July 05, 2020
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The Road To Harsud

Arundhati Roy on the death of a 700-year-old town, the Narmada's own mofussil Atlantis

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The Road To Harsud
photographs by T. Narayan
The Road To Harsud
Villages die by night. Quietly. Towns die by day, shrieking as they go.

Since Independence, Big Dams have displaced more than 35 million people in India alone. What is it about our understanding of nationhood that allows governments to crush their own people with such impunity? What is it about our understanding of 'progress' and 'national interest' that allows (applauds) the violation of people's rights on a scale so vast that it takes on the texture of everyday life and is rendered virtually invisible?

But every now and then something happens to make the invisible visible, the incomprehensible comprehensible. Harsud is that something. It is literature. Theatre. History.

Harsud is a 700-year-old town in Madhya Pradesh, slated to be submerged by the reservoir of the Narmada Sagar Dam (sometimes called the Indira Sagar). The same Harsud where in 1989, 30,000 activists gathered from across India, held hands in a ring around the town, and vowed to collectively resist destruction masquerading as 'Development'. Fifteen years on, while Harsud waits to drown, that dream endures on slender moorings.

Click for large image

The 92-metre-high Narmada Sagar (262 metres above mean sea level, which is the way dam heights are usually referred to) is the second-highest dam of the many large dams on the Narmada. The Sardar Sarovar in Gujarat is the highest. The reservoir of the Narmada Sagar is designed to be the largest in India. In order to irrigate 1,23,000 hectares of land, it will submerge 91,000 hectares! This includes 41,000 hectares of prime dry deciduous forest, 249 villages and the town of Harsud. According to the detailed project report, 30,000 hectares of the land in the Narmada Sagar command was already irrigated in 1982. Odd math, wouldn't you say? Those who have studied the Narmada Sagar Project—Ashish Kothari of Kalpvriksh, Claude Alvarez and Ramesh Billorey—have warned us for years that of all the high dams on the Narmada, the Narmada Sagar would be the most destructive. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, estimated that up to 40 per cent of the composite command areas of the Omkareshwar and Narmada Sagar could become severely waterlogged. In a note prepared in 1993 for the review committee, the Ministry of Environment and Forests estimated the value of the forest that would be submerged as Rs 33,923 crore. It went on to say that if this cost was included, it would make the project unviable. The Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, warned of the loss of a vast reservoir of biodiversity, wildlife and rare medicinal plants. Its 1994 impact assessment report to the ministry of environment said: "The compensation of the combined adversarial impacts of the Narmada Sagar Project and the Omkareshwar Project is neither possible nor is being suggested. These will have to be reckoned as the price for the perceived socio-economic benefit."

As always, all the warnings were ignored.

Construction of the dam began in 1985. For the first few years, it proceeded slowly. It ran into trouble with finance and land acquisition. In 1999, after a fast by activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, work was suspended altogether.

On May 16, 2000, in keeping with the central government's push to privatise the power sector and open it to global finance, the government of Madhya Pradesh signed an MoU with the Government of India to "affirm the joint commitment of the two parties to the reform of the power sector in Madhya Pradesh". The 'reforms' involved "rationalising" power tariffs and slashing cross-subsidies that would (and did) inevitably lead to political unrest. The same MoU promised central government support for the Narmada Sagar and Omkareshwar dams by setting up a joint venture with the National Hydro-Electric Power Corporation (NHPC).That contract was signed on the same day. May 16, 2000.

Both agreements will inevitably lead to the pauperisation and dispossession of people in the state.

The NHPC boasts that the Narmada Sagar will eventually take care of the "power needs" of the state. That's not a claim that stands up to scrutiny.

The installed capacity of the Narmada Sagar Dam is 1,000 MW. Which means what it sounds like—that the power-generating machinery that has been installed is capable of producing 1,000 MW of electricity. What is produced—firm power—depends on actually available water flows. (A fancy Ferrari may be capable of doing 300 kmph. But what would it do without fuel?) The detailed project report puts the actual firm power at 212 MW, coming down to 147 MW when the irrigation canals become operational.

According to the NHPC's own publicity, the cost of power at the bus bar (factory gate) is Rs 4.59 per unit. Which means at consumer point, it will cost about Rs 9. Who can afford that? It's even more expensive than Enron's electricity in Dabhol!

When (if) the project is fully built, the NHPC says it will generate an annual average of 1,950 million units of power. For the sake of argument, let's accept that figure. Madhya Pradesh currently loses 44.2 per cent of its electricity—12,000 million units a year—in transmission and distribution (T&D) losses. That's the equivalent of SIX Narmada Sagars. If the MP government could work towards saving even half its current T&D losses, it could generate power equal to three Narmada Sagar projects, at a third of the cost, with none of the social and ecological devastation.

But instead, once again we have a Big Dam with questionable benefits and unquestionably cruel, unviable costs.

After the MoU for the Narmada Sagar was signed, the NHPC set to work with its customary callousness. The dam wall began to go up at an alarming pace. At a press conference on March 9, 2004 (after the BJP won the assembly elections and Uma Bharati became chief minister of Madhya Pradesh), Yogendra Prasad, chairman and managing director of the NHPC, boasted that the project was 8 to 10 months ahead of schedule. He said that because of better management, the costs of the project would be substantially lower. Asked to comment on the objections being raised by the NBA about rehabilitation, he said the objections were irrelevant.

"Better management", it now turns out, is a euphemism for cheating thousands of poor people.

Yogendra Prasad, Digvijay Singh and Uma Bharati are criminally culpable, and in any society in which the powerful are accountable, would find themselves in jail. The fact that the NHPC is a central government body makes the Union government culpable too. They have wilfully violated the terms of their own MoU, which legally binds them to comply with the principles of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA). The Award specifies that in no event can submergence precede rehabilitation. (Which is about as self-evident as saying child abuse is a crime). They have violated the government of Madhya Pradesh's rehabilitation policy. They have violated the conditions of environmental and forest clearance. They have violated the terms of several international covenants that India has signed: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil, Economic and Political Rights and the International Labour Organisation Convention. The Supreme Court says that any international treaty signed by India becomes part of our domestic and municipal law. Not a single family has been resettled according to the NWDT Award or the Madhya Pradesh rehabilitation policy.

There is no excuse, no mitigating argument for the horror they have unleashed.

The road from Khandwa to Harsud is a toll road. A smooth, new private highway, littered with the carcasses of trucks, motorcycles and cars whose drivers were clearly unused to such luxury.On the outskirts of Harsud, you pass row upon row of cruel, corrugated tin sheds.Tin roofs, tin walls, tin doors, tin windows. As blindingly bright on the outside as they are blind dark inside. A sign says 'Baad Raahat Kendra' (flood relief centre). It's largely empty except for the bulldozers, jeeps, government officers and police, who stroll around unhurried, full of the indolent arrogance that comes with power. The flood relief centre has been built where only a few weeks ago the government college stood.

And then, under the lowering, thundery sky, Harsud...like a scene out of a Marquez novel.

The first to greet us was an old buffalo, blind, green-eyed with cataract. Even before we entered the town we heard the announcement repeated over and over again on loudspeakers attached to a roving Matador van. "Please tether your cattle and livestock. Please do not allow them to roam free. The government will make arrangements to transport them." (Where to?) People with nowhere to go are leaving. They have loosed their livestock on to Harsud's ruined streets. And the government doesn't want drowning cattle on its hands.

Behind the blind buffalo, silhouetted against the sky, the bare bones of a broken town. A town turned inside out, its privacy ravaged, its innards exposed. Personal belongings, beds, cupboards, clothes, photographs, pots and pans lie on the street. In several houses, caged parakeets hang from broken beams. An infant swaddled in a sari-crib sways gently, fast asleep in a doorway in a free-standing wall. Leading from nowhere to nowhere. Live electric cables hang down like dangerous aerial roots. The insides of houses lie rudely exposed. It's strange to see how a bleached, colourless town on the outside was vibrant on the inside, the walls every shade of turquoise, emerald, lavender, fuchsia.

Perched on the concrete frames of wrecked buildings, men, like flightless birds, are hammering, sawing, smoking, talking. If you didn't know what was happening, you could be forgiven for thinking that Harsud was being built, not broken. That it had been hit by an earthquake and its citizens were rebuilding it. But then you notice that the old, grand trees, mahua, neem, peepul, jamun are all still standing. And outside every house you see the order in the chaos. The doorframes stacked together. Iron grills in a separate pile. Tin sheets in another. Broken bricks still flecked with coloured plaster piled up in a heap. Tin boards, shop signs, leaning against lampposts. Ambika Jewellers, Lovely Beauty Parlour, Shantiniketan Dharamshala, Blood and Urine Tested Here. On more than one house, there are insanely optimistic signs: "This house is for sale." Every house, every tree has a code number on it. Only the people are uncoded. The local cartoonist is exhibiting his work on a pile of stones. Every cartoon is about how the government cheated and deceived people. A group of spectators discusses the details of various ongoing rackets in town—from tenders for the tin sheets for the tin sheds, to the megaphones on the Matador, to the bribes being demanded from parents for School TCs (transfer certificates) to a non-existent school in a non-existent rehabilitation site. Parents are distraught and children are delighted because their school building has been torn down. Many children will lose a whole school year. The poorer ones will drop out.

The people of Harsud are razing their town to the ground. Themselves. The very young and the very old sit on heaps of broken brick. The able-bodied are frenetically busy.They're tearing apart their homes, their lives, their past, their stories.They're carting the debris away in trucks and tractors and bullock carts. Harsud is hectic. Like a frontier town during the Gold Rush. The demise of a town is lucrative business. People have arrived from nearby towns.Trucks, tractors, dealers in scrap-iron, timber and old plastic throng the streets, beating down prices, driving hard bargains, mercilessly exploiting distress sales.Migrant workers camp in makeshift hovels on the edge of town. They are the poorest of the poor. They have come from Jhabua, and the villages around Omkareshwar, displaced by the other big dams on the Narmada, the Sardar Sarovar and the Omkareshwar. The better off in Harsud hire them as labour. A severely malnutritioned demolition squad. And so the circle of relentless impoverishment closes in upon itself.

In the midst of the rubble, life goes on. Private things are now public. People are cooking, bathing, chatting (and yes, crying) in their wall-less homes. Iridescent orange jalebis and gritty pakoras are being deep-fried in stoves surrounded by mounds of debris. The barber has a broken mirror on a broken wall. (Perhaps the man he's shaving has a broken heart.) The man who is demolishing the mosque is trying to save the coloured glass. Two men are trying to remove the Shivling from a small shrine without chipping it. There is no method to the demolition. No safety precautions. Just a mad hammering. A house collapses on four labourers. When they are extricated, one of them is unconscious and has a steel rod sticking into his temple. But they're only adivasis. They don't matter. The show must go on.

There is an eerie, brittle numbness to the bustle. It masks the government's ruthlessness and people's despair. Everyone knows that nearby, in the Kalimachak tributary, the water has risen. The bridge on the road to Badkeshwar is already under water.

There are no proper estimates of how many villages will be submerged in the Narmada Sagar Reservoir, when (if) the monsoon comes to the Narmada Valley. The Narmada Control Authority website uses figures from the 1981 Census! In newspaper reports, government officials estimate it will submerge more than a hundred villages and Harsud town. Most estimates suggest that this year 30,000 families will be uprooted from their homes. Of these, 5,600 families (22,000 people) are from Harsud. Remember, these are 1981 figures.

When the reservoir of the first dam on the Narmada—the Bargi Dam—was filled in 1989, it submerged three times more land than government engineers said it would. Then, 101 villages were slated for submergence, but in the monsoon of 1989, when the sluice gates were finally closed and the reservoir was filled, 162 villages (including some of the government's own resettlement sites) were submerged. There was no rehabilitation. Tens of thousands of people slid into destitution and abject poverty. Today, 15 years later, irrigation canals have still not been built. So the Bargi Dam irrigates less land than it submerged and only 6 per cent of the land that its planners claimed it would irrigate. All indicators suggest that the Narmada Sagar could be an even bigger disaster.

Farmers who usually pray for rain, now trapped between drought and drowning, have grown to dread the monsoon.

Oddly enough, after the 1989 rally, when the anti-dam movement was at its peak, the town of Harsud never became a major site of struggle. The people chose the option of conventional, mainstream politics, and divided themselves acrimoniously between the Congress and the BJP. Like most people, they believed that dams were not intrinsically bad, provided displaced people were resettled. So they didn't oppose the Dam, hoping their political mentors would see that they received just compensation. Villages in the submergence zone did try to organise resistance, but were brutally and easily suppressed. Time and again they appealed to the NBA (located further downstream, fighting against the Sardar Sarovar and Maheshwar dams) for help.The NBA, absurdly overstretched and under-resourced, did make sporadic interventions, but was not able to expand its zone of influence to the Narmada Sagar.

With no NBA to deal with, bolstered by the Supreme Court's hostile judgements on the Sardar Sarovar and Tehri dams, the Madhya Pradesh government and its partner, the NHPC, have rampaged through the region with a callousness that would shock even a seasoned cynic. The lie of rehabilitation has been punctured once and for all. Planners who peddle it do so for the most cruel, opportunistic reasons. It gives them cover. It sounds so reasonable.

In the absence of organised resistance, the media in Madhya Pradesh has done a magnificent job. Local journalists have doggedly exposed the outrage for what it is. Editors have given the story the space it deserves. Sahara Samay has its OB van parked in Harsud. Newspapers and television channels carry horror stories every day. A normally anaesthetised, unblinking public has been roused to anger. Every day, groups of people arrive to see for themselves what is happening, and to express their solidarity. The state government and the NHPC remain unmoved. Perhaps a decision has been taken to exacerbate the tragedy and wait out the storm once and for all. Perhaps they're gambling on the fickleness of public memory and the media's need for a crisis turnover. But a crime of this proportion is not going to be forgotten so easily. If it goes unpunished, it cannot but damage India's image as a benign destination for International Finance: thousands of people, evicted from their homes with nowhere to go. And it's not war. It's policy.

Can it really be that 30,000 families have nowhere to go? Can it really be that a whole town has nowhere to go? Ministers and government officials assure the press that a whole new township—New Harsud—has been built near Chhanera, 12 km away. On July 12, in his budget presentation, MP finance minister Shri Raghavji announced: "Rehabilitation of Harsud town which was pending for years has been completed in six months."


New Harsud is nothing but mile upon mile of stony, barren land in the middle of nowhere. A few hundred of the poorest families of Harsud have moved there and live under tarpaulin and tin sheets. (The rest have placed themselves at the mercy of relatives in nearby towns, or are using up their meagre compensation on rented accommodation. In and around Chhanera, rents have skyrocketed.) In New Harsud, there's no water, no sewage system, no shelter, no school, no hospital. Plots have been marked out like cells in a prison, with mud roads that criss-cross at right angles. They get water from a tanker. Sometimes they don't. There are no toilets and there is not a tree or a bush in sight for them to piss or shit behind. When the wind rises, it takes the tin sheets with it. When it rains, the scorpions come out of the wet earth. Most important of all, there's no work in New Harsud. No means of earning a livelihood.

People can't leave their possessions in the open and go off in search of work. So the little money they have been paid, dwindles. Of course, cash compensation is only given to the Head of the Family, that is: to men. What a travesty for the thousands of women who are hit hardest by the violence of displacement.

In Chhanera, the booze shops are doing brisk business.

When media attention trails away, so will the water tankers. People will be left in a stony desert with no option but to flee. Again.

And this is what is being done to people from a town.

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