National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Cover story
Issue Date:  April 16, 2004

Holy waters: a trip up the Narmada River

Western India

The gods of India are drawn to her rivers. It is said that the waters of the Ganges spring forth from the footprint of the god Vishnu, who once crossed the earth in a single stride, and that Siva, creator and destroyer of all things, frequented the banks of the Narmada. The Hindus believe that if you bathe in the Ganges, you will obtain moksha (liberation).

In early January, I caught the current of an Indian river’s grace while on a rural tour through the western part of the country, visiting a people for whom liberation has as much to do with politics as spirituality.

Approximately 30 internationals and Indians signed up for the weeklong tour organized by the National Alliance of People’s Movements, a coalition of more than 200 Indian grass-roots organizations engaged in anti-development struggles. Our itinerary included two days along the Narmada River with the anti-dam movement, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, and its charismatic leader, Medha Patkar.

Welling up on the Amarkantak plateau in the central state of Madhya Pradesh, the Narmada River flows west for 800 miles, passing through three states -- Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat -- before emptying into the Arabian Sea. The Indian government wants to build 3,165 dams along the river and its 41 tributaries, reconstituting the Narmada into a stairway of reservoirs. Most of the dams will be medium or small but 30 will be big, including two mega-dams. The government’s justification for this massive rearrangement of a waterway is that it will provide electricity and irrigation for India’s western cities and the drought-prone regions of Gujarat. The Narmada Bachao Andolan says the project is an environmental and humanitarian disaster.

Once a rushing ribbon of water, the Narmada has become swollen and laden with silt. Its rising waters have flooded out croplands and entire villages, forcing farmers in the Narmada Valley to move to higher ground or relocate altogether. Twenty-five million people live in the valley and, although the dams are only partially complete, thousands have already been displaced. Many migrate to urban slums or resettlement villages where land is poor or nonexistent.

On Jan. 8, the day before we reached the Narmada, nine adolescents from the Sukar Resettlement Site in Gujarat attempted suicide.

For 16 years, the gutsy Narmada Bachao Andolan has fought the damming of the river. The movement’s “warriors” are primarily impoverished Adivasi (tribal farmers) who have lived in the Narmada Valley for centuries. They were never consulted about the dams and the Narmada Bachao Andolan regards the government’s “development” project in the valley as a form of “internal colonialism, a snatching of natural resources for urban societies.” Remarkably, their struggle has remained nonviolent. Backed by a handful of highly educated urban activists and Patkar, soul of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the valley farmers have occupied dam sites, fasted, staged Satyagraha -- nonviolent resistance -- campaigns, and held sit-ins outside government offices, insisting on a hearing.

I first observed the Narmada Bachao Andolan while watching “Words on Water,” Sanjay Kak’s poetic documentary about the movement’s campaigns against the Maheshwar dam and the Sardor Sarovar Projects, a Gujarat mega-dam currently under construction. The film was shown at a local university last May, a time when I was feeling particularly powerless, withered from our war on Iraq and the militaristic machismo that dominated most public discourse. Perhaps that is why I wept when I saw Kak’s footage of Indian village women, who are among the worlds most powerless, at the forefront of many Narmada Bachao Andolan demonstrations. Although beaten by the police and hauled off to jail, they persevered in their sit-ins, argued face-to-face with government officials, and insisted on one occasion that James Wolfensohn, president of the World Bank, meet with them, the poor women directly affected by the development project his institution once funded. Interspersed among the film’s “battle” scenes were long shots of the river, glimmering at twilight, swollen and misty from a monsoon rain.

“Who are these women?” I wondered. “Where is this river? Is the courage in the valley contagious?”

To reach the Narmada, our tour group took a night train from Bhopal, capital of Madhya Pradesh, to Baroda, a city in southeastern Gujarat. Still groggy from the night journey, we crammed into jeeps and endured a spine-rattling ride to the village of Hapeshwar where we boarded an orange metal boat that took us up river. As the boat pulled away from shore, tour organizer Maju Varghese raised a clenched fist and shouted skyward, “Narmada Bachao!” Chants and songs were heard throughout our river journey. Their purposes were multiple: a warrior’s cry, a people’s prayer. They were also a way to rally the weary or fill in the silences when the speechmaking went dry.

We traveled up a small segment of the lower Narmada where the river provides the border between the states of Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The boat zigzagged upstream, stopping at the airy hamlets and villages of the Bhil and Bhilal tribes. Domkhedi. Jelsindi. Nimgavan. Bilgoan. These villages, with names like the sound of a murmuring stream lie in the submergence zone of the Sardor Sarovar Projects and have become a hotbed of Narmada Bachao Andolan activism. According to activist Clifton Rozario, the mega-dam, if completed, will create “the biggest reservoir in Southeast Asia,” stretching east for about 136 miles. It is “unimaginable,” he said.

Above the din of the boat’s laboring engine, Patkar informed us that the movement was at a critical stage in its ongoing battle against the Sardor Sarovar Projects. The dam already stands at 328 feet, approximately two-thirds its designed height. On Jan. 28, chief ministers from the river’s three states were scheduled to vote on whether to approve elevating the dam another 33 feet. If the dam is raised to 361 feet and the monsoons are bad, the Narmada Bachao Andolan estimates that at least 10,000 families in Madhya Pradesh and 1,500 in Maharashtra could be flooded out. So far, none of these families has been compensated or resettled. The movement’s immediate strategy was to stall the vote and buy some time.

Only the photographers and filmmakers among us braved disembarking at Domkhedi, our first stop. The black gooey silt along the shoreline made the short trek up the bank almost impossible. Last summer, Narmada Bachao Andolan activist Shobha, a young village woman, got trapped in the Domkhedi’s silt and drowned. On the morning we visited, the hillside hamlet looked like a scene from National Geographic. A bullock meandered in a distant field. A man spread small silver fish in the sun to dry. Women, their children clustered around them, finished a harvest. There was a remarkable lightness about the place. No vehicles. No heavy machinery. No piles of nonbiodegradable trash. You could whisk away the whole village in half an afternoon. And yet, the inhabitants of Domkhedi cling to this patch of earth with a tenacity seen only among people who already live on the rim.

In the summer of 2001, the village was the sight of the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s annual Satyagraha campaign. That year, the Sardor Sarovar Projects dam stood at 295 feet. To protest the dam’s elevation and to call attention to the plight of the people in the Narmada Valley, the Satyagrahis tied themselves to the poles of a hut while the floodwaters of the monsoon rose up around them. Tour participant Romain Delachaux, a French filmmaker who has been following the Narmada Bachao Andolan for three years, said he once saw film footage of an Adivasi child who endured a total submergence during one of these campaigns. The camera caught the girl’s face underwater and in that single image, he said, you understood “what the fight in the valley was really about.”

At Nimgavan, the villagers were celebrating the recent election of Gita Murildhar to the panchayat, the governing council for 20 villages. A young Adivasi woman, Murildhar is also a Narmada Bachao Andolan activist and the movement was delighted that one of their own would be able to represent “the cause” in a local political forum. Our meeting in the village square stretched into a long, hot afternoon of speechmaking with speaker after speaker taking the microphone to restate the plight and fight of the people in the valley. Some were despairing about the future. Others counseled perseverance. One Adivasi man was visionary in his simplicity.

“Land gives us food,” he said. “If we can save the land, we can save ourselves. All of us should live within our resources. We should think of all creatures.”

At twilight, we left Nimgavan and boarded the boat for the two-hour trip to Bilgoan. In need of a ride, some of the Adivasi men joined us. They squeezed around the seated passengers and effortlessly balanced themselves on the boat’s rim as we chugged our way up the Narmada. The western sky burned out and in the growing darkness, the dusty brown hills of the valley flattened into silhouettes. The river’s green waters turned inky black while above us, the wide night sky silently exploded into a million stars.

Although we reached Bilgoan late at night, the children were waiting for us. A boy standing on the riverbank held up a fluorescent light, electrified by the village’s new hydroelectric power plant. The plant’s turbine produces a modest 15 kilowatts, illuminating Bilgoan and 12 surrounding hamlets; but the homegrown electricity is a source of local pride and an example of the kind of sustainable development the Narmada Bachao Andolan endorses.

In the wide orb of light, cast by the child’s lamp, was a circle of dancing boys. Their faces were painted white and they wore headdresses made of peacock feathers. They banged drums and blew whistles, and the gourds and shells fastened to their waists and ankles rustled like night insects each time they swayed their hips and stamped their feet. As we stepped onto the riverbank, they moved around us pulling us into the current of their dance.

“We will fight! We will win!” the children sang. Then switching to a chant that was by now familiar to us, they raised their fists and shouted, “We all,” and we answered, “Are one!”

Years ago, I stood beside the banks of the Ganges in the Indian city of Haridwar. The river begins here and according to Hindu belief, Haridwar marks the spot where the god Vishnu stepped down on the earth. The city has become a place of pilgrimage, full of penitents who go to the river’s edge and wash themselves in its holy waters. Like all of us, they are seeking liberation from what keeps them from God. Although I wanted to submerge myself entirely in the Ganges and even swim in its rushing waters, I never did. I was too afraid.

But God often gives us a second chance, and the grace we once refused to take, comes again. Mine came during my trip up the Narmada.

~ ~ ~

Author’s note: After I left the Narmada River, the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s story became a high-speed action film. Between January and early February, activists from the valley launched two sit-ins and a fast in an effort to convince the decision-makers not to approve elevation of the Sardor Sarovar Projects. I came home to a flurry of enthusiastic e-mails. The crucial vote on the project had been delayed. Twice. And then on March 16 came the report that state authorities had approved the dam’s elevation. Days later, the Narmada Bachao Andolan announced it would appeal the decision.

Claire Schaeffer-Duffy, a freelance writer, is a frequent NCR contributor.

National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: