Table of Contents
“For over a century we’ve believed that Big Dams would deliver the people of India from hunger and poverty.
The Narmada Valley Development
Project is the single largest river development scheme in India. It is one of the largest hydroelectric
projects in the world and will displace approximately 1.5 million people from their
land in three states (Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh). The environmental costs of such a project,
which involves the construction of more than 3,000 large and small dams, are
immense. The project will devastate
human lives and biodiversity by inundating thousands of acres of forests and
agricultural land. “The State” (India)
wants to build these dams on the Narmada River in the name of National
Development. But “How can you measure progress
if you don’t know what it costs and who has paid for it?” (Roy 16).
Each monsoon season thousands of
people are told by the Indian government that they will have to be relocated as
their ancestral lands are flooded out.
“The people whose lives were going to be devastated were neither
informed nor consulted nor heard” (Roy 26).
A disproportionate number of those being displaced are tribal people:
Adivasis and Dalits.
Damming the Narmada River will
degrade the fertile agricultural soils due to continuous irrigation (rather the
seasonal irrigation which is dependent on the monsoon), and salinization,
making the soil toxic to many plant species.
The largest of the dams under construction is the Sardar Sarovar, which,
if completed, will flood more than 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural
land, displacing more than half a million people and destroying some of India’s
most fertile land.
The thing about multipurpose dams
like the Sardar Sarovar is that their “purposes” (irrigation, power production,
and flood control) conflict with one another.
Irrigation uses up the water you need to produce power. Flood control requires you to keep the
reservoir empty during the monsoon months to deal with an anticipated surfeit
of water. And if there’s no surfeit,
you’re left with an empty dam. And this
defeats the purpose of irrigation, which is to store the monsoon water (Roy
In the end, the Big Dam will produce only 3% of the power
planners say it will – that’s only 50 megawatts! Additionally, when you take into account the power needed to pump
water through the network of canals inevitably attached to the dam, the Sardar
Sarovar Project (SSP) will consume more electricity than it produces! Another problem with the SSP is that its
reservoir displaces people in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, but its benefits
go to Gujarat (Roy 34-35). Even though
the arid regions of that state, Kutch and Saurashtra, are not mentioned in the
water-sharing award as recipients of drinking water.
The proposed dams will affect
millions of people but only a certain percentage of them will be privy to the
government’s resettlement and rehabilitation (R & R) programs. The problem here arises in defining who are
Project-Affected Persons (PAPs). The
World Commission on Dams urges that the “impact assessment includes all people
in the reservoir, upstream, downstream and in catchment areas whose properties,
livelihoods and nonmaterial resources are affected. It also includes those affected by dam-related infrastructure
such as canals, transmission lines and resettlement developments” (www.irn.org/wcd/narmada.shtml). In reality, however, people affected by the
extensive canal system are not considered as PAPs. These people are subject to R & R packages, but not the same
ones as those living in the reservoir area.
Unbelievably, those not entitled to any compensation at all are the
hundreds of thousands whose lands or livelihoods are affected by either
project-related developments or downstream impacts.
are to a nation’s ‘development’ what nuclear bombs are to its military arsenal.
They’re both weapons of mass destruction.”
The Narmada River, on which the Indian government
plans to build some 3,200 dams, flows through three states: Madhya Pradesh,
Maharashtra, and Gujarat. Ninety
percent of the river flows through Madhya Pradesh; it skirts the northern
border of Maharashtra, then flows through Gujarat for about 180 kilometers
before emptying into the Arabian Sea at Bharuch.
Plans for damming the river at Gora in Gujarat
surfaced as early as 1946. In fact,
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation for a 49.8-meter-high dam
in 1961. After studying the new maps
the dam planners decided that a much larger dam would be more profitable. The only problem was hammering out an
agreement with neighboring states (Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra). In 1969, after years of negotiations
attempting to agree on a feasible water-sharing formula, the Indian government
established the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal. Ten years later, it announced its award. “The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award
states that land should be made available to the oustees at least one year in
advance before submergence” (www.narmada.org/sardarsarovar.html).
Before the Ministry of the Environment even cleared
the Narmada Valley Development Projects in 1987, the World Bank sanctioned a
loan for $450 million for the largest dam, the Sardar Sarovar, in 1985. In actuality, construction on the Sardar
Sarovar dam site had continued sporadically since 1961, but began in earnest in
1988. Questions arose concerning the
promises about resettlement and rehabilitation programs set up by the
government, so by 1986 each state had a people’s organization that addressed
these concerns. Soon, these groups came
together to form the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), or, the Save the Narmada
In 1988, the NBA formally called for all work on the
Narmada Valley Development Projects to be stopped. In September 1989, more than 50,000 people gathered in the valley
from all over India to pledge to fight “destructive development.” A year later thousands of villagers walked
and boated to a small town in Madhya Pradesh to reiterate their pledge to drown
rather than agree to move from their homes.
Under intense pressure, the World Bank was forced to create an
independent review committee, the Morse Commission, which published the Morse Report
(a.k.a. Independent Review) in 1992.
The report “endorsed all the main concerns raised by the Andolan [NBA]”
(www.narmada.org/sardarsarovar.html). In author Arundhati Roy’s opinion “It is the
most balanced, unbiased, yet damning indictment of the relationship between the
Indian State and the World Bank.” Two
months later, the Bank sent out the Pamela Cox Committee. It suggested exactly what the Morse Report
advised against: “a sort of patchwork remedy to try and salvage the operation”
(Roy 45-46). Eventually, due to the
international uproar created by the Report, the Bank withdrew from the Sardar
Sarovar Project. In response, the
Gujarati government decided to raise $200 million and push ahead with the
While the Independent Review was
being written and also after it was published confrontations between villagers
and authorities continued in the valley.
After continued protests by the NBA the government charged yet another
committee, the Five Member Group (FMG), to review the SSP. The FMG’s report endorsed the Morse Report’s
concerns but it made no difference.
Following a writ petition by the NBA in 1994 calling for a comprehensive
review of the project, the Supreme Court of India stopped construction of the
Sardar Sarovar dam in 1995. Tension in
the area dissipated but soon the NBA’s attention shifted to two other Big Dams
in Madhya Pradesh – the Narmada Sagar and the Maheshwar. Though these dams were nowhere near their
projected heights their impacts on the environment and the people of the valley
were already apparent. The government’s
resettlement program for the displaced natives “continues to be one of
callousness and broken promises” (Roy 51).
In 1999, however, the Supreme Court allowed for the dam’s height to be
raised to 88 meters (from 80 meters when building was halted in 1995). In October 2000, the Supreme Court issued a
judgement to allow immediate construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam to 90
meters. In addition, it allowed for the
dam to be built up to its originally planned height of 138 meters. These decrees have “come from the Court
despite major unresolved issues on resettlement, the environment, and the
project’s costs and benefits” (www.narmada.org/sardarsarovar.html).
“Nobody builds Big Dams to
provide drinking water to rural people.
Nobody can afford to.”
Dalits are the “Untouchables” of
the caste system. Translated literally
the Dalits are the “oppressed” or “ground-down.”
Adivasi is the term used to
designate the original inhabitants (indigenous people) of a region.
The government of India supports
the building of over 3,000 dams on the Narmada River. What the State fails to take into account are the infinite costs
of what it terms National Development; the millions of lives affected by the
devastating environmental impacts of building dams.
Andolan, The Save the Narmada Movement
The NBA is a people’s movement
formed from local people’s movements in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and
Gujarat. Through peaceful means, the
NBA has brought much media attention to the plight of the native people along
the river. Medha Patkar is a prominent
leader of the group.
The World Bank had originally
supported the Sardar Sarovar with a $450 million loan. However, after appointing an independent
panel to review the impacts of the project the Bank withdrew support. The panel expressed much concern that the
environmental and social impacts of the project had not been properly
The Supreme Court
The Court is one of the most
formidable opponents of the NBA. It has
exercised its power over the people through judgements to continue with
building of dams along the river, disregarding concerns about the dams’
environmental and social impacts.
“Every aspect of the project
is approached in this almost playful manner,
Even when it concerns the lives
and futures of vast numbers of people.”
In a country where 200 million people (one-fifth of
the population) do not have safe drinking water, 600 million (two-thirds of the
population) lack basic sanitation, and 350 million (two-fifths of the
population) live below the poverty line, it is no wonder that the government of
India wants to implement projects that could potentially improve the lives of
the people. Unfortunately, the State
chose a method that has and will likely cause more harm than good. According to the government, the Narmada
Valley Dam Projects will provide water to 20 to 40 million people, irrigate 1.8
to 1.9 million hectares of land, and produce 1450 megawatts of power. The Narmada Bachao Andolan and other
organizations believe otherwise. They
believe these claims are greatly exaggerated.
These groups estimate 1.5 million people (about 10,000 families) will be
displaced in the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat.
A disproportionate number of oustees are indigenous
people. Eight percent of India’s
population are Adivasis and fifteen percent are Dalits but an incredible sixty
percent of those displaced by the dam projects are Adivasis and Dalits (Roy
“This July will bring the last
monsoon of the twentieth century. The
ragged army in the Narmada valley has declared that it will not move when
the waters of the Sardar Sarovar reservoir rise to claim its
With activist Medha Patkar
to lead them, the Narmada Bachao Andolan began mobilizing massive marches and
rallies against the Narmada Valley Development Project, and especially the
largest, the Sardar Sarovar, in 1985.
Although the protests were peaceful, Patkar and others were often beaten
and arrested by police. Following the
formation of the NBA in 1986, fifty thousand people gathered in the valley from
all over India to pledge to fight “destructive development” in 1989. In 1990, thousands of villagers made their
way by boat and foot to a small town in Madhya Pradesh in defense of their
pledge to drown in the reservoir waters rather than move from their homes. Later that year on Christmas day an army of
six thousand men and women accompanied a seven-member sacrificial squad in
walking more than a hundred kilometers.
The sacrificial squad had resolved to lay down its lives for the
river. A little over a week later the
squad announced an indefinite hunger strike.
This was the first of three fasts and lasted twenty-two days. It almost killed Ms. Patkar, along with many
The NBA has also taken a
more diplomatic approach to getting through to the government. They have submitted written representations
(complaints) to government officials such as the Grievance Redressal Committee,
the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam, the President, and the Minister of Social
Justice and Environment Maneka Gandhi.
More often than not, their voice goes unheard and unacknowledged.
“No one has ever managed to
make the World Bank step back from a project before. Least of all a ragtag army of the
poorest people in one of the
world’s poorest countries.” -
The demonstrations, protests, rallies, hunger
strikes, blockades, and written representations by Narmada Bachao Andolan have
all made an impact on the direction of the movement to stop the building of
large and small dams along the Narmada.
Media attention from these events has taken the issues from a local
level to a more national scale. The NBA
was an integral force in forcing the World Bank to withdraw its loan from the
projects by pressuring the Bank with negative media attention.
“Big Dams are obsolete…They
lay the earth to waste. They cause
floods, waterlogging, salinity; they spread disease.
There is mounting evidence that
links Big Dams to earthquakes.”
Reassessing the environmental and social impacts of
the more than 3,000 dams slated for construction should be the first step the
Indian government takes in solving the country’s water management
problems. It should then observe the
recommendations proposed by those assessments, rather than ignoring them.
The country and the individual states could also
consider cheaper and more effective energy options that do in fact already
exist. In fact, “A task force set up by
the Madhya Pradesh state government suggested alternatives such as demand
management measures, biomass generation, optimum use of oil-based plants and existing
dams, and micro-hydro plants” (www.irn.org/wcd/narmada.shtml).
According to renowned irrigation expert K. R. Datye,
a comprehensive review of the yield of the land, taking into account the water,
energy, and biomass availability is required.
Datye highlights the need for regenerative water use for agriculture,
using local water resources. Water from
outside (i.e. dams) is used to restore vegetative cover to degraded land and to
recharge ground water aquifers that are badly depleted, to a point where water
and energy balance can be maintained (www.narmada.org/sardar-sarovar/ecotimes.alternatives.html).
The following watershed management strategies are
traditional practices that have been revived by local communities in the states
of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat with the help of Non-Governmental
Organizations and state government programs.
Alwar District, Rajasthan
Revival of old and
building of new water harvesting structures coupled with formation of gram
sabhas for equitable water distribution has transformed the people of the
semi-arid, drought prone district.
Awarded the "DOWN TO
EARTH-JOSEPH C JOHN AWARD" for India's most outstanding environmental
Kutch Dist., Gujarat
A complex rainwater
harvesting system developed over centuries by the Maldharis of Banni
grasslands is threatened by natural factors and man made interventions.
Jhabua District, Madhya Pradesh
MP state government's
emphasis on participatory management, trans-parency and decentralization in
implementing watershed development programs sets an example that could be
replicated all over India.
Thunthi Kankasiya & Mahudi, Dahod Dist.
Devgadh, Junagadh District
Villages in Gujarat that
have taken watershed management measures have enough water for drinking and
even irrigation in the middle of the most severe drought of this century.
Alternatives to dams do exist and
should be considered seriously.
Peaceful Demonstrators Against the Narmada Dam Project Arrested, Beaten, and
Intimidated by Police.” The Sierra
Club: Human Rights Campaigns. 1999.
“Medha Patkar.” The Goldman Environmental Prize. 1992.
Narmada River page. International Rivers Network. 1996-2000.
Roy, Arundhati. The Cost of Living. New York: Random House, Inc. 1999.
“The Sardar Sarovar: A Brief
Introduction.” Friends of the River
Mukthyar. “Alternatives.” Friends of the River Narmada. U of Wisconsin-Madison: Institute for
Environmental Studies. 2000.