The water warriors

Bharat Dogra

  • Villagers staging protest against the Indira Sagar dam project. Photo: A.M. Faruqui
    The Hindu Villagers staging protest against the Indira Sagar dam project. Photo: A.M. Faruqui
  • During the Omkareshwar dam protests last year. Photo: A.M. Faruqui
    The Hindu During the Omkareshwar dam protests last year. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

As more lands go under water and people are rendered homeless due to the rising water levels of dam projects across States, Jal Satyagraha has become a novel protest weapon for the displaced population in Madhya Pradesh.

The Jal Satyagraha of people evicted from their lands for the Indira Sagar dam project in Madhya Pradesh, which started on September 1, has once again drawn attention to the great injustice done to thousands displaced by various dam projects constructed on the Narmada River and its various tributaries.

In the case of the Indira Sagar dam project, the problem is particularly serious due to the sheer magnitude of submergence. As Alok Aggarwal, a senior activist of Jal Satyagraha, says, “The Indira Sagar Dam Reservoir, India’s largest and the second largest in Asia, is causing displacement of about 50,000 families from 254 villages or nearly three lakh people. The promise of providing land in place of land to displaced people has been flouted on a large scale to the extent that about 85 per cent of the displaced farmers are being reduced to the status of landless workers.”

He adds, “Instead of taking urgent steps to remedy this injustice, the authorities have started raising water level beyond 260 meters ignoring court directions. This has led to illegal submergence of villages or creation of island like conditions for villagers.”

Jal Satyagraha has started at five places in Khandwa, Harda and Dewas, the three districts of Madhya Pradesh which are affected by displacement caused by this massive project. The movement members have demanded justice-based resettlement policy in keeping with the earlier promises and agreements, as well as lowering of water level in the dam to 260 meters.

This novel form of peaceful resistance involves protesters standing in water, first initiated by the oustees of the Omkareshwar dam project last year. As a result of the protests, the Madhya Pradesh government had announced a package of better rehabilitation and the activists of Narmada Bachao Andolan/Jal Satyagraha believe that the present satyagraha will help in improving the dismal rehabilitation situation in the case of the Indira Sagar project as well.

Predictably, however, the initial response of the authorities has been to arrest and intimidate peaceful protesters, as was also the experience of the Omkareshwar oustees last year. Recently leading activist of the movement, Chittaroopa Patil, was arrested along with 75 other activists from different protest sites.

Meanwhile, in another phase of the Narmada movement, there have been a series of recent protests and rallies by the oustees of the Sardar Sarovar project in three tehseels of Dhar district. They have raised their voice against false and exaggerated claims on rehabilitation. In addition, they have also protested against the submergence of their fields and homes by release of reservoir waters from upstream dams. These protests have emphasised that according to norms agreed earlier at a legal level, villages cannot be submerged till rehabilitation has been completed. Similar protests took place in Naudurbar district of Maharashtra.

In a different context, Jal Satyagraha has reached Uttar Pradesh as well. Here people affected by erosion of land by rivers have initiated Jal Satyagraha in Sitapur district to draw attention to the plight of thousands of people made landless and homeless by land erosion. Premnath Gupta, co-ordinator of ‘Save the village’ movement in Gajipur district, says, “In our district alone, 5,000 acres of farmland spread over 50 villages has been lost. The very survival of many villages like Semra is in question, but the government has no plan to rehabilitate them. These people do not know where to go, what to do.”