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Oral account of how Narmada dam has favoured haves, 'devastating' Adivasi lives

By Rajiv Shah* 

A new book, “The Struggle for Narmada: An Oral History of the Narmada Bachao Andolan”, authored by a former NBA activist Nandini Oza, has gone a long way to reveal the type of worldview held by the powers-that-be who wanted hundreds of villages submerged and lakhs, all in the name of development, in order to build what was qualified as the world’s largest dam on the perennial river Narmada.
Based on lengthy conversations Oza had with two NBA activist-leaders, Keshavbhau Vasave and Kevalsingh Vasave, both from Maharashra, Keshavbhau quotes Gujarat chief minister Chimanbhai Patel as telling a meeting held in early 1990s in Mumbai with the intention of having consensus on the dam amidst unprecedented opposition from Adivasis, that the project would resettle Adivasis, living in “monstrous” conditions, “near urban areas” and make them “human.”
A Congress chief minister in early 1970s, Chimanbhai became the target of attack of the powerful Navnirman movement (a precursor to the Jay Prakash Narayan movement that led to the imposition of Emergency) which engulfed Gujarat, forcing him to resign, form his own party, join hands with BJP in 1990 to lead a coalition government, and again return to the Congress that year, and rule the state till 1994 when he died.
Chimanbhai is further quoted as stating at the meeting that the dam, once built, would “produce a lot of electricity”, would provide water to “those people who are deprived of drinking water”, would end the plight of the Adivasis whose areas have “no doctors or medical facilities, no educational facilities”, only to be rebuffed by Keshavbhau.
This is what Keshavbhau, who attended the meeting as a representative of 220 villages to be submerged on the banks of Narmada, told the meeting, which was also attended by the chief ministers of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, “Now you are going to take them (Adivasis) near the cities, teach them, school them, make them literate, knowledgeable. Fifty years have passed, why didn’t you teach them, educate them all these years? Those areas could also have been developed, no? Then why has that development not taken place until now?”
Taking issue with the powerful politicians, who called it a development project, and terming it Narmada Destruction Project, Keshavbhau suggested that the project was all set to divide people. He asked: “Who is going to get that electricity? It is for the big cities. Poor people like us will continue to stay in the dark. Who will get water? Big people? Industry?” He insisted, “This project is being planned for these people.”
First published in Marathi (“Ladha Narmadecha”) and translated into English by Suhas Paranjape and Swatija Manorama, Oza’s book also recalls how the powerful officialdom tried to bribe Adivasi leaders to accept the rehabilitation package offered to those living in large areas of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh which were to face submergence.
Thus, Kevalsingh quotes how, while being taken in a car to the high-profile meeting in Mumbai, a senior IAS official, one Gill, kept showing him ministerial bungalows, and then asked him whether he would like to have a new Jeep, which could be “arranged”, a Rs 1,100 monthly “honorarium”, and five acres of land as against other Adivasis offered 2 acres each.
Keshavbhau Vasave, Kevalsingh Vasave
Dotted with minute details of two major struggles against the dam – first at Ferkuva and then at Manibeli – the book is a dispassionate account of how the powerful people, for whom the dam was allegedly being built, finally succeeded, and how the movement had to change stance with changing times, finally becoming ineffective on many counts.
Reflecting what Adivasis think about the long-drawn-out struggle against the dam, Kevalsingh Vasave is quoted as telling Oza, “According to Hindu religion, the Mahabharat war lasted only 18 days. Yet, that 18-day war became the largest compiled epic in India. Our battle has already lasted 22 years. If one were to write or recount the history of this struggle, it would take another 22 years.”
According to Kevalsingh, who belongs to a village called Nimgavhan, which has two big streams of Narmada – Khad and Jumaninala – and is situated next to the borders of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, they were involved in organic farming, using no fertilisers. “The farmland in our old villages was partly in the plains and partly on the mountain slopes... We used to plough the land, and once it rained, we used to grow jowar, maize, bhadi and banti among many others. In the water courses we grew onion, garlic and watermelon. Our Narmada was our greatest gift.”
Not without reason, says Kevalsingh, “For the people, Narmada is a goddess. People come to Jalsindhi, the village opposite ours, from all over India to worship her, just to get a glimpse of her, the sacred and mighty Narmada…. We consider the Narmada our mother and ourselves her children. When the dam brought her waters into my house, I offered a pooja to her.”
Currently resettled in Vadchhil village, Nandurbar district, Maharashtra, he says, “I still see vividly before my eyes. It seems like a dream. But what could I do? The government has finally forced us to live our lives in this way. We struggled for 22 years to stay at that place. Not that the battle hasn’t given us anything. Had we not struggled, we would not have got what we have now.”
Blaming outsiders for displacing him and other Adivasis, Kevalsingh says, “The Aryans came to our country from outside. Aryans committed aggression and overpowered the people who lived here even though the latter fought back. Those who joined the Aryans changed their religion and stayed with the Aryans. Those who opposed the Aryans went into the forests and into remote valleys and hills. They are the ones now called Adivasis.”
Mahabharat war lasted only 18 days. Yet, that 18-day war became the largest compiled epic in India. Our battle has already lasted 22 years
Influenced, among others, by his school teacher, Jadhav Sir, who was a communist, Kevalsingh says, “He used to tell people to abandon superstition, stop caste discrimination, come together and unite, because only if we united would we succeed in getting our demands fulfilled.” Later, it was Medha Patkar, who reached his village around mid-1980s, when she was attached with Setu, an Ahmedabad-based NGO.
Recalls Kevalsingh, Medha Patkar, who used to visit every village, told Adivasis in detail, how to fight the forestwalas, who used to exploit them – they would extort money, beat them up on catching someone with wood, or ask for chicken or liquor. “Many a time she herself managed to catch the forestwalas red-handed. She told us to completely stop paying them any kind of money or fine or whatever else we used to pay them.”
Nandini Oza
One of those against whom “patently false charges of dacoity, breaking a camera, and attempt to kill” were slapped during the Manibeli satyagraha in 1993, and is even today shown as “absconding” in official records, he says, the slogan at that time was “Doobenge, par hatenge nahi… If you are going to submerge our village by force, then you have left us with only one alternative – to be drowned...”
However, he says, “In 1993 Manibeli was completely submerged. And since 1994 onward, as the height of the dam increased, turn by turn, more and more villages were submerged.” It was at this point that people began think, “We said we are willing to get drowned, but now our villages are submerged… So a few people began to move their houses to safer places... And so, some people accepted rehabilitation.”
After the height of the dam was raised to 110 metres, in 2004, people decided to accept land, leading to a the next strategy, of rehabilitation, which Kevalsingh regrets has still not happened, with people not being offered any land for rehabilitation, especially to Adivasis of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashra, as “the government has no land to offer these people.”
Claiming this in part is due to inability of the NBA to work in the same spirit it used to earlier, Kevalsingh says, “A couple of years ago, the NBA made a big noise about forest landholders. Huge rallies were held and forms were filled out for each person. But today the issue of forest landholders has pretty much taken a back seat. In many villages the land has not even been surveyed.”
This is because of the failure to have decentralised leadership. According to him, “In areas like Dhadgaon, many small organisations are coming up”, says Kevalsingh, wondering, “Why is it that there is no place for local activists in these organisations? There are many educated students who are idle even after getting educated. We need to bring a little awareness to them. And they will need the support and love of the community if we want them to be a part of this new organisation.”
The second thing which bothers the NBA is the financial aspect, insists Kevalsingh, adding, “That too may be a reason because to work for any cause without money is difficult. Even if all you need is simply a room for an office, you cannot do without money. We need people who can provide financial support. We also need people who can document things and write letters.”
---
*Editor, Counterview

Comments

Unknown said…
Narbada Dam is filled not with water but blood of tribals!

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