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April 2000
Not Moving but Drowning: Satyagraha and the Narmada Dam

By Catherine Clyne and Samantha Knowlden


The Narmada Valley Development Project is a plan to construct 30 large, 135 medium-sized and 3,000 small dams in India’s Narmada Valley to provide drinking and irrigation water and electricity for the development of agriculture and industry in the four states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan in the western part of the country. Disputes over the actual distribution of the water of the Narmada River have been on-going since the 1960s. It was not until 1979—after 10 years of negotiations—that arrangements for sharing and using water by the four benefiting states were defined by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal.

Protests against the dams by landowners, farmers and other affected people have been going on since the beginning of the project. It was not until the 1980s that the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a coalition of villagers and farmers threatened to be affected or displaced by the dams, students, activists and other concerned people, came to fruition. In the true spirit of Satyagraha ("truth-action"), the non-violent civil disobedience movement begun by Mohandas Gandhi, the NBA’s struggle against the dams has involved educating, organizing and civil disobedience. People in flood zones have threatened to stand in the rising waters until they drown rather than leave their homes and accept the insufficient rehabilitation and relocation packages offered by the government.

The NBA’s success in organizing protests against the dams have brought worldwide attention to the highly-charged environmental, social and political stakes of large dams. Pressure from the NBA and groups around the world forced the World Bank to conduct the first ever independent review of one of its projects. Completed in 1992, the independent review substantiated the NBA’s claims about the environmental and social impacts of the dams. It found that the government’s calculations on the amount of energy to be produced and the number of people to be affected were completely inaccurate. It also found the rehabilitation and relocation efforts of the government to be insufficient and in violation of human rights. As a result, the World Bank withdrew its funding in 1993.

Most recently, the focal point of the NBA has been the $8.1 billion Sardar Sarovar dam in the state of Gujarat. In 1994, they filed a case against the building of the dam with the Supreme Court of India. After reviewing the case, the Court issued a cease-building order, granting the NBA a major victory. After a four-year stay, however, in February of 1999 the government allowed the height of the dam to be raised five meters. In response, Medha Paktar, one of the NBA’s leaders, fasted and held prolonged periods of silence in an effort to force the creation of a new tribunal and to end the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam, and also called for a full review of the project. If the dam is completed, it could force the relocation of more than 500,000 people. The issue came to a head last August when heavy rains caused reservoir waters to rise. Paktar and more than 60 activists—"Satyagrahis"—stood for several hours in waist-high waters (see photo). Their slogan became "not moving but drowning." Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things, joined anti-dam protests and has been vocal in her opposition to the dams (see interview). The Satyagrahis were eventually arrested and many were beaten. The Indian Supreme Court began a final hearing on the Sardar Sarovar dam on February 29, 2000 and the case is still pending.


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