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Whither Diwali in Narmada valley? No lights anywhere, darkness part of tribal life

Medha Patkar with Ranya and Rajubai
By Medha Patkar*
When I decided to spend Diwali days with the adivasis, our saathis of last 34 years struggle, in the hilly villages of Maharashtra, I knew what the scenario would be. In Manibeli, Chimalkhedi, Bamani and Mukhdi, houses after houses and fields had been submerged… lost partially or fully into the oblivion! Yet when I reached, crossing a number of police checks by boat from the Sardar Sarovar dam site, I got a shiver, witnessing the huge ocean that the mother river, Narmada, had turned into. It was demonic, indeed.
When boatmen, Dinesh, Sukhram and others talked about it, they didn’t seem to be in despair. Guilt filled my heart: There were no lights anywhere. Darkness was part of their lives. Solar lamps were there in bits and pieces, but the whole picture was of grave deprivation.
‘Ambulance on water’ or ‘Dispensary on barge’ was not reaching them. Once in a while when it did, it was mostly without a doctor. It couldn’t treat all the patients. Snakes and snake bites have increased. After panchnamas, no compensation has been paid for the losses of houses and crops this year as yet.
A package of 5 kg of rice and daal was rejected by Manilalkaka. His wife Jadiben, though elderly, is equally bold. A ‘bhagat’, he would eat only what is cooked by them at home. Their buffaloes, members of the family, had drowned. He had sheltered me when I went underground during the struggle of 1993.
Manilalkaka is entitled to get two hectares of cultivable land with irrigation facility. On being offered the land in Gujarat for resettlement, he felt cheated. A huge drain passes through the land allotted to him. It would need to be shifted. Who would do it? In Maharashtra, his house is under water. The shelterless family of two with cattle is hanging between the administrations of Maharashtra and Gujarat.
Natwarbhai’s son Santosh, a boy of 7, is studying in our Jeevanshala. He was having high fever for a week. He could not be taken to Kevadia or Garudeshwar. It would mean a huge spending, which he can’t afford, as his source of income is low.
Natwarbhai’s land in Gujarat is without irrigation, hence it is difficult for him to resettle there. A sharecropper himself, his earnings are meagre. The situation is not very different for Arjunbhai and Narayanbhai, who have been allocated land in faraway Gujarat. Jungle stands on their land. Their own state government is Maharashtra is avoiding them. As for Gujarat, its officials are not responding.
Before submergence, they would grow lots of custard apples and cucumbers. Much of it has been destroyed in front of their own eyes. Their houses have gone under waters fully or partially. They and their neighbours are compelled to take shelter into tin sheds with cattle and all the belongings. It is an unlivable condition for these adivasis. With no full and fair rehabilitation in sight, their world is on the brink of destruction.
Noorji and other villagers in Chimalkhedi live in the houses which were got submerged years ago. They rebuilt their houses with tin sheds. This year, they are waiting for the water levels to come down, so that they could reopen their houses. They have lost their woods and crops into the ‘sea’.
Ranya Gonjya Padvi’s house was my final abode. Previously he was finding it difficult to climb up there, where he lives now. He is not happy that the river has reached his doorstep. He still has stayed put with cattle, cocks and hens, a doggy, a cat and all his companions, including ants and insects. His speeches in every meeting since 1986, even in the ‘Desh Bachao, Desh Banao’ National Tour would be fiery. He would refer to kidi-makodi (ants and insects), saying that dams would even harm them, kill them. “Listen to them, they are speechless but still alive”, he would say.
When I slept in his small dark house made out of bamboo, wood and all the materials gathered from the local environs, he was thrilled and filled with love. They had four cots. Initially I refused to take one. But finally I did, realizing, big black ants were moving all around. They climbed up and kept waking me up all the night.
I took rice with curd, which they had stored for a week. It satiated my hunger. But his memories filled my heart. Rajubai, Ranya’s wife, was an active witness to everything that happened. She kept me awake. Sounds of all kinds and of wind were hovering around the Diwali night. Ranya has no solar lamp, no water storage tank, but his spirits were high.
In his own style, he narrated how the government did not care for the adivasis and was destroying their life. There was a deep concern for all those who have faced submergence, far away … Devrambhai, Kamlubahen and all others in the plains.
I returned by boat full of data, names, description of violations and planned steps. I was back into another world. Having walked a few kilometers and getting a ride from a young forest guard, sensitive and courageous, I reached another world… of shopping mall, lights with vulgar decorations, of noise filled with crackers and vehicles. I realized who the culprit was. It is this world that is destroying the world of Ranya!
Stop this, I screamed in my heart. But within few hours, policemen in plain clothe (in mufti) came up from all directions to gherao (encircle) me, asking me to follow. Why are ‘they’, the ruling giants likeVijay Rupani and Narendra Modi, so scared of us? I asked this 20-odd team of officials and policemen. They too were suffering from orders on the Diwali day. They were mum as slaves, but offered smile – true or false – to me!
Our ‘rally of vehicles’ moved a long distance. I got the confirmation that ‘they’ knew what they are doing to the farms with standing crops etc. is wrong. Hence they are feeling insecure, putting up security all over to try to trap us.
I witnessed two worlds … rather, the two edges of one world, on the very same Diwali day. They were like two shores of the ‘manmade sea’ difficult to be crossed in a ‘dungi’ (trunk boat) of Ranya!
---
*Leader, Narmada Bachao Andolan

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