In early August, as the Indian government imposed a comprehensive blockade in Kashmir, snatching its political agency, it prepared for a final solution in another valley that had been a symbol of people’s resistance to a predatory state-capitalist complex. The gates of the Sardar Sarovar were shut and the water started rising rapidly in the Narmada, washing away several farms that farmers had worked on for most of the season, their ancestors for generations. There was panic in the valley, but nobody else across India seemed concerned.
While the Narmada Bachao Andolan has drawn strong support from all over the country in its 35-year-long struggle against the dam, this time the issue was outflanked in the national media and in civil society, by the preoccupation with Kashmir. As days passed, the waters only kept rising. One of the oldest villages in the valley, Nisarpur was flooded and thousands of people started fleeing. But where would they go?
Although the dam had displaced some 40,000 families in Madhya Pradesh alone, only 8,000 were given rehabilitation or compensation. The rest are still waiting for it after all these years. The Supreme Court laid down that the dam must not be completed until all affected families are rehabilitated, but that did not stop the Modi Sarkar from completing the dam in 2017, and after two dry years, filling it this year.
To draw attention to the issue, Medha Patkar and project-affected women went on a hunger strike. Only after three days of this protest did major agencies carry news of what was happening. After nine days of the fast, the MP government finally made the promise to stand up to the Gujarat and Union governments on behalf of the people of the Narmada. But even as the fast was broken, the water kept rising rapidly. Disturbing videos have emerged. In one, a woman is seen refusing to leave her home even as it is inundated to waist level. In another, two childhood friends are consoling each other on the loss of the only homes they have known, with a flooded future awaiting. The River they considered their Mother, and sang praises of has, in its demise, taken away everything. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister tweeted that he is thrilled to see rising water in the Sardar Sarovar.
It is curious to hear the national silence on a crime of such proportions. Media outlets that diligently reported the unemployment crisis, economic slowdown, impacts of demonetisation and other such embarrassments for the Modi Sarkar took their time to report the matter, that too with modest coverage. When 50 people from the Narmada valley came to the capital to protest, most media outlets again missed it. The public intellectuals who rightly raised their voices on the issue of Kashmir did not make this a matter of public debate. Whereas the Kashmir issue is highly divisive, surely a conversation on the Narmada valley would more easily expose the cruel indifference of the Modi regime. Whereas journalists have complained about the clampdown of the press in Kashmir, no such suppression has taken place in the Narmada. Similarly, spiritual leaders have kept away from the matter, even those who claim to work for rivers. What explains this silence?
What unites the people who unhesitatingly criticise the government on all other matters is that they are ‘progress’-ives. And this is why they hesitate to criticise centralised industrial projects of the State such as the Sardar Sarovar Dam. In the worldview of the progressives, India is on a journey of progress, the RSS representing an irrational love of the past. The Modi regime is a blip on that rising graph of liberalisation of Indian society towards global modernity. There seems to be doubt in some minds now whether progress will really come, but it is seen as necessary. Even the spiritual gurus of today consider motorbikes and smartphones part of their personality. But for progress, dams, mines and large industries are also necessary – unacknowledged, but accepted. Because what defines modernity better than bars and restaurants, jeans and smartphones, fast cars and high-rise apartments?
To oppose large dams is to do more than just to ask for rights. It is also to give up something. Dams are intrinsic to the idea of modernity. Fast fashion-driven modern garments, made with GM cotton and by machines require huge amounts of water compared to traditional clothes. Modern food comprising wheat and rice must be gulped down with a chilled glass of cola. The cola companies shifted to piped water from dams such as the Sardar Sarovar after farmers agitated in Plachimada and Varanasi where they were sucking the groundwater dry. Water guzzlers like wheat and rice, gifts of the Green Revolution, are central to modern diets. The smartphone, changed every two years, requires huge amounts of water to be manufactured, along with other ecological crimes. The construction and use of concrete toilets (a favourite with the progressives), homes and malls require huge amounts of water too, and also sand from riverbeds – unlike traditional methods of construction. In the ‘progressive’ imagination, the solution to the climate crisis lies in electric cars; to energy crisis in nuclear; to hunger in GM crops; and obviously, the solution to water problems requires big dams. The costs of all of these can be ‘managed’.
Let us return to the question of the 32,000 families. What happens to them? The secretary of Jal Shakti Ministry told a delegation of project victims that he believed that rehabilitation and compensation had already been completed. Villagers, being stubborn, keep coming back to their farms, so they have to be driven out by flooding their homes.
He isn’t entirely lying. The government has built tin sheds to house the families. Each family gets a cubicle, separated from the next family and the elements by just a sheet of tin. In the Central Indian summer, these make for good ovens. The land given in lieu of the fertile earth people drew their livelihoods from, is rocky and sandy. Officials have kindly laid a thin layer of black soil on top of this sterile soil. But the rising water has inundated even these sites. What does this say about our Constitutional Democracy?
Even if one accepts that this absurd ‘solution’ is born of corruption, the idea behind ‘rehabilitation’ itself demands scrutiny. Is one place just as good as any other? Even if it is identical in climate, soil and access to infrastructure? Can the compensation account for the social bonds that break as the reservoir fractures communities that lived along the river? And who compensates nature for the 13,500 hectares of forest? Who compensates for the ingress of the sea at the mouth of the Narmada which has rendered vast fertile lands along the long Indian coastline, soon to be further colonised by river-interlinking, saline, and non-arable? Certainly not the Gujarati industrialists, who lobbied for the dam and benefitted from it or the bureaucrats who passed it. The Gujarat farmers in whose name it was built still wait for the trickle. Modernity is coming of age in Modi’s loud India, while tradition is quietly flooded out of its homes. Billion Press
Aseem Shrivastava has contributed to the article. He is a faculty member of Ashoka University and co-author of ‘Churning the Earth: The Making of Global India’ and ‘Prithvi Manthan’.