Students from Azim Premji University, Bengaluru gathered at their campus on September 17th to extend support to the struggle of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). What is happening to the 178 villages in Madhya Pradesh, waiting for rehabilitation even as their lands and homes have been submerged while Sardar Sarovar Dam filled to its full reservoir capacity, is one form of structural violence caused by the State. The student-led meeting was held to show solidarity with the project-affected families, who held a rally in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district, demanding opening of the dam gates and rehabilitating the oustees.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the dam in Kevadiya, Gujarat to celebrate ‘Namami Narmada‘ festival, the students in Bengaluru questioned the flaunting of a full dam as a badge of pride. The dam was filled to its capacity ahead of its schedule and coincided with celebrations of Prime Minister Modi’s birthday. He paid a visit to the dam site on his birthday.
To what extent can the State curtail the basic liberties of a community, while claiming to intervene on behalf of the larger society? When does building a dam stop being just an infrastructure project and become a tool for exploitation and marginalization? These were some of the questions that the students tried to raise through the meeting. They expressed their anger and helplessness at the plight of villagers by singing protest songs, folk songs written by adivasis, recital of poems to amplify the voices from these villages. They demanded better accountability from the State towards the project-affected families who are now forced into hardship caused by the loss of home, land and forests.
The refusal of Gujarat Government to open the dam gates and reduce the water-level, coupled with its lack of concern towards thousands of families who are yet to get proper rehabilitation, is a kind of structural violence that has damaging impacts. The displacement of villagers, especially tribals, from their homes and forests that provide them sustenance, is an attack on their culture as they are forcibly assimilated into the mainstream society. An absolute lack of their consent in decision-making process also presents the visible impacts of such decisions. But what remains from explicit view is the loss of livelihood and sickness, hunger, miser, and ill-health that passes down the generations.
The Sardar Sarovar Dam project has been problematic since its beginning. The fact that the water benefits from the project would majorly go to Gujarat while Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra saw their land submerged is conflicting. So is the planning of the project that had almost zero participation or information provided to the affected people. It represents many such projects where basic right to life of certain communities are heavily compromised in a bid to further develop the country.
More than 30,000 families, as estimated by the NBA, are waiting for their rehabilitation while the water level has reached its full reservoir level of 138.68 meters. Is it then justifiable that the development of a country should come at the cost of limited population? Where does this place us as citizens of a democratic country? What could be the alternatives? Can such projects move beyond being political symbols of violence? These are some of the questions that we need to answer before we choose which side of history we want to be a part of.