What's Wrong With the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and its leader Medha Patkar have been much in the news lately, with well publicized protests against the Narmada Control Authority’s (NCA’s) permssion to the Sardar Sarovar Nigam Ltd. (SSNL) to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) Dam from the present 110.64 meters (363 feet) to 121.92 meters (400 feet).
I strongly disagree with the NBA. I also feel the many people who support the NBA have noble intentions, but are not adequately informed about many important issues. The perceptions they hold are simplistic, and are not justified by facts. This article is my attempt to throw some light on these issues.
I will not be delving into the history and background of the issue. A good background from the “pro-development” point of view – close to my own view – can be found here. See here for a perspective from the other side.
Perception. The dam will displace very large numbers of people, mainly belonging to the weaker sections of society, in a cruel manner. This will lead to a drastic reduction in their standard of living. Thousands of adivasi villages have been, or will be, completely submerged.
It is true that a large number of people – many of them adivasis – will be displaced. However the perception that the NBA seeks to create is highly exaggerated.
As of now, most of the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) in Gujarat and Maharashtra has been successfully completed1, and most of the remaining R&R is to happen in Madhya Pradesh (MP). By the time the dam is raised to its full designed height of 138.68 meters (455 feet), the following are expected to happen.
(1) Four villages (three in Gujarat and one in MP) will be fully submerged2.
(2) 241 villages will be partially affected (16 in Gujarat, 33 in Maharashtra and 192 in MP)2.
(3) The total number of project affected families (PAFs) – with major sons being counted as separate families – is 40,827 2.
(4) In MP, abadi (i.e., living area) will be fully submerged in 36 villages and partially in 116 villages; agricultural land will not be affected at all in 30 villages, will be affected upto 10% in 82 villages, 11 to 25% in 32 villages, 26 to 50% in 30 villages, 51 to 75% in 14 villages, 76 to 90% in 4 villages and 100% in only 1 village. Thus, in most of the MP villages, submergence will only be partial2. In marginally affected villages, which is well over half the total in MP, people will not have to relocate completely, but will only need to move back from the river edge3.
(5) The total submerged area will be only 1.65% of the total irrigated area4.
(6) In MP, adivasis represent about 30% of the PAFs, the remaining 70% of PAFs are non-adivasis, many of whom practice relatively advanced agriculture in the Nimar area2.
Forced displacement of citizens, while unfortunate, cannot be seen in isolation. Two issues of extreme relevance are (a) what will happen to the PAFs, and (b) what will be the benefits flowing from the project.
First the benefits. Irrigation to be provided to 1,792,000 hectares of land spread over 12 districts, 62 talukas and 3,393 villages (75% in drought-prone areas) in Gujarat and 73,000 hectares in the arid areas of Barmer and Jalore districts of Rajasthan2, benefiting more than 5 million people3. Drinking Water facilities to 8,215 villages and 135 urban centers in Gujarat2, benefiting 25-30 million people3. Peak power generation of 1450 MW2.
The second and all-important question is: what happens to the PAFs. The government’s R&R policy is generous. The rules for R&R were initially laid out by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) in 1979 and were path-breaking for the time. Later significant improvements to R&R policy were made. The R&R policy recognizes important rights of oustees such as the right to land compensation, the right to be resettled in the SSP command (i.e., irrigated area) if desired, land rights for the landless and “encroachers”, the right of major sons (i.e., sons over 18 years) to be counted as independent families in the land allotment process, and the right to have a say in choosing resettlement sites. Most importantly, the govt. formally recognized the principle that oustees need to be able to improve or at least regain the standard of living they enjoyed prior to displacement. It may be noted that the oustees’ aggregate loss of agricultural land will be about 12,000 hectares (including encroachments), at least half of it poor rain-fed land, while the land to be given is about 50,000 hectares, potentially irrigable land. The productivity ratio between land lost and land provided is estimated to be 1:8 3.
Perception. The generous R&R policy that has evolved is entirely due to the efforts of the NBA. Without the widespread national and international publicity generated by the NBA’s robust anti-dam stand, the govt. would never have agreed to such a generous R&R policy.
The current R&R policy is based primarily on two events, (a) the NWDT award in 1979, and (b) the Gujarat govt.’s R&R policy announced in 1987. The main principles of the policy were established by 1987. Medha Patkar first came to the valley in 1985. It appears that initially she and the NDS (NBA from 1989) were genuinely concerned about R&R, and worked to secure the best possible R&R package. However after a few years’ their priorities changed completely. Around 1989, Medha Patkar and the NBA decided to take an extreme ideological view that large infrastructure projects are inherently and irredeemably bad. Since then, the NBA has argued that rural people are best left as they are, and that adivasis are best suited to a subsistence-level existence “in harmony with nature”, as undisturbed by modernity as possible – a complete rejection of the modern paradigm of development. In this view, fair R&R is neither possible nor desirable. The NBA’s energies would henceforth be redirected from ensuring proper R&R, to publicizing and spreading an anti-large-infrastructure-projects ideology. In this changed scenario, R&R would continue to be of great interest to the NBA – not any more to ensure that it happens in fair and just manner – but to utilize the narrative of “impossibility and undesirability of R&R” to publicize and spread its ideology.
Besides the govt., two other organizations have played an important role in determining R&R policy. One is the World Bank, and the other is a Gujarat-based NGO named Action Research in Community Health and Development (ARCH) Vahini. ARCH Vahini – led by Dr. Anil Patel – was the first NGO to mobilize adivasi villages and demand a fair R&R package for SSP oustees in 1980, and has been deeply involved ever since. For ARCH Vahini the primary issue has always been how to achieve resettlement of the oustees in the best manner possible – independent of any strong pro or anti dam ideology – and it has played a huge role in the successful R&R of oustees in Gujarat. ARCH Vahini organized the adivasis, challenged the govt., moved the courts, and wrote to the World Bank about the affected villagers. It was based on ARCH Vahini’s initiative that the World Bank successfully pressurized the govt. of Gujarat to formulate a new and improved R&R policy in 1987, which met most of ARCH Vahini’s demands (Maharashtra and MP have also significantly improved their own R&R packages, and have come close to, but never fully matched the Gujarat package; Maharashtra and MP oustees can get the Gujarat package if they agree to resettle in Gujarat). Following this development, ARCH Vahini directed its efforts into ensuring the implementation of the new policy, and started working with the govt. towards this aim. In the years to follow, ARCH Vahini would act as a watchdog and as an intermediary between the govt. and affected villagers. Medha Patkar's NDS/NBA, which had worked – and shared a common outlook – with ARCH Vahini till 1987, parted ways. While ARCH Vahini took the view that fair R&R was now possible, the NDS/NBA took the diametrically opposite view that successful R&R was inherently impossible and indeed even undesirable, and it became totally opposed to the dam. In 1989 the Environmental Defense Fund of the USA and other international organizations joined the battle on the side of the NBA. Since then the NBA and its supporters have spent much energy in successfully spreading the anti-large-infrastructure-projects message across major cities of the world. This included sending activists to lobby on Capitol Hill (the U.S. Congress) to pressurize the World Bank to withdraw from the project – making it one of the few Indian organizations to ever directly request the U.S. govt. to intervene in a domestic Indian political dispute.
Since 1989, Medha Patkar and the NBA have not made any sincere efforts to improve R&R policy for SSP oustees. If anything, they have actually tried to undermine R&R efforts, as part of their effort to undermine all aspects of the Sardar Sarovar Project. But credit where credit is due - the widespread publicity that the NBA created has generated some awareness among educated middle-class city people that R&R is an important component of infrastructure projects. And for this, Medha Patkar and the NBA deserve considerable credit.
Perception. The R&R policy is good on paper, but the govt. is not serious about actually implementing it.
There is some truth to this, but it is far from being the complete truth. As has been documented by the Center for Social Studies Surat, despite hiccups, R&R has generally been carried out successfully in Gujarat.
Corruption and apathy on the part of govt. officials are problems that exist throughout India, and the SSP is no exception. While it would be great if corruption were to be wiped out completely, we all know that it is not going to happen tomorrow. In spite of corruption, the govt. does do work. It would be foolish to take the position that the govt. should cease all activity until such time as corruption is completely wiped out. In fact, civil society groups, or NGOs, can, and do play an important role in making govt. action more effective. This can be done by acting in a “watchdog” role, by acting as a liaison between the govt. and citizens, by educating people about their rights and entitlements, and by offering suggestions and constructive criticism. This is what ARCH Vahini has done. The Gujarat govt. set up Land Purchase Committees (LPCs) consisting of representatives of SSP oustees, NGOs, govt. officials and elected representatives. These committees were charged with identifying land for the oustees, negotiating the purchase, and making sure that land parcels of at least two hectares were allotted to each family. ARCH Vahini (and other NGOs) played a very constructive role in such committees, and in other R&R related activities. On the other hand, the NBA took a completely different stand. Rather then participating in R&R activities as a civil-society group aiming to improve its effectiveness, the NBA – driven by its extreme ideological stand – actually tried to disrupt R&R by holding back information and occasionally even spreading misinformation among oustees. The NBA also encouraged villagers to actively resist R&R related activities, such as surveys, etc. (In recent years the NBA has also taken up a constructive “watchdog” role in a very limited manner).
The following quotes give an indication of how the NBA has hindered R&R by spreading misinformation.
(1) Dr. Anil Patel of ARCH Vahini writes: “As resettlement work was in full swing … accounts started trickling in, in the beginning of 1991, that tribals in Maharashtra and MP were completely in the dark about the new R&R policy of Gujarat and the true magnitude of its implementation. In these villages, the NBA was vigorously propagating information that was in complete variance with the real situation.” 5
(2) In Maharashtra many PAFs were to be settled in a degraded forest area known as Taloda. However the govt. had held up its release, against the wishes of NGOs. Medha Patkar, speaking before her conversion into an anti-dam zealot, had stated in 1987 that denuded forest land “available and acceptable to the (SSP) oustees … is not being strongly demanded by the State authorities” 6. Part of the land was released in 1990. However, as Dr. Anil Patel of ARCH Vahini writes, “the discovery that really shocked the tribals living in the interior villages of Maharashtra was made when they first contacted us in April 1992, and when we informed them that the Taloda forest land had been released as far back as June 1990. The NBA had kept them in the dark about this, and … had even made written presentations on their behalf to the authorities, stating [falsely] that the tribals did not want the Taloda land. The tribals were stunned. The [NBA’s] manipulation of tribal demands and aspirations was as shocking as it was revealing.” 5
(3) Since 1983 activists from an NGO called Multiple Action Research Group (MARG) had been visiting the project area, mainly in MP, trying to study the situation. However, the visits stopped in 1989. As Vasudha Dhagamwar of MARG writes, “MARG stopped going to the valley as we were told by NBA activists at the highest level that we were not welcome. They did not want people to be informed about the resettlement offered under the NWDT Award, as this information would probably induce the potential oustees to think of accepting resettlement, which in turn would weaken the movement.” 7
(4) Researcher Roxanne Hakim has produced an enlightening study of an adivasi village going through the R&R process. She writes, “The differences in response to R&R by different groups are largely due to the difference in the sort of information given to them by different NGOs. In the case of Mapali … ARCH Vahini was instrumental in making them aware of the situation. On the other hand, the village Bamni, across the river from Mapali and with which Mapali has close kin ties, has supporters of the NBA. In both cases … the group’s own values and belief system played a smaller role in conditioning their attitude to R&R. This was essentially a new concept to them and they were therefore open to accepting guidance from outside agents.” 8
So while it is true that the govt. must be held responsible for tardy progress on R&R implementation, the NBA must be held at least partly responsible as well.
Perception. The NBA truly represents the poor, mainly dalits and adivasis living in the valley.
The NBA’s support base in the valley is in Maharashtra and MP – not in Gujarat. In Gujarat and Maharashtra the oustees are mostly adivasis, but the situation in MP is very different – about 70% of the PAFs are non-adivasi2, and those who support the NBA are mainly from the politically well-connected and relatively prosperous land-owning Patidar caste. So, while it is true that a substantial portion of the NBA’s support base consists of poor adivasis, probably around half or more of its supporters (among oustees) belong to the prosperous Patidar community living in the Nimar area of MP. Almost all dalits (and landless laborers in general) view the NBA with suspicion – they see R&R as a development opportunity and a chance to become landowners.
Amita Baviskar (who holds a romantic and positive view of the NBA) writes of the Patidars of Nimar. “The Andolan’s strength in Nimar is concentrated among the Patidars … who figure among India’s politically powerful middle and rich peasantry. Although their lands have always been fertile, their productivity rose tremendously in the early 1970s after electrification. The fields … are now abundantly irrigated with water drawn from electric pumps, [which has] allowed farmers to grow remunerative [cash] crops. The Nimar of today … has enjoyed post-electrification and post-irrigation prosperity. People reminisce that earlier eating wheat was a special treat. Tea was drunk only in the homes of the rich; no one had seen sugar. Now all these things are commonplace. …The Andolan has dealt with the anomaly of Nimar … by showcasing the hill adivasis and downplaying the Patidars.” 9
The Supreme Court in its 2000 verdict quotes a 1996 report of the HMS Gour University, Sagar, regarding Nimar. “Though, these villages comprise a significant population of tribals and people of weaker sections, a majority of them will not be victims of displacement. Instead, they will gain from shifting. …These people are living either as laborers or marginal farmers. The status of oustee will make them the owner of two hectares of land and a house. In fact, it is the land-owning class which is opposing the construction of dam. …The land-owners are presently [taking undue advantage of] cheap labour.” 2 This is also borne out by Amita Baviskar’s observation. “Landowners [in Nimar] employ daily wage laborers, mostly adivasis, who are paid Rs.12 to Rs.15 every day, even though the legal minimum wage … is Rs.25. …A couple of years ago a conscientious Sub-Divisional Magistrate … vigorously started enforcing minimum wage regulations. Patidar politicking, using many of the organizational skills learnt through the Andolan, was instrumental in getting the official transferred” 9. Further, she says. “Landless laborers who constitute 40% of a village such as Kadmal, and who belong mainly to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes, are markedly absent from the protests and from the ranks of local [NBA] activists.” 9. Dalit columnist Chandrabhan Prasad is scathing in his criticism of the NBA. “NBA is known as Patidar's Land Bachao Andolan in the valley, Rehabilitation Andolan in Delhi, and Save Environment Movement in London and elsewhere in Europe. NBA talks of Gandhism, it opposes modernity. It glorifies the past, in the same manner as the RSS does. For the Dalits, the past was more cruel, local institutions are more oppressive. Modernity has given Dalits some relief. …Arundhati Roy and Medha Patkar represent the most ugly face of the Brahman world.”10 Moreover, as Gail Omvedt has pointed out while arguing in favor of modernity in her excellent article about the NBA, “Economists have even argued that the average wage for agricultural and basic manual laborers at the time of the Arthashastra represented the same in money terms as the average wage during colonial times; and it has not changed very much in the 50 years of independence” 11. No wonder the poverty-stricken and exploited landless laborers wish to escape from the traditional social structure.
It is clearly a mistaken belief that the NBA truly represents the poor, mainly dalits and adivasis, living in the valley.
For my views on the larger question of development, see here.
1. As found by extensive studies carried out by the Center for Social Studies Surat (click here).
2. Supreme Court of India, 2000. Narmada Bachao Andolan vs. Union of India. (click here).
3. Blinkhorn, Thomas A. and Smith, William T., 1994. “India’s Narmada: River of Hope” in Fisher, William F., ed., Towards Sustainable Development. M.E. Sharp, London.
4. Sardar Sarovar Nigam Ltd. FAQ. (click here).
5. Patel, Anil. 1997. “Resettlement Politics and Tribal Interests” in Dreze, Jean, Samson, Meera and Singh, Satyajit, eds., The Dam and the Nation. Oxford Univ. Press, Delhi.
6. Verghese, B.G. 1994. Winning the Future. Konark, New Delhi.
7. Dhagamwar, Vasudha. 1997. “The NGO Movements in the Narmada Valley: Some Reflections” in Dreze, Jean, Samson, Meera and Singh, Satyajit, eds., The Dam and the Nation. Oxford Univ. Press, Delhi.
8. Hakim, Roxanne P. 1997. “Resettlement and Rehabilitation in the Context of ‘Vasava’ Culture” in Dreze, Jean, Samson, Meera and Singh, Satyajit, eds., The Dam and the Nation. Oxford Univ. Press, Delhi.
9. Baviskar, Amita. 1995. In the Belly of the River. Oxford Univ. Press, Delhi.
10. “An Interview with Chandra Bhan Prasad” in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and his People, web-site. (click here).
11. Omvedt, Gail. An Open Letter to Arundhati Roy. (click here).