The Narmada is India's largest westward-flowing river and is of immense religious and cultural importance to the people living on its banks. It is also the subject of the largest river development project in the world, the Narmada Valley Project, which envisages the construction of thirty large and hundreds of small dams along its length.
The Narmada projects are the epitome of unsustainable development. Two of the largest proposed dams, Sardar Sarovar and Narmada Sagar, have been under construction since 1961. According to Narmada Bachao Andolan, the dams force the displacement of about a million people and affect many more, largely poor peasants and tribals. They also cause immense ecological damage through the inundation of forests, including prime habitats of rare species. Resettlement and compensation have been totally inadequate and there is not the remotest prospect that the displaced people, the 'oustees', will be adequately resettled, nor that the ecological damage can be compensated for. There are also real doubts, borne out by the experience of large dams elsewhere in India, that the dams will yield their projected benefits of hydropower, irrigation and drinking water. The project is set fair to become another human and ecological 'development tragedy'.
The Save the Narmada Movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan, NBA) is the people's movement that has mobilised itself against this development since the mid- and late-1980s. It has succeeded in generating a debate across the sub-continent which has encapsulated the conflict between two opposing styles of development: one massively destructive of people and the environment in the quest for large-scale industrialisation; the other consisting of replicable small-scale decentralised, democractic and ecologically sustainable options and activities harmoniously integrated with both local communities and nature.
In place of the dams, NBA calls for an energy and water strategy, based on improving dry farming technology, watershed development, small dams, lift schemes for irrigation and drinking water, and improved efficiency and utilisation of existing dams.
Narmada Bachao Andolan was initiated by Medha Patkar along with other colleagues. Medha Patkar is a graduate in social work, who moved to live among the tribals of the Narmada Valley in the mid-1980s and alerted them to the fate that awaited them with the dams. Having founded NBA, she remains one of its main catalysts, strategists and mobilisers. During the Narmada struggle, Patkar has faced repression and has been arrested several times, She also undertook many Satyagrahas (pledge for truth) and long fasts. In a confrontation between NBA supporters and pro-dam forces in 1991, her 21-day fast brought her close to death.
Baba Amte, (1914-2008), was one of India's most respected social and moral leaders. Most of his life he devoted to the care and rehabilitation of leprosy patients. His community of a few thousand patients at Anandwan has done much to dispel prejudice against the victims of leprosy. In 1990 he left Anandwan with the words: "I am leaving to live along the Narmada... Narmada will linger on the lips of the nation as a symbol of all struggles against social injustice."
The decade-long struggle in the Narmada valley has resulted in suspension of the work on the Sardar Sarovar dam project through the movement as well as the Supreme Court's intervention. NBA questioned and compelled the World Bank that supported the dam with a US$ 450 million loan to review the Sardar Sarovar project. NBA has also exposed fraud in the environment compliance reports and massive corruption in the rehabilitation leading to a judicial inquiry. Even if the wall is complete (122 m high in 2009), the further erection of 17 m high radial gates was not permitted, due to non-compliance on rehabilitation and environmental measures. There are more than 200,000 people in the submergence area of this single dam with the best of agriculture and horticulture and all community life going on with temples, mosques, trees, schools, dispensaries, Government buildings etc.
NBA has also spread to other large dams in the valley, such as Indira Sagar, Maheshwar and Omkareshwar. For two of these dams, the High Court of Jabalpur stopped the filling of the reservoir until land based rehabilitation is done.
The issues of land for the displaced, the rehabilitation policy at a national level and development planning without displacement have become national issues with NBA interventions, influencing policy making and mass movements. NBA has been effective in its multiple strategy at the executive, legislative and judicial level, campaigning against the destruction and displacement caused by large dams and for the rights of the affected people - farmers, laborers, fishermen and others.
Off Kasravad Road Navalpura
Madhya Pradesh 451 551
Website of the support group