Adivasi leader Keshavbhau’s account of the early days when people from 33 Adivasi villages in Maharashtra came to know of the Sardar Sarovar Dam that was to submerge their villages:

Keshavbhau: From 1980 to 1985, there was the Narmada Development Department which did the surveys. In 1984, along with our Dagadu Maharaj and the police patils from two to four other villages we came together and put up our demands… After we reached Dhule, we prepared a statement with the help of a lawyer and submitted it to the collector.

“Sahib,” we wrote, “we have been citizens of the state of Maharashtra all along. So, we must be allowed to stay here, in Maharashtra. And we should be given land in the forest areas of the three tehsils namely, Taloda, Shahada, and Akkalkuwa. And in no other place in Maharashtra. Only then can we survive. Each of us should get 5 acres of forestland. We must also get a well, equipped with an electric motor pump. Our homes should be transferred to the new place.”

After submitting this statement that had some fifteen or twenty of these demands, we also gave it out to the newspapers. We were then called to Roshmal…An officer lower than the deputy collector of Dhule district, the assistant district collector was sent. All the people from the villages on the banks of the Narmada had been called to the house of the sarpanch of Roshmal Khurd.

He started asking us questions: “Look here, do you all know that the Sardar Sarovar Dam is going to be constructed in Gujarat?”

“We don’t know whether it will come up or not, but yes we do know about it.” That is what we said. “All your villages are going to be submerged by the backwaters of this dam. Even this Roshmal will be submerged. So, all of you will be given land around Parveta in Gujarat. You better tell them that you accept the land there. And we kept saying, ‘No, Sahib, we have been citizens of Maharashtra all along. Why are you driving us out of Maharashtra?’”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that. Do you know how many states there are in India?” That sahib was saying, “Maharashtra is one of the constituent states of India – MP, Gujarat, Rajasthan, all these states together make our country, India. If you go to Gujarat or anywhere else, you are still in your own country, right? Are we driving you out to some other country?”

We kept saying, “No, no, no, Sahib, we do not understand that Gujarati language. We also don’t approve of the way they do things.”...“Okay, let us take up the next point we said: each and every family must be given 5 acres of land along with a dug well equipped with an electric motor pump.” “What? Who has written this?” he asked. We said, “Sahib, we wrote it.” “What? Each of you is to be given a dug well in your land, and it is to be fitted with a pipe? What for? To wash your arse?” That is what he said. “Not to wash my arse, Sahib, but for irrigation,” I said. “Do you think you are ever going to get what you have asked for?” “No, but isn’t it the duty of the government, Sahib? Why do you say these things?”

That is what I kept on saying. Those were early times, so I was a little afraid. There were other points. “Whichever place we will be rehabilitated in…where we will be given land, our houses should be transported there intact and we should be given a bungalow there.” “Is the government your slave? Is it sitting idle waiting to serve you?” (Laughs.) He was really angry. “Sahib, give it to us if you can, otherwise we are going back. It is your need, Sahib. What is it to us? Haven’t we been living here for generations? Here we do not beg anyone for our meals,” I said.

In the end one thing was very clear – submitting that application was the most important thing we had done. It provided us with a foundation…We wanted to settle in the forestland of one of the three tehsils. We did not want land that was under dispute…People from all the thirty-three submergence villages in Maharashtra were invited to this meeting…

Adivasi leader Kevalsingh talks about his village and home being submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Dam.

Kevalsingh Vasave: For the people, Narmada is a goddess. People come to Jalsindhi, the village opposite ours, from all over India to worship her, just to get a glimpse of her, the sacred and mighty Narmada. Our goddess Rani Kajal is right there, in front of Jalsindhi, where we worship the Akhada. Even the Akhada is situated on the sacred sands of the Narmada.

We adivasis have lived on her banks for as long as we can remember. We consider the Narmada our mother and ourselves her children. When the Sardar Sarovar Dam brought her waters into my house, I offered a pooja to her.

The Narmada, whose valley was so deep it used to take us three quarters of an hour to climb down and reach her waters, that river had come to my house. So I worshipped her. I have the same feeling towards her as I do for my mother. I cannot describe it, cannot put it in words. Today I live in Vadchhil (resettlement site). But whatever I saw then, I still see vividly before my eyes. It seems like a dream. But what could I do? The government has finally forced us to live our lives in this way. We struggled for twenty-two years to stay at that place. Not that the battle hasn’t given us anything. Had we not struggled, we would not have got what we have now. But in the end, we had to do all this to save the river.

Question by Nandini Oza: The river water entered your house, submerged it, and yet you worshipped the Narmada?

Kevalsingh: Yes, I worshipped her. The water stayed in my house for eight days. My house was completely submerged, but I never let myself think that Narmada had drowned my house. I worshipped her. I offered her a coconut. And we stayed submerged in the water for eight days. Such is the Narmada. Who can adequately describe her? It is very difficult to describe her…Earlier, we had to climb down a long way from our house, almost 100–150 metres from the mountain, to reach the Narmada.

Now if the same Narmada has come to our doorstep, what else could we do but worship her? How could we be angry? Ultimately, was it Narmada’s fault? No, the fault was ours. It was human powers that had forced her to act this way: she was obstructed, so she drowned the land. How can we fault her?…There is a lot of difference between the adivasi culture and other cultures. Whether it is the gods or the adivasi gayanas or how one worships. There is no temple in adivasi culture. They worship nature. If there is a tree and near the tree is a pile of stones, that stone palya itself is worshipped by adivasis. Adivasis also perform other forms of worship.

If we have to eat the new grain that we have grown ourselves, then we have to worship the god Nilowanwa, and if it is a new vegetable or anything new procured from the forest, it is the god Nilpi who has to be worshipped.

Worship of God Nilpi is nature worship. We worship rivers, streams, mountains. There is no idol of God in adivasi culture. Adivasis also worship their khatri or ancestors; it is only after offerings are made to them that we eat newly harvested grain or vegetables. The gayanas too mention the names of many mountains, rivers, valleys and animals…The worship of animals, of calves and bullocks, is all nature worship. It is not as if there is an idol of a god in a particular place and we go there and worship that idol. The worship of Rani Kajal is worship of the rains. Nobody has seen Raja Phanta and Ganda Thakur. But they are the subject of many songs…

The Struggle for Narmada

Excerpted with permission from The Struggle for Narmada, Nandini Oza, Orient Blackswan.