The Narmada Bachao Andolan redefined activism and cradled a whole generation of gallant dissenters. But where does it stand today?
I walked down the weather-beaten road of Jhanda Chowk in the direction that, I was told, would lead me to the office of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in Khandwa, 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 epicentre of a movement that shook the nation.
I took many by surprise by deciding to work with the 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 ’90s, 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—“The dam is made, what now?”—was justified.
Of struggle and reconstruction
The NBA 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 upheld 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.
Demigods and their devotees
I came to realise that my conception of the movement was in stark contrast with the reality. Celebrity presence has dwindled, mass solidarity splintered, and the seemingly invincible fortification has crumbled. Shots of drama had been captured, the anguish written about, and tragedy archived. The crusade that once penetrated every household through the exhaustive media coverage soon saw everyone move on.
Even with this awareness, I wasn’t prepared to find just a minuscule structure behind the movement of this stature. The entire andolan in MP, with five large dam-affected regions in its ambit, rests on the shoulders of two—Chittaroopa Palit and Alok Aggarwal, who joined the movement young, soon after acquiring the best of the country’s education from Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) respectively. The Valley rises to their names. The news of their arrival sets in motion a flurry of activity. Women abandon their chores, men return from their fields, and the village elders squabble to play host to Silviji and Alok Bhai as they are fondly called. In a late-night storytelling session during my first tour alone, Kailashji, a venerable resident of Sulgaon, made an electrifying analogy comparing Alok to Lord Krishna and Silvi to Goddess Durga. Yes, they have attained demigod status.
This story was originally published on YourStory authored by Medha Uniyal