BHOPAL, India – Many people around the world may not have heard of the Narmada River Valley, yet the struggle unfolding there will directly affect over one million people and the biodiversity of South Asia.
Three Indian state governments – Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra – in association with the National government decided to implement the Narmada Valley Development Plan (NDVP). This plan seeks to generate electricity and irrigation for these states through the building of 30 big dams, 135 medium dams and 3,000 small dams on the Narmada River and its tributaries. The Narmada stretches 1,312 kilometers, passing through these three northern states, which are among the most agriculturally and industrially productive in India.
The NDVP has given rise to one of the largest anti-globalization movements. For the last 16 years, under the leadership of Medha Patkar and Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the one million Valley inhabitants, mainly tribal and Adivasi peoples, are struggling for their very existence. If the dams go through as projected, the Narmada Valley will be submerged under water, displacing 1 million people, and covering thousands of acres of forest.
As a mainly agrarian country, India needs to utilize its water resources to its maximum. But irresponsible and corrupt politicians are exploiting the situation for their narrow interests. No governments, present or previous, have a program for rehabilitation. Originally the Valley residents were not against the project, but demanded only proper compensation. But now, because of all the maneuvering by profit-motivated interests, the people are totally against this project.
The struggle for justice in Narmada River Valley even forced the World Bank, which was the major funding agency of the dams, to withdraw their support.
Ultra-right and centrist parties rule the three state governments, while the national government is led by the ultra-right BJP. Their programs are making the situation worse. For example, recently the Narmada Control Authority, another governmental body, illegally gave permission to raise the height of one dam, Sardar Sarovar, disregarding any previous findings.
The true beneficiaries of the NDVP are the rich farmers who own thousands of acres of land, industries owned by politicians, including the gigantic sugar mills owned by a former Gujarat chief minister, and various multi-national corporations.
Bhopal, capital city of Madhya Pradesh and the city where Union Carbide committed the world’s worst industrial murder in 1984, is the current center of a month-long hunger strike by four NBA activists, including NBA leader Patkar. Madhya Pradesh police have tried to suppress the strike with an iron hand. Instead of talking to NBA, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister DigVijay Singh resorted to putting all participants behind bars.
Leaders of center and right political parties are trying to attack Patkar because of her growing popularity and her principled, social justice, grassroots and non-violent approach. The mass base and support of the NBA is a severe threat to these political parties and their ideologies.
Left parties, though, along with trade unions, youth and women’s organizations and various environmental groups are part of this ongoing struggle. At the recent convention of the Communist Party of India, Patkar spoke to the delegates, urging unity and coalition-building on this front. The NBA is urging all concerned to write to the Chief Ministers of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the Indian Prime Minister and President, insisting they “refrain from killing people and human rights by drowning them without resettlement with an alternate land.”
More than 8,000 families in north India face the danger of submergence in this year’s monsoon season, which starts in July. Raising the height of the Dam Sardar Sarovar before this will affect more than 60 villages of Madhya Pradesh, 33 villages of Maharashtra and hundreds of families in Gujarat. The NBA calls this a “state-sponsored ‘massacre by water.’”
“This will be the man-made flooding and submergence of the people. The extent of such a disaster will depend on the rainfall this monsoon,” the NBA said in a June 15 press release.
Many are gathering in this region June 29 to peacefully and dramatically show the life and death issues at stake in the Narmada River Valley. For more information visit: www.narmada.org
Terrie Albano contributed to this article.The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org