I walked down the weather-beaten road of Jhanda Chowk in the direction that, I was told, would lead me to the office of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in Khandwa town of Madhya Pradesh. Trudging along under the 47 degree sun, I couldn’t help but muse over the glorious images of intrepid activism, sweeping support and pandemic influence that the name NBA invokes. Undeniably, I entered the office expecting to walk into a maelstrom of hustle bustle, the least you’d expect at the epicenter of a movement that shook the nation.
I took many by surprise by deciding to work with NBA. Friends and family questioned my decision to spend a summer vacation working in rural parts of central India. But beneath the cursory queries, the one reservation that was common across all, and about which I too started wondering was the purpose of this visit. Being born in the 90’s, I and many around me missed the country’s most glorious years of gallant activism. We were born into an already constructed dam. And so, to an extent, the constantly repeated question was justified- “The dam is made, what now?”
Of struggle and reconstruction
Narmada Bachao Andolan emerged as an enraged, but inevitable reaction to the Narmada Valley Developmental Project that announced a vision of 30 large, 135 medium and 3,000 small dams on the Narmada and its tributaries. At that time, numerous protest groups, student factions, NGOs and transnational networks were already leading the three dam-affected states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Among them was a youth group in Gujarat, Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini, which worked for generous rehabilitation packages and ensuring that the government uphold its promises. In contrast, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra saw groups that had moved from demanding better compensation to seeking a complete closure of such projects. Narmada Ghati Navnirman Samiti (Madhya Pradesh) and the Narmada Ghati Dharangrastha Samiti (Maharashtra), subsequently merged to form the NBA in 1989.
While calling for a halt on dam construction, the group concurrently proposed developmental alternatives to combat the problems of irrigation, electricity and drinking water. However, it wasn’t merely an attack on the dams. The struggle revolved around putting accountability in place. Accountability of the World Bank for the project claims and accountability of the government for the project-impact. The movement, with Medha Patkar at its helm, had started off primarily as a protest against the Sardar Sarovar Dam but soon encapsulated Maheshwar, Indira Sagar, Omkareshwar, Maan, Beda, Goi and Jobaat dams. People took to the principle of ‘struggle and reconstruction’ or ‘Sangharsh aur Navnirman’, an ideological stand that outlines the foundation of this long drawn movement.