International support for the Narmada Bachao Andolan or NBA movement, who defends the interests of the dam affected people in the Narmada valley, is pouring in. A letter to Prime Minister Modi send on 4 August was signed by civil society organisations from 29 countries asking him to order a reopening of the floodgates, which were closed last month. If he doesn’t act, another 192 villages inhabited by some 40.000 families will slowly disappear between now and the end of August.
The NBA movement’s earlier actions resulted in the first ever withdrawal from a dam project by the World Bank and in getting some sense of justice served for some 14,000 families. But this summer, things have taken a sour turn. Local authorities not only decided to close floodgates in order to store more water, they also arrested 100s of peacefully demonstrating people, under false charges. Twelve people went on an indefinite fast on July 27. On 3 August they were joined by 100s of others. The vast majority of the 40.000 families who are witnessing the drowning of their world have nowhere to go. The few rehabilitation projects that exist don’t even have drinking water available. Sneha Gutgutia, an activist from Kalpavriksh and supporter of the NBA movement wrote: “the government claims to respect the traditional and customary practices of the people but it doesn’t even have a plan for resettling the 385 religious sites that will be submerged. “If they cannot provide a block for our gods, what resettlement will they do for us?” is the question villagers are asking.”
Among the hunger strikers is Medha Patkar (62), who spearheaded the NBA movement and who won several international awards for her efforts. On Friday 4 August, the ninth day of her hunger strike, her health was clearly deteriorating. But Patkar is just one of many hunger strikers. People like Yogendra Yadav, Sandeep Pandey, Dr. Sunilam and Alok Agarwal are other high profile people known in India. The hope of the movement is that the Indian government doesn’t want to risk a national and maybe even international embarrassment.
To understand the motivation and risk taking of the Indian hunger strikers, it’s important to look beyond the 100s of thousands who have been and are about to be displaced by force. It’s more about the lack of rehabilitation, compensation and the massive corruption. The Supreme Court of India clearly stated that Resettlement and Rehabilitation of the Project Affected Families has to be complete in all respects before any forcible displacement of these villages is directed. Closing of the gates is de facto a method of forcible eviction and thus in contradiction with the court order. Making things worse, a report from the justice Shravan Shankar Jha commission concluded in 2016 that at least 130 to 200 million euro normally foreseen for rehabilitation ended up in pockets of fraudulent middle-men.
More than a dam
History has shown that this struggle is about a lot more than compensations. It was the battle of the NBA movement that eventually led to the formation of the World Commission on Dams. Considered to be a notable people’s movement in post-independent India, NBA has raised the issues of rights of indigenous people, advocated for the conservation of environment and protection of the centuries' old archeological monuments from submergence. Aside from raising the question on the significance of big dams to the highest international level, the NBA has also significantly contributed to the debate around “development”: what kind of development do people in India want ... and for whom? The Nobel Prize winning Indian economist Amartya Sen famously said that “development consists of the removal of various types of unfreedoms that leave people with little choice and little opportunity of exercising their reasoned agency. The removal of substantial unfreedoms, it is argued here, is constitutive of development.”
Ashish Kothari, the chairman of Greenpeace India and a long-time NBA ally explained that the movement is not just about being against dams. “What the NBA stands for is an economy that ensures dignified livelihoods, social justice, and ecological sustainability, and in particular an economy that benefits the hundreds of millions of people who have been left behind or displaced by the kind of 'development' that the Sardar Sarovar Dam represents”. Ashish is also part of the European research project EnvJustice, which today expressed its support to the NBA movement.
The way forward
The NBA movement demands a comprehensive re-survey of project affected people giving priority to rehabilitation first. This is to merely follow the orders of the Supreme Court so that no family is evicted without rehabilitation. It also demands to provide the benefits to farmers as per the Supreme Court orders to ensure alternative livelihoods and to constitute a committee to assess the impact on environment, river and forests by submergence and also the impact in downstream flow of the river.
Noam Chomsky expressed support for the NBA petition to India’s Prime Minister Modi and also said it is “essential to ensure the faith of people in non-violent, democratic and constitutional governance and struggle for their rights.”
Will Modi react? With 100s of his compatriots in a nationally and now also globally mediatised hunger strike till death, we will probably soon find out.