The Dance of the Displaced: What Progress Looks Like in the Narmada Valley

Officials are still denying the devastating impact of the Sardar Sarovar dam on the lives of lakhs of people.

Credit: Ananyaa Gaur and Anit Gupta.

Credit: Ananyaa Gaur and Anit Gupta.

In March, a full moon illuminated Adivasi communities’ Holi celebrations in villages across rural Maharashtra. Holi in the countryside looks a lot different than it does in cities. Instead of colours, the beat of 89 drums drew out a dance that was more innate than practiced. Colourful headdresses, bells, gourds, masks and organic white paint decorated the dancers’ bodies. The instinctive coordination and expression in their movements was hard to miss, even for an ignorant urban onlooker.

Rural Indian tribal communities have expressed devotion with their voices, instruments and bodies in similar forms for thousands of years. But in the last three decades – a mere sliver of time in their history – their traditions and livelihoods have been interrupted by new threats. For lakhs of families this year, Holi took place hundreds of kilometres from their native places.

Farms, houses, temples – the sites of past Holis – all lie submerged beneath encroaching water bodies many times their natural size. These Adivasi communities are not helpless victims of natural processes or inexplicable acts of God. They are citizens who have had their government transgress their rights in pursuit of those ill-fated demi-gods: foreign capital and narrowly-defined ‘progress’.

In 1979, the Indian government initiated construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam to improve hydropower supply in Gujarat and provide water to the drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra. The dam affects communities in three states: Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. It has been likened to a “weapon of mass destruction and an indication of “civilisation turning upon itself”. Despite persistent struggles to fight the dam and secure compensation for its victims, violations continue in the wake of its ill-fated construction.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) first began to oppose the dam in 1988, after discovering that the government lacked a clear plan for the management of its inevitable social, cultural and environmental costs. The dam’s construction was planned without even informing citizens of its subsequent impact on their thousand-year-old civilisations. Intricate ecosystems, social structures and livelihoods would be washed away alongside temples, schools, roads, houses, crops, trees and lives.

Credit: Ananyaa Gaur and Anit Gupta.

Credit: Ananyaa Gaur and Anit Gupta.

In 1990, significant domestic opposition prompted the World Bank to review its support for the Sardar Sarovar dam. After spending more than a year in the Narmada valley, a review commission concluded that the dam could only be completed through ‘unconstitutional’ means. The World Bank withdrew support in 1994, but the fight was far from over. For four years – from 1995 to 1999 –the dam’s construction was stopped because activists from the NBA opposed it in court. Numerous court cases have been filed since then. Medha Patkar and other NBA leaders held hunger strikes protesting the widespread degradation wrought by the dam. Despite these efforts, deception and corruption continue to define the government’s actions.

The government first tried to offer money instead of land in compensation for the property that would be washed away by the dam. The money was offered on terms that made it impossible for families to buy new land. The Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh governments then offered only poor, non-irrigated, rocky and infertile land to tribal farmers. Officials still don’t acknowledge the extent of the dam’s backwater effects, either, meaning many more people are displaced than the number that is publicly acknowledged. The abuses reached a pinnacle when the NBA discovered at least 2000 fake registries claiming ‘successful rehabilitation’ of affected families. The court first accepted only 23, then finally 686 of these. A commission reviewed five aspects of alleged corruption and 30 officials were suspended from their jobs.

Credit: Ananyaa Gaur and Anit Gupta.

Credit: Ananyaa Gaur and Anit Gupta.

These suspensions should represent tangible, on-the-ground progress for the movement. It should mean that the government takes its responsibility for ecosystems, citizens and their civilisations seriously. It should lead to the reconsideration of the dam’s height and scale – or at the very least, to an increased effort in resettling and rehabilitating the affected. It should, but it hasn’t.

Instead, the Modi administration decided to raise the height of the dam by 17 meters and to construct gates that shut off the flow of water completely. The administration made its decision within 20 days of taking office, without attempting to understand the ground reality or hear activists’ complaints. Lakhs more will lose their homes as a result of this decision. And yet officials claim they are 100% satisfied when it comes to the rehabilitation of the displaced.

Over two decades ago, the dam was condemned after an independent evaluation by an unlikely opponent of ‘development-at-all-costs’. Just last month, the administration’s position on the matter was confirmed when the Chief Justice asked NBA activists: How can it be Narmada Bachao Andolan? It is now ousted Bachao Andolan.” With his words, the fate of the Holi revellers was sealed. The message was clear: go practice your centuries-old tribal customs elsewhere. Development has arrived on your doorstep, so move over. Like it or not, this is progress.

The village of Bhilgaon is not on the map. Flowing through it is a small river, nothing compared to the powerful Narmada. The remnants of a small dam are visible over this river. This dam was used to power a turbine that generated electricity for the whole village, consisting of 350 households. The locals said that the dam was constructed by shamdan, meaning everyone contributed a little bit to build it. It functioned from 2003-2006; a small dam that worked to power the village – and it did so without causing any displacement.

This project was completed to provide an example of how smaller dam projects could achieve ‘progress’ and ‘development’ without the vast losses caused by massive endeavours like Sardar Sarovar. In 2006 it was washed away in the monsoon, another unmapped victim of that backwater effect officials are still denying. To date, 12 hamlets in Bhilgaon have had to move out of the way of the swelling river, with more destruction expected soon. Alternatives to narrowly defined ‘development’ have been washed away in a flood of ‘progress’ from the Centre. The meaning of ‘democracy’ is not far behind.