India: Flooding Narmada Valley with Anti-Dam Resistance

Medha Patkar, anti-dam activist and hunger striker. Credit: Epsajeevan
Medha Patkar, anti-dam activist and hunger striker. Credit: Epsajeevan

Source: The New Internationalist

To oppose the neglect of proper resettlement and rehabilitation plans for 40,000 affected families, Medha Patkar and 11 other villagers in Madhya Pradesh took a stand. They commenced a hunger strike on the 27th of July against the government’s decision to open the gates of the Sardar Sarovar Dam which stands 138.68 metres tall. The hunger strike is a continuation of struggle that stretches back 32 years, during which mass resistance movements have carried out multiple hunger strikes in a struggle by the people of the valley to hold on to their living spaces, livelihoods, health, environment, culture, and history.

After the February 2017 decision of the Supreme Court that allowed cash compensation to the dam-affected people, rather than compensation in land – a decision made against the will of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) anti-dam movement participants – the Madhya Pradesh government sent a notification on the 25th of May ordering 18,386 families to vacate their dwellings by the 31st of July. This decision impacts the lives of many more families, however. When the gates of the dam are opened, increased water levels at peak flood periods will affect around 40,000 families, most of whom are excluded from the cash compensation scheme. Currently, instead of constructing civic resettlement sites with proper toilets, water, and electricity the government is creating food camps, temporary structures of tin sheds, and, with no water facilities. Behind this misery, transnational companies, such as Coca-Cola, and Ford Motors are benefiting more from the water and energy produced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam compared to inhabitants of the region. For instance, the Coca-Cola plant in Sanand is allotted more than 3 million litres of water a day from the dam.

The social struggle against the Sardar Sarovar Dam illustrates the cold-faced and profit-oriented reality of the contemporary neoliberal world that rides roughshod over humanitarian demands. Experts hold India high as a model economic ‘miracle’ with its annual growth rate of more than 7 per cent. They praise India as a ‘rising global power’, created thanks to the possibilities of neoliberalism. The Sardar Sarovar Dam misery pierces the local realities of this dominant, however illusionary, discourse.

The official reasoning behind the dam was to provide electricity, and agricultural and drinking water to the drought-prone regions, particularly in Gujarat. It was packaged as an ambitious development project aiming to realize the Indian dream of modernization. But, the potential social and ecological threats of the project mobilized a mass number of people, and the NBA, compromised of Adivasi (tribal), Dalits (lower cast, untouchable, people), poor and rich farmers, landless labourers, urban intellectuals and university students was created. The NBA and its global allies convinced the World Bank to prepare an independent review report, headed by Bradford Morse, to assess the project. Due to the findings of the review, the World Bank eventually ceased its support for the dam. Nevertheless, despite the Bank’s withdrawal, the government of India decided to continue with the construction of the dam by its own means.

Although many hoped that the Supreme Court, famous for its progressive environmental decisions, would not allow the Sardar Sarovar Dam’s construction, in 18 October 2000, the court indeed permitted the project. Still, both in October 2000 and March 2005, the Supreme Court ordered a land-for-land compensation to the dam-affected people, and the completion of the resettlement and rehabilitation process at least six months before any increase of the dam height. In addition to not respecting the orders of the Supreme Court, the history of the dam construction is full of mass corruption scandals, human rights abuses, and startling ecological impacts. For instance, a grave scandal erupted in 2007 when several middlemen became involved in fake land registries. Additionally, Dalits, Adivasis, and other landless labourers were excluded from resettlement and rehabilitation packages. The exception was the efforts of authorities to offer them some housing spots in Gujarat, where most refused to move due to the low social status that these groups have in the area. The picture was further darkened by the state government’s offering to the dam-affected people rocky land unsuitable for agriculture, with no proper resettlement amnesties in Madhya Pradesh. On the ecological front, the promises for reforestation have not been realized. The submergence area faced massive floods, salinization of ground water, and destruction of top soil due to a sea-ingress up to 40 km in downstream Gujarat, which also destroyed several industries.

A field trip to the submergence area clearly makes one comprehend the difficult conditions the people there face and why they resist the dam. The people of Barwani and the villages around have already been living on the minimum of subsistence levels. Yet, instead of offering these people a more a comfortable life, neoliberalism is forcing these people to accept even more miserable conditions, migration to unknown lands, and a possible future in the city slums. Medha Patkar and the 11 villagers do not have any other protest option any more other than an indefinite hunger strike to be ‘heard’ and ‘hope to be listened to as human beings’. The dam-affected people have been struggling for 32 years to preserve their existing lifestyle and belongings, let alone asking for more. The decision-making power of the transnational’s executives – and their shareholders – over the lives of these dam-affected people, exercised only for profit, is neither just, nor helpful for the peace and order of the planet.

What is needed? In the short run, industry representatives using water and electricity from the Sardar Sarovar Dam should convince the government not to open the gates of the dam and to offer all dam-affected people proper resettlement and rehabilitation packages. In the medium and long run, however, nothing short of a complete overhaul of the global economic order according to a needs-based, people-oriented, and participatory paradigm is required, if the people resisting the dam, and the rest of us, in the long-run, are going to survive.

Defne Gonenc is a PhD candidate in Political Science & International Relations and a teaching assistant in the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. She is working on environmental justice, environmental politics and political economy of developing countries.