THE Narmada has always been a river of stories. Of the Maker conjuring it up around the time the Universe was born to redeem people of the earth. Of a thirsty kabadiwala searching for water, scratching the soil and saved by the gushing river. Evocative and enchanting, her tales in the form of gyanas run along the entire length of its 1,300-km stretch, handed down by word of mouth over generations who've lived along her banks and lived off her bounty.
On July 29, 1999, yet another chapter was added to the Narmada epic. A campaign for most time and a circus in parts, it had all the colour of an election build-up. A big issue, impassioned speeches and a face that could launch a thousand boats on the Narmada.
Led by master storyteller, Booker prize winner and reluctant leader Arundhati Roy, it brought together hundreds from all over the country for their own peculiar reasons. Representatives from the international and national media were scrambling for a story, even a fashion spread of Roy roughing it out in India's interiors. International organisations and citizens of a more privileged world came to join their manicured hands with the cause. But most had turned up simply to express solidarity. Spilling off the railway station and bus stations at Indore, they gathered to join the Narmada Bachao Andolan's six-day 'Rally for the Valley'. They had converged in huge numbers, armed for a long journey into the heart of a valley and its people. Over the last 15 years, the campaign to save the valley had already travelled far. Now it was time to lend their support-and their ears.
"From today onwards, we'll not speak. We'll listen, we'll look," said Roy, voicing sentiments of the rallying multitudes flagging off the drive at a public meeting held at Indore's Rabindra Bhavan. For many the voyage was a culmination of their own struggles, in their own part of the land. The troop from Orissa lamented the lot of Lake Chilika; the one from Andhra fired Gaddar's revolutionary poetry: Who owns the river, who owns the land; while the band from Rajasthan, through a puppet performance, played out the denigration of their resources.
For most, it was a moment of truth. That separated by states, they were still welded at the hip by a "remote-controlled" power guiding their destiny. That the Narmada meandering through three states-MP, Gujarat and Maharashtra-and nestling between the Satpuras and the Vindhyas embodied the inherent interconnectedness of life.
A oneness substantiated in the blue nba flags linking the destinations along the road to Pathrad, 90 km away. One meeting rolled into the next, identical war cries rending the charged air. Swagat (welcome) committees along the way halted the group, joined up and added their might to the movement. "Koi nahin hatega, Bandh nahin banega", "Narmada Ghati kare sawaal, Jeene ka haq ya maut ka jaal", "Big dams are a curse to humanity", "Say No to Dams", "Arundhati aage badho, hum tumhare saath hain".
Arundhati's own Hindi-speaking skills showed an increasing finesse. And those who didn't quite know her happily joined in the chorus corrupting it with "Arun Didi, hum tumhare saath hain. "
At Pathrad village, over a 100 boats bobbed in unison to the chanting of the cries. Said Shamu Varma, a boatman from the neighbouring Ghadiali village, one of the 61 villages to be displaced by the Maheshwar dam: "Most of us depend on sand quarrying and fishing for our livelihood. Sand quarrying enables us to make at least Rs 400 per day. What will happen to all of us who depend on the river for sustenance?"
A question that also haunts 50-year-old Ranchchod Sitaram Pathedar. "Compensation has been given to those who live along the shore, but what of those like us who live on higher ground but stand to lose our land. What can we do with land that is not fertile?"
With no answers forthcoming from the authorities, Pathrad laid down its own rules. A notice outside the village school issued a sharp warning saying the village wouldn't welcome government officials. The absence of police personnel was glaring even as over 8,000 people assembled for the public meeting.
The bureaucracy, however, did make a brazen appearance at Maheshwar, 20 km away from Pathrad, on the banks of the Maheshwar fort. Doling out the 'official' line, Khargone district collector Bhupal Singh said: "We're setting up cooperatives and working on schemes for the fishermen and the sand quarry workers. We've also been allotting grasslands for cultivation purposes to those who've lost their agricultural lands." Words that didn't wash well with the activists. The fire over the waters continued as Singh was asked to qualify his charges of finding condoms in the cells of nba activists jailed a few months earlier.
Ironically, nba's non-violent movement began showing signs of muscle and with the tide rising against him, the collector and his security made a hasty exit. Arundhati had already edged out of the line of fire and for the rally participants too, it was time to move on. Fire met water once again as earthen lamps were lit and set afloat on the river, beacons in the darkness cast by the frenzy of dam-building.
For some, the flame often flickered. Awash with helplessness, Rattan Dhangar of Sondhu village said: "We've been offered land in Gujarat. But I've lived in Madhya Pradesh all my life. Why would I want to leave my people and my land and go elsewhere? And of what use is a farmer without his land?" Travelling through Anjad, Chotta Barda and the Nimad plains, atop crowded tractors and bumpy dirt tracks, across fertile cornfields, there had to be a renewal of hope at Kasrawad.
Home to Baba Amte for the past decade, the meeting here of two like minds-the writer and the philosopher-was an occasion to celebrate. Frail in form but not in spirit, the activist, reclining on a bed, told Arundhati: "Victorious is he who even in defeat will never surrender." Terming the Sardar Sarovar adventure as an "aqua-assassination", he applauded the woman who studied to be an architect and emerged as "the architect of the new world". Also: "Narmada ko milne yeh Saraswati kahan se aayi (how has Saraswati come to meet Narmada)?"
With the burden of the Big Dams on her shoulders, the newly-christened goddess could not pause for her cause. It was onto another public meeting at Nisarpur village, followed by a brief halt at Kakrana the following day. Here again, stories of fertile land being swapped for water-logged resettlement areas, of the decimation of entire communities abounded.
The rally flowed into its final destination: The villages of Jalsindhi in MP and Domkhedi in Maharashtra where the indefatigable Medha Patkar waited on the other side. For the moment, it is to meet with Arundhati and the rest of the rally. For the long term, she and a large number of adivasi satyagrahis are biding their time by the riverside, for the water level to rise and submerge the satyagraha site.
Laughing away queries of ego clashes between Arundhati and herself, she immersed herself into the immediate battle. "We're not here to commit suicide but as satyagrahis who insist on the truth, have decided to stay put till we get our answers. If the time comes and the situation demands, we will even lay down our lives."
Luvaryubhai of Jalsindhi village is one among those offering himself up for the cause. As the dam rises, so will the waters of the Narmada when Luvaryubhai's house will be among the first on the submerged hitlist. "We have lived here for generations and I'm not prepared to leave my land. If the waters rise, I'll continue to sit in my home with my family and my livestock. I am not dying alone. There will be others who'll be affected as well. So the prospect of dying does not frighten me."
"You cannot stamp a piece of paper and produce land," says Pervibai of Jalsindhi, "you cannot produce land the way you produce children." Soon anti-dam calls reverberated across the river and were carried into Domkhedi. Jalsindhi and Domkhedi, two villages separated by the river, by two states, by two different tribal groups which do not permit intermarriage, but are united by a common cause.
As the campaign drew to a close, the six-day trail of discovery opened up a minefield of dilemmas. Charges and countercharges had been made-with the authorities presenting their version and the nba standing by its own. A stockpile of statistics had been used like adjectives but the story was in the voices across the valley. Those who had real faces and told real stories of the valley.
Even if the dam is built, the river will go on. But the songs could die, centuries-old traditions could be washed away. Bankhav village in MP will never be able to use the Narmada's stone on which it has founded its age-old tradition of carving Shivalings. The Archaeological Survey of India's ongoing study on the Narmada Valley being home to the world's oldest civilisation may run aground. In a way, the Narmada will be silenced. With her people gone, over time even her bank of stories may run dry.