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Requiem for a river

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Damned: The price of `development' is the death of a river.
Damned: The price of `development' is the death of a river.

SHRIPAD DHARMADHIKARY

The Narmada was a free-flowing, living entity, as much a part of the community as any other person. Now, it will neither flow nor live.

FOR over 25 years, it has been on a slow, painful but inexorable march to death. For brief moments, this journey has been stalled, with glimmers of hope. Sometimes, these flickers have even created the illusion of brightness, obliterating the darkness of reality. Yet, death has been overtaking it, slowly but surely. Have you ever seen a river die? Not a stream, not a rivulet, but a river as mighty as the Narmada? My first memories of the Narmada are faint recollections of a river seen from the train as it crossed the bridge at Bharuch. But my real introduction to it was in the late 1980s when I shifted to stay near its banks. As I moved from village to village, I remember noting in my diary that it never looks the same, that at every place its beauty is unique. The tiny stream starting at Amarkantak, the splendour of its vast spread at Hoshangabad, the rapid, racing, restless flow through the hills, rocks and sandy banks of Jalsindhi - it is as if it had an unlimited repertoire of appearances allure and was determined never to repeat any. I have spent many a captivated hour on its banks, lost in its mesmerising presence. Yet, even then, it was dying. I knew it, and indeed, that was the very reason that had drawn me to its banks.

Turbulent history

The preliminary investigations for the development of the Narmada valley were taken up in the late 1940s, and by the mid-50s, about 16 sites were identified where dams could be built for hydropower. In 1962, Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone for the Sardar Sarovar project in Gujarat. In 1972, Madhya Pradesh prepared its Master Plan for development of the river. In 1974, the first big dam in the Narmada Basin was completed on the Tawa, a left bank tributary. A long-drawn dispute between Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat prevented much else from happening, but the plans were ready on paper - 30 large dams, 135 medium dams and over 3,000 small dams in the basin. In 1979, the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal declared its final Award, clearing the decks for full-scale development of the river. The death warrant had been signed.Is it extreme to say that damming a river is killing it? Not if you have lived on the banks of the river, not if you have seen the river as a living entity, as much a part of the community on its banks as any other person. When a marriage is fixed in the village, the first invitation card is offered to it. It offers water to drink, to the farms, it offers fish. It is there to swim, to splash in, to play with.

A river's identity

It gives, it takes, it loves, it hates. It is calm and tranquil, it is wild and furious. It is munificent, it is merciless. Above all, it is alive. It is - was - free flowing. These two words - free and flowing - are its very identity as a living entity. The development of the basin shackled its freedom and disrupted its flow.First, the Tawa dam stopped the flow of the Tawa river. Then came Bargi near Jabalpur. While the reservoir swelled with the stored water, downstream the river went dry. Water had to be specially released on the occasion of melas downstream. The dams not only strangled the flow of the river and turned it into a stagnant lake, the rising waters of the reservoirs drowned the homes and livelihood of lakhs of people, submerged thousands of hectares of forest with all its small and big life forms, and flooded some of the earliest sites of human civilisation in the country.The work on the Sardar Sarovar had started in full swing after 1987. As I often crisscrossed the dam site, I could still see the river, alive and flowing. The villages behind were still living their normal lives, even as they were fighting fiercely challenging the project. It was difficult for anyone of us to imagine that all this could be gone, submerged by the rising wall.In 1993, I was in Delhi as a part of a team negotiating with the Water Resources ministry. The monsoon had just begun, and one morning the phone rang. My colleague from Gujarat informed me that the waters had risen behind the dam, and the houses of several people in Vadgam - the first village - had drowned. Anger and sorrow in equal proportions overtook me, and I cried till I could no more. A part of the life in the valley - a life that I had shared - had been wiped off the face of earth forever. Houses where we lived, slept, shared food and drinks, the beautiful temple of Shoolpaneshwer, the huge rayan tree under which our hut was built, the winding pathways that took us to other houses and villages, the river where one could have a glorious dip when it became too hot - all were gone. The work on the dam continued and the height went on increasing intermittently. More villages submerged, but we all took it more stoically. The defence mechanisms of the mind in face of immense tragedy are well known.

Strange behaviour

Meanwhile, construction began on the Maheshwar dam on the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh and an ugly wall was erected half across the river before a powerful struggle stalled it. On the Indira Sagar, there was no such luck. Work picked up in the late 1990s and by last year, the dam was complete. Hundreds of villages were gone, replaced by what will be the largest man-made lake in the country. Downstream, the river started behaving strangely as water was sometimes held back by the dam, sometimes released all at once, as the turbines were run for generating electricity. Every year, after Holi, we regularly swim in the Narmada. The winter has gone and the days are hot enough, and the water in the river has also receded enough to expose the ghats again, making the river safe for swimming. This year, it has become difficult. For, sometimes the water level rises suddenly and the ghats are submerged. For millions of years, one could say with confidence what the water level in the river would be at this time of the year. The river has now gone crazy, its behaviour has become bizarre. Last year, as lakhs of devotes flocked to Dharaji for a mela that has been held for generations, and moved into the Narmada to have a holy dip as is the tradition, the water level swelled - courtesy sudden discharge from the Indira Sagar - and over a 100 people were drowned. On March 8, 2006, the Narmada Control Authority gave permission to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam to 121.92 meters. This was just one more stage in the step-by-step raising of the dam height. Yet, there is something final about it. At this level, the dam wall is complete, and only the gates remain to be fixed. So far, a part of the river has still been flowing. If this new level is reached, it will be the end of this. The senses that have been numbed with assault after assault in the last decade are suddenly overwhelmed. I myself cannot help breaking down. But these are the last tears. After all, how long can one keep crying for the dead?

Not the right solution

I understand the rational argument that the river needs to be dammed to bring irrigation and power. The Narmada Bachao Andolan and many others have challenged the extent of these benefits, have questioned whether these really exceed the costs and have pointed out several alternatives. I do not want to go into this debate here. All I want to say is that among the cost that is paid to obtain these benefits is the death of the river. While we may be able to take the death of one river, we would do well to remember that sooner or later the ones add to tens and then to hundreds and then all of them. The World Commission on Dams notes that dams and similar interventions have already fragmented 60 per cent of the world's rivers. A time is not far when there may not be a single free flowing river left in the world.Joan Muir has said, "God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches and a thousand straining, levelling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools." She could well have been speaking of rivers. The Narmada has fallen victim to fools. We can only hope that the wisdom of humanity prevents other rivers from meeting the same fate.The author was a full time activist with the NBA for over 12 years.


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