Submerging Freedom

Some 245 Indian villages are in the middle of being destroyed by a $7 billion dam project that will consume more energy than it provides and has even been condemned by its World Bank sponsors.

I’d always wondered what it would be like to go back, to see what had happened to Domkhedi. Now I got my answer. As our boat pulled into the village in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, I found my old friend Katrikaki sheltering in a cattle shed on top of the hill with her large family.

All that remained of her house, where three years ago I’d slept, eaten and laughed, was a collapsed roof and the sturdy central wooden beams poking out of the water. Next to Katrikaki’s old home, in a similar state of submerged ruin, lay the 10 houses of her extended family. There was no sign of the lamp-post around which we used to gather to dance and sing in the evening. The look of shock was still imprinted on everybody’s faces. It was only two weeks earlier that the water level in the reservoir had risen and caused the final collapse of their homes, which had already been weakened by temporary submergence last year.

At the same time their fields had been submerged and their crops destroyed, leading to severe food shortages for this isolated subsistence community. The submergence was not due to the recent heavy rains alone. It was intentionally planned by the authorities, who had released over 150,000 cusecs of water from the upstream Tawa dam over the last three days. With barely any hope of securing land for cultivation outside the valley, Katrikaki and her family decided to move higher up the hill, above their original village. But the water will inevitably rise higher still as the dam construction continues, and then even these upper slopes will also submerge. Eventually, when there is nowhere left for them to go and no land left for them to farm, when their forest – which used to provide so many fruits, herbs and traditional medicines – has disappeared, they will have no choice but to go to the streets and the poverty-stricken slums of the cities. They insist that their displacement is not, as the government would have them believe, an example of ‘development’.

To the Adivasis, or tribal people, of Domkhedi and the other villages of India’s Narmada valley, this is theft. Drowning history The Adivasis are the oldest, indigenous inhabitants of India. The Adivasi families of Domkhedi can name 25 generations of their ancestors, all of whom also lived in Domkhedi. Many Adivasis still live in remote areas, where they continue to practise their ancient customs. But Katrikaki’s generation, the authorities have decreed, will be the last Adivasis to live in Domkhedi. For Domkhedi lies in the submergence zone of the Sardar Sarovar mega-dam. Sardar Sarovar is the lynchpin of 30 large and 135 medium-sized dams being constructed in the Narmada valley. When I had visited Domkhedi three years ago the water of Sardar Sarovar, which is still under construction, was 15 metres lower than its present height. But Domkhedi had escaped submergence back then only because of the failure of the monsoon.

With the dam so much higher now, there was no evading submergence this year. Across the river in Jalsindhi, in the neighbouring state of Madhya Pradesh, I met Luharia – another old friend from 2000. He and his family star in a new and highly acclaimed documentary about Narmada called Drowned Out ( How does Luharia view his new fame? ‘It’s not much fun being an internationally famous film star when your house is underwater.’ In Jalsindhi, as in so many other Narmada valley villages, Adivasis are being told that they are ‘encroachers’ on Forestry Department land. They are told that they have no legal rights over land that their ancestors were farming centuries before the Forestry Department even existed. In theory villagers should be able to claim land rights by, somewhat ironically, producing receipts for Forestry Department encroachment fines so as to prove that they have been using the land since 1978. In practice it’s not so simple.

For example, villagers in Jalsindhi were recently told that they had to prove their age in order to claim land rights, and that the only acceptable proof of age was a certificate from a government school. All well and good, except that the government schools in the mountains of the Narmada valley, despite having teachers on their payroll, are not, and never have been, operational. From Jalsindhi I took a long boat ride down the river to the village of Chimalkhedi, near the dam site. Lying on top of a hill, Chimalkhedi has become an island waiting to be swallowed up by the rising water. Last July police and government officers used barges to visit the village; they told its inhabitants to pack up their belongings, and offered to take them to the state of Gujarat to the northwest, warning that if they stayed they faced imminent submergence. When the people of Chimalkhedi refused to leave, the officials ordered their homes to be demolished by 200 labourers whom they had brought along with them. The villagers protested and eventually managed to prevent the destruction. But on July 28, as the waters began to rise, the police returned. This time they arrested everyone. Around 100 men, women and children were all carted off to jail, where they were kept in appaling conditions for between four and 10 days. Many claim to have suffered at the hands of police brutality. When the villagers were eventually released they returned to Chimalkhedi, only to find that all their homes had been totally demolished in their absence. It was a harrowing sight. Personal items like children’s shoes, clothes, combs, earthenware pots and millstones for grinding maize lay strewn among the remains of the shattered wooden homes. Many of the villagers were huddled under a single canvas, where they now slept. Children, usually so lively and eager to meet visitors, hid away shyly, still shocked and bewildered by their ordeal.

It is not just homes and livelihoods that are being destroyed in the Narmada valley. It is an entire culture. Along with their homes, lands and forests, the Adivasi villagers are losing their gods and goddesses, their songs and rhythms, their language, traditions and customs (which, incidentally, include a relatively egalitarian distribution of power between men and women, in contrast to the extremely inegalitarian sexual politics of mainstream Indian society).

But preservation of cultural heritage is not high on the dam builders’ agenda. One of the oldest archeological sites in India, which evidence suggests is the location of the very first agricultural settlement in the sub-continent, lies at Chikhalda in the Sardar Sarovar submergence zone. Though the site has not yet been fully excavated, the authorities have no qualms about submerging it. Dam lies And what do the authorities say about all this? The state government of Gujarat (one of four states affected by the Narmada valley reservoir programme, the others being Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan) set up the company Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited to execute construction of the dam. The government (the same government implicated in the mass slaughter of Muslims in communal riots in March 2002) claims that Sardar Sarovar is necessary to generate electricity and to bring irrigation and drinking water to dry areas of Gujarat. Generators with a capacity of 1,450 megawatts (MW) have been installed. Water, the Gujarati government claims, will travel down canals to the far reaches of the state, irrigating fields and ‘quenching the thirst’ of the drought-hit areas of Kuttch and Saurastra. This has not happened yet, but, the government insists, it will do by the time the dam is completed in the next five or so years.

Villagers and activists in the valley tell a different story. The reality, they say, is that the benefits of the project have been vastly exaggerated, while the huge social and environmental costs have been all but ignored. They point out that although 1450 MW generators have been installed, no more than 439 MW of electricity will, in fact, be generated. This will fall over the years to as little as 50 MW, as the reservoir silts up and as almost all available water will be diverted into the canal before it reaches the turbines. Furthermore, since water will be pumped back into the reservoir so as to cover peak consumption periods in cities, the dam will actually consume more energy overall than it generates.

The government’s claim that it aims to quench the thirst of the people is, activists argue, no more than propaganda. They show me studies that suggest that the original plans used to justify the dam’s construction overestimated the amount of water in the river by as much as 18 per cent, as well as ignoring leakage and evaporation from the canals. This alone will make it impossible for water to get as far as Kuttch and Saurastra. Furthermore, the original plans (which only ever suggested that 9 per cent of Saurastra and 2 per cent of Kuttch would get water anyway) did not take into account the huge amounts of water which political pressure will inevitably cause to be diverted to water-guzzling sugar plantations, cities like Baroda and Ahmedebad, and a canal-side strip of five-star hotels, industries and even a water park that developers are planning to build.

The result, activists claim, will be that Narmada water will benefit the powerful but do nothing to help those who really need it. Bradford Morse, head of the World Bank-commissioned independent review of Sardar Sarovar, drew similar conclusions as early as 1992. Morse’s highly critical report helped persuade the World Bank to withdraw from the project. (In fact, the Indian government withdrew from the World Bank’s loan contract when it became clear that it could not satisfy a set of resettlement conditions.) This was the first time the World Bank had ever been forced out of such a high profile project. Morse recognised not only that scientific inaccuracies shed serious doubt on the supposed benefits of the project, but also that claims about the rehabilitation of those displaced by the project were riddled with lies and cover-ups.

Indian law, as laid down by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, requires that Narmada oustees should be resettled on a ‘land-for-land’ basis. But few people from the Narmada valley have got sufficient land to subsist off. Morse wrote: ‘The failure to enforce the relevant provisions of the tribunal and the bank agreements… means that involuntary resettlement resulting from the Sardar Sarovar projects offends recognised norms of human rights.’ On my previous visit to the region I had witnessed this failure first hand. I spoke to family after family who had lost their land to the reservoir and received nothing in return.

Of the few who had received land, nearly all described it as either too rocky or too waterlogged for farming. Thousands of Adivasis had been uprooted from the banks of the river Narmada, and forced to swap their fertile fields and close-knit communities for lives of poverty, disease and despair. They told me that in order to survive they picked up whatever manual work they could, being paid as little as 20 rupees (about 25 pence) per day.

Eight years later, in October 2000, Indian Supreme Court Justice Barucha also recognised this ongoing cover-up. Adjudicating on a case brought by the Save the Narmada Movement to halt construction on the dam, Barucha said construction work on Sardar Sarovar could not continue until there was proof of the rehabilitation of those displaced. Unfortunately, the two other judges presiding ruled that the project could go ahead in the absence of effective safeguards to ensure that rehabilitation was properly implemented. The majority verdict won the day.

This despite the fact that the project had neither obtained environmental clearance from India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests, as is required under Indian law, nor provided oustees with land-for-land resettlement in accordance with the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal. In the opinion of many prominent Indian lawyers, the majority judgment displayed a shocking number of inconsistencies and apparent failures to acknowledge the evidence presented to it. Senior Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bushan, for example, wrote: ‘The only way to understand the majority judgment is in terms of the biases and prejudices of the authors regarding the desirability of large dams in general and this project in particular, which is reflected in the passages [from their judgment] … This judgment is bound to shake the confidence of the people in the ability of the judiciary to protect the rights of the weak and the downtrodden from onslaughts by the state and powerful vested interests.

With such judgments, the day is not far when the people will come to regard the courts as a legitimising arm of a rotten establishment.’ Sustainable alternatives Drawing close to Domkhedi, I remembered how, three years previously, I had joined the villagers in singing spirited songs while carrying heavy baskets of stones with which to build a microhydel dam for the village. Sardar Sarovar, which now stands at a height of 103 metres (36 metres short of its final height of nearly 139 metres), will eventually submerge at least 245 villages and 37,000 hectares of pristine forest and some of the most fertile agricultural land in central India. (These are conservative government estimates based on disputed surveys.

Most other parties forecast considerably higher figures.) The one-metre high microhydel dam we’d built in Domkhedi did not submerge even an inch of agricultural land. In fact, its reservoir covered an area of no more than six square metres. Yet this tiny reservoir alone was sufficient to provide drinking water, irrigation and electricity to the entire hamlet. It is estimated that if the government of Gujarat invested the $7 billion it is wasting on Sardar Sarovar in such village-level watershed-management and energy-generation schemes, it could provide irrigation, drinking water and electricity to every single village in Gujarat and still have money to spare. Such an approach would not only benefit those who depend on the river for their livelihoods, it would also bring water and electricity to those Gujaratis who really need them – instead of to those with enough money and political clout to expropriate them. In a recently leaked white paper, the Gujarati government itself admitted: ‘As experiences indicate, local water harvesting and recharge initiatives can contribute significantly to addressing local ground-water scarcity problems and help farmers achieve water security for protecting their crops.’ Growing resistance A strong movement has grown up in the Narmada valley, which has been fighting for the rights of local villagers for nearly 20 years. Circumstances have on occasion demanded that the campaign take on an international dimension. Villagers in the valley are once again appealing to the international community to take up the reins and to bring the World Bank to account for its role in the Sardar Sarovar project. ‘The World Bank created this mess,’ says Medha Patkar, leader of the Save the Narmada Movement. ‘So they must help us to get out of it.’ Although the World Bank no longer provides new funds to the project (it is now being funded largely by public bonds sold by the government of Gujarat), it has never taken responsibility for the damage it caused by lending to the project in the first place. It was the World Bank loan that really provided the injection of funds that kick-started construction of the dam. The Gujarati government has neither repayed the loan nor complied with the World Bank’s own guidelines for resettlement of those displaced by dams, yet the bank refuses to acknowledge its ongoing culpability. But, as Rahul Rao of the UK Narmada Network says, ‘it was international solidarity that helped to bring about the World Bank’s withdrawal from Sardar Sarovar in 1993’. With enough persistence, Rao adds, it can be persuaded to meet its obligations again. Keith Hyams is reading philosophy at Oxford University Please write to Bhartendra Singh Baswan, Chairman, Resettlement & Rehabilitation Subgroup, Narmada Control Authority, Ministry of Social Justice, 606 ‘A’ Wing, Shastri Bhawan, New Delhi 11001, India The R&R Subgroup is under heavy pressure to give its approval for the dam to be raised from 105 to 110m before the 2004 monsoon starts in June. To comply with the Supreme Court’s order, all families who would be affected by this raise must be rehabilitated before permission is given. Baswan should be urged to oppose raising the dam to 110m unless he has personally visited the Narmada Valley and verified any claims that the necessary rehabilitation has been accomplished.

This article first appeared in the Ecologist March 2004

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