The Narmada Valley (Agarwal Interview)
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The Narmada Valley
Alok Agarwal interviewed by Justin Podur
by Alok Agarwal and Justin Podur; February 06, 2003
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has been fighting against
the development of big dams in Indias Narmada river valley.
Big dams have displaced tens of millions of people already
and disrupted much of rural India, without solving any of
the problems they claim to solve. The NBA is a genuine
peoples movement that has grown and tried to fight on
behalf of those displaced and threatened with displacement
by the dams. Alok Agarwal is an organizer in the NBA, based
in the Valley. He was interviewed in Porto Alegre during the
World Social Forum.
What are some of the latest developments in the Narmada
It is a complex situation. We are fighting many dams. The
development plan for the Narmada Valley is for 30 big dams,
five of which are the major ones: The Sardar Sarovar, the
Maheshwar, the Upper Veda, the Lower Goi, and the Man.
After the October 2000 Supreme Court decision, the height of
the Sardar Sarovar dam continues to rise. This was a bad
judgement and it empowered governments to be even more
repressive against our movement, to be totally unconcerned
about rehabilitating people. The Sardar Sarovar is
half-built now. Thousands have been displaced already. But
because of our fight we have slowed construction, and they
havent been able to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar
and displace people the way they would have wanted to.
After people are dislocated it becomes very, very difficult
to organize them. They are scattered. Hundreds of villages
of people have been scattered in Gujarat, and we just lose
them in many cases.
In the Maheshwar struggle, we have had victories. The
Maheshwar project has been going on for six years--it was
the first private hydro project in India. The state had to
pay 6 billion Rs. The money was to come from the
multinational corporations at first, but because of our mass
movement, we captured the dam site on ten separate
occasions. We blocked roads for 3 and a half months, made it
impossible for materials to get to the site in spite of
arrests and beatings. Now the funders--Bechtel, Ogden,
Pacgen in the US and Byernwerg, Simmons in Germany all left
this project. The German government wouldnt give export
guarantees to any corporation for the project. Over the past
two years we found many financial irregularities. Madhya
Pradesh has just attached all the property of the dam for
We are also fighting power sector reforms. We held a big
yatra, a long march, for fifteen days last month against it.
The government is trying to unbundle the Electricity Board
for privatization. Rates are increased every year. Farmers
cant pay their bills. This is a conspiracy against farmers.
The WTO imposes trade regulations that prevent the
government from protecting the domestic market and
subsidizing farmers, so the prices farmers get for their
products collapse. Meanwhile all of their inputs--seeds,
electricity, fertilizer--are going up in price! The idea is
to destroy the agricultural economy and capture the world
market. And the result is that there are hundreds of
suicides of farmers every single month in India.
Our mobilizations on issues like this bring out large
numbers of people. The Maheshwar dam protests regularly drew
10,000, sometimes 25,000, to take over the dam site.
The Upper Veda and Lower Goi dams could still be stopped. In
Man, we are still fighting for the rehabilitation of people
displaced by the dam. There was a long sit-in in Bhopal, a
hunger strike for 30 days. We have just handed in our report
on the grievances of the dam-affected people.
What kinds of repression does the government use against the
You cannot uproot people who do not want to leave their
homes without doing violence to them. Where people are not
ready to move, the police just use force. Recently a village
called Bhavariya in Madhya Pradesh was supposed to receive
dam-affected people. The people of Bhavariya didnt want to
give their land up for the newcomers. The newcomers didnt
want to leave their homes and go to Bhavariya. But this was
the governments plan for rehabilitation. So 500-600
police came, destroyed crops, beat people, and arrested and
So there is this kind of direct repression. There is also a
repression in forcing people to take cash compensation
instead of agricultural land as compensation. Not
rehabilitating people and raising the height of the dam and
flooding people out is itself repression.
What are the demands of the NBA?
Our demands are very clear. From a social, environmental,
even a financial point of view this project is not viable.
It is also not required. The promise was that the water
would reach the drought-prone areas of Gujarat--the Kutch,
and Saurashtra. But the command area map shows that only 9%
of Saurashtra and 1.6% of Kutch get any water from the dam.
Instead, the water goes to the already rich areas of
Ahmedabad and Baroda. So the project does not deliver what
is promised and is not viable. We do not want this project.
For what has already occurred, we want the state to fulfill
its own laws. The state says no displacement without
rehabilitation, and rehabilitation means land for land, that
people move as a unit, as a village. All that is in the law
but it has not been fulfilled.
How does the NBA work?
We work at various levels. Most of our work is at the
grassroots. But we now have state, national, and
international-level work that we do. There are academic
tasks, studying plans and reports, and media work of all
Our primary work is in the villages, maintaining constant
touch with people, developing leadership and trying to have,
and empower, many good activists. We are fighting the state,
and the state will always try to attack and weaken an
organization like ours, so its very important to develop
broad leadership that can withstand such attacks.
Part of your work is in Gujarat, which saw a devastating
earthquake two years ago followed by a horrific pogrom last
year. Has the rise of the Hindu Right in the state, and the
communal violence, like that of the pogrom in February-March
2002 and the attack on the Hindu temple in September,
changed the context in which you are trying to organize? And
also, do you believe there is a link between the
globalization model of the big dams and communalism?
Is it more difficult to work in Gujarat? Yes. We have been
made enemy #1 because of our anti-communal stand. People are
afraid, there is more repression, our meetings are broken up
by goons and disrupted, so it is more difficult to organize.
Is there a relationship between globalization and
communalism? Look. 36% of Indians dont get one meal a day.
There are 60-70 million unemployed people. Theres violence
against women. Children dying from preventable diseases. Of
course politicians want to create an illusion. They play the
communal card so these issues dont come up, all these
issues that are products of globalization. To suppress them,
to keep them off the agenda, politicians use communalism.
Thats why we mobilize against both communalism and
Do you think the same is true of war? Between India and
Pakistan, for example? Or the US war against Iraq?
It is the same thing. In India, we have a government that is
fundamentalist. On the other side, in Pakistan, we have the
same. Both sides are interested in tension. The people on
either side of the border, ordinary Indians and Pakistanis,
are not interested. Neither people wants war. But
politicians talk about war so they dont have to deal with
the real problems of poverty and violence in the country.
This is true with Iraq also. How could it be about weapons
of mass destruction, when the whole world knows most of the
weapons of mass destruction are in the US? It is about oil.
We talk about this in the Valley. It is important. We are
organizing events against the war in Iraq as part of our
The NBA is an integral part of the NAPM, the National
Alliance of Peoples Movements. NAPM in turn, along with
other forces, was a key part of the Asia Social Forum in
Hyderabad. What is the relationship between the NBA and left
Im not very active in the NAPM, so I can say only a few
things. The NBA used to be very distant from left parties
and trade unions of the left parties, because of their
position on dams. But they have been supportive in the
anti-privatization fight in Maheshwar and on other actions.
We were all together at the ASF, so we have a certain amount
The social forums, like the World Social Forum here, is so
important because it shows that the same process is going on
everywhere. You dont get that feeling in India. Just
yesterday--on January 26, in Indore in Madhya Pradesh,
100,000 RSS members (Hindu Right organization) marched,
armed with swords, in the streets. There is no way we can
fight that without strength at the grassroots. We can talk
about coordinating our efforts, because to fight a global
enemy we have to have a global movement, but the most
important thing is to build that strength at the grassroots.
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