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Extracted from Patrick McCully, Silenced Rivers: The Ecology and Politics of Large Dams (Zed Books, London, 1996).


The Long Struggle

Whose are the forests and the land?
Ours, they are ours.
Whose the wood, the fuel?
Ours, they are ours.
Whose, the flowers and the grass?
Ours, they are ours.
Whose the cow, the cattle?
Ours, they are ours.
Whose are the bamboo groves?
Ours, they are ours.

Narmada Bachao Andolan song


Medha Patkar was a 30-year-old social activist and researcher when she came to the Narmada Valley in 1985 to study the villages to be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Dam. As her work progressed, Patkar grew increasingly
horrified by the treatment of villagers at the hands of the project authorities. Soon she gave up her survey and joined activists working to secure fair compensation for the dam's 'oustees'. Over the next few years, Patkar travelled by foot, bus and boat throughout the nearly 200-kilometre-long submergence zone, living with the people to be displaced, listening to their fears for the future, and urging them to organize to force the government to respect their rights.

Patkar spent most of her time among the adivasis in the remote and rugged Satpura hills of Maharashtra. Over the years, her oratorical and organizing skills helped build the trust of many local people and also attracted a committed coterie of young outside activists to come to the valley. These activists, who included engineers, social workers, and journalists, were to
play a vital role in the Narmada movement. Early in 1986, the activists and Maharashtra villagers set up the Narmada Dharangrast Samiti (Committee for Narmada Dam-Affected People). The NDS villagers refused to be moved out or to cooperate with dam officials in any way until their resettlement demands were met.

Similar organizations formed to improve resettlement policies in Gujarat (where the dam is located) and the upstream state of Madhya Pradesh (where most of the reservoir would lie). Several of these groups began to investigate the official claims of the benefits the project would provide. Among their findings were that crucial environmental studies had not been conducted, that the number of people to be displaced was not known, that estimates of the amount of land to get irrigation water were wildly
optimistic, and that while the supply of drinking water to some 40 million people in Gujarat was supposed to be one of the project's main benefits, the massive sums needed to build the pipes and pumps to deliver this water had been left out of the estimated project costs. These findings led the oustee groups to conclude that the claims of project benefits were fraudulent and just resettlement impossible and so at six rallies held simultaneously in the three affected states on August 18, 1988, the NDS and their allies announced their total - but strictly non-violent - opposition to the dam.

National press coverage and awareness of the anti-Sardar Sarovar campaign burgeoned in the late 1980s and support for the Narmada activists mounted among environmental, human rights, religious, landless, and adivasi organizations around the country. Within the valley, the activists built alliances across class and caste boundaries and between adivasi and 'caste
Hindu' areas. Villagers evicted in the 1960s to make way for the town built for the dam workers and farmers losing land to the massive canal network also joined the opposition groups. In 1989, this growing movement was united into an alliance of the directly affected villagers and their local and national supporters - the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

The International Front

Interest in the growing Narmada controversy within the international environmental community was boosted by two trips Medha Patkar made to Washington in 1987 and 1989. Lori Udall from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Washington was inspired by Patkar to take the lead role in raising the NBA's concerns with the World Bank. Udall also helped build a network of committed and informed activists in North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia who become known as the Narmada Action Committee.

Medha Patkar met with some World Bank executive directors during her 1989 visit. 'When I hear what NGOs say about this project and then what the operations staff say,' one director remarked afterwards, 'it sounds like they are talking about two different projects.' Patkar also gave testimony at a congressional subcommittee hearing into the World Bank's performance
on Sardar Sarovar. Congressional staff, journalists and environmentalists broke into spontaneous applause after her impassioned, hour-long presentation. A number of Congressmen later wrote to Bank President Barber Conable urging that the project be suspended.

The next foreign success for the NBA was a symposium in Tokyo in April 1990. Influencing opinion in Japan was vital for the Narmada campaign as the Japanese government was lending some $200 million for the turbines for Sardar Sarovar. NBA and international activists joined Japanese NGOs, academics and politicians at the Tokyo symposium, which received considerable national press coverage. The activists later met with Japanese government officials. Within a month of the symposium, the Japanese withdrew all further funding for the dam. This was the first time that a Japanese aid loan had been withdrawn for environmental and human rights reasons.

The Long Road to the Indian Review

Back in India, the NBA had dropped its straightforward 'no dam' position in March 1990 and instead proposed the project be suspended pending a comprehensive and open review. In an attempt to pressure the government into holding the review, the NBA organized the most spectacular action of its campaign. On Christmas Day 1990, 3,000 oustees and NBA supporters set off for the dam site from the town of Rajghat in Madhya Pradesh on what was to become known as the Long March. Eight days later the marchers reached the village of Ferkuwa on the border with Gujarat and found their way blocked by the police and a counter demonstration organized by the Gujarat government. An angry month-long stand-off ensued. At first the NBA attempted to break through by sending forward groups of volunteers, their hands tied in front of them to symbolize their commitment to non-violence. The police repeatedly forced back the volunteers. Some were beaten and around 140 detained. Patkar and six others then began a fast by the side of the road. The days passed but the government remained unresponsive. On the 22nd day, the hunger strike and march were called off.

Although the Long March failed in its immediate objective, it gained massive press coverage throughout India and made Medha Patkar a national celebrity. The Ferkuwa stand-off and fast also jolted the World Bank - some months later the Bank-funded Independent Review was established.

By 1991, full-scale construction on the dam had been underway for four years. Submergence was clearly possible during the upcoming monsoon, which hits the Narmada Valley between June and September every year. At a ceremony in Manibeli, the Maharashtra village closest to the dam, a group of oustees and activists vowed to be the first to face the rising waters. An NBA compound was set up at one of the lowest parts of Manibeli with a house where the Samarpit Dal, or 'Save or Drown Squad', would sit and prepare to drown. 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. Members of the Samarpit Dal went into hiding to avoid detention and so be able to carry out their vow. A weak monsoon, however, meant that the water stayed several metres below Manibeli in 1991.

The following year the water rose during one monsoon storm to within a metre of the lowest house behind the dam. Patkar was among 11 people in the house at the time. Also in 1992, police shot dead an adivasi woman while evicting her community from forest land which was to be given to resettled oustees.

The report of the Independent Review was released in June 1992. The NBA and its international supporters were delighted that it vindicated so many of their claims and they used it to step up pressure on the World Bank. Environmentalists 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. Full-page advertisements placed in The Washington Post and New York Times by US environmental groups made similar demands.

After the Bank

The Bank finally announced its withdrawal in March 1993. The authorities' initial reaction was to step up their use of violence and intimidation. In November, police shot to death an adivasi boy. Street demonstrations against the killing were met with lathi charges and yet more arrests.

Without World Bank funds, work on the canal system soon all but ground to a halt. Available financial resources were poured into raising the dam wall - the most visible symbol of the project and the most intimidating to the people refusing resettlement. Large-scale submergence began during the 1993 monsoon with the dam wall 44 metres high. The lands of hundreds of villagers were inundated and the homes and possessions of 40 families washed away. Police arrested the occupants of the lowest houses and dragged them to higher ground to prevent them carrying out their pledge to drown. Similar scenes were repeated during the 1994 and 1995 monsoons. In 1995 some villagers braved water which rose to chest height before receding.

With the World Bank out of the way, the NBA stepped up pressure on the Indian government to commission a comprehensive review, one which would look at all aspects of Sardar Sarovar - the terms of reference for the Morse Commission had covered only resettlement and the environment. In June 1993, Medha Patkar and Devram Kanera, a farmer from Madhya Pradesh, began a fast in downtown Bombay. After 14 days the government agreed to start the review process - but once the fast was called off they reneged on their promise.

Ever more frustrated with the government's duplicity, the continuing arrests and beatings of activists, and the submergence of homes in the valley, the NBA decided once again to use the strongest weapon at their disposal - their own lives. In July 1993, the NBA announced that unless the review process began by August 6, seven activists would throw themselves into the monsoon-swollen Narmada. Less than 24 hours before the deadline, the central government told an NBA delegation that they would establish a five-member group to 'look into all aspects of SSP'. The jal samarpan - 'self-sacrifice by drowning' - was called off.

The review committee heard submissions from the NBA, affected people, central government ministries and the relevant state governments - except that of Gujarat which boycotted the review. Scientists and engineers presented detailed suggestions for alternative methods of supplying water and power.

In May 1994, the NBA opened another front in its campaign by filing a comprehensive case against the project with the New Delhi Supreme Court. The case moved forward at a painfully slow pace with numerous postponements, delays and cancellations.

New hope for the campaign came in late 1994 when the Madhya Pradesh government announced that it had neither the land nor resources to resettle the state's huge numbers of oustees and that it wanted the planned dam height to be reduced. In an effort to pressure the upstream government to force Gujarat to halt the dam, the NBA decided to muster its resources for yet another round of fasts, this time to be held in Bhopal, the Madhya Pradesh capital. On November 21, 1994, Patkar and three men from the valley stopped eating. Twenty-six days later, the Madhya Pradesh government agreed that it would demand a halt to construction pending progress on resettlement. The NBA called off the fasts.

Three days before the end of the fasts the Supreme Court ordered the government-commissioned review to be made public. The report questioned the basic data used to design the project and criticized the resettlement effort. The court asked the review team to investigate further the viability of the project.

The NBA received a significant boost in January 1995 when the central government in New Delhi forced Gujarat to suspend raising the dam wall with its lowest point 63 metres above the river bed, just under half the planned final height. The suspension order came because the project was violating a court ruling that oustees must be resettled six months before their land is submerged.

At the time of writing in April 1996, the result of the in-depth study of project feasibility ordered by the Supreme Court had still not been made public and no final decision had yet been reached by the Supreme Court on the future of the project. Construction on the dam wall remained stalled.

Whatever the final outcome, the long struggle of the people of the valley and their supporters within India and around the world has left deep scars on the World Bank and the Indian and international dam industry. It is unlikely that the Bank will ever fund another river development project on such a scale in a democratic country. It is also unlikely for the foreseeable future that the Indian dam lobby will succeed in pushing through any projects involving such large-scale displacement. 'We are not going in for large dams any more,' Indian power minister, N.K.P. Salve, told International Water Power and Dam Construction in late 1993. 'We want run of the river projects and to have smaller dams, if they are necessary at all, which will not cause any impediment whatsoever to the environmental needs.'

The NBA sees its role as much more than challenging a single dam or even dam building in general. Patkar and other NBA leaders have travelled throughout India supporting other struggles against destructive state and corporate development projects which strip the poor of their right to livelihood. Together with other leading environmental, women's, lower caste and Gandhian groups, the NBA has helped establish a National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM). In March 1996, after a six week-long national tour, representatives from around 100 organizations drew up a 'People's Resolve', a common ideological platform for the NAPM around which it is hoped India's many thousands of diverse people's organizations can unite into a 'strong social, political force'.

Contents copyright ©1995-8 International Rivers Network. Reproduction by permission only