Protesting against the Sardar Sarovar dam
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Protesting against the Sardar Sarovar dam

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John Ahni Schertow
October 17, 2007
 

For the past two weeks, more than 30 tribal people effected by the Sardar Sarovar dam, the largest of 3000 dams planned for the Narmada River in India, have been staging an ongoing protest because the government has yet to compensate them for the lands they’ve lost to flooding.

In response to the protest, yesterday the government sent out a warning against them, citing “the Moral Code of Conduct” which forbids rallies and strikes unless permitted by the government.

It’s not clear whether or not they’ll actually forcibly end the protest and hunger strike, but the people have said they intend on continuing until they are given proper compensation.

First proposed in the early 1900’s to stand 136 meters in height, construction of the Sardar dam began in 1961. It’s completion would result in the displacement of over 320,000 people while effecting the livelihood of thousands more.

Today the dam stands at 121 meters. A great deal of land has already been submerged, and though ‘compensation and rehabilitation packages’ have been given to some of the effected, many say it has been nowhere near good enough.

Then there are those who’ve received nothing for their loss, among them being those currently protesting. The government will barely even acknowledge them.

A Tradition of Resistance
“I am a third generation protester seeking compensation for my ancestral farming land that has been submerged in the Narmada dam project”, says Vikram Tadvi, an indigenous man from the Limdi village. His grandfather was part of the initial protest that began in the 60’s, when local lands were submerged and they were given mediocre compensation.

“There are at least 1,000 farmers of these six villages who have been protesting for 45 years and the government has no time to hear us out. Alternative land has been given to several Madhya Pradesh farmers (Narmada dam project affected persons) but we have not got even an acre”, said Shankarbhai Tadvi, an aged protester and nearby resident.

For years the government has simply tossed the aside the protests “like garbage,” commented Arundhati Roy in her interview with Mishal Husain in 2003, reflecting on the struggles since the Save Narmada Movement (NBA) was formed in the late 1980’s. She said there has been “15 years of the most spectacular non-violent resistance movement” a country like India has ever seen; that the NBA used “every single democratic institution it could. It has put forward the most reasoned, moderate arguments that you can find, and it’s been just thrown aside like garbage, even by an institution like the Supreme Court of India, even in the face of evidence that you cannot argue with. So, I keep saying this that if we don’t respect non-violence, then violence becomes the only option for people. If governments do not show themselves to respect reasoned, non-violent resistance then by default they respect violence.” Despite this heart-wrenching truth, non-violent resistance has of course continued.

As for the efforts against the Sardar, a few days ago one farmer-turned-labourer commented, “We do not have anybody like Medha Patkar (founder of the NBA) on our side. Our struggle has been limited to the villagers only;” adding that “if it goes on like this, my school-going son may also grow up and be part of the protest.”

Unfortunately, as we gather from the history of protest against the Sardar dam, it would seem that any future protest can be no more than a futile effort.

Non-violent action, at least when limited to a small scale, simply cannot contend with a government so captivated by its own rederick they are comfortably blind toward the vast majority of poor, isolated and hungry.

The Sardar Sarovar is expected to be completed in the next few years. When finished, it will stand as the second largest dam in the world, second only to the Three Gorges dam in China.

Further information
If you’d like to learn more about anything connected to the Narmada dam project, you can go to www.sardarsarovardam.org and www.narmada.org.

Aswell, you can download and watch the documentary film Drowned Out, by Spanner films. You’ll need Real Player to watch it. There’s also a short clip of the film on youtube.

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