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Politics Over Narmada, Once Again

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Narmada Bachao Andolan

Indian organization
THIS IS A DIRECTORY PAGE. Britannica does not currently have an article on this topic.

Alternative Titles:
NBA, Narmada Dharangrastra Samiti, Save the Narmada

Learn about this topic in these articles:

role of Patkar

  • In Medha Patkar

    …which in 1989 became the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA; Save the Narmada). The NBA’s major aim was to provide project information and legal representation to the concerned residents of the Narmada valley.

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Narmada Bachao Andolan
Indian organization

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SocialStory

The Narmada Bachao Andolan legacy and how it created a generation of activists in India

Medha Uniyal      
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The Narmada Bachao Andolan redefined activism and cradled a whole generation of gallant dissenters. But where does it stand today?

Source: Flickr/ Joe Athialy

I walked down the weather-beaten road of Jhanda Chowk in the direction that, I was told, would lead me to the office of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in Khandwa,  Madhya Pradesh. Trudging along under the 47-degree sun, I couldn’t help but muse over the glorious images of intrepid activism, sweeping support, and pandemic influence that the name NBA invokes. Undeniably, I entered the office expecting to walk into a maelstrom of hustle-bustle, the least you’d expect at the epicentre of a movement that shook the nation.

I took many by surprise by deciding to work with the NBA. Friends and family questioned my decision to spend a summer vacation working in rural parts of central India. But beneath the cursory queries, the one reservation that was common across all, and about which I too started wondering, was the purpose of this visit. Being born in the ’90s, I and many around me missed the country’s most glorious years of gallant activism. We were born into an already-constructed dam. And so, to an extent, the constantly repeated question—“The dam is made, what now?”—was justified.

Source: Flickr/ India Water Portal

Of struggle and reconstruction

The NBA emerged as an enraged but inevitable reaction to the Narmada Valley Developmental Project that announced a vision of 30 large, 135 medium, and 3,000 small dams on the Narmada and its tributaries. At that time, numerous protest groups, student factions, NGOs, and transnational networks were already leading the three dam-affected states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra. Among them was a youth group in Gujarat, Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini, which worked for generous rehabilitation packages and ensuring that the government upheld its promises. In contrast, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra saw groups that had moved from demanding better compensation to seeking a complete closure of such projects. Narmada Ghati Navnirman Samiti (Madhya Pradesh) and the Narmada Ghati Dharangrastha Samiti (Maharashtra) subsequently merged to form the NBA in 1989.

While calling for a halt on dam construction, the group concurrently proposed developmental alternatives to combat the problems of irrigation, electricity, and drinking water. However, it wasn’t merely an attack on the dams. The struggle revolved around putting accountability in place—accountability of the World Bank for the project claims and accountability of the government for the project impact. The movement, with Medha Patkar at its helm, had started off primarily as a protest against the Sardar Sarovar Dam but soon encapsulated Maheshwar, Indira Sagar, Omkareshwar, Maan, Beda, Goi, and Jobaat dams. People took to the principle of ‘struggle and reconstruction’ or ‘Sangharsh aur Navnirman’, an ideological stand that outlines the foundation of this long-drawn movement.

Protest against harrassment of activists of Narmada Bachao Andolan; Source- Flickr/ Joe Athialy

Demigods and their devotees

I came to realise that my conception of the movement was in stark contrast with the reality. Celebrity presence has dwindled, mass solidarity splintered, and the seemingly invincible fortification has crumbled. Shots of drama had been captured, the anguish written about, and tragedy archived. The crusade that once penetrated every household through the exhaustive media coverage soon saw everyone move on.

Even with this awareness, I wasn’t prepared to find just a minuscule structure behind the movement of this stature. The entire andolan in MP, with five large dam-affected regions in its ambit, rests on the shoulders of two—Chittaroopa Palit and Alok Aggarwal, who joined the movement young, soon after acquiring the best of the country’s education from Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) respectively. The Valley rises to their names. The news of their arrival sets in motion a flurry of activity. Women abandon their chores, men return from their fields, and the village elders squabble to play host to Silviji and Alok Bhai as they are fondly called. In a late-night storytelling session during my first tour alone, Kailashji, a venerable resident of Sulgaon, made an electrifying analogy comparing Alok to Lord Krishna and Silvi to Goddess Durga. Yes, they have attained demigod status.

Fishworkers and boatmen assert their right to water and fisheries in Sardar Sarovar. Source: NBA

Their actions that once flustered the town folk soon gained popular acceptance and eventually spurred positive change. They sat with people on the floor instead of using chairs like upper castes, went to the labourers’ area, supported inter-caste marriages, and encouraged women’s education. They broke pre-existing social norms and moulded new, liberal ones. However, despite this large loyalty base, the two have consciously steered clear of attention. “Growing with the movement is alright, but becoming bigger than the movement is not,”—what Silvi had casually said to me on our first day together, I now realise, adds up to the overall decentralised functioning of the andolan.

A few days after my initiation into the NBA, I was deemed fit to take over chunks of the Narmada Valley to talk to the dam-affected about their legitimate rights, to make lists of violations, and to bring more villages into the folds of the movement. Based solely on the andolan’s goodwill, I stepped out alone to tour villages I’d never seen, on modes of transport I didn’t know were still used, and to live in conditions I was afraid my city life hadn’t equipped me to deal with. All I had were a few phone numbers of boat owners and motorcycle possessors as emergency contacts, a hand-drawn map charting all the bus stops, and names of people who were likely to offer me a place to stay.

I was half proud and half worried as Dukia village, my first destination, drew near. But all my apprehensions and safety concerns dissipated on reaching the place. The entire village of over 100 was awaiting my arrival. It was a picturesque new resettlement on a hillock, just a few hundred meters from its original, now submerged, site. It is a part of the region that lends the strongest support to the NBA. The announcement about the NBA’s arrival, either through the village messenger or through a loudspeaker, continues to be greeted with unmatched enthusiasm.

Villagers displaced by Maheshwar and Indirasagar dams protesting for compensation in Bhopal. Source: Medha Uniyal

Holding on to skepticism

I went to the NBA as a 19-year-old passionate about the cause, yet holding on to skepticism about what I hadn’t seen, just read. There are more than enough papers condemning these mega projects for ecological diminution, for community disintegration, and for the pauperisation of the common man. I couldn’t help but hold it against my Standard X CBSE textbook that refers to dams as temples of modern India.

Nehru’s oft-quoted remark, used to kick-start so many “pro-development” advocacies on dams, is sadly an incomplete representation. While this 1954 remark by the country’s first prime minister is remembered and frequently parroted, his speech, from four years later, calling big dams a “disease of gigantism” is less remembered, never quoted, and obviously has not made it to the textbooks.

Another omission, which in the course of my journey I often wondered about, is that of systematic empirical evidences to measure the positives of this mega project. Huge sums of money and large amounts of time have been spent on these projects but the government never ordered a post-project evaluation to gauge the benefits. Since the cost-benefit analysis conducted before the dam construction determines the fate of the project, the benefits are invariably inflated, while the detriments are underplayed.

Sardar Sarovar Dam, initially slated to cost Rs 6,400 crore, was made in Rs 40,000 crore by 2010–2011. Bargi Dam required 10 times more than the estimate and irrigates only five percent of the promised command area. The cost of biodiversity loss, increased seismicity, siltation, soil salinity, waterlogging, vector breeding, flash floods, and estuary damage can’t even be measured. Forest worth Rs 33,923 crore was submerged during the construction of the two major dams. This was, however, not accounted for in the cost-benefit analysis as the Ministry of Environment and Forests said it was impossible to compensate. No definite figures on displacement are available. The estimates of the number of people to be displaced, before dam construction, are in no way reflective of the actual around 40 million oustees.

"While dams as temples of new India has been an oft quoted remark by Nehru, his speech, from four years later, calling big dams a “disease of gigantism” is less remembered, never quoted and obviously has not made it to the textbooks."

Disillusionment and surrender

My experience at the NBA was a mere reiteration of these very facts. I saw the playing out of these outrageous statistics and witnessed the coming alive of sociological research that fills pages of books and journals, berating the project. Yes, I saw firsthand human monstrosity. Yet, in the worst of times, I also saw the best of humanity. My stay at the villages exposed me for the first time to community living, to familial relations with every individual in the village, to open doors at all hours, to places with no need for police deployment. I was exposed to a simpler place of an anachronistically simpler time.

But these weren’t just villages. These were project-hit villages. Against a pastoral backdrop, I was brought to a reality of mass displacement and all the problems that come with it, from no compensation received to gross misuse of compensation money in the form of alcohol abuse with consequences that tear families.

I saw the brutalities of displacement. Of helpless farmers in uncultivable resettlement sites, of children left without schools, of broken fraternities, of impoverished communities. I saw the brutalities of double displacement.

Of finally picking up the pieces and moving on while carrying a burden of loans only to find out that you are being displaced again. Of a reality where resettlement sites are often submerged. But of all harrowing sights, of all the agonising experiences, the one ingrained most indelibly in me is the brutality of disillusionment. Disillusionment with policy. Disillusionment  with polity. Disillusionment with both the government and the movement.

It broke my heart as I saw the displaced residents of Harsud refusing to fight for compensation anymore. The same Harsud that once stirred the nation with its refusal to drown, the place that played host to a large-scale protest, and that drew to its land over 30,000 activists from across the country. The eventual death of the 700-year-old town was a blow to all. It dampened spirits across the Valley and disenchanted many within the movement. But it completely crushed the people of Harsud who were forced to tear down the walls of their own homes and leave, at best hoping for compensation, which most didn’t receive. Its residents today are peppered across the Valley but joined by a united refusal to leave their new homes. A refusal to fight. A refusal to believe.

While many such battles have been lost by the andolan, some important ones have been won, which keeps the andolan together. Increase in compensation for the landless labourers, readjustment of land rates, and complete halt to the Maheshwar project combined with legal redressal have proven to be crucial in keeping up the morale.

There have, over the years, been several forces that sought to malign the NBA. The motives have been questioned and the leadership criticised. ‘Anti-development’ and ‘anti-national’ are just some of the labels thrust on it. Even the means of protest have been questioned. The 2011 novel Jal Satyagraha saw 51 jal satyagrahis protest by sitting in water for 17 days, leaving the place only for three hours daily to sleep and eat. The protest brought back the movement to primetime news, reignited the spirit of struggle in the Valley, but also saw a report in the Times of India “ Reality bites: Khandwa’s made-for-TV protest ” calling it a farce while the NBA’s rebuttal to this was not published.

It’s safe to say that the andolan has had its share of bad days. But it’s when the villagers laugh and narrate tales of the various attempts to disintegrate the movement and of times they’ve turned down bribes that I realise that the movement is much above these things. It’s much above greed. Yes, they’ve had their bad days, but they’re here to stay.

Valley beyond dams

I look back at my visit with contentment. It answered all my badgering doubts about the relevance of the movement. I realised the NBA never was an “anti-dam” movement, and it has ceased being just about seeking relief and compensation. It has evolved as the community around it evolved. It broke rigid caste barriers, narrowed gender disparity, and dissolved religious differences as larger groups of people took shelter under the umbrella organisation. The andolan could not remain confined to only project- related issues while ignoring its sociological manifestations.

During my time at the NBA, we started a Mahila Mazdoor Sangathan, a women’s wing to give a voice to the shared problems that often go unheard. Earlier too, there have been initiatives at education and sporadic episodes of health care, among other attempts at holistic development. The NBA isn’t just a struggle for justice. It’s a battle for betterment. One visit to the NBA answered all my questions about the persistence of this movement. I hope this one read answered some of yours.

Disclaimer: This article, authored by Medha Uniyal, was first published in GOI Monitor.

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Medha Uniyal

Medha Uniyal is a student of Xavier’s College, Mumbai, pursuing Bachelors in Mass Media Honors. She interned with Narmada Bachao Andolan in 2013 for two months. Medha writes for GoI Monitor , a web magazine managed by a group of activists, journalists and web developers. The initiative was the result of a need to have an independent platform examining policies of the government whether at the level of Centre, state, city or a village.

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Narmada Bachao Andolan (1989 – )


The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

Narmada Dam Protest - Harda, Madhya Pradesh, September 12, 2012

After the country won its independence, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, began calling for the construction of dams to aid in India’s development. Many of these dams were proposed on the Narmada River, which flows through the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. In 1978, the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal approved the Narmada Valley Development Project, which included 30 large dams, 135 medium dams, and 3,000 small dams. The most controversial dam was the Sardar Sarovar Project in the state of Gujarat. While it was promised to supply irrigation and drinking water, costs included the forced displacement of tens of thousands of people and widespread environmental damage.

In 1985, the World Bank agreed to finance the Sardar Sarovar dam with a contribution of $450 million without consulting the indigenous communities that were to be displaced.

In 1987, construction began on the Sardar Sarovar dam, and the injustices of the government’s relocation program were exposed: there was not enough land available for redistribution, amenities were low quality, and the settlers had difficulty adjusting to new environments.

In response, local opponents, environmental activists, and academic, scientific and cultural professionals founded a cluster of NGOs. These NGOs allied in 1989 to form the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), or the ‘Save Narmada Movement’, led by Medha Patkar. Since 1985, Patkar had been organizing protest marches against the dam.

Poster for the Save Narmada MovementUnlike other social justice organizations in India at the time, the NBA directly opposed dam construction altogether and proposed various development alternatives, including decentralized methods of water harvesting. They demanded World Bank accountability for the displacement of millions and initially sought to verify the claims regarding benefits of the dams. Much of the early campaign was focused on transparency from the government and World Bank. NBA employed peaceful marches, protests, and large-scale hunger fasts. They also campaigned against paying taxes and denied government officials entry into villages.

In 1989, Lori Udall of the Environmental Defense Fund, worked with a U.S. Congressional Committee to hold an oversight hearing on Sardar Sarovar, where Patkar could testify against the dam. In addition to working with the Environmental Defense Fund, the NBA would later partner with numerous other human rights, environmental, and solidarity organizations overseas, including the Narmada International Action Committee, Friends of the Earth, and Japan’s Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund.

NBA resistance operated at local, national, and international scales, redefining the terms of development, democracy, and accountability. In September 1989, Baba Amte, another prominent social activist and moral leader, led a 60,000 person anti-dam NBA rally in Harsud, a town of 20,000 in Madhya Pradesh that faced submersion. The dam site and its surrounding areas were under the Indian Official Secrets Act, which prohibited the gathering of groups of more than five people. The whole area was turned into a police camp. Despite the police barricades, one year later in 1990, thousands of villagers marched to the town of Badwani, threatening to drown in the dams rising waters rather than be relocated. The slogan, ‘koi nahin hatega: bandh nahin banega!’ (No one will move; the dam will not be built!) became popular. These rallies and marches helped secure the allies of the Indian middle class and liberal intellectuals, as well the attention of other countries.

In May of 1990, NBA organized a 2,000-person, five-day sit-in at Prime Minister V. P. Singh’s residence in New Delhi, which convinced the Prime Minister to ‘reconsider’ the project.

In December of the same year, five to six thousand men and women began the Narmada Jan Vikas Sangharsh Yatra (Narmada People’s Progress Struggle March), marching over 100 kilometers. Marchers accompanied a seven-member team, including Medha Patkar, who all decided to give up their lives for the river. They were stopped on the Gujarat border. The government deployed Gujarati police and bussed thousands of government-supported pro-dam demonstrators from urban centers to counter-protest. The confrontation would last nearly two weeks. Marchers, who each had their hands voluntarily tied together to demonstrate their non-violence, were beaten, arrested, and dragged into trucks in which they were driven miles away and dumped in the wilderness.

Finally on January 7, 1991, the seven-member team began an indefinite hunger strike. Two days earlier Baba Amte had himself committed to a sit-in unto death. As tension rose, Indian and international press, TV, and documentary crews increased their coverage. Environmental activists increased pressure on Washington.

Shaken by the unfavorable news coverage, the World Bank announced it would institute an Independent Review of the Sardar Sarovar projects. The review was the first of its kind and included sweeping mandates and oversight procedures. It may have been the first time in the history of the World Bank that a people’s movement influenced their policy decisions.

Medha Patkar and others at a silent protestOn January 28, the fasters ended their hunger strike after 22 days without food. Medha Patkar, one of those fasting, was near death. The short-term victory was bittersweet: many were distrustful of the World Bank, but they returned home with the other protesters.

After some claimed the end of the hunger strike to be a victory for the Indian government, NBA protesters claimed to stay in villages until drowning from the Sardar Sarovar reservoir. In response, the government banned Patkar and other activists from the villages during the monsoon, and prohibited the villagers from holding anti-dam protests. The NBA defied the bans, and hundreds of their supporters were arrested during the monsoon months. Known as ‘monsoon satyagrahas,’ hundreds of individuals refused to move as rising waters entered fields and homes. In most of the monsoon satyagrahas, police physically dragged people out of flooding areas in an attempt to rob the protest of its symbolic power. Arrests, beatings, and detentions rose in Madhya Pradesh, where many declared readiness for monsoon satyagraha between 1992 and 1993.

International human rights NGOs began documenting abuses against NBA activists. A June 1992 report by Human Rights Watch noted increases in arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, beatings, rape and other forms of physical abuses. Some reports document Indian police shooting and killing individuals during forced relocation. Other NGOs worked to form the Narmada International Human Rights Panel, which garnered support of 42 environmental and human rights NGOs representing 16 countries.

The Bank’s Independent Review, known as the Morse Commission, issued its report in June 1992. The report exposed the Bank’s violation of its own policies and recommended drastic reform of the relocation programs and environmental assessment. It warned that opposition to the dam was so strong in the affected villages that the authorities would have to use “unacceptable means” to get the dam built. However, the Bank reassured the Indian government it would continue support, but only if the government met benchmarks for reform.

In response to the Morse Commission’s report, environmental activists wrote an open letter to World Bank President Lewis Preston, which they published as a full-page advertisement in the London Financial Times. It warned that if the Bank refused to withdraw funding for Sardar Sarovar then NGOs would launch a campaign to cut government funding of the Bank. The letter was endorsed by 250 NGOs and coalitions from 37 countries. Similar actions were taken in the Washington Post and the New York Times.

A February 1993 “Peoples’ Referendum” in the Narmada Valley, carried out by the NBA, organized over 22,500 families in opposition to forced relocation.

Medha PatkarWith mounting pressure from NBA, other citizen activists, and international NGOs and Economic Funds, the Indian government soon canceled the remaining loans knowing that it could not meet the Bank’s guidelines, thus ending support from the World Bank for the Sardar Sarovar dam. The controversy led to the creation of the World Bank Inspection Panel in 1993. “It was a milestone for the human rights movement and the first mechanism established to enable local groups to challenge World Bank projects” (Narula).

While the withdrawal of the World Bank was a milestone accomplishment for NBA and social movements across the globe, it was unfortunately not the end of the Narmada dam struggle. Even without the World Bank’s support, the Indian government pledged to continue the dam project with its own funds. The Bank’s withdrawal in 1993 affected dam construction much less than anticipated. Further, the withdrawal reduced the Indian government’s accountability to the outside world. The campaign against the dam refocused their effort on the Supreme Court of India. One criticism of NBA’s strategy is that it avoided the Supreme Court until the withdrawal of the World Bank left them no choice.

Construction continues to this day (March 2010). The Sardar Sarovar dam has already displaced well over 320,000 people, with over a million affected by related canal systems and other projects. NBA continues direct action and legal processes with international involvement to stop further dam construction on the Narmada.

Zein Nakhoda, reprinted with permission from Swarthmore College’s
Global Nonviolent Action Database , licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0

Selected material about the Narmada Bachao Andolan
  • “The Holiest River.” Friends of River Narmada. Web. 11 Mar 2010.
  • McCully, Patrick. “A History of the Narmada Bachao Andolan/Save the Narmada Movement.” International Rivers Network, 1995-8. Web. 11 Mar 2010.
  • “Medha Patkar.” Who’s Who of Women and the Environment. United Nations Environment Programme: environment for development, n.d. Web. 03 Mar 2010.
  • “Narmada: Ignorning a resettlement disaster .” Hartford Web Publishing, 16 Feb 1995. Web. 01 Mar 2010.
  • Narula, Smita. “The Story of Narmada Bachao Andolan: Human Rights in the Global Economy and the Struggle Against the World Bank.” New York University School of Law: Public Law & Legal Theory Research Paper Series. (2008): 351-383.
  • Roy, Arundhati. “The Greater Common Good.” Friends of River Narmada. (1999): Web. 01 Mar 2010.
  • Subramanian, C.N. “Marxism, the Working Class Movement and the Issues Raised by the Narmada Bachao Andolan.” Revolutionary Democracy. N.p., Apr 1997. Web. 03 Mar 2010.
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