March 27, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

Up On The Dam

By all rights, I should have been dead to the world. We had spent four hours, till midnight, being flung about in the back of a truck designed to magnify every bump on the road into an aspiring Mount Everest. Another hour after that was in the back of a jeep where the bumps were slightly less felt, but whose driver must have been deaf, going by the volume at which he played a series of screeching out-of-tune songs. I was exhausted when we reached this village, Khedi-Balwadi, and flopped onto a too-small but welcome string-cot to grab some sleep.

I should have slept like a log. But no. There was too much going on. Somewhere around four in the morning, I finally gave up trying and lay there awake, listening to the sounds around me, the dozens of voices. The barely suppressed air of excitement. These people were about to make a statement, and the thrill was evident.

People were gathering in the little village from various surrounding hamlets. I myself had come with a group from the village of Pathrad, over a hundred kilometres away via some truly atrocious roads. By the time the night sky began fading, hundreds of men, women and kids were pressed into the spaces between the huts, chattering and laughing and waving little blue flags. I got up, washed my face, checked that I had film in my camera, and we were off.

Singing songs and raising slogans, charged with high-spirited enthusiasm, our procession fairly raced through fields, over low rises, over the rocks of a dry stream bed, took a couple more rises in our stride -- and suddenly we were at our destination. A large stone and earthen wall with a tall crane hanging over it, a concrete spillway, and another tall wall on the other side of the spillway. This is the dam being built on the Man river, a tributary of the Narmada, in the south-western corner of Madhya Pradesh. The dam that threatens the existence of Khedi-Balwadi and 15 nearby villages.

Without so much as a pause, slogans still ringing in the clear morning air, our procession swarmed up two bamboo ramps and onto the spillway. Within 15 minutes, flags and banners were up all around the dam. To much cheering, one young man climbed the crane, taking care to avoid a large beehive halfway up, and unfurled a large blue flag on top. From the time we set off from Khedi-Balwadi, it had been no more than 30 or 45 minutes. These few hundred villagers had done what they came here to do: "capture" the Man dam as a protest against the destruction it promises to bring to their lives.

Today, March 21, there would be no work on this dam site.

A couple of hours later, there was an exclamation point on that last sentiment. Two orange dump trucks rumbled down the steep slope below the dam. They were filled with construction material, and were headed for an open area to dump it. Without prompting, a group of 50 or so women poured off the dam and raced after the trucks. The rest of us watched, spellbound, from atop the dam. "Nari shakti, Narmada shakti", ("Woman power, Narmada power") we could hear them shouting. They caught up with the trucks just as they were about to unload their material. A short confrontation followed, and suddenly the two trucks turned around and sped back the way they came. Only, they could not get back up the slope with their loads. One finally deposited half its material at a turn in the road and then was able to wheeze slowly up the hill; the other waited for an excavator that arrived and pushed it up.

From on top of the dam, from the women far below, a joyful cheer went up. Yes sir: no work on the dam today.

Much later, a police team turned up, rounded up many protestors -- 52 kids among them -- and took them to jail in Dhar. As is now routine at such times, the police managed in the process to rough up several of the villagers. As I write this, 213 remain in jail -- five days now.

The police claim the villagers threw stones while being arrested. More impressive, they have charged the villagers with -- get ready -- atrocities against tribals. This last, as near as anybody can tell, because a few of the arresting constables were tribals. I suppose that while they were being bundled into vans and carted off to jail, these women and kids and men took time out to find and then beat the living daylights out of the tribal cops. Right. And wake me when we are back on Planet Earth, OK?

Now it's not as if the protestors did not expect to be arrested. Or to be accused of all manner of things. They did. I am not trying to draw your attention to the injustice of the arrests, nor the strange charges against these people. In some ways, those things are mere details, just the sideshow. What I found myself thinking about up on that Man dam, and which is why I write this, are a few random questions.

Like: what drives several hundred people, including children and women nursing babies, to race pell-mell onto a dam early one morning and sit there, knowing full well they are going to be arrested? What makes a young man climb up a crane? What sends a few dozen of the women running after two dump trucks? Really, what motivates ordinary rural folks to object to all those conventional notions of "progress" and "development", to confront the might of the state in doing so? Would you do the same?

Actually, I have some idea of the answers to those questions. Over the few days before March 21, I had wandered through some villages -- like Pathrad -- just upstream of the Maheshwar dam that's under construction on the Narmada. If that dam is completed, these villages will be submerged. Through those few days, and this morning in Khedi-Balwadi, I spoke to many people about these two dam projects. The Narmada Bachao Andolan is active in this area, and in fact organized the protest to the Man dam. But very deliberately, so I could also meet people who might disagree with the NBA, I had chosen to be alone in my wanderings.

Sure enough, there were people I spoke to who believed the dams would be built. There were even some who thought they would bring good: the "progress" of the nation and all that, right? But from them as well as from the rest, I kept hearing one thing that simply amazed me.

These are dams that have been under construction, therefore threatening to push people from their homes, for several years. Yet everyone I spoke to said that not a single person from the government had ever come to tell them what the dam would do to their homes, about any rehabilitation programme. Never. In fact, the first they heard about the dam, apart from watching the construction begin, was from NBA activists who came to their villages. It was only then that they realized the dam plans included drowning them out of their land and homes.

Let me put this in some perspective. I live in the Bombay suburb of Bandra. One day, I look out of my window and see construction beginning on a dam half a mile away. For some years, I watch the dam rise. I know that such a huge project can only have been conceived by the government. But in all those years, nobody from the government comes to me, or to any of my neighbours, to tell us what the consequences of building this dam will be for our homes. When I find out that one of those consequences just happens to be that I will end up underwater, how do you think I might react? How would my neighbours, my fellow city-dwellers, react?

How would you react?

Maybe you have an aversion to the NBA and what it stands for. But put that aside for just a moment and answer this: how would you react? Do you think you might swarm that dam?

I have in front of me a copy of a letter from the government of Madhya Pradesh's Narmada Valley Development Department to the vice-chairman of the Narmada Valley Development Authority in Bhopal. It is dated May 2, 1999. It lays out seven different "orders" about the implementation of various dam projects in the Narmada Valley. One of those orders reads:

"After reviewing the current situation in the Man and Jobat [another Narmada tributary] projects, it has been decided that ... a Rehabilitation Planning Committee will be constituted. ... The Committee will keep in mind [that] the rehabilitation and resettlement of families living in the areas likely to be submerged due to the construction work up to 15th June of any year, should be completed by the 31st of December of the preceding year as per policy."

I had in front of me that morning on the Man dam about 400 people "living in the areas likely to be submerged due to the construction work up to 15th June of" 2001. They were 400 out of some 5000 people -- 993 families in 16 villages -- who are likely to be so submerged in 2001. "As per policy", their rehabilitation and resettlement "should" have been "completed by the 31st of December of" the year 2000.

Except, it wasn't. Not only has it not been "completed", they are yet to even meet a single official involved with implementing this "policy." That's their very personal experience of "progress" and "development."

That, and being charged with atrocities against tribals.


"What Laxman in all probability said was 'Dollars??' with an exclamation of shock in his tone, and 'You can give dollars??' with another exclamatory tone.

This piece of erudition, from Arvind Lavakare. It's just one piece from a column that finds every possible wriggle in the book to absolve Lavakare's BJP heroes of sleaze uncovered by Tehelka. It ends up doing nothing of the sort. But it does utterly shame Lavakare. What do you say to convolutions like this one?

Thank you, Varsha Bhosle, for giving Lavakare's phony arguments the treatment they deserve.

Dilip D'Souza

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