Narmada Bachao Aandolan: 31 Years of a Movement that Changed the Discourse on ‘Development’ in India

Himanshu Thakkar [South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People]

8-column front page top photo of Yatra carried by THE INDEPENDENT in Dec 199
8-column front page top photo of Yatra carried by THE INDEPENDENT in Dec 199

“Ab toh hain tumse har khushi apani – tum pe marna hai jindagi apani…

Phir chahe jo bhee kahe, hamko jamana – koyi banaye bate chahe abb jitni”

These words of a famous hindi song from film Abhimaan would sum up the feelings of many activists like me, I have many times felt. These words from Majrooh Sultampuri’s lyrics came to mind again as I thought of writing about the Narmada Bachao Andolan on Aug 16, 2016, after all it was completing 31 years!

The lines reflect dedication, commitment, love and sense of identity that an intense activist would have felt while fighting for the cause of a river like Narmada. I have felt that kind of intensity while working as a full time activist for NBA several years in 1990s.

One of the most remarkable episode that possibly reflected the intensity of such feelings occurred on Dec 25, 1990 when Jan Vikas Sangharsh Yatra started from Rajghat (Madhya Pradesh) on the banks of the Narmada. Thousands of adivasis and farmers started the march to Sardar Sarovar Dam site in Gujarat, on foot. It was march of the socially, politically, economically weakest sections of Indian population, now threatened by a massive dam in the name of a questionable development project. They were on road to register their peaceful protest. By Dec 30, 1990, the Yatra reached a place called Ferkuwa on the Madhya Pradesh-Gujarat border. Next day the Yatra was to enter Gujarat.

Narmada Satyagarha at Rajghat Aug 2016
Narmada Satyagarha at Rajghat Aug 2016

But the real drama started now. Gujarat Government, by now had painted this yatra as an attack on what Gujarat politicians claimed, their lifeline, the Narmada Project. The state deployed almost all of its immense resources to hype up the frenzy against the alien attackers. The government itself deployed state transport buses to bring thousands of people to Gujarat side of the border at Ferkuwa. There they built huge tent houses, complete with five star arrangements including dining halls, air conditioning and 24 hour glaring public address system.

The contrast across the inter-state divide was so glaring that several journalists, including Sheela Bhatt from a popular Gujarati magazine made this contrast a story in itself. In fact the way media covered the whole 36 day episode that ended on Jan 30, 1991 with 22 day fast by 5 activists was most remarkable.

Shailendra Yashwant, who was covering the movement then, shared this remarkable photo on Facebook recently. His words are worth quoting: “To mark 30 years of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)’s resistance to the dam projects in the Narmada valley, I dug up this image of the Narmada Jan Vikas Sangharsh Yatra of December 1990, that first appeared on the front page of the now defunct ‘The Independent’ (daily newspaper), that was launched and edited (for a very short time) by late Vinod Mehta… This is where I first met activists… who have shaped and influenced my understanding of the greatest people’s movement for environmental justice in modern India. 25 years later, the people’s demands for suitable rehabilitation have not been met and neither has the promise of delivery of Narmada waters to the villages of Kutch, but worst of all no lessons have been learnt and the people have come together again to save their homes, villages and forests.”

The photo, incidentally was covered as full page banner headline image on the front page of a National newspaper. Overpowering memories of that entire episode creates a medley of involuntary physical and mental reactions even today.

Gujarat government was happy that the Ferkuwa Yatra ended without NBA seemingly getting anything in return. The events of subsequent months showed how wrong this impression was. Soon the World Bank had to institute independent review of the project which ultimately culminated in the Bank having to get out of the project, first time ever. Many other impacts of the yatra were soon visible.

Submerging Rajghat Bridge due to rising water level behind Sardar Sarovar Dam
Submerging Rajghat Bridge due to rising water level behind Sardar Sarovar Dam

Rajghat, the place from where the yatra started in Dec 1990, is remarkably the place where even today a satyagraha is going on against the Gujarat government plan to increase the height of the dam from current 121.92 m to 138.68 m. When not only rehabilitation of the thousands and thousands of families has not happened and Gujarat (or for that matter any one else) will not get any additional benefit since even after three decades, as Gujarat has yet to build the canal infrastructure to take the water to Kutch, Saurashtra and N Gujarat, in whose name the Sardar Sarovar Dam was justified in the first place.

In fact a major new disaster is unfolding in Gujarat in downstream areas like Bharuch, along the Narmada estuary. That disaster will only intensify if dam height is increased. In early 1990s, we did a report on this downstream tragedy, appropriately titled “Voiceless Tragedy”. It remains largely voiceless even today.

Unfortunately, the Modi government at Centre is ready to manipulate all clearances to rubber stamp this illegal and inhuman proposal from Gujarat government, hand in glove with Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh state governments. Judiciary is one place where people still have some hope, but that hope has rarely materialized when it comes to big dams.

Now look at the contrast in situation today compared to what happened in those winter months of 1991. While front page headlines of the Narmada movement then were regular, one finds little coverage of the movement today in national media, even though the types and numbers of the media publications and broadcasts have multiplied.

The governments and politicians may again feel happy, like in early 1991, that the people’s movement did not succeed. They were wrong then. They would again be wrong today.

I have many times been asked the question that NBA was a failure as it failed to stop the dam. The reality is that NBA has achieved so many successes that it would be difficult to sum up even in a book, leave aside a brief blog like this one. The very discourse on dams, development, environment, rehabilitation and right of the people has undergone a sea change, following the Narmada movement. Movements all over India (and even beyond) like the one against Lower Subansiri in Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border take inspiration from the NBA. Dams are no longer found worthy of support at most places around the world. The sooner Indian governments wake up to this reality, better it will be for everyone.

But it is true that our society and polity is yet to appreciate the contribution of a movement like NBA. We have a long way to go there. All those who have so valiantly fought against the injustice called SSP for so many years need millions of salutes from all right thinking people.

Saying Happy Birthday to NBA would clearly be incongruous and impossible. But we can certainly wish many happy returns of the day to it so that the river for which the movement fought, continues to flow. In case of the Majrooh Sultanpuri song that I mentioned in the beginning, the picturisation of the song in the film Abhimaan is totally wrong, I feel. The song is celebrating the love, dedication and commitment of the protagonist, let us say for the river in our case. These last lines of the song are so much applicable for the love for the River too!

Tere pyar me badnam dur dur ho gaye

Tere sath ham bhi sanam mashhur ho gaye

Dekho kaha le jayey bekhudi apani….

Ab toh hain tumse har khushi apani…..

Long live Narmada! Long live flowing Rivers!!

  • K SHESHU BABU

    The perseverance of NBA for all these years is commendable. Despite the obstacles faced in the form of government repression and atrocities from armed forces, the agitation has grown with ever increasing support from all over the country. Long live people’s struggles..!!!