Large Dams in India: Temples or Burial Grounds?
By Robert Jensen
Published in Counterpunch · September, 2004
How do we measure progress? How are lives improved by progress? Who benefits from — and who suffers the consequences of — progress?
These are central questions today as nation-states and corporations pursue what are typically called “development” projects. One of the most controversial of these in recent years is a series of more than 3,000 dams in India’s Narmada River Valley. Government officials say these dams and an extensive irrigation system will bring electricity and water to areas of the country suffering from drought, and the technocrats insist that it will work.
But other voices challenge this rhetoric of technological triumph, most notably the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement). Arguing that the government exaggerates the benefits and underestimates the costs, this nonviolent people’s movement since the mid-1980s has focused attention on the human suffering and environmental damage that comes with “big dams.” These dams flood vast areas and displace hundreds of thousands, mostly peasants and adivasi (tribal) people, while promises of relocation and resources usually prove to be illusory. Just one of the dams, Sardar Sarovar, could uproot as many as a half-million people.
In August 2004, Angana Chatterji was one of three members of an independent commission who went to the Narmada, visiting villages and listening to more than 1,400 people at hearings. The commission investigated violations in resettlement and rehabilitation policies connected to the Narmada Sagar, one of the Narmada dams. Chatterji, N.C. Saxena (a member of the Indian government’s National Advisory Council and former secretary of the Planning Commission of India), and Harsh Mander (former director of ActionAid India) will submit their report this fall to the National Advisory Council, headed by Congress Party leader Sonia Gandhi.
Chatterji, a Calcutta-born anthropology professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, described the situation in the Narmada Valley as desperate and cited one villager’s statement to sum up the sense of despair: “There is no future here; we are living out our days, focused on survival. The Narmada gave us life; they have turned her against us.”
Despite the setbacks, Chatterji not only continues but intensifies her advocacy work through her association with the Narmada Bachao Andolan and groups such as the U.S.-based International Rivers Network, for which she is a board member. Chatterji is passionate and sharp-tongued, with an ability to bring the complex issues into clear, and sometimes painful, focus. In a play on an often-quoted comment of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Chatterji began our conversation by saying, “Dams are not the temples of India. They are her burial grounds.” In an interview in September, she explained why the Narmada struggle remains crucial.
ROBERT JENSEN: Before we talk about specifics of the Narmada project, explain the larger context. What’s at stake?
Angana Chatterji: Adivasi and peasant movements reject the assumption that development justifies cultural annihilation. Since 1947, 4,300 large dams alone in India have displaced over 42 million. Adivasis are about 8 percent of India’s population but more than 40 percent of the country’s displaced. India’s record of irresponsible development has placed its most vulnerable in peril — 1,000 more dams are being built, even as food, security, and self-determination remain out of reach for 350 million of India’s poorest citizens. In postcolonial India, the promise of progress, of freedom, has been linked to techno-economic control by the state, which provides a comfortable life for its elite. But the disenfranchised experience this development as a war against them. Their lands and livelihood have become collateral for the dreams of the privileged.
In the Narmada Valley, different imaginations of nation building collide. The confrontation with state-sponsored big development leaves marginalized people voiceless in decision-making, as local dreams of self-determination and survival, of respect, heritage and history, are jettisoned. The key questions remain: Whose lives matters? Who has a right to life? The Narmada struggle leads us to ask: What good is a nation if it refuses to protect all its citizens?
RJ: Let’s start with the question of water in India. Advocates of big dam projects say they are the only way to provide the water needed to help regions facing droughts.
AC: Droughts are a harsh reality, and the need for water is immense. India needs to provide water to the fields, villages, towns and industries throughout the year, without placing some communities at risk to benefit others. It needs cost-effective and environmentally responsible technologies for water and power. Rajender Singh’s work in watershed management exemplifies a bioregional approach that is ethical in scale, and there are other options. Their success will depend on the inclusion of local knowledge, participation, and ownership, and the nation’s capacity to ensure the rights of the poor. The Narmada dam projects proceed in exactly the opposite way.
RJ: Explain the scope of the project.
AC: The Narmada project was first broached in the 19th century. The Narmada Valley Development Plan, formulated in the late 1980s, decided that the river — 1,312 kilometers through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat — and her tributaries would be the site of 30 large, 135 medium and 3,000 small dams. These dams would turn the river into a sad series of lakes, devastating the lives and livelihood of 20 million peasants and adivasis who call the Narmada watershed home, whose subsistence is linked to their land, forests, and water.
RJ: One of the most controversial of these many dams is Sardar Sarovar. Why?
AC: Sardar Sarovar is one of two gigantic dams expected to irrigate 5 million acres of land, generate 1,450 megawatts of power, and supply water to 8,000 villages and 135 towns through the Mahi pipeline in Gujarat. Like many assertions of the Indian government, these are highly controversial claims. The Sardar Sarovar will cost about $10 billion, almost half the irrigation budget of India since independence. The 133-mile-long reservoir of the Sardar Sarovar will flood 91,000 acres of land, 28,000 acres of which are forest. The canal network will mangle another 200,000 acres. The reservoir will displace 200,000 people, most forcibly, and affect another 200,000. More than 1 million lives will be decimated if the project is carried out. About 56 percent of those affected will be adivasi people, the familiar victims of “progress” — 15.4 million adivasis live in Madhya Pradesh alone, from over 40 tribes.
In the Narmada Valley, people are under siege. Stranded, eliminated. Displaced. Put out of place. Without place. Displacement’s violence plunges people into unfamiliar worlds over which they have no control. When cultures die, languages, memories, spiritualities, ways of being and caring for the earth die with them. Adivasi and peasant cultures of the Narmada Valley are expected to join this death. The displaced are expected to vanish into the crevices of city slums or resettlement colonies, to become — quietly — a statistic. Unable to raise families, crops or livestock, build homes, send children to school. They are unable to dream any other life but that of righteous resistance. Their burden is to be the conscience abdicated by the state.
RJ: There was an attempt to limit the height of the Sardar Sarovar. What happened?
AC: Following a petition by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in1995, the Supreme Court of India limited construction of the dam to 80.3 meters. Since 1999, the Court has allowed successive jumps, even as it upheld the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award, mandating land-for-land rehabilitation of impacted families six months prior to any increase in dam height. This was never enforced. Resettlement and rehabilitation is yet to be completed at the 85 meters level. Officials in New Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have remained silent. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat who was complicit in the murder of 2,000 Muslims in the state in 2002, has used the dam’s apparent “success” to deflect attention from that carnage.
Today the dam stands at 110.64 meters. As the dam rises, the reservoir grows in size and more villages are submerged. On Sept. 9, 2004, the Narmada Control Authority met in New Delhi to explore the possibility of raising the Sardar Sarovar to 121 meters. Perhaps the plan is to erect the dam to the original height of 138 meters!
India is intent on building large dams even as other nations decommission them. As the government deliberates “national interest,” people are fleeing back to their villages from rehabilitation sites, which are devoid of facilities and livelihood opportunities. In response, earlier this month, the police torched adivasi homes in Vadgam village in Gujarat, warning that if others attempted to return to their original homes they would be met with similar brutality.
RJ: The World Bank provided financing for the project but later withdrew. Does it have any role today?
AC: Yes it does. In 1985, the World Bank approved $450 million for the Sardar Sarovar project, and construction began in 1987. The Indian government violated the loan and credit agreements, and in June 1992 the Morse Commission charged the project with grievous flaws in resettlement and rehabilitation, and environmental impact. International activism led to the Bank’s withdrawal in 1993 and cancellation of the remaining $170 million loan amount.
That existing project loan will not be repaid until 2005, and the terms of the loan are still legally binding. But Bank management failed to supervise the project with respect to the environmental and social conditionalities of the loan. The Bank’s India country director has confirmed that the Bank generally does not monitor projects beyond the disbursement of capital to the borrower. This approach neglects the terms for resettlement and other policies supposed to alleviate the long-standing impacts of Bank-financed projects. By failing to ensure that funds are being used in compliance with the conditions of the loan, the Bank is abandoning its responsibilities, ignoring its commitment to mitigating poverty. (For more, see jensen04222004.html)
The World Bank has, through its negligence, endorsed the Indian government’s decision to increase the dam height. The Bank’s acceptance of forcible displacement and inadequate resettlement and rehabilitation violates its own policies, as well as international agreements on livelihood security and human rights affecting the poor. The Bank remains arrogant, as a recent report by the International Rivers Network demonstrates, planning a defiant return to financing high-risk infrastructure projects that allow governments and corporations to marginalize civil society in decision-making.
RJ: In August you and the other commissioners visited some of the communities affected by the Narmada Sagar Dam. What did you learn?
AC: The Narmada Sagar (formally called the Indira Sagar Pariyojana) is the second mega-dam, a multipurpose project under construction for decades. We spent time with people from 10 villages, a town and seven resettlement colonies, listening to testimonials of egregious human-rights violations. Some came from Gulas, Abhera, Jabgaon, Nagpur — places that only exist in the register of dead settlements.
The Narmada Sagar is upstream from Sardar Sarovar in east Nimar in Madhya Pradesh. When completed, at 92 meters, 262.19 meters above sea level, it will create the largest reservoir in Asia. The dam is failing to generate the electricity promised. The numbers here are also staggering: It will submerge 249 villages, displace 30,739 families. The dam will destroy 91,348 hectares of land (41,444 hectares of which are forests), to irrigate 123,000 hectares of land, a quarter of which is already irrigated! The resettlement and rehabilitation policy includes a land-for-land clause. But even in its present and inadequate form, these provisions are being systematically violated.
RJ: Say more about the experience of the people being displaced?
AC: In the past few months, bulldozers have razed homes in Khandwa district, and people’s belongings were dragged out and damaged. Police camps are up and running in resettlement sites, terrorizing citizens. Activists told us that if they protest, the police beat them and threaten families. One resident, Atma Ram, said: “We are like waste to the government. You do not rehabilitate waste, you bury it. Our town and souls are being buried. We have appealed to the government, to the courts, to the country. Our pleas are thrown away. We are left to decay.”
Harsud town was destroyed on July 1, 2004. In her testimonial, Sunder Bai, an elderly woman, said: “They stood there, the guards, and ordered me to tear down my home. It felt like my bones were breaking.” Many Harsud residents won,t leave, believing that the town will not be submerged for another year or two. The authorities accuse people of getting in the way of their own rehabilitation. But Laloo Bhai, in whose house I stayed, said: “Where will we go? We have lived here for generations. Here I am somebody. When something happens, people come and stand by us. Elsewhere, we are nothing.”
Harsud is partly vacated, partly living. From Laloo Bhai’s house I could see the neighbours courtyard — a heap of bricks, scattered with the remnants of life, a child’s toy, a fragment of a brightly coloured sari, a painted window trim, things of meaning, now lifeless in the ruins of a 700-year-old town.
RJ: So, it’s not just a question of being compensated for houses and land lost?
AC: The struggle to force the government to meet its obligations for resettlement is important. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award requires the government to provide a minimum of 2 hectares of irrigated land to all those classified as landed and adequate cash compensation to others. This has not happened for the 85 villages submerged in 2002-03, and 32 expected to submerge this year. Construction of the remaining 16 of 20 gates to be built must be stopped until the 132 villages awaiting submergence are rehabilitated. Cash compensation — 40,000 rupees for non-irrigated, 60,000 rupees for irrigated land — is inadequate to purchase new land, and people have often not been given the authorized sum. In the absence of livelihood opportunities, the money withers away quickly, leaving people destitute. They resort to middlemen and loan sharks, to alcohol.
The landless are not being provided agricultural land; displacement leaves them impoverished without access to livelihood resources. Laborers are not provided livelihood opportunities. Seasonal migrants are often not included in compensatory schemes. In many instances people are waiting for compensation checks, while others aren,t allowed access to their money even when it has reached the bank. Women have not been listed as co-title holders to new land. Widows and divorcees are excluded. The affected have filed a case with the Madhya Pradesh High Court. Submerging land owned by the government is not being assessed for the livelihood resources that these lands (such as forests) provide the disenfranchised — grazing for livestock, fruit, firewood and other sustenance.
The violence of the everyday defies comprehension, as the state’s mistreatment of the poor is intensified by hierarchies of caste, tribe, religion, and gender. At the core of the resistance is a desire to protect a way of life. On Sept. 28, 1989, I was in Harsud at the rally of 30,000 people, as the town echoed with, “Kohi nahin hate ga, bandh nahin banega” (No one will move, the dam will not be built). That cry reverberated across the Narmada Valley, as village upon village committed to the resistance. This summer, what I saw in Harsud was the destruction of lives and futures, without consent.
RJ: What are resettlement sites like?
AC: Chanera, a resettlement site with rows of houses in a desolate location, was like a prison complex, a place of exile. There is no water, electricity, roads, sewers, bazaars or health care. There is a temporary school with no teachers. Some homes have already crumbled. A makeshift shelter of a few tin sheets and saris stretched into fragile walls threatens to collapse at the hint of rain. I met a young woman whose husband had died, caught in the open electrical wires that run parallel to their home. She is left alone to care for her children, and the authorities refuse to accept responsibility for his death. In this “new Harsud” there is no employment. Many wealthy citizens have moved to distant places — Indore, Gwalior, Bhopal, Udaipur. The resettlement camp is populated primarily by the economically disenfranchised, making it easy for the authorities to dismiss their concerns.
A mother of three told us: “What shall I do? I received 25,000 rupees and no land. I was forced out of Harsud. My adult sons were listed as minors. They are 23 and 25. They did not receive land or money. I showed authorities ration cards, voter identification. They ignored us. I am alone. My husband left a long time ago. How will I survive? I was a mazdoor (wage laborer). In Harsud I paid 300 rupees rent. Here I have to pay 700. I have been using the compensation money to live. It will run out very soon. After that?”
RJ: Was what happened to Harsud unusual?
AC: The surrounding villages also are devastated. In Barud half the village is waiting to sink during these monsoons, with the rest taken apart by a railway line that was shifted due to the submergence. Residents have been told that they are not entitled to land compensation. In Jhinghad, people were informed that the village would partially submerge. Half its residents were ordered out, many others left in fear. We stopped at Bangarda and visited a man whose house caved, injuring and leaving him bedridden. A woman said that she contemplates suicide. A Gond adivasi elder said: “I am landless, so they said they are not responsible. My sons are far away. I am old and very poor. My wife passed away. They have given me nothing.” So many faces etched with anger and sadness. Parbati Bai’s voice echoes: “There is no future here; we are living out our days, focused on survival. The Narmada gave us life; they have turned her against us.”
National dreams and global capital have created incredible suffering and destroyed not just human life, not just part of our cultural heritage, but also the natural heritage of the Valley. It is cruel and criminal. We drove to Purni, beyond which the land is engulfed by an infinite stretch of gloomy water. Narmada Sagar exemplifies the violence of nation-making in India today — a demonic, calculated rush for homogenized, unsustainable futures. This is what cultural genocide looks like.
RJ: Is the movement to resist these dam projects essentially over?
AC: No. The Narmada Bachao Andolan continues mobilizing people to dissent. The Narmada people and allied activists hold the struggle together in its diversity. Their work is incomprehensible to most of us. In 1991, Medha Patkar undertook a 21-day fast. In Maan, one of the 30 large dams, Ram Kunwar, Chittaroopa Palit, Vinod Patwa and Mangat Verma assumed a 29-day hunger strike in 2002. In Sardar Sarovar, Medha and other activists continue unrelenting resistance. In Narmada Sagar, Chittaroopa Palit and Alok Agarwal travel from village through devastated village, day after long day, seeking to collectivize the struggle. It is an unyielding commitment to justice, to holding the state accountable. Chittaroopa emphasizes that the right to life here is linked intimately to the right to land, to the survival of cropping patterns, water rights, food and shelter. Land is critical to the capacity of these cultures to endure.
These are desperate times in the Valley. But that is testimony to the failure of the state, not the movement. As we left Khandwa, the echo of, “Hum sabh ek hein” (We are all one) and “Jete raho, sangharsh karo” (Keep living, continue struggling) followed us. The resistance lives. As with any struggle against institutionalized power, there is no quick fix.
RJ: What can people do?
AC: Visit the Valley, if you are able. Be in solidarity. Protest if your city has invested in World Bank bonds. The Friends of River Narmada and the Association for India’s Development list actions available to us.
RJ: What would you say to people who ask why we should continue to have hope?
The Indian state acts with impunity, replacing the British imperial colonizer, inheriting and regularizing injustice. Conditions of inequity fuel social suffering across India, disproportionately acted out on the bodies of women, adivasis and disenfranchised caste groups. Why we should hope in the face of that? Because we must. The struggles for justice across the world that link us together are the only means to produce equity. Freedom is an ongoing practice, something we work for.