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'These people go back to the cities and leave the tribals up shit creek'

Is India's Narmada dam an environmental disaster or a force for civilisation? Bruno Waterfield talked to veteran resettlement campaigner Anil Patel

Opposing the Narmada dam in India has become a cause célèbre for international environmentalist groups. Their cause has been boosted by the recent publication of Booker Prize-winner Arundhati Roy's anti-Narmada pamphlet, The Greater Common Good. Roy describes her 'discovery' of the situation facing 250 000 'project-affected persons' (up to 1.5 million, according to the anti-dam campaign Narmada Bachao Andolan, to whom Roy has dedicated her royalties) as being like 'discovering a mass grave'. The resettlement projects which have moved these people out of the path of the dam are 'worse than any concentration camp of the Third Reich'. And anybody who talks of the possible benefits of the project for 40 million Indians is denounced for using 'fascist maths'.

So is the Narmada dam (the Sardar Sarovar Project or SSP) really next to Nazism?

The ARCH-Mangrol group has been active in the Narmada Valley since the 1970s, campaigning for healthcare. For the past 15 years it has been fighting for rehabilitation and resettlement of the tribal peoples affected by the SSP. 'The history of the resettlement issue in India is not good', veteran ARCH campaigner Dr Anil Patel told me. 'So in 1980 we decided to try and fight for good resettlement deals. Our biggest success was to win a "land for land" deal, on the basis of choice. This deal applies to Gujarat, Maharashtra, but not Madhya Pradesh.'

ARCH campaigns for proper resettlement, but it does not deny the advantages of the dam. Patel describes how crop failure occurs every five years in drought areas targeted by the SSP's 72 000 kilometres of irrigation canals. 'The most underdeveloped areas could be developed', says Patel, and the problem of clean water in northern Gujarat and the Kutch solved, although crucially 'the project will need more investment in pipelines for this to become a reality'.

Dams have already made a big difference elsewhere in India. Dam water from the Bhakra system provides 60 percent of drinking water for Delhi, India's capital, where Arundhati Roy and many of her supporters live. Now, through the SSP, the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board plans to cover a population of 20 million, rising to 30 million-plus over the next 30 years. In a country of constant power cuts and shortages, the dam will also provide a vital 1400 megawatts of electricity. Clean water and the boost to the local economy would mean that 'nutrition will improve and so will health', says Patel.

But what of Arundhati Roy's argument that the dam will only benefit the rich? Not so, says Patel. 'It will be the drought areas that will benefit the most; there are no rich farmers in those areas. Landless labourers will also benefit, as there will be more work.'

Patel has no time for those in the West who romanticise the traditional lifestyle of the 'tribals', which would be destroyed by the dam. 'The short answer is that they should be willing to exchange their life for that of a tribal. They have no idea of what a miserable existence the lives of these people are. Tribals have not been given any alternatives. Given the chance they will surely change. The chance of development, prosperity and resettlement will be too strong to reject, no matter what opponents of the dam may say. Obviously they will want a better deal, that is only human. The history of resettlement has been a horrible one. I would not blame the tribals if they resist moving given the history of these projects.'

The anti-dam Narmada Bachao Andolan has misled tribals and others about the resettlement packages on offer. 'Yes, they have spread rumours that only leaders of the tribals were going to get land. Arundhati Roy's ragged army versus the all-powerful government of Gujarat is a creation of her mind. Just one example - when the tribals of Maharashtra found out the kind of resettlement projects available in Gujarat, the idea that "they would rather drown than move" disappeared quickly. They came out and selected land, they are very pragmatic people.'

Anil Patel assesses the influence of many of the dam's opponents as 'by and large negative', though one positive effect of their campaigns has been to shake up the Gujarat government which was 'so smug and arrogant about the project, taking for granted that there was no need to justify the dam'. However, 'the negative contribution is that their arguments are full of falsehoods and without any constructive contribution. This will leave the tribals up shit creek, as the dam is going to get built anyway. It will leave the tribals in limbo. They show a great irresponsibility. Once they have made their speeches, taken their photos and written their articles they leave for the cities'.

Opponents of the SSP seem interested in the issues of displacement and resettlement only insofar as they can be used to discredit the dam. They are far less interested in fighting for an equitable and humane deal for those affected by the project. After all, those who are against dams in principle have little interest in seeing that the government is forced to deliver a project that works - in terms of engineering quality and benefit provision. The project has already been delayed by nearly a decade, increasing uncertainty in the area. The cynicism and opportunism of Arundhati Roy and the Narmada Bachao Andolan are in danger of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy which will deny millions of Indians, now and in the future, the chance of a better life.

'Our lives changed and it has changed for the better'

Some of the tribals resettled in Sumere village from the SSP area seem in little doubt about the advantages that have come with resettlement.

'Here we have a better life because here everyone has land; now we have school also up to seventh standard. After our children pass this they can go to a better school. Here we have better land. In the beginning it was difficult for us to leave, because it was our ancestral land. But we fought for five acres of land for each family and now we are settled here.'

'We moved on our own volition after we saw the land. We were given many options but decided on this.'

'We have changed a lot. And our lives changed and it has changed for the better. We could not eat well where we were before, now we eat well. Before we were wandering here and there for some food and living a very hard life.'

'Life was very hard. We had to fetch water from the river, we had to go to the forest to collect firewood and grass, and carry it all on our heads and climb hills. There we used to drink water from the Narmada, here we have hand-pump water.'

Interviews by Kirk Leech

Sanctuary or prison?

Bruno Waterfield met some of those paying the price for conservation in the Narmada valley

There is one story of Narmada that attracts little international attention: the impact that environmentalist campaigns have already had on the lives of 40 000 tribal people.

In 1989, in response to environmentalist demands, India's Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) created a wildlife sanctuary in Gujarat, to compensate for forestland that was to be submerged by the reservoir of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), the largest dam planned for the Narmada river. The Shoolpaneshwar Sanctuary was allocated a massive 61 000 hectares. But the case for Shoolpaneshwar was flawed from the start.

Only 11 000 hectares of forest lie in the dam's submergence zone, equivalent to one sixth of Shoolpaneshwar. Moreover, this threatened forestland is not pristine, but severely degraded. It was logged in the 1960s and early 1970s. This did not stop the MoEF, and the influential US-based Environment Defence Fund, arguing that the environmental cost of losing this forest would be 80 billion rupees - enough to make the SSP (already projected to cost 64 billion rupees) financially unviable. It took the World Bank's Morse Report in 1992 finally to kill the myth of submerged pristine forest.

Mere facts, however, were not allowed to stand in the way of the sanctuary. Studies have shown that no species of life in the area is threatened or facing extinction. In fact there is no rational justification for the creation of a sanctuary at all. But worse still, the effect of the sanctuary on the 84 villages and 40 000 people who live there is disastrous.

As you enter the sanctuary area via the main road, past a Forest Department checkpoint complete with barrier, pictures representing the rich diversity of Indian fauna greet you. Never mind that some of the animals have never lived in the region, let alone the reserve. In 1992 the authorities introduced a tiger to the sanctuary, an animal not native to the region. Within a month it had killed a young village girl. It was only removed after villagers rioted.

The Forest Department rangers are armed, and empowered by the Wildlife Protection Act to enforce heavy restrictions in the sanctuary: do not hunt; do not enter the sanctuary with weapons, to light fires or without permission; do not hurt or frighten wildlife; no poaching; do not damage trees; no mining; no collection of forest produce; no land to be cleared for cultivation; no fishing; no trapping.

These restrictions take a heavy toll on the lives of tribals who live in the sanctuary. They have to 'encroach' on forestland if they want to cultivate land. They must gather forest produce if they want to survive. Yet the Wildlife Protection Act restricts cultivation to small enclaves around villages, boundaries that were arbitrarily and often unjustly set by the Forest Department.

Tribals found with tools or bullocks on sanctuary land are liable to arrest, fines and the seizure of what little property they possess. Cases have been filed against people wishing to repair or extend their houses. Ó Ì Contour bundings on forestland under cultivation - used to prevent soil erosion - have been destroyed. The Forest Department is said to have paid informers in every village. People gathering fuel wood are liable to arrest. An estimated 160 million families in India depend on wood for fuel. A poor family can consume over a ton of wood a year. The dam is planned to produce 1450 megawatts of electricity - power that could take the pressure off forestland.

Developmental work and road-building in the sanctuary has been stopped. In 1994 the interior villages of Vandri, Mathasar, Kanji and Dundakhal had to build a 15-kilometre road themselves - the local authority said it was illegal. Without roads villagers are cut off from schools and health services, and have to walk up to 20 kilometres to trade their produce. Without roads water-pump rigs cannot get to the interior villages, denying villagers the benefits of irrigation and drinking water.

One interior village has been demanding electricity for over five years. They have paid their deposits. But the work has not been done, because trees must be cut down, and that is forbidden.

As we drove through the sanctuary, a river-level bridge on the main access road which links 25 interior villages to civilisation was awash, and nobody could cross. A state transport bus was stranded on the other side. The monsoon season is a busy time for cultivation, and many must travel out of the sanctuary to work on other people's land - because they are not allowed to farm their own. 'The villagers have been demanding high-level bridges for years', campaigner Trupti Parekh tells me: 'the local authorities refuse to budge, they say it is a nature sanctuary.'

In the village of Patali, villagers told me how, when their precious bullocks died in an epidemic, they were denied compensation by the Rural Development Department. The Forest Department argued that the villagers would only use bullocks to cultivate forestland. The bullocks that survived were confiscated. 'Wildlife is put superior to us', they said; 'we must fend elsewhere'. The villagers were unanimous: 'This sanctuary is a prison for us.'

'Let Prince Charles travel by bullock cart when he comes to India'

Chengal Reddy is president of the Andhra Pradesh Farmers' Association. 'The Green Revolution has helped India move from a state of dependence to a stage of independence in terms of food production', he says. 'Nobody starves in India because of lack of food.'

He dismisses the critics of fertilisers and GM crops. 'It is like someone telling me when some disease like malaria or bronchial asthma affects me that I'm not supposed to use modern medicines. In Indian agriculture production has to go up; this cannot be done with traditional farmyard manure, this has to be done with chemical fertilisers and more high-yielding and genetically modified seeds to increase production. What else should we do? Environmentalists say don't use chemical fertilisers. Okay, we will produce one ton, not three or four tons. Once we reduce our productivity levels, how will we meet our food requirements? Will these environmentalists ask us to import food from Canada?

'You should tell Prince Charles who advocates organic farming. Let him travel by bullock cart or horse or small boat driven by wind when he comes to India. Why should he travel by Boeing aircraft?

'Farmers in India are in favour of the best technology and best seeds. Hybrid seeds and genetically modified seeds are demanded by most Indian farmers. Most activists have little to do with agriculture. If a seed produced by "X" company gives me more returns, more income, less expenditure, I will use it. If it doesn't I will reject it. If I use my own seed the productivity is hardly 50 percent of what is expected. If I go in for a high-yielding hybrid variety my production will be 100 percent. So which do I prefer?'

Chengal Reddy is just as scathing about opponents of the Narmada dam project. 'Someone telling us that we should not build dams so that we can't irrigate, it is bloody absurd. Some of us are telling the environmentalists that they should stay in Delhi.

'Everyone tells us that the tribals and the villagers in rural India should remain as they are. But they are not showpieces, animals to be kept in a zoo, so somebody can come and see them. They want to be reformed; they want to be like you and me. You use showers, but you want a tribal to bathe in the river. We want the tribals in India to get out of the wretched situation they are in and live like civilised people.'

Kirk Leech

For further information relating to the Narmada Dam see:

Reproduced from LM issue 124, October 1999



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