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Soul of Narmada movement, Jagannath kaka absolves Nehru of sanctioning High Dam

By Nandini Oza*

The news of the passing away of one of the senior-most members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) Jagannath (Kaka) Patidar at the age of 93 seemed as if the foundation of the movement itself has been shaken. There is no hesitation in saying that Jagannath (bhai) Patidar, popularly known as “Kaka” and his family is the first family of the NBA. Hardly anyone in the plains of Nimad, Madhya Pradesh (MP), must have opposed the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) for over five decades with the kind of resilience as that of Kaka.
Kaka’s opposition to the SSP began over half a century ago and went on till his last breath on September 17, 2020, when the waters of the dam entered his home for the second time. Kaka remained steadfast to the NBA’s main slogan, “No one shall move – the dam shall not be built”. Kaka did not leave his village, Kundia, severely affected by SSP nor did he take any compensation for the losses due to submergence by the project. Kaka’s family is one of those few which did not even let their house or lands be surveyed by the dam authorities to estimate the compensation that would be due to them. This was as their mark of resistance against the dam itself.
Today when Kaka is no more, I share some important excerpts from the oral history narrated by Kaka of the struggle against the SSP that began in MP in the decade of 1970s. This is because this kind of a history is not shared often by the persons affected by the project although they have lived through this history with depth and insight. This history is important also because in his oral history here; Kaka challenges the popular belief that the large dam on the River Narmada, the SSP, is the contribution of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Oral history of Kaka:

It was in 1962-63 that I began to get information about the SSP. In those days it was common discussion among the people of Nimad (fertile region of MP) that a dam is going to be built on the River Narmada. However, there was no agreement between Gujarat and MP about the dam height.
MP wished to build a dam at Hiranphal (in MP) where as Gujarat wished to build a high dam of 530 feet in Gujarat. 
Nehruji at that time had given sanction to build a dam of 210 feet only. Nehruji had also laid the foundation of the 210 feet at Navagam in Gujarat and the foundation stone plaque is still there at that place. In order to arrive at some agreement over the dam height, discussions among the chief ministers of the concerned states continued for a long time. But as Gujarat remained adamant on the dam height of 530 feet, no conclusion was forthcoming.
During this period the happenings were regularly reported in the newspapers and we continued to express our protests (against the high dam). We used to go up to the capital city of Bhopal, we used to hold demonstrations, and we would try and forcibly enter the legislative assembly, and even court arrests. During the course of these protests I courted arrest several times.
When Prakash Chandra Shethi (Congress) was the chief minister of MP (1972-77), he had proposed the dam height of 465 feet, which was too high. And Gujarat remained adamant for the dam height to be 530 feet.
When we came to know of this development, the people belonging to both the parties (Jan Sangh and Congress) took to protests in Bhopal. There was a demonstration before the legislative assembly. The police tried to stop the protestors. It was at that time that 10,000 people courted arrest. After the arrests, at the same spot 4-5 courts were set up and everyone was sentenced to 3 days in jail. People were sent to different jails.
The people from this region were jailed in Indore and I was one of them. Before this incident, when Govind Narayan Singh (Congress) was the chief minister of MP (1967-69) that we had gone with our representation. At that time Scindia (Vijaya Raje Scindia was first with the Congress and then contested election in 1967 as Swatantra Party candidate. Later, she joined the Jan Sangh) was there too. We continued our protests even later when there was a coalition government and it was the government of the Janata Party.
Sardar Sarovar dam during early years
We used to protest against any government that tried to drown our region of Nimad. Our demand was that the dam height should be kept at 210 feet as per the foundation plaque laid by Nehruji. When the state governments could not resolve this issue of the dam height, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was requested to intervene. Indira Gandhi calculated the cost benefits and she did not want to disappoint either Gujarat or MP and so she handed over this issue to the tribunal (Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal [NWDT]). 
Today several social organisations raise their voice in such matters. But in those days no social organisation was associated with this struggle. It was the political parties that carried out this struggle with the funds raised from the people. First, it was the Jan Sangh and later, after the tribunal award was passed, both, the Jan Sangh and the Congress party came together in the struggle with funds raised from the people. We ourselves met the cost of participating in the struggle. When this phase of the struggle began (Nimad Bachao Andolan), many activists like me joined who were participants in the earlier struggle also and had an understanding of this issue.
After the tribunal was set up by Indira Gandhi (NWDT was constituted in October 1969) and after 4-5 years of some studies, it so happened that there was a lot of pressure from the governments and the Janata Party government was in place. Morarji Desai was the Prime Minister at that time. In MP, Virendra Kumar Saklecha (Jana Sangh) became the chief minister when NWDT gave its award in December 1979. Choudhary Charan Singh was the Prime Minister in July 1979 till January 1980, replacing Morarji Desai who was the Janata Party Prime Minister from March 1977 to July 1979). 
Morarji Desai wanted that Gujarat benefits and the dam had been stalled for many years. When Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister, he pressurised the NWDT to increase the dam height to 455 feet in favour of Gujarat. (click here for excerpts translated from Morarji Desai’s autobiography on his role in the promotion of the SSP). After coming to power, Virendra Kumar Saklecha also supported him (Desai). It was shocking that the Jan Sangh that was opposing the dam in MP and its chief minister also changed the stance and began supporting the dam. The NWDT gave its judgment based on false papers and false basis. (click here for important dates of NWDT.)
The support to the SSP at the top had its impact at the ground level also. At that time Umarao Singh Patel of our region was a minister in the MP Government. The party leadership scuttled his voice too. It was the topic of the region that why is your party leader, a party (Jan Sangh) opposed to the dam not present here at the time of need! Soon a large meeting was held in Badwani in which people from both the parties participated and decided to fight together. Again we went to Bhopal and courted arrests. The struggle continued this way.
Then Babulal Sen of Jan Sangh began an indefinite fast in front of the old collector office in Badwani, declaring that he would let the dam be built only over his dead body. His fast had got huge support. The entire ground used to remain full with people. But he could fast only for 3-4 days. He disappeared suddenly one night when the government put pressure on him. This created a huge ruckus among the people.
We used to protest against any government that tried to drown Nimad. Our demand was, the dam height should be kept at 210 ft as per the foundation plaque laid by Nehruji
Kashiram Kaka, Ramlal Mukati, Madan Mama the members of Congress party in this region declared that the NWDT and the change in the stance of the Jan Sangh leaders concerning the dam was a cruel plot. When Umrao Singh Patel came to Badwani, the Congress created a huge ruckus at the circuit house. There was stone pelting and people were lathi charged. This phase continued for a year and a half and then fizzled out.
This was at the time when the Janata Party had formed the government in MP. Our leaders explained to us that, ‘Do not oppose the dam, you will get a lot of compensation, you will get land. Submergence will not be much and will be limited to the culverts and nalas adjacent to the Narmada River’. Within two days submergence markings with bamboo were made haphazardly. We were told that dam waters will not cross even by an inch these markings and waters will remain very far away. This cooled off the struggle.
I remember, there was a meeting in Koteshwar to plan the strategy to oppose this dam. I too had participated in this workshop for 3-4 days where the Gandhian leader from Gujarat, Harivallabh Parikh had come. Harivallabh Parikh’s ashram was to submerge in one dam. He had opposed the dam and had managed to stall it. (Lalpur dam on the river Heran was stalled due to protests in Gujarat led by Late Harivallabh Parikh. The details of this struggle along with the history of other dam related struggles and issues can be read in the book by Jairam Ramesh titled, ‘Indira Gandhi: A Life in Nature’.) 
He put in a lot of efforts and helped form a new coordination committee once again which included Parasmal Karnavat, Ambaram Mukati, Shobharam Jat, etc. The President of this Committee (Narmada Ghati Navnirman Samiti) was Kashinath Dada Trivedi and the treasurer was Parasmal Karnavat. 
They had raised funds to file a case in the Supreme Court also which was dismissed due to technical reasons.” (A case was filed in the Supreme Court [SC] of India by senior leaders of Nimad region like Parasmal Karnavat, etc when only the interim report of the NWDT was out. The case was filed in the SC through senior lawyer VM Tarkunde. (to know the detailed history of this case, filed even before the NWDT award was made public, click here to see the Oral History Interview of Parasmal Karnavat at time markings: 0:16:30 to 0:34:00.) 
Thus, the Janata Party and Morarji Desai had an important role to play in pushing the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam during his tenure as Prime Minister between 1977 and 1979. The dam was finally completed and inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2017, also while the Bhartiya Janata Party has been in power in Gujarat and at the centre. The main component of the project, the canals remain incomplete even today. 
***
Kaka’s oral history is long where he has talked about the opposition to SSP that continued in the later years also. But due to word limit of an article, only so much here. 
---
*Independent researcher and activist, formerly with the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Website: https://oralhistorynarmada.in

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