For nearly four decades, the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project on the Narmada river has been at the centre of the debate about the real price India has paid for development projects in India. That was reiterated early in September when columnist Swaminathan SA Aiyar wrote a two-part series in The Times of India about the project.

In the first installment, he made an important point: mass politics works on exaggeration in order to accentuate a core contention, so taking the rhetoric at face value could be risky.

He corrected Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s claim that all those opposing the project are “urban Naxals”, noting that in 1992, the North American members of an independent review team of the World Bank recommended that the institution withdraw from the project. These experts are unlikely to have any clue about the meaning of the word “Naxal”.

However, by using his articles mainly to attack Medha Patkar, a leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Aiyar squandered the opportunity to join the debate about the human and environmental costs of development. He claimed that Patkar made a “fool” of him another, also called the Save Narmada Campaign, for making a “fool” of him and others with purportedly exaggerated claims about the project’s impending failure.

But it was not just Patkar who convinced the World Bank to stop funding the project. The Narmada case was playing out just when non-profits in the Global North and their middle class supporters, especially in the United States, were clamouring for more accountability from their governments about the money they were spending and the multilateral organisations they supported.

They were concerned by the total disregard for the environmental impact and human displacement due to development projects such as large dams – especially those affecting “tribal” groups, which had parallels to the way in which the US had treated Native American groups over the course of its history.

Activist Medha Patkar. Credit: Right Livelihood Award Foundation, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons.

A project from 1961

For readers unfamiliar with the project, some background. The Narmada largely flows through Madhya Pradesh, touches Maharashtra and enters Gujarat to meet the Arabian Sea via a steep valley. The valley is home to Bhils, an Adivasi group. But the fertile plains of Nimar in Madhya Pradesh house multi-caste villages dominated by prosperous Patidar farmers.

After the project was launched by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat found themselves embroiled in a lengthy conflict about how to share its benefits. The Narmada Award of 1979 by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal apportioned the river water between them and fixed the height of the SSP at 138 meters.

Studies by several water management experts including SS Nadkarni and KR Datye, neither of them part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan or opponents of the project, showed how reducing the dam’s height by just a few meters would drastically reduce the submergence area in the plains with little decrease in Gujarat’s share of water.

Besides, it is a poor project that submerges fertile plains to irrigate similar or inferior land. That is something Aiyar neatly skipped while haranguing Patkar.

Patkar did not work alone. The Narmada Bachao Andolan’s tasks – such as offering a forensic critique of the dam’s irrigation potential, engaging the World Bank’s panel of experts and leading a mass movement – required a diverse range of skills, This rested on the shoulders of a range of committed people.

An activist team of young engineers, including Shripad Dharmadhikary and Alok Agrawal, drew on official data pertaining to the various projects on Narmada and its tributaries to frame the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s counter-narrative to the government’s claims.

Arundhati Dhuru, Nandini Oza and others were active in spreading awareness about the perils of the project in the villages that would be submerged. They also represented the case of the Adivasis and villages at international forums in Japan, Europe and North America to which they were invited.

By today’s standards, visiting foreign countries to disrupt a government project would appear to be decidedly anti-national – but only to those who do not appreciate the global nature of the multi-billion-dollar development industry.

Funding from the Global North

As is evident in countries of Africa, Asia and Latin America, countries of the Global North supply technology through their local firms and the expertise to install them.

They also pump in money as loans through state-backed non-profits such as USAID in the United States and DFID in the UK and control funding through multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. They finance projects from roads and dams to malaria eradication programmes in the South.

The main donors for the Sardar Sarovar Project included the World Bank as a partial funder while the turbines for its hydroelectric power plants were from Japan.

The problem even with a relatively transparent agency such as the World Bank, as I talked to its officials and NGO critics in the US and UK during my doctoral research on the Narmada project in 2007-’14, is that it was largely dominated by economists and engineers from the North.

A file photo of the Sardar Sarovar dam overflowing. Credit: AFP.

These technocrats have no clue of the ground reality in rural Nigeria or India about the harm that a development project could cause by forcibly displacing residents or of benefits getting cornered by a small dominant elite that controls the state. These points are now conceded by the Bank’s own officials.

The NGOs in the North countries were pushing for transparency in the 1980s just as the World Bank decided to partially fund the Sardar Sarovar dam in 1985 while flouting its own norms on environment and displacement. Unlike the Communist Party’s dictatorship in China, another big beneficiary of development grants during the 1990s, democratic India was more tolerant of protest and dialogue.

Bhils treated like encroachers

When the Sardar Sarovar Project was announced, many in Gujarat were wary because of the experience earlier that decade relating to the Ukai dam. That project on the Tapi had displaced thousands of Bhil families without their consent or giving them viable compensation.

ARCH Vahini, a group working in that area and aware of Ukai’s human cost, did pioneering work to mobilise the Bhils of Gujarat who were the first to face submergence. Despite having lived in the hills for generations the community were considered encroachers on the property of the government’s forest department from the colonial period.

Until 2013, land acquisitions for development projects in India were undertaken using the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. But instead of sharing data about development projects that are for the public benefit, the colonial-era Official Secrets Act was used to deny information requests.

ARCH obtained several government of India documents about the dam from Oxfam, UK, which had been funding their welfare activities even before the dam. Oxfam in turn was getting them from the World Bank as the institution did not believe that anything about the dam project was a secret.

The Indian state, following its colonial counterpart, has largely treated the Adivasi areas in the hills and forest only as a source of raw material. For decades after Independence, exploitation by moneylenders and dominant caste groups has been the harsh reality for the Scheduled Tribe groups who live in these areas.

Contribution of volunteers

In many places, schools, health centres and roads were missing till the 1990s or existed only on paper. The first all-weather road connecting the plains to Maharashtra’s Narmada Valley, for instance, was constructed only in the early 1990s when the Bhil villages had to be evicted for the project.

Groups such as the ARCH in Gujarat and the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath in Madhya Pradesh were active in the area before the Sardar Sarovar Project came into picture. Their members were urban middle-class youth with professional degrees who chose to live and provide health services and education. They also mobilised residents to demand the implementation of the laws that existed on paper.

When the Narmada Bachao Andolan stepped in a little later, Patkar and the urban-based activists were only one layer of the organisation. Patkar is an evocative speaker and a gifted manager who boosted the prominence of the organisation.

But far from being a one-person show, the Narmada Bachao Andolan comprised several groups, including the Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath, Bhil leaders and many Nimari Patidar leaders.

The urban activists got media attention because they were armed with facts, figures, and spoke in English. Many of the Bhil and Nimari farmers facing submergence sat on collective hunger strikes, organized dharnas (protest marches) and faced police repression but the press chose to largely focus on Patkar.

The reader of this article is probably from the urban middle-class and was educated in an English medium school where we read about the dams and mines that helped industrialise rural India. Back in the 1990s, my high school NCERT geography textbook did not mention the human cost of industrialisation. But it was revised in the next decade to discuss dams and displacement.

That has been the greatest contribution of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

This is the first of a two-part series on the Narmada project. Read the second part here.

Vikramaditya Thakur is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Delaware.