Friday, Aug 12, 2022


Right now the Narmada Bachao Andolan is not just fighting Big Dams. It's fighting for the survival of India's greatest gift to the world: non-violent resistance. You could call it the Ahimsa Bachao Andolan.

While the rest of us are mesmerised by talk of war and terrorism and wars against terror, (can you go to war against a feeling?) in Madhya Pradesh a little life-raft has set sail into the wind. On a pavement in Bhopal, in an area called 'Tin Shed', a small group of people has embarked on a journey of faith and hope.

There's nothing new in what they're doing. What's new is the climate they're doing it in.

Today is the 23rd day of the indefinite hunger strike by four activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. They have fasted two days longer than Gandhi did on any of his fasts during the freedom struggle. Their demands are more modest than his ever were. They are protesting against the Madhya Pradesh government's forcible eviction of more than a thousand adivasi families to make way for the Maan Dam. All they're asking is that the government of MP implement its own policy of providing land for land to those being displaced by the Maan Dam. There's no controversy here. The dam has been built. The displaced people must be resettled before the reservoir fills up in the monsoon and submerges their villages.

The four activists on fast are: Vinod Patwa who was one of the 114,000 people displaced in 1990 by the Bargi Dam (which now, twelve years later, irrigates less land than it submerged). Mangat Verma who will be displaced by the Maheshwar Dam if it is ever completed. Chittaroopa Palit, who's been with the NBA for almost 15 years. And 22-year-old Ram Kunwar, the youngest and frailest of the activists. Hers is the first village that will be submerged when the waters rise in the Maan reservoir. In the weeks since she began her fast, Ram Kunwar has lost 9 kilos - almost a fourth of her original body weight.

Unlike the other large dams like the Sardar Sarovar, Maheshwar and Indira Sagar, where the resettlement of hundreds of thousands of displaced people is simply not possible (except on paper, in court documents etc), in the case of Maan the total number of displaced people is about 6,000. People have even identified land that is available and could be bought and allotted to them by the government. And yet the government refuses.

Instead it's busy distributing paltry cash compensation which is illegal and violates its own policy. It says quite openly that if it were to give in to the demands of the Maan 'oustees' (ie: if it implemented its own policy) it would set a precedent for the hundreds of thousands of people (most of them Dalits and adivasis) who are slated to be submerged (without rehabilitation) by the 29 other big dams planned in the Narmada Valley. And the state government's commitment to these projects remains absolute, regardless of the social and environmental costs.

As Vinod, Mangat, Chittaroopa and Ram Kunwar gradually weaken, as their systems close down and the risk of irreversible organ failure and sudden death sets in, no government official has bothered to even pay them a visit.

Let me tell you a secret - it's not all unwavering resolve and steely determination on the burning pavement under the pitiless sun at Tin Shed. The jokes about slimming and weight loss are becoming a little poignant now. There are tears of anger and frustration. There is trepidation and real fear. But underneath all that there's pure grit.

What will happen to them? Will they just go down in the ledgers as 'the price of progress'? That phrase cleverly posits the whole argument as one between those who are pro-development versus those who are anti-development - and suggests the inevitability of the choice you have to make: pro-development, what else? It slyly suggests that movements like the NBA are antiquated and absurdly anti-electricity or anti-irrigation. This of course is nonsense. The NBA believes that Big Dams are obsolete. It believes there are more democratic, more local, more economically viable and environmentally sustainable ways of generating electricity and managing water systems. It is demanding more modernity, not less. It is demanding more democracy, not less. And look at what's happening instead.

Even at the height of the war rhetoric, even as India and Pakistan threatened each other with nuclear annihilation, the question of reneging on the Indus Water Treaty between the two countries did not arise. Yet in Madhya Pradesh (the state whose chief minister boasts of being the messiah of Dalits and adivasis), the police and administration entered adivasi villages with dozers. They sealed handpumps, demolished school buildings and clearfelled trees in order to force people from their homes. They sealed handpumps. And so, the indefinite hunger-strike.

Any government's condemnation of terrorism is only credible if it shows itself to be responsive to persistent, reasonable, closely argued, non-violent dissent. And yet, what's happening is just the opposite. The world over, non-violent resistance movements are being crushed and broken. If we do not respect and honour them, by default we privilege those who turn to violent means. Across the world when governments and the media lavish all their time, attention, funds, research, space, sophistication and seriousness on war talk and terrorism, then the message that goes out is disturbing and dangerous: If you seek to air and redress a public grievance, violence is more effective than non-violence. Unfortunately, if peaceful change is not given a chance, then violent change becomes inevitable. That violence will be (and already is) random, ugly and unpredictable. What's happening in Kashmir, the North-eastern states, Andhra Pradesh is all part of this process.

Right now the Narmada Bachao Andolan is not just fighting Big Dams. It's fighting for the survival of India's greatest gift to the world: non-violent resistance. You could call it the Ahimsa Bachao Andolan.

Over the years our government has shown nothing but contempt for the people of the Narmada valley. Contempt for their argument. Contempt for their movement.

In the 21st century the connection between religious fascism, nuclear nationalism and the pauperisation of whole populations because of corporate globalisation is becoming impossible to ignore. While the Madhya Pradesh government has categorically said it has no land for the rehabilitation of displaced people, reports say that it is preparing the ground (pardon the pun) to make huge tracts of land available for corporate agriculture. Which in turn will set off another cycle of uprootment and impoverishment.

Can we prevail on Mr Digvijay Singh - the secular, 'green' chief minister, the very public advocate of 'good governance', the right to information and decentralised water management systems - to substitute some of his PR with a real change in policy? If he did, he would go down in history as a man of vision and true political courage.

If the Congress party wishes to be taken seriously as an alternative to the destructive Right-wing religious fundamentalists who have brought us to the threshold of ruin, it will have to do more than condemn communalism and participate in empty nationalist rhetoric. It will have to do more than lock up MLAs in five star resorts (a zoo would be cheaper, surely?) to prevent them from selling themselves to rival parties. It will have to do some real work and some real listening to the people it claims to represent.

As for the rest of us, concerned citizens, peace activists, et al - it's not enough to sing songs about giving peace a chance. Doing everything we can to support movements like the Narmada Bachao Andolan is how we give peace a chance. This is the real war against terror.

Go to Bhopal. Just ask for Tin Shed.

Originally published in The Hindustan Times, text courtesy, Znet