How callous can a government be that the only way to attract its attention is to squat neck deep in water?
It’s not as if the ‘jal satyagrahis’ of Khandwa hadn’t exhausted other means. For over two decades, they have agitated on every available forum, asking merely that the government understand the consequences of its massive project of damming the Narmada. They have faced ridicule and apathy, and police action to boot. Their demands are simple. Fair and adequate compensation for having to uproot themselves from the land they depend on for their survival. A stop to the unilateral raising of the levels of the dams without a thought to compensate the additional people displaced. More than anything, that the government stop thinking of them as mere statistics.
The Indira Sagar Dam has the largest submerged area of any dam in the country. An area that covers 255 villages, forcing the displacement of almost three lakh people. Most of these people have been forcefully evicted with little compensation. Despite the Narmada Valley Development Authority’s official policy, reinforced by a Supreme Court judgment in 2011, not one landholder has been provided adequate land in exchange. There is no work to be had; most young men have left for the cities, while those who remain subsist on dailywage labour. Many of those whose lands were not acquired now find themselves living on islands, cut off from any means of livelihood. And now, even these islands may be submerged, with no compensation, if the government persists in raising the water level of the dam by a further two metres.
This unilateral decision affects at least 91 more villages on the periphery of the current captive area. Even more will be affected, as the plan — indeed, not even the Central Water Commission — has no mechanism to calculate the impact of raising the dam’s height on the areas along the various large rivers that drain into the Narmada. It is this decision, like a similar increase proposed for the Omkareshwar Dam last year, that drove Khandwa’s villagers to risk serious illness by sitting in the dirty river water for days. Their protest is symbolic of the great irony of their tragedy: how water, the source of all life, is being used to bring about the destruction of theirs.
The mood in Khandwa is sombre. These are not firebrand activists fighting for an ideal, but villagers who stood up to the might of the State and lost. All they seek now is what they are due. These are men and women fighting as much to make ends meet as they are for justice. An oral promise by the state government not to increase the dam’s height finally put an end to the two-week agitation. But promises have been broken in the past. And the protesters expect nothing but a long, bitter struggle. As Atma Ram, one of the satyagrahis, puts it, “It never ends, this slow destruction of our world.”