Review of Nandini Oza’s The Struggle for Narmada: The children of Narmada

An oral history of the Narmada Bachao Andolan told through the lives of displaced adivasis

Published - December 30, 2022 09:04 am IST

Farmers, environmentalists and social activists partially immerse themselves in the Narmada as they protest against dams being built in the river that threaten the livelihoods of local residents, in the village of Chikalda on the border of the Barwani and Dhar districts in Madhya Pradesh.

Farmers, environmentalists and social activists partially immerse themselves in the Narmada as they protest against dams being built in the river that threaten the livelihoods of local residents, in the village of Chikalda on the border of the Barwani and Dhar districts in Madhya Pradesh. | Photo Credit: AFP

“While leaving our village we cried a lot; when we shifted our houses, we cried; we looked at the river and we cried,” recollects Kevalsingh, an adivasi oustee of the Sardar Sarovar Project.

After Nimgavhan village met a watery grave, its inhabitants were relocated to Vadchhil-Shobanagar resettlement site. The fate awaiting them there was similar to what millions of India’s displaced adivasis generally share. “[Our] old and new villages are as different as the earth and the sky,” Kevalsingh echoes that sentiment.

But before the gigantic Sardar Sarovar Dam tamed the River Narmada and permanently inundated hundreds of villages across Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat, concerned people from all walks of life came together to resist a flawed, yet dominant, development paradigm by launching one of the most powerful mass movements in the history of post-colonial India — the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). The Struggle for Narmada by chronicler-archivist Nandini Oza unravels its untold history.

Preserving the living past

While much ink has already been spilled on the Narmada Bachao Andolan and the exceptional contributions of its popular faces, Medha Patkar and Baba Amte, the experiences and struggles of adivasi and local activists remained barely documented.

Oza, who had joined the NBA as a full-time activist in 1990, realised this lacuna. In the early 2000s, she tasked herself with an extraordinary responsibility of documenting the Andolan’s oral history in the voices of the local activists who could not pen their experiences. For over a decade, the author traversed the villages in the project-affected states and interviewed 81 NBA activists, meticulously collecting and preserving their stories in seven languages and dialects.

Activists of Narmada Bachao Andolan holding a demonstration against the decision to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi.

Activists of Narmada Bachao Andolan holding a demonstration against the decision to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Oral history, in a sense, “is a struggle of memory against forgetting.” The struggles and traumas of the adivasis of Narmada Valley would be forgotten had Oza not documented their stories. That’s what makes The Struggle for Narmada an invaluable work. A fast-paced and evocative book, it is a must-read to understand how ill-conceived megaprojects undermine social and environmental justice. The book has over 300 detailed author’s notes that make it an engrossing read even for those unfamiliar with the Andolan and its context.

The book zeroes in on two adivasis of Maharashtra’s Nimgavhan village (now submerged), Keshavbhau Vasave and Kevalsingh Vasave, who, born in the ’50s and ’60s, respectively, were the “backbone” of the Andolan, and fiercely challenged the might of the state at great personal cost. They take the readers through the most crucial phases of the Andolan’s life — the beginning, the crescendo, and the decline — besides a poignant vignette of an idyllic adivasi world that once thrived on the banks of the Narmada. Throughout, Oza poses pertinent questions. The activists, despite their limited formal education, proffer insightful analyses.

A higher calling

In 1961, Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation of the Sardar Sarovar Project. People in the Narmada Valley suddenly found themselves in a double bind situation. Staying in their villages meant an imminent submergence. But the government’s plan for the oustees, which a district rehabilitation officer rudely conveyed to a defiant inhabitant of Maharashtra thus: “One way or another, we will bodily lift you and dump you in Gujarat,” was equally scary.

Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar and oustees of Sardar Sarovar Dam project taking out a protest rally for proper compensation and rehabilitation, in Bhopal.

Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar and oustees of Sardar Sarovar Dam project taking out a protest rally for proper compensation and rehabilitation, in Bhopal. | Photo Credit: A.M. Faruqui

When the parties of surveywalas visited the submergence villages, they demanded hefty bribes from the adivasis besides lavish meals of mutton, chicken, “big pitchers of alcohol”, and more. Amid that chaotic ’80s, activists Vasudha Dhagamwar and Medha Patkar arrived to unionise people in the valley so that “they did not suffer and could exercise the right to demand whatever was justly theirs,” writes Oza.

Thus ensued an organised mass movement with adivasis as its indispensable pillars. By the late ’80s, the Andolan’s clarion call reverberated throughout the valley. Popular slogans, such as “Whose Development? Whose Destruction?” underscored the urgency to humanise development.

The NBA activists relentlessly battled the state repression with satyagraha. The Andolan laid bare the inadequacies of the project’s resettlement and rehabilitation policy. The World Bank withdrew its support from the project, and the government upped its game. Thousands of families received rehabilitation that would be denied to them had the Andolan not happened. As the dam’s height increased, scores of villages submerged one after another. The hapless adivasis had no choice but to relocate en masse.

Interestingly, when Narmada came to drown Kevalsingh’s house, he offered the river a coconut and worshipped her. “You lost your house! Weren’t you angry?” asked Oza. “How could we be angry? Ultimately, was it Narmada’s fault?... It was human powers that had forced her to act this way,” replied Kevalsingh. “I have the same feeling towards her as I do for my mother.”

The adivasis did not protest against the dam to merely seek a better rehabilitation plan. The decades-long Andolan, for them, was a higher calling — to save their “mother”, Narmada.

The Struggle for Narmada; Nandini Oza, Orient BlackSwan, ₹915. 

The reviewer is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

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