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Narmada revisited

In 1990, AMITA BAVISKAR went to live by the Narmada, a move that helped her unravel the double-edged politics of development. In 2003, she returned to Anjanvara — her account.


Anjanvara now overlooks a reservoir...

THIRTEEN years ago, in October 1990, I went to live in Anjanvara, a small village on the bank of the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh. For more than a decade, adivasis in this hilly region had struggled against the state for rights to the forest. Anjanvara was also threatened by submergence due to the Sardar Sarovar dam. Along with its neighbouring villages, it was a key member of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and had remained steadfast in its opposition to the dam.

As Khajan, the articulate leader from Anjanvara, asked, "where will we get land for crops to grow and cattle to graze? Where will we get forests like these? Our gods are here, our ancestors are here. We live in the belly of the river; the Narmada gives us everything we want." For Khajan and other adivasis, this landscape had produced the richly imagined and lived culture that formed their very being. The integrity of their community was rooted in this place, a particular configuration of fields, forests, streams and rivers, and villages. This place, the Narmada valley, was clearly worth defending.

During my stay, I studied how Bhilala adivasis used forests and the river, how nature shaped their culture and politics. In return, I taught children to read and write. What they may have learnt from me was a tiny fraction of what they taught me. My education in Anjanvara helped me unravel the double-edged politics of development, killing those it promised to protect. I came back to the area to work with a trade union for a while, but after I started teaching in Delhi, my visits became shorter and less frequent.

In October 2003, I returned to Anjanvara. Since 1999, with the Sardar Sarovar dam slowly rising in height, the village has been living with the constant fear of being flooded out. If one goes by government plans, Anjanvara should no longer exist. According to the law, Supreme Court orders, and principles of justice, work on the dam can only proceed if everyone living in the area to be submerged has been resettled. This year's construction caused water from the reservoir to lap just 10 feet below Anjanvara's fields (people had shifted their houses up the hill slope for safety). A little bit higher and the best of this year's crop, so carefully tended, would have been destroyed. Yet, not a single family from Anjanvara has been resettled. And the dam continues to be built.

I reached the Narmada at Kakrana, a village east of Anjanvara, and I was dismayed. The river was gone. That vast boulder-strewn bed, that clear, gently-flowing water which never failed to gladden the heart, was no more. In its place was a sea, a wide reservoir of stagnant water that flooded the valley. The reservoir has taken away more than the beauty of the Narmada — by flooding every stream and sandy stretch along the river, it has made the valley impassable. Villages like Anjanvara, perched on cliffs parallel to the river and reached only by walking for several hours along the river or across hills and streams, are now marooned. Even hamlets within a village, earlier separated by small seasonal stream easily forded, are now divided by a deep gulf.

... the summer of 1991... Anjanvara and a calm Narmada

The everyday consequences of being surrounded by water on all sides are catastrophic. As the level of the reservoir falls, it reveals mud several feet deep, silt deposited from upstream. Cattle trying to get a drink of water get stuck and die. The carcasses attract crocodiles — two children in Nadi Sirkhadi were chewed up by muggers, and in Anjanvara, Dhedya's son who was attacked while fishing, lost his right hand. The mud leaves Anjanvara without drinking water, even as they bitterly gaze out at the ocean around them.

Looking at the reservoir, I mourned the death of the river. No more the easy domesticity of women and children gathered by the water in the cool of dusk, bathing, washing clothes, filling pots, splashing about and swimming. No more men mending fishing nets, soaking bamboo strips to weave baskets.

Dead and dying trees signal the submergence of an entire way of life.

I also missed the vaats (paths). Strange, because travelling these arduous paths always evoked a mix of anxiety and accomplishment. Going from Anjanvara to Kakrana or Mathvad, motorable points where one could catch a bus, was a major trek. Setting off at dawn to avoid the heat, one followed the faint river-side track left by countless footprints. One ticked off the journey's stages: OK, first get past Sirkhadi's rocky ledge where one creeps one foot before the other. Now pass Bhitada where the river narrows into a gorge. Now to climb Sugat's steep mountain, catch one's breath on top under the halai trees, before walking along the high ridge to stop at Vania's brother's house for water. March the long, but flat, stretch to Jhandana, then wade across the Hathni river, and reach Bialal's house in Kakrana to collapse exhaustedly.

The physical challenge of the journey was always interrupted by several brief halts, to chat to people met along the way. I'd encounter women, one carrying a pot of buttermilk, going to visit her ailing mother in the next village. A young man dressed in his best turban, armed with a bow and arrows, might be off to attend a wedding at his uncle's village on the other bank. This traffic along the river vaat gave a glimpse of the ties of reciprocity, the bonds of emotional and economic support that spanned the river's sides.

Instead of this life along the river, there is now the reservoir, large and dead. No village can survive as an island and Anjanvara had to work out a way to live. Pooling together the paltry compensation they received for their houses (Rs 17,000 to Rs. 20,000 for entire structures made of whole teak logs), the Patel and his hamlet have bought a boat for Rs. 84,000. The boat is used daily, ferrying people and goods between villages. I wondered how the investment made sense, given that the village will be submerged by next year. Huma, the Patel's son, shrugged, "what could we do? Without the boat, it would be a living death." Bemused, I watch teak poles being loaded into the boat, bound for sale upriver. For more than a decade, Anjanvara protected its forests, letting teak and anjan grow tall. Now, what's the point? They might as well make some money before they go. As the boat chugs across the water, spewing diesel fumes, it carries in its wake a new culture of commerce. Three young men from Anjanvara wield spanners and engine grease with thinly-veiled pride, mastering a new set of skills. The heady aroma of diesel and agarbatti brings to mind the dash and swagger of long-distance bus and truck drivers. Without the prospect of land, what future can the young look forward to?

On reaching Anjanvara, I ran into Lehria, my old pupil, busy reaping his jowar crop. In 1990, Lehria was a quiet, intelligent 12-year-old, intent on learning to write. He is now married to Sangita from Bhadal, and the father of four children. Walking through his fields, pods of sunn hemp rattling as we brushed past, tuvar dal in yellow bloom, the fragrance of wild tulsi crushed underfoot, I asked about the crops and the rains. "This year we had a good crop. The tilli (sesame) and mungya (groundnuts), chaula and urdi (lentils), all did well. And the water stopped rising just in time." "But what will happen next year?" I asked. Lehria's face clouded over. "I don't know. I can't sleep at night."


Lehria and his family... nowhere to go.

Lehria is one of six brothers, each an adult married with children. None of their names figure on the list of PAPs (Project-Affected People) entitled to receive compensation. The survey of PAPs was conducted in the late 1980s, when Lehria and his brothers were minors. Although people have grown up and their needs have changed, the list remains frozen in time. Lehria and his brothers' families will lose everything once they are displaced. "But your father Kubla will get land, won't he?" I asked. "Baba will get five acres, but we can't manage on that. Our nevad fields in the forest here are three times his patta land. If we are resettled, we will lose all that." Like all adivasis in the area, Lehria's family supplements its meagre legal holdings with nevad encroachments on forest land. Without the forest, they are impoverished.

Yet this discussion of land compensation is moot. Even recognised PAPs have not been allotted land. In Anjanvara, Khajan's hamlet has looked at various sites in Gujarat and even agreed to one in distant Kheda district, but they have still not been given land. Bahaduria's hamlet approved one site, but rejected it when they found that it got waterlogged in the monsoons. "How can we live in thigh-deep water?" The same piece of land was allotted to two different hamlets in Sirkhadi. In Kakrana, Bhurla's hamlet accepted one site, but the government changed its mind and offered them another, far inferior. So no one has moved, yet the dam continues to be built. What will happen next year when the water will flood Anjanvara's fertile fields? Anjanvara is doing its best to secure an uncertain future. Lehria has sent his eldest son to the Mathvad residential school, along with 17 other children from the village. Perhaps schooling will let them wedge a foot inside the door to sarkari naukri and business. His cousin Lula has trained himself as a carpenter; the intricately-carved door to his house testifies to his skills. But for most, land remains the touchstone for prosperity. Without land, they will be destitute. Since their own government, the state of Madhya Pradesh, has abandoned them, land in Gujarat is their only hope.

But they have no bargaining power and the government has shown its callousness many times over.

Anjanvara also feels abandoned by the Andolan. "All those years of struggle, what did we get," Khajan asked. I have no easy answer. "You fought. You did your best. This life, the river, it was worth fighting for." Khajan nods, but his mind is on the future, his thoughts troubled.

Amita Baviskar is a S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup Fellow at the Institute of International Studies, University of California, Berkeley, U.S.

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