“Narmada bachao, manav bachao” (Save the Narmada river, save lives), “Muavza nahi, zameen ke liye zameen chahiye,” (We want land in exchange for land, not monetary compensation). These are just some of the slogans echoing through the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi as about three hundred people, (representatives of the 2.5 lakh people) affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project so far, came together from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat to stage a dharna. Some of them wear their stories in the form of slogans on the cardboard sign hanging by the neck.
Earlier this year, in one of his public appearances, Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi called for a rally in the Narmada Valley asking for an immediate increase in the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam. However, the displaced persons who addressed the dharna said that they would not let Narendra Modi and Chhattisgarh Cheif Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan play politics on this issue ahead of the upcoming General Elections in 2014.
“Apart from the state incurring losses, the people will not have the rights to a drop of water from the reservoir or ‘free’ electricity,” said activist Medha Patkar, who has been spearheading the Narmada Bachao Andolan. “With around 48,000 families still awaiting rehabilitation in terms of land and livelihood and with the Grievance Redress Authority of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra not consenting to increasing the dam height, raising the level from 122 metres to 139 metres would be an illegal move which would submerge hectares of land and destroy the lives and livelihood of lakhs of people,” points out Patkar.
Tadve Dussehrat, 21, is one of the hundreds of people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar project. He says his family should have been compensated with about 15 acres of farming land in his village Nimgaon in Maharashtra. Nine years after their home and fields were flooded, he and his family have been (on paper) rehabilitated to Gopalpur but are yet to receive either compensation or fertile land to resume agriculture which was his family’s main source of livelihood. “We work on other people’s farms as daily labourers in exchange for some grain or money to get by but we are only scraping through,” says Dussehrat, who is one among the 68 representatives from Maharashtra. The volunteers undertook a strenuous 3-day long journey which includes two bus journeys, walking tens of kilometres on foot and an overnight train journey from Indore to Delhi in the packed unreserved compartment.
“We just want our livelihoods back,” says Dussehrat, a sentiment echoed by fellow protestors like Kamla Yadav, 55, from Nasirpur (12 km from Bhadwani), Madhya Pradesh. Like the protestors from Maharashtra, Kamla too boarded a train from Indore at 4pm on 16 October, stood the whole journey, arrived at Delhi early at 6am this morning and took straight to the dharna. Kamla, who wears a back brace after an injury she sustained at the last protest a few days ago, says “From ants to elephants, they want to destroy all the animals in our forests. We have no option but to fight.” “Nandgaon, Bhadal, Rajghat…” she rattles the names of the 33 villages in Maharashtra that have already been drowned though she herself is from Madhya Pradesh, adding that hers could well be next if the height of the dam is allowed to be raised.
The attendees included eminent personalities such as Arundhati Roy and Manoranjan Mohanty, Delhi University professor and Editor of Council of Social Development’s quarterly journal Social Change. Farmers, adivasis, fishermen, potters and landless boatmen, representatives of all the displaced communities raised issues such as the encashment policy aggressively pushed by the Madhya Pradesh government which has allegedly resulted in a Rs 1,000 crore scam including fake land registries and irregular house plot allotments. This is currently being probed by the Justice Jha Commission. Patkar also pointed out that the expert committees set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests had already exposed serious violations in the form of non-compliance on environment-related issues.