"They stood there, the guards, and ordered me to tear down my home. It felt like my bones were breaking."
-- Sunder Bai, Harsud, 2004
Long ago, in a time of hope, on September 28, 1989, I was in Harsud at the rally of 30,000. "Kohi nahin hate ga, bandh nahin banega (no one will move, the dam will not be built)" had reverberated across the Narmada Valley as village upon village committed to resistance against destructive development promulgated by large dams. Almost 15 years later, I travelled to Harsud to witness the rape of cultures and histories, memories and futures, as people are forced into destitution. On August 3 and 4, hundreds from 10 villages, a town and seven resettlement colonies registered their grievances at public hearings. Chenera, Harsud, Bhavarali, Chikli, Jhinghad, Ambakhal, Barud, Kala Patha, Balladi, Khudia Mal, Purni, Bangarda, Jhabgaon, Jalwa, Dabri, Borkhedakala, Bedani, Borkheda. And, those from Gulas, Abhera, Jabgaon, Nagpur, places that are no more, chronicled in the register of dead settlements from which the Narmada Sagar dam draws its life force.
The Narmada Sagar (formally the Indira Sagar Pariyojana), a multipurpose project, has been in construction for decades. It is one of the 30 large dams on the Narmada River as it passes through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The Narmada watershed is home to 20 million peasants and adivasi [tribal] people whose subsistence is critically linked to land, forests and water. At 262.19 metres, the Narmada Sagar is located in east Nimar in Madhya Pradesh. It will submerge 249 villages, displace 30,739 families, 91,348 hectares of land, 41,444 of which are forests, to yield 1,000 MW of electricity and irrigate 123,000 hectares of land, a third of which is already irrigated. The resettlement and rehabilitation policy, shaped especially by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award, includes a land for land clause. In its present and inadequate form, resettlement and rehabilitation provisions are being violated systematically.
Over the last few months, bulldozers razed homes across Khandwa as belongings were dragged out and mangled. State apparatuses are precise in their execution of forcible displacement. Adivasi and peasant lives are under siege in the Narmada Valley, their annexation into maldevelopment justified as necessary to national advancement. "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," says Atma Ram. "If we protest, the police beat us. They threaten us, our families," states a youth activist.
Harsud, the 700-year-old town, was broken on July 1, 2004. Yet, all its citizens refuse to leave. Some believe that the town will not submerge for another year or two. "Where will we go?" asks Laloo Bhai. "We have lived here for generations. Here I am somebody. When something happens, people come and stand by us. Elsewhere, we are nothing." The town is partly vacated, partly living.
Chanera, a resettlement site, orders rows of houses amidst desolation, a prison complex, a place of exile. No water, electricity, roads, sewers, bazaars. A temporary school with absent teachers. A swing stands in a hollowed out yard in front. Children play, seeking to forget. A home has imploded into itself, crumbling under the leaden skies. A makeshift shelter of a few rectangular tin sheets and saris stretched into fragile walls threatens to collapse at the hint of rain. "I was divorced through talaq," says Chhoti Bibi, "but authorities have refused me compensation." We met a young woman, her husband died caught in the electrical wires outside their home. The authorities have refused to accept responsibility for his death.
In "new Harsud" there is no employment. The wealthy have moved away to Indore, Bhopal, Udaipur. The resettlement camp is populated by the economically disenfranchised, making it easy for the authorities to dismiss their concerns. "What shall I do? I received Rs 25,000 and no land. I was forced out of Harsud. My adult sons were listed as minors. I showed authorities ration cards, voter identification. They ignored us. I was a mazdoor. In Harsud I paid Rs 300 rent. Here I pay Rs 700. I have been using the compensation money to live. It will run out very soon. After that?" asks a mother of three.
A Hindutva [Hindu extremist] organisation has posted a sign, promising relief. The Sangh Parivar seeks to repeat their performance in Gujarat (after the earthquake in 2001) and Orissa (post cyclone in 1999). There, relief work undertaken in a sectarian manner by Parivar organisations provided the soldiers of Hindutva with a foothold through which to exploit disaster to foster a politics of hate.
The violence of the everyday experienced by people defies comprehension. Brutality infiltrates into the imagination of the acceptable, as oppression lives through the state's mistreatment of the poor, made intense by hierarchies of caste, tribe, religion and gender. Beyond Harsud, surrounding villages are devastated. In Jhinghad, people were informed that the village would partially submerge. Half its residents were ordered out. In the other half, hand pumps were wrecked, even as residents were told that they are not going to drown. Why then were public services destroyed and disrupted? We stop at Bangarda. "I am landless, so they said they are not responsible," says a Gond adivasi elder, his body taut with despair. "My sons are far away, I am old and very poor. My wife passed away. They have given me nothing." Faces etched with anger and sadness. Who bears responsibility for the multitudes a nation renders invisible?
In the absence of a movement that unifies resistance, people are wary of each other. Chittaroopa Palit and Alok Agarwal of the Narmada Bachao Andolan [Save the Narmada Movement] travel from village through devastated village, day after long day, seeking to collectivise the struggle. "Hum sabh ek hein (we are all one)" echoes as we leave Kala Patha. "The struggle for justice is about the right to life," Chittaroopa says. The right to life here is linked intimately to the right to land. Relations to land shape knowledge, dignity, income, ways of being. Land is critical to the capacity of these cultures to endure.
Authorities celebrate that the Narmada Sagar will be completed ahead of schedule, in 2004 rather than 2005, even as the conditions prescribed for resettlement and rehabilitation have been dishonoured, along with the prerequisite that the state provide a minimum of 2 hectares of irrigated land to those landed. Cash compensation — Rs 40,000 for non-irrigated, Rs 60,000 foor irrigated land — is inadequate. Women are not listed as co-title hholders. The landless are not provided land as displacement leaves them bereft of livelihood resources. Seasonal migrants are often excluded. Submerged land owned by the government has not been assessed for livelihood resources that it provided the disenfranchised. Terror inflicted through deracination.
"The Narmada gave us life. They have turned her against us," grieves Parbati Bai. Rehabilitation for the 85 villages partially and fully submerged, and the 32 scheduled for submergence in 2004, the people charge, must ensure that the displaced are provided compensation in accordance with the Land Acquisition Act and the Narmada Award. The remaining 132 villages must be rehabilitated prior to the completion of the dam, even if it requires halting construction.
Beyond Purni the land is engulfed by the reservoir, an infinite stretch of gloomy water beneath which lies the Atlantis of the Narmada Valley. Daunting questions of cultural survival and self-determination of adivasi and peasant peoples persist. Narmada Sagar exemplifies the violence of nation-making in India today. Unnecessary social suffering dispensed by national dreams and global capital distributed among peoples, cultures, flora, fauna, birds, trees, animals. One thousand more dams are promised us, even as freedom remains distant for 350 million of India's poorest citizens. Shall we ask them what this means to their lives?
Angana Chatterji is associate professor of social and cultural anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Franicisco.
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