost accounting process. The first step has been to help discover the actual number of people displaced by past projects. This is to ensure that those displaced without compensation not only get something form of retribution, but that they are given compensation equal to what was taken. NBA is also trying to help assess the true displacement numbers for proposed projects to ensure that the costs associated with relocating people in the future are more accurate up front. ‘Land for land’ is an aspect of this process seeking to require by law that displaced people receive land with equal access to water and soil fertility, as well as capital, to help transition to new livelihoods.

Ecosystem services

A major outcome of the sustainable development movement has been to try to assess value for ecosystem services, placing dollar amounts on things like riparian buffers, wildlife habitats, and hydrological replenishment. These efforts almost always lead to the undervaluation of nature, especially where water is concerned – a finite resource human ingenuity cannot create. NBA wants to bring attention to how the water scarcity issues in this monsoonal area will be exacerbated by many of the proposed infrastructure projects. First, the canal construction and associated excavation debris will create barriers to the natural hydrological cycle in the region. These structures will prevent aquifer replenishment, as less water will be able to percolate through the soil and regenerate the stock of freshwater underground.

Also, the water diverted to thermal power plants is fouled during the electricity generation process and returned to the waterways untreated. This affects the quality of the water available to all other users and will eventually require expensive water treatment facilities. How do we account for the impacts of polluted waters and depleted aquifers when deciding if a project will increase the net benefits of society? The NBA seeks to ask such questions to both the governments who sanction these projects as well as their international financiers.

Satyagraha to stop financing

The NBA has been instrumental in asking the right questions and trying to insert truth (satya) and democracy into the decision making processes in the Narmada Valley. They have also helped to organize the people in demonstrations of firmness (agraha) in defense of the truth. Gandhi and his colleague invented Satyagraha or “force which is born of truth and love” as an ideological base for launching hunger strikes, marches, and demonstrations against both injustice to Indians in South Africa as well as British colonial injustice in India (Gandhi, 1955:68). Medha and the NBA have also staged hunger strikes and marches since the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam (largest and most critical portion) in 1988. The 21 day hunger strike in 1991 nearly claimed Medha’s life, but it also led to the World Bank eventually pulling its funding from this project.

Lessons learned

Truth, organization, and constant displays of peaceful force as activism are what lead to the proper balance of conservation and development in any setting. I have mentioned here some key strategies used by the NBA – organizing communities for a common goal, questioning bureaucratic cost accounting for development projects, legal battles for human rights and justice, and mass displays of peaceful force and courage. None of these tactics work on their own, however, and every battle won here must be re-fought when the funding sources change and new strategies arise to continue stalled portions of this project.

One thing is certain: the memories of those who have fought and died to keep the Narmada a natural flowing river and constant provider of sustainable livelihoods – rather than a than a resource to be dominated, tamed, and harnessed for the dreams of a secularized, urbanized, and modern India – remain within a new round of fighters. Despite the continued resistance, however, the post-independence years have witnessed much of the natural flow being sacrificed in the name of greater development and ‘progress’ for India. But the fight rages on and stakes have never been higher. The winners of the conservation-versus-development tug-of-war happening throughout this basin will in many ways dictate the future of the subcontinent as it continues to forge its place in the globalized world.

French, P. (2011). India: A portrait. London: Allen Lane.

Gandhi, M. (1955). The Story of my Life. Navajivan Publishing House. Ahmedabad. Edited by Kumarappa.

Harvey, D. (2003). The new imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lerner, S. (2010). Sacrifice zones: The front lines of toxic chemical exposure in the United States. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Rostow, W. W. (1960). The stages of economic growth: A non-Communist manifesto. Cambridge [Eng.: University Press.

Leon Mach is a PhD candidate and research assistant at the University of Delaware studying energy and environmental policy. Photographs courtesy of Kelsea Schumacher.