India is a land of hundreds of rivers, and these rivers have a deep impact on the social, agricultural, cultural, and religious fabric of the country. One such River is the Narmada river, which flows through the states of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat in India; Narmada is considered the lifeline of these two states. Every year on the occasion of Narmada Jayanti, many programs are organized in Madhya Pradesh, its Ghats (river banks) are decorated, and the river is worshipped as Goddess. The Narmada river hit the headlines in 1985 when a mass movement, Narmada Bachao Andolan or Save Narmada Movement started against a series of dam projects across the river.
Why was Narmada Bachao Andolan started?
Narmada Bachao Andolan was started in 1985 to challenge the improper resettlement and rehabilitation policy for lakhs of poor village dwellers who were threatened by the submergence due to the construction of big dams along the Narmada river. During its initial days, the movement was named Narmada Dharangrast Samiti or Committee for Narmada Dam-affected people, and it was renamed Narmada Bachao Andolan in 1989.
A Brief History of the Movement
The seeds of ‘Narmada River Valley Project’ were sown before India’s independence in 1946; however, the actual work on the project started in 1978 when Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) gave its final verdict including plans for rehabilitation and resettlement of the affected people. This project included a series of dams (large, medium, and small) along 1312 km of Narmada from Madhya Pradesh to Gujarat. However, the construction of Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat was the triggering point when the moment actually took off. Apart from political and economic dimensions, this issue has many layers, which are needed to be understood. The main reason for the evolution of this movement is the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which has submerged thousands of hectares of forest land. Whenever the height of this Dam was increased, the people who lived in nearby villages were deprived of livelihoods and lands. After the construction of the dam, in Madhya Pradesh alone, 192 villages were submerged, and more than 40 thousand families were forced to leave the homes in which they were living for the past several years.
Who started Narmada Bachao Andolan?
The legal battle started in 1985 when social activist Medha Patkar filed Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court of India against the project, raising the issues of improper rehabilitation and resettlement of ousted people, and widespread environmental damage caused by the project. After an initial stay, the Supreme Court allowed the construction of the dam in 1998 providing that the rehabilitation and resettlement work be supervised. Gradually, the height of the Dam was raised to 120.1 m by 2006. Medha Patkar continued her legal struggle due to the continuous violations of rehabilitation and resettlement regulations by the concerned authorities. According to the regulations, the displaced people need to be resettled within 6 months before the submergence, and proper compensation to be paid to them; however, Medha Patekar and other activists related to the movement have always maintained that these regulations were never followed during the construction of the dam. In 1991, Narmada Bachao Andolan received the Right Livelihood Award along with its key spokespersons Medha Patkar and Baba Amte. Many celebrities including Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy and Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, have also supported the movement.
World Bank’s Role: Support and Withdrawl
After the Narmada Project received clearance from the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, the World Bank announced its support for the project, and in 1985, it sanctioned a loan to the state governments for multiple construction projects. However, in 1989, the bank was compelled to set an independent review to assess the situation after Medha Patkar and other activists testified on the Bank’s role in Washington D.C ., and the Indian Government eventually canceled the loan sanctioned by the World Bank on 31 March 1993.
Completion of the Sardar Sarovar Dam
In 2014, after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India, the Government of India granted permission to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam to its maximum, and the dam was finally completed in 2018 following which supporters of the dam hailed its completion as their victory.
Criticism of the Movement
Although Medha Patkar and other protesters have always criticized the project, the Government of India has always justified the project and said that the cost of displacement is outweighed by the benefit derived from the Narmada Project. The supporters of the project often cite the benefits of the project and say that it provides drinking water, power generation, and irrigation facilities to the people. The Narmada Dam protesters have also been termed as more than environmental activists, and according to others, they have different motives to have personal gains from the protests.
- Narmada Bachao Andolan is a mass movement of tribals, social activists, and human rights activists against the displacement of nearby people as a result of multiple dam projects on the Narmada river.
- The main motive of the movement was to stop the construction of the dams until the rehabilitation and resettlement process of the displaced people is completed.
- The movement was started in 1983, and the legal battle related to the project was started in 1985 when social activist Medha Patkar filed a PIL in the Supreme Court against the project. She is considered the founder of this movement. Murlidhar Devidas (Baba Amte) was also an important leader of this movement. Noted author Arundhuti Roy and actor Aamir Khan have also supported this movement.
- The main issue of this movement was the height of Sardar Sarovar Dam due to which the protesters feared that thousands of hectares of land would submerge into the water, and it would displace many people.
- After the permission of the Supreme Court, construction of the dam was started, and the court also directed that the supervision and the rehabilitation and resettlement work should be taken care of. The displaced people were given new lands, which were reported to be infertile. Reportedly, deprived of their livelihood, many people moved to big cities in search of work, where they were forced to live in slums. Gradually, the height of the dam was raised, and permission was granted to raise the Sardar Sarovar Dam to its maximum height, and finally, the dam was completed in 2018.
- Medha Patkar and other social activists are often termed as ‘Urban Naxals’ by the pro-development lobbies, and they are often looked upon with the eyes of suspicion.