The Madhya Pradesh Government tried to nip this year’s Jal Satyagraha at the Indira Sagar Dam in the bud on Sunday by enforcing a curfew in all the venues of the protest. The unique protest, which was first held last year, involves people indefinitely immersing themselves in the backwaters of Narmada.

Villagers living on the banks of the Indira Sagar are protesting against raising the water level of the dam above 260 metres, as it submerges their crops and homes. They are also demanding land in lieu of the submerged land and a comprehensive rehabilitation package similar to the one given for evacuees of the Omkareshwar dam in the State.
The level at 4 p.m. on Monday at Indira Sagar was 261.8 metres

The Satyagraha in September 2012 was called off after 17 days when the government decided to keep the level at Omkareshwar under 189 metres and grant compensation. A Rs. 212-crore package for Omkareshwar evacuees was cleared this May. This issue drew international attention. This time, the State took pre-emptive measures to prevent bad publicity in an election year.

On Saturday night, the police and revenue officials began an elaborate bandobust around the villages of Badkhalia, Mel Pipliya and Oonwa in Khandwa, Dewas and Harda districts respectively. Villagers, under the banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), had planned to congregate in the backwaters at noon. But fearing arrest before they could start the stir, they attempted to enter the waters at around 7-30 a.m.

“When we began gathering, the police told us that the government will only look into our demands if we stay out of the water. Some of us entered Ajnal river (a Narmada tributary) while others were held back. At 8 a.m., we were told that prohibitory orders have been imposed and all 175 of us were arrested. Ten children among us were released and the rest went to court,” said Harda organiser Ram Vilas Rathore.

The NBA claimed that more than 1,000 people, including Khandwa organiser Chittaroopa Palit were detained in the State. Most of them were released on personal bonds. Seven, including Palit were sent to judicial custody until September 10. No violence or lathi charges were reported.

“We are sticking to our declared stand, which is to abide by tribunal and court awards and to protect lives. Anyone endangering their own lives will be prevented,” chief secretary R. Parasuram told The Hindu.

Oonwa villager Sunil Rathore explained that around 70 acres of land above the submergence line went under this monsoon. “There was soya and moong dal crop standing. Yet, they raised the level to produce more electricity. The crop has gone. We can’t eat electricity,” he said.

He added that mosquitoes engulf the village every monsoon after the dam waters touch the village. “Narmada fishermen come here and spray a powder, which kills fish. The whole village then smells of dead fish,” he added.

A revenue official at Oonwa, who did not want to be named, told this paper. “All of them have received compensation when the land was acquired. Last year, a new survey was done to include those who did not got compensation. This (stir) is being instigated by outsiders.”

After being released, protesters regrouped at Bichola in Harda and Mel Piliya in Dewas. In Harda, they drew support from the local Congress led by former Harda Municipality chairman Hemant Tale. The police impounded all motorboats to prevent protesters from gathering, hence, they used paddle boats and rafts. "This is inhuman," said Tale who has camped on an island in Bichola. "It is bad enough that they lost their crop. Now, it is a crime to even protest in the water. It is everyone's moral duty to support this."

Krishnabai Chouhan, a landless peasant from Khardana, who was released on bail in the morning, said she was angry that Indira Sagar villages did not get a package like Omkareshwar. “I am fed up of these talks. Every time they want us to sit down for talks, while water has entered my home. Until they give us land for land, we will keep courting arrest,” she said before boarding a raft to Bichola.

Curfew was clamped in Bichola on Monday and 106 people were arrested. They shifted their protest to Kali Sarai on being released. Harda's BJP MLA Kamal Patel said, "I will ensure that those who have lost land get fully compensated. If not, I will join them." State Industries minister Kailash Vijayavargiya said, "Rehabilitation of everyone has been equal. The satyagraha is an attempt to influence the elections."