It is 25 years since the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) launched its struggle against the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). Prior to the emergence of the NBA, big dams were viewed as a boon. It was widely believed that dams brought positive benefits only. The unanimous perception was that these ‘temples of modern India’ as prime minister Nehru described them, improved irrigation, provided hydro-electric power and made drinking water available to cities.
The NBA’s struggle has drawn attention to a different reality on the ground – the terrible plight of millions of people displaced by the SSP’s multiples dams across the Narmada River. Thanks to the remarkable work of the NBA, we now know the devastating impact that big dam projects have on the lives and livelihoods of people. Millions have been displaced. Their cultural identities are being wiped out. The NBA has gone beyond laying bare the ground situation. It has organised angry people into a mass movement, drawing in support from activists worldwide.
It has fought for people’s rights through mass protests and waged battles in the courts. It has sought relief and rehabilitation for the displaced. It was able to build pressure on the World Bank, forcing it to withdraw from the project in the 1990s. However, it has not been able to convince the government to halt the project. The damming of the Narmada has continued, displacing ever more people every year. The NBA says that 40,000 oustees are yet to be resettled by the government.
The most remarkable achievement of the NBA is that it has remained a peaceful, Gandhian movement despite the violence unleashed by the state against its activists. The use of hunger strikes by NBA activists has been principled and peaceful, unsullied by the politics of blackmail. Its jal samarpan, where villagers sacrifice themselves to the rising waters of the Narmada, to draw attention to their plight during the monsoons has laid bare the Indian state’s shameful unresponsiveness to Gandhian movements.
The NBA has often been criticised as ‘anti-development’. It is not. It is only opposed to a kind of development that excludes tribals and other poor rural Indians. For 25 years it has campaigned for inclusive economic growth, a vision that has escaped the Indian state. It is time India paid heed to the NBA’s vision and struggle for justice.