July 26, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

The Sand Between Two Dams

Parvat Varma's boat has a neatly painted slogan on its prow: 'Mera Bharat Mahan.' My English companion turned to ask me what it meant. After I explained it to him, I looked up at Parvat, who was standing at my shoulder. "So Parvat, tell me," I said, "is your Bharat mahan (great)?"

Parvat stopped punting us down the river for a few seconds and considered. Then he pointed to the large pile of sand that lay in the boat. "See the colour of that sand?" he asked. "It's like gold, isn't it? Is there any other country in the world where I can get gold like this? Of course, mera Bharat mahan (my country is great)!"

I could only nod. It was one of those moments I seem to have every now and again, when something said simply overwhelms my cynicism about the country I live in.

Parvat and his boat-mates, and several dozen others like them in Pathrad village, get down to the riverside by 7.30 each morning. Throwing two shallow pans into the boat, they then punt it about a kilometre upriver. I assure you, having spent several recent hours doing precisely the same kind of punting myself, that it is hard work indeed.

But once at the spot they want to reach, Parvat's team let down an anchor and *really* get to work. Which means leaping into the water, diving under and lifting out sand from the bottom. One pan at a time, they pile the sand into the boat till the side is nearly level with the water: several hundred kilos worth of sand, I imagine. This takes them about 45 minutes or an hour of steady, drenching toil. The boat now full, they pole it back to the broad flat area on the shore near the village, where the womenfolk, the kids and a few other men are waiting.

Parvat and mates lift the sand, one pan at a time again, onto the heads of these helpers; in turn, they wade to shore and empty the pans there. Large piles of sand come up; simultaneously, the boat rises imperceptibly in the water. When it is empty, another 30 or so minutes later, Parvat and mates throw the pans in the boat and set off upriver again.

They do this cycle about six times through the day. By about three in the afternoon, they are exhausted and must stop.

The return journeys with a full boat are always precarious: "If there's a wind," says Parvat, "the boat sometimes goes under."

"What do you do then?" I ask.

He laughs: silly question. "We pull it out and fill it again."

But the wind sometimes helps, too. It allows the use of a sail, so there's less poling to do. Then again, some boats don't have sails. In those, one man goes up to the front, takes off his dhoti, puts his feet on one end, holds up the other end. Voila! A sail. There is something amusing, whimsical, about watching one of these boats scud past, powered by the wind in a dhoti-sail that's held down by 10 sandy toes.

And what's it all for, you're ask? Well, river sand is a desirable ingredient in urban building construction sites. As Parvat and friends go about their diving and digging and shoveling, a steady stream of trucks come and go on shore. They load up with the sandy fruit of Parvat's labours and deliver it to construction sites as far away as Indore, a five hour journey. One truck driver tells me they occasionally even take a load to Bombay, though in general that's too far to travel.

So it goes, on the shores of the Narmada, upstream from Maheshwar in Madhya Pradesh. If this gorgeous river is revered by millions, the hum of sand-quarrying on this shore near Pathrad is one reason. After all, there's enough work, enough sand, to give these Kahars -- Parvat's caste in the area that does the sand-quarrying -- a daily take-home of Rs 150-200. That's no small potatoes. These men and women live in flimsy huts, yes; many are illiterate, yes; but they are by no means poor. They do a hard day's work with dignity, and earn a reasonable amount for it. As Ghisalal, chai (tea)-stall owner and a retired sand-quarrier himself, told me: "The river is our kheti (field)."

But the really interesting thing about the Kahars of Pathrad is that sand-quarrying is not their traditional occupation. They have been doing it only since about the end of the 1980s. Before that, they raised fruits and vegetables in the river bed: watermelons in particular, which turn out especially tasty when grown this way (When I bought a watermelon at the market in Mandleshwar and took it back to the home I was staying at, someone there took one taste, wrinkled his nose and said: "This was not grown in the river bed").

For years previously, Kahars had cultivated fruits like this. In other villages in the area, they still do. And going by Parvat and his friends' memories of their parents' lives, the melons and other crops brought a reasonable income as well.

So why did the Kahars of Pathrad give it up in about 1990?

The answer lies astride the Narmada, a few hundred kilometres upstream from Pathrad, some distance south of Jabalpur. It's called the Bargi Dam. Completed as the '80s wound down, this giant wall of concrete was the first large dam to be completed in the ambitious programme to "develop" the Narmada Valley. And it is large indeed. I once chugged over the reservoir it impounds in a fairly fast little motorboat. There were times when we couldn't see either bank. All we could see was the water all around us. Bargi's reservoir is an enormous and -- on that day -- very placid lake.

Bargi is also the first dam you run into, if you travel upstream from Pathrad.

When Bargi was completed, the pattern of flow of water in the Narmada changed completely. Upstream from it, of course, the water ballooned out into that lake. But downstream, the flow was changed by the way water was released through the dam. How exactly that happened is not really relevant in Pathrad. But the fact that it did is. Because the changed flow of water meant that the river-bed fruit and vegetable fields belonging to the Kahars became useless. All of a sudden in the early 1990s, they found that raising tasty watermelons was no longer a viable way to live.

Thus the turning point in these Kahar lives at about that time. In Pathrad, they were forced to give up cultivating fruit and start lifting sand out of the river. Today, that's what they do: so much so that the Kahars are now generally known as the retiwale. Sand quarriers.

This switch from watermelons to sand is an interesting tale by itself, even a commentary of a kind on dams. But there's a looming twist in the tale that, if it comes to be, might just make that commentary even more emphatic. For it might just mean an end to sand-quarrying for the Kahars of Pathrad. And Parvat knows it well.

The reason for this, he says, lies astride the Narmada too. But this one is some kilometres downstream from where he lives. It's called the Maheshwar dam. It's the first dam you run into, if you travel downstream from Pathrad.

The Maheshwar dam is not nearly as big and imposing as Bargi. For various reasons, there has been fierce opposition to it in the 61 villages it threatens to submerge -- Pathrad among them -- and that may explain the desultory fashion in which construction on it is proceeding today. Still, the Madhya Pradesh government claims it will complete the dam. If that happens, its reservoir will indeed drown Pathrad.

Which means Parvat Varma will no longer be able to do his sand-quarrying. Not just because he will be driven from his home, but because at the place in the river where they dredge up their sand, the reservoir will be too deep for him and his friends to dive in as they do now. Their own kheti, in a sort of ultimate irony, will rise up to devour them.

Simple, don't you think? One dam drove the Kahars out of the fruit business. So they began quarrying sand. A decade later, another dam threatens to drive them out of sand quarrying.

"What does this mean?" I asked Parvat and several others on that shore near Pathrad. "What will you do for a living if the Maheshwar dam gets built?"

Amused, if resigned, shrugs greeted this second silly question. "What will we do? Nothing," they said. Older and wiser, Ghisalal had a sharper vision of the future. "We'll turn into beggars," he told me, "and stick our hands out in some big city."

Which, I suppose, is what happens when you are squeezed between two dams on the Narmada.

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