The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

Travels to Narmada Valley

Amrutha Manjunath, Class of 2018

As we drove up the winding roads towards the Sardar Sarovar dam, I began to feel excited despite myself. It was the largest dam project in the country, designed and built to irrigate entire regions of Kutch and Saurashtra, generate electricity for three states and provide domestic and industrial water for 30 million people. The project was shrouded in controversy, I knew, but right then I could only think about it as a feat of engineering, and in Nehru’s words, as a temple of modern India. I had heard so much about it, yet nothing could have prepared me for when the trees cleared and I saw the dam with my own eyes.

Narmada Dam (Picture Credits — Down To Earth)

The Sardar Sarovar Dam is massive. It radiates vastness and power. From the side we were on, I could not see anything beyond the enormous wall. Only a trickle of water seeped through one small opening in the dam, flowing onwards as though it was a ghost of the mighty river that had now been forcefully stopped in its course. Later we went to the other side of the dam on boats, and my awe increased as I struggled to register that only on the other side of this ginormous wall there was empty space for about 121 metres below, and the slow, deliberate trickle we had seen earlier.

We sailed forth on the boat and around us the Satpura hills bordered the reservoir in an unnatural, almost utopian beauty. As I watched a flight of cormorants take off from the water in unison, I almost missed the boatman tell the others that we were now rowing over submerged villages. The lands had been inundated due to overflow from the dam, forcing the people to move to higher elevations. Here and there we caught sight of dead branches sticking out from the water, ruins of what once had been land, forest, home.

Our boat dropped us off at a Jeevanshala, one of a set of small schools set up for the children from the submerged villages. There were nearly a hundred children, all wearing identical blue clothes. They jabbered away in rapid Marathi as we made desperate attempts to communicate with them in our fragmented Hindi. While playing with them, and while working around them, it was so easy to forget the circumstances under which they had come to live there. Were they not children like any others? They sang in the morning assembly, they listened to stories, and they went for classes. But one walk down to the river to swim or fill water was enough to remind me of how and why they were there.

Jeevanshala (Picture Credits — Rukmini Vasanth)

The Narmada Bachao Andolan supported these schools so that the children would have a chance to build their lives on their own terms, away from the conflict if necessary. This Jeevanshala, under constant threat of inundation, was an attempt to allow the children of the displaced families to take control of their own lives. One of the teachers there had in fact been schooled at another Jeevanshala, and after going on to study further, he had returned home in the capacity of a teacher. Yes, he said, the children sang songs about the Andolan, and they listened to stories about the struggle of their people, but they learn English and Science in the classroom. For them, these are tools to build a new life.

It was finally this that brought it home to me: the young teacher who calmly told me that this place that they had built, and the work they were doing, would be drowned when the dam is raised a further 17 meters. The construction for this, as we had seen, had already begun. The fact that the place I was in, the ground that I stood on, would not exist a few short years from now was a tragedy that I could finally comprehend. Villagers had been forced to leave behind the livelihood that they had practiced for thousands of years. Farmers had suddenly been expected to live off the infertile land in Baroda, which was the only compensation they received from the government. Adivasis had watched their trees, their homes, submerge.

As we left the Valley and drove back towards the city we passed by the dam once again. There I caught sight of a group of about fifty children who were visiting the dam on a school picnic. On their faces, I saw the same awe that I had felt when I had seen the dam for the first time. They saw what I had seen: the promise of a hope, the dream of power, of water, of development. I wondered how many of them got to see the other side of the story.

The common defense for the dam is that the ratio of beneficiaries to affected persons is sufficiently large, the value of which is up for debate. In fact, I am not even sure if the calculation of such a ratio is a simple task. How does one quantify, for example, the loss of ever seeing a wide, full, flowing river? Or the history, the traditions, and livelihoods, that have been cultivated in the region for thousands of years? A significant proportion of the water that is supposed to irrigate Kutch and Saurashtra will find its way to industries that are now coming up in the Special Economic Zones of western Gujarat. Is this “greater good” worth it?

This article was originally published on in September 2015.

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