A bunch of men and women greet us from the bank while we sail down the Narmada, one of the seven holy rivers of India. Their black eyes express a compound of incredulity and resignation in the face of the pitiless evidence: the purifying waters that for 2000 years have been opening to the dead the gates of Nirvana, the paradise of Hindu, are now becoming a hell for the living ones. A hell where the demon has a triple name: “Sardar Sarovar Dam”.
That is the largest of the 30 super-dams that have condemned the valley to flooding and one of the 4000 dams erected all over India. Immense tanks where the rain that falls only two months a year is stored. Tanks which carry development, but also devastation. Approximately 50 million people (10% of the national population) have been forced to leave their land to make room for the water basins of the country.
It was back in 1961 when Jawaharlal Nehru, first Indian president, inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar. The wave of euphoria following the independence from England did not allow to foresee the conflict that was to oppose the India of “tomorrow” to the India of “yesterday”. Today, the vicissitude of Narmada reflects in emblematic way the drama of a people who is forced to sacrifice its roots in the sake of globalization.
While we flow down the river we see the few little houses, grabbed hold to the banks, which survived the ravaging stream. The peasants defy the gravity law in order to pick up the few plants which succeed to sprout on the steep pastures. The fertile soil of the valley was flooded by one hundred meters of water. And so were the villages of Kakrana and Jhakrana. Not even the temples have been rescued. Only those on top of the hills will recall to posterity the legends of the past.
That is how one of the most ancient rural settlements in Asia is disappearing: an uncontaminated oasis in the heart of the India, enclosed between Vindhya and Satpura ranges, where for millennia the aboriginal tribes have lived in symbiosis with the forest. That is how the small peasants who need just few litres of water to cultivate a rice sod are disappearing forever: forced to flee to allow the government to increase water and hydro-generated power supplies. The winner of the water game here are the big plantations which feed the megalopolis and the steel factories and hi-tech companies that, from Bombay, conquer the world.
A suspicious project
“After 20 years of struggling the end has come for the aboriginal communities”, our guide, Medha Patkar, admits with bitterness. She is the historical leader of the Narmada Bachau Andolan (NBA), the group of activists who has been fighting since 1985 against the 7 billion-Euro “engineering monster”. By means of protests in public square and judicial lawsuits Medha managed to convince the World Bank and the international investors to withdraw from the plan, without however succeeding in blocking the works.
From the initial height of 50meters, the concrete wall has first topped up to 119. Last December, it caught up to 121,9 meters while the expected final height is 138. Each meter higher means death for dozens of communities. “Since the previous level of 110 meters was exceeded, others 75 villages have been submerged, their number will increase up to 248 when the dam is completely achieved”, NBA leader explains.
The government says the water reservoir is necessary in order to quench the thirst of 20 million inhabitants of the desert of Gujarat, the last state crossed by Narmada before flowing into the Arabian Sea. Many suspect that is just a pretext and that the true beneficiaries will be the industrial complexes and the luxury tourism residences. The Ecological Commission of the Gujarat states that the accumulated water will not succeed to serve more than 22% of the barren areas.
Half a million disinherited
The only certainty is that almost half a million people are jeopardized by the plan. The Supreme Court of India has repeatedly decreed that they should all be provided with secure accommodations and lands to cultivate before the dam were raised further. In July 2006 a governmental commission published a “fake“ report stating that the evacuation was nearly completed. In reality, only 11,000 out of the 80,000 families at risk have been resettled so far. “Many villages and families under submergence are not even mentioned in the governmental report”, Medha comments, handling us a paper with some figures.
Soon after, our boat turns in a handle of the river and the figures turn into a daily tragedy. Drown trees, mud huts melting in the river and, perched on their straw roofs, the inhabitants waiting in vain for the waters to go down with the end of the Monsoons season. This is what is left of Bhadal village, located on the border between the states of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
Around 175 villagers families are under water. Not even a third of them are declared in the governmental statistics and only the few who officially own a land will be compensated. Those who have freely cultivated the grasslands for decades accordingly to the tribal customs will have nothing.
The same fate will strike soon the fishermen village of Bithada, located further down in the valley. The river has come so close to the houses that the boat grazes them while landing. The water tentacles penetrate so deeply in the depressions that many parts of the village are only reachable by boat.
“The resettlement plan offered by the government is just a placebo for the public opinion”, cries out Krubha Paulraj, a lawyer who helps the illiterates of Bithada to obtain from the courts a place where to live when the water will swallow their huts, “Those who decide to leave the valley receive very little: a money allowance which is not even enough to buy a building lot or two hectares of land in areas which can be hardly cultivated ”. Inadequate promises which, very often, were not even kept: that’s what the World Commission of Dams had already reported to the UN six years ago.
Many families who moved to their new lands found out that they are not suitable for agriculture or even flooded. As a result, they preferred to return home and survive with what is left in the valley. Others, removed from their social milieu, lacking in instruction, with no more land to nourish themselves and their animals, will end up swelling the horde of beggars.
After going upstream, we reach by car the little town of Badwani where NBA has its headquarters. This was the starting point of the Satygraha (“movement for the truth”): the long marathon of manifestations organised to protest against the government tricks. “We will drown but we will never be gone”, said the banners waved by the aboriginal women.
Before leaving the valley we make a stop at the village of Rajghat. A small memorial made of white marble lay gently on the bank. While we visit it, a sentence comes back to our mind: “For every penalized tribal community, seven will draw profit”. That is the slogan coined by the dam supporters in order to emphasize the public interest of the work.
Few of them know that this flood-bound memorial contains the ashes of the great Mahatma Gandhi. A man who was not very keen on mathematics. While fighting for the independence of his country one day he wrote: “the public interest is such when it brings prosperity for all”. That day has gone now.That India has gone.