When I returned to Toraniya in Gujarat a year after the devastating earthquake of January 26, 2001, I ran into my friend Lirabhai Bhaga Gothi. We had gotten to know each other right after the earthquake, when I came here with a team that worked on relief and rehabilitation for the victims. Along with much of Toraniya, the earthquake had destroyed Gothi’s house. So he was camped on its rubble. In turn, he let us camp on his land for several days.
With Gothi and other villagers, we worked on many different urgent needs while we were there. Several wells were damaged. So we brought in one of the large water tanks the government was handing out and laid temporary pipes to it from an undamaged well.
The school building was destroyed, so we put up a tarpaulin and cloth pandal so the children could resume at least some classes. Working with a team from Delhi, we set up a kitchen to serve simple hot meals – puri-bhaji and dal – to everyone in the village.
There was much more as well. Those were long, exhausting, but so satisfying days. The earthquake was a vast tragedy, but in some ways it was a good thing there was so much to do in Toraniya. It meant neither we nor the villagers we worked with had the time or inclination to dwell on destruction and sadness.
One morning, Gothi asked a few of us to accompany him some distance outside the village. In our daily meetings with the villagers, he had been speaking of a project they had occasionally discussed and how this might be the chance to turn it into reality.
I did not have a clear idea of what he meant, except that it involved what was a constant preoccupation in those parts: water. Indeed, in nearly every meeting, after discussing the next day’s immediate tasks, someone would bring up water worries – and Gothi was one of the more vocal of the worriers.
That morning, he wanted to show us what he meant.
Ten minutes of brisk walking brought us to a small stream. Water was flowing in it, but little more than a sluggish trickle. We stood above it, wondering what Gothi had in mind. He stood there pointing at it, an enigmatic smile on his face. “Don’t you see?” he asked. “Don’t you see the possibility?”
What Gothi shad in mind was a dam. He wanted to dam the stream more or less where we stood, where it made a shallow bend. If this could be done, a small lagoon would form behind the dam. That could be used to supply water to Toraniya’s residents.
Gothi’s eyes were shining as he finished this short exposition. “Don’t you see?” he asked again. “Will you people help us do this?”
I had to leave for home a couple of days later. But yes, I returned to Toraniya a year later. Gothi was in his home – not quite fully reconstructed yet, but at least he was not sleeping and cooking on top of a pile of rubble. He greeted me with an unexpected hug and insisted I join him and his family for a meal.
When we were finished, he had that shine in his eyes again. “Do you know?” he asked. “You mean ... the dam?” I asked. “Come, let me show you,” he said.
We did the same 10-minute brisk walk out of the village, Gothi barely able to control his excitement. When we got to the same spot above the stream, it looked nothing like my memory from a year before.
For now, there was a small dam across the stream, and a small lagoon behind it.
“You people!” said Gothi. “Your team came back a couple of months after you left, and then we built it!”
I was nearly speechless. Back at home over the last year, I had of course been in regular touch with some of the volunteers I had come to Kutch with. But somehow I had missed the news of this little dam. Indeed, it turned out that some others on the team had gone home, sketched out a plan and returned here. Working with Gothi and others in Toraniya, they built the dam. For the first time ever, most of Toraniya had piped water. No need to rely solely on wells.
I often tell this story. Why? Because of a lie that’s often told about Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan: that they wanted to deprive Kutch of water. Because here’s what I have not said about the team I went with to Kutch after the earthquake.
It was a Narmada Bachao Andolan team.
The team had several activists and several volunteers like me from all over the country. We had ridden for hours to get here, on the back of loaded trucks.
It had several farmers from the Nimad region of Madhya Pradesh. These farmers’ own fields and homes were going to be submerged in the waters behind the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River, then still under construction.
Yet they had hired trucks and filled them with bags of grain and produce from their own fields. All for these victims of the Kutch earthquake, for these people who were to get water from that same dam sometime in the future.
The team also had Medha Patkar.
There is much more in this story, much more to say about the Sardar Sarovar Dam. But for now, I give you just this much.
In less than a year after a disastrous earthquake, working alongside these residents of Kutch, the Narmada Bachao Andolan brought water to their village homes. Water to their homes, that is, by late 2001. Nearly two decades before the promise of water from Sardar Sarovar.
On an aside, ask me sometime about the Ministry of Water Resources letter I have a copy of, dated 1992, which said “The Sardar Sarovar Project as envisaged now will reduce substantially the distress due to drought in Kutch, Saurashtra and North Gujarat by say 2025 AD.”
Over 20 years later, it is easy to spread that lie I mentioned. People will do that, especially when election-time nears. But I know different. More important, Lirabhai Bhaga Gothi knows different, and his neighbours in Toraniya know different.
Medha Patkar and the Narmada Bachao Andolan wanted them, and really all of Kutch, to have access to water. Far more eloquently than I can, a lagoon in Toraniya tells that story.
Dilip D’Souza is the author of eight books. His most recent work, with Joy Ma, is The Deoliwallahs: The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment.