The Epic Stuggle Over Dams, Displaced People, and the Environment
By Jacques Leslie
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2005 Jacques Leslie
All rights reserved.
To get to Domkhedi, Medha Patkar's monsoon headquarters, you fly to Bombay, then to Baroda, the second-largest city in the state of Gujarat. You call up Joe Athialy at the Baroda office of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, the "Save the Narmada Movement" that Patkar leads, and Joe invites you over. Note that "office" is misleading to the extent that it implies accoutrements such as desks and chairs—of the Andolan's two offices, in Baroda and Badwani, Baroda's is the nicer one, and it consists of a couple of grimy, largely empty rooms on the second floor of a moldering residential apartment building. You and Joe sit cross-legged on the rug-covered part of the floor and work out the details of the last leg of the trip. In my case, the only rough spot was when I told Joe I wanted to take some bottled water to Domkhedi, and he said the Andolan opposes bottled water because it is an instrument of globalization. I was willing to concede the point on ideological grounds, but I couldn't get over the medical ones. Given the abundance of disease-producing bugs in Indian drinking water, consuming it struck me as highly imprudent. It's a measure of Joe's grace—and the Andolan's—that despite my political lapse, he arranged for Ajit, the Mario Andrem' of Andolan drivers, to take me to Domkhedi in a four-wheel-drive jeep and told Ajit to stop at a shop along the way where I could buy a few cases of bottled water.
The drive took five hours. After five minutes, we all smelled of diesel, the odor of modern India, and wore a layer of diesel grime. My friend Bob Dawson, an environmental photographer, and I sat in the backseat; in the front sat Ajit, the race-car driver, and Champalal, an endearingly cheerful young activist. Ajit and Champalal spoke animatedly to one another in Gujarati and occasionally tossed a word or two of broken English in our direction. "Narmada," they'd say, and point off into the distance toward our destination, reputedly India's most beautiful river. "Canal," they said once, but no explanation was needed—at that moment we were on a bridge over the world's largest canal, itself an expensive adornment to one of the planet's largest dams, Sardar Sarovar, which already loomed 295 feet over the Narmada yet was only two-thirds completed. "Dam" was the one word nobody uttered, but we all knew its approximate location, thirty or forty miles downstream from our destination. In a fundamental way, the dam was the reason for our journey.
Sardar Sarovar is a wall, a monument, a modern ziggurat—it's as voluminous as two or three Great Pyramids, and it attracts equivalent adoration. It's a block so massive that its construction would be noteworthy even if it weren't bisecting a riverbed, holding back a seasonally torrential river. Large dams come in two basic shapes: arches, such as Hoover, which are elegant, and use the massive force of reservoir water to fortify their walls; and the blunt instruments of gravity and embankment dams, which fling themselves in a straight line across riverbeds too broad for arches, and rely on raw mass to stay there. Sardar Sarovar is a spectacular specimen of gravity dam: it's a straight cement salient across a bed nearly a mile wide, transforming the Narmada behind it from sinuous river to jagged, elongated lake, and seeming to promise in its bulk and geometric regularity an end to nature. The overlapping sine-wave-shaped hills that arise from both shores still turn throbbingly viridescent during the rainy season, but the dam will be the final indignity that the hills' inhabitants endure. Over the last few centuries, tribal people fled to them to avoid the depredations of dominant Hindus and learned how to survive in the forest. By one anthropologist's count, they found uses for sixty-four tree species, from edible fruit to bows and arrows, from medicine to fuel, from goat fodder to a paste for stupefying fish. Then, over the last century, the state logged the forest, until much of it was degraded. Now Sardar Sarovar will force many tribal people out of the forest entirely. The presumably luckier ones will receive infertile lowland plots; the others will end up on city streets. Either way, the tribal cultures will shatter. Sardar Sarovar is a wailing wall.
The V-shaped canal, the dam's upside-down, scooped-out converse, flows northward, perpendicular to the river, as rigid as a robot's arm. The canal is the chief justification for the dam, the reason the dam's planners felt no compunction about displacing two or three hundred thousand people from the Narmada Valley and a hundred thousand more from the canal's path. At its head, the 270-mile-long canal is as wide as two football fields are long, and will bring water to the "drought-prone" areas of Kutch and Saurashtra in northern Gujarat, turning a desert into an oasis for twenty million people—according to the planners. There are many reasons to doubt that the water will ever get there, including the water-guzzling "development projects" accumulating at the head of the canal to intercept the water: sugarcane plantations, chemical plants, golf courses, hotels, and a water park (a water park!). The government itself has conceded that the water won't reach Kutch and Saurashtra until 2025—a date, as Dilip D'Souza wrote in The Narmada Dammed: An Inquiry into the Politics of Development, "so remote as to be meaningless." Now, however, as we crossed over the canal, the debate remained hypothetical—the dam hadn't yet been built high enough to divert water into the canal, and if Medha had her way, it never would. We looked down into the canal's symmetrical, brick-lined V and saw near the bottom a pane of nearly motionless steel-blue water—the canal was nearly empty. In a certain way, the dam was a technological marvel, but the women at the water's edge were cleaning clothes in the traditional fashion, pounding their fabrics into submission against the canal wall.
There is no gracious way to say this: we'd come to see Medha try to drown. True, we had plenty of other reasons for making the trip, and we understood that it probably wouldn't be a failure if she didn't drown, but the drama of the spectacle pulled us in. Drowning was the reason we chose to visit Medha at a remote malarial hamlet on the lip of a Narmada tributary, and it was why we were arriving in late July, in the heart of the 2001 monsoon season, even though the heat and humidity would be prodigious, bordering on preposterous. This summer, as in the previous several, she'd announced her intention to drown in the Sardar Sarovar reservoir's rising waters, in hopes that the furor her death might induce would force the government to reconsider its zeal for dams. One sign of the depth of her commitment was that she stationed an Andolan outpost on a low-lying patch of Domkhedi (pronounced dom-KED-ee) ground. Now that the dam was high enough, the rains of a strong monsoon would lift the reservoir's water level above the Andolan's huts, thereby affording Medha and her squad of volunteers the chance to drown. But the monsoon often failed, and when it didn't, the police intervened, to save the Indian government the embarrassment of her death. In September 1999, Medha and several other activists stood in bone-chilling water for thirty hours, until they were neck-deep; then the police used a barge to break down the hut wall, yanked Medha from her comrades' desperate grasp, and detained her until the water level declined. This did not deter Medha from trying again. As our trip approached, Bob and I kept reading announcements on the Friends of the Narmada Web site that made us worry we'd reach Domkhedi too late. One headline said, "Major floods in Narmada Valley in next 24 hours feared; Satyagrahis"—protesters—"to face submergence." A few days later, another one said, "Water level stabilises at two feet below Satyagraha house." As soon as we reached Bombay, I called Joe to find out about the water level, and I asked him again when we got to Baroda. His answer both times was that it had risen no farther. My relief was momentary: I began to worry that we'd arrive in Domkhedi too long before the inundation.
We shared the pitted road with goats, dogs, donkeys, rooting pigs, the occasional camel, yoked water buffalo with horns painted in rainbow colors, and, of course, cows. Cows stood or sat contentedly on the road, sometimes stationing themselves perpendicular to the traffic flow, unruffled by the speeding vehicles navigating around them. The nonanimal occupants of the road were just as varied; Ajit maneuvered adroitly among cars, buses, bicycles, motorcycles, autorickshaws, motor scooters (sometimes with sari-clad passengers riding sidesaddle on the back while clutching up to three small children), women carrying large water vessels and other containers on their heads (men didn't perform this sort of heavy lifting), and people sitting on the highway, for God's sake, shooting the breeze. Plus, at irregular intervals we encountered speed bumps. Among vehicles on the road, Ajit's jeep was relatively unusual in that it went fast enough to have to slow down for the bumps: on more than one occasion I watched with interest as the jeep's odometer hit 75 miles per hour. Ajit handled the car with a hot-rodder's confidence. He was forever venturing out into the incoming lane to pass one or more slower vehicles, then darting back into an emerging opening an instant before, say, an oncoming truck pulverized us, or a lumbering bullock didn't quite get out of our way. As any Indian driver will tell you, a car is only as good as its horn; Ajit used his as justification for assuming that prospective targets of our jeep—see under "goats, dogs ... ," etc., above—would move away in time. They always did, but I wondered when Ajit would encounter, say, a deaf water buffalo, and envisioned us flying through the windshield of the seat belt–less car.
Every town looked a grimy brown, and the flanks of every road in every town were encrusted with trash. The town where we stopped to buy water was indistinguishable from the towns before and after it where the Indians stopped for "tea" (a euphemism, I learned, for "meal"). Champalal had little trouble finding a merchant selling cartons of Pepsi-Cola-produced Aquafina, one of two brands of water an Indian doctor had told us were certifiably free of bacteria. We bought the water, bread, packaged cookies, and, at a fruit stall on the corner, bananas. In our voluminous bags, now stuffed into the back of the jeep, we also carried energy bars. Though Champalal would accompany us to Domkhedi, he carried nothing.
At the outset the road was bad, and it gradually got worse. For the last few miles, it all but disappeared—we were on the only road toward Domkhedi that the modest monsoon rains had not fully dismantled, and even it was washed out in parts. From flat farmland stretching as far as the horizon, the terrain changed to lush, wild foothills. The weather turned overcast, so weighted with humidity that I thought I could make out balls of gaseous moisture as big as gnats. For the first time on our trip, we saw land that was not densely populated. We crossed a gurgling seasonal stream over and back, and drove straight down its bed a few times. Ajit was spinning the steering wheel like a sea captain, earning his pay. I was beginning to contemplate floating to the river just as he found the last stretch of road. It led us to a Hindu temple on the edge of the monsoon-swollen reservoir, then descended and disappeared into the water—the reservoir swallowed it whole.
The reservoir looked too bland to be capable of killing: it was a silent, waveless flood, a flood in slow motion. It receded during the long dry season, but thanks to the accreting dam, during each successful monsoon its level reached an unprecedented height. It had already swallowed whole villages; on behalf of the inundated inhabitants, the Andolan had waged valiant, doomed struggles in the lowlands that were now underwater. Mist-covered hills above the reservoir had taken on their monsoon shading, a vibrating, nearly fluorescent green nearest the water, so bright that it obscured variations in the land and foliage. In the distant, higher hills, where the moist air dulled it, green gave way to gray and then to the lusterless white of the overcast sky. Abruptly, the hills were bisected by the reservoir's edge, a line so exact it seemed drawn with a razor, unaccustomed to the terrain it so thoroughly invaded, oblivious to undulation, ungraced by sandy shore or wetland, ahistorical. Beneath the line, the hills' green reflection gradually darkened until it was overtaken by the brown gruel of the reservoir's water, a souvenir from the obliterated sediment-rich river. Through the reservoir's surface protruded monstrosities: half-submerged trees and bushes, most of their visible portions already gray and shriveled. A smaller number were still green, still resisting the inundation—activists of a sort.
Several of the human activists had already gathered in front of the temple, waiting for the boat. The stern-faced Shripad Dharmadhikary, who'd graduated from India's best engineering college and then threw over a promising career for Medha and the Andolan, suggested that Bob and I go into the temple, but showed no interest in entering himself. Instead, as soon as the boat arrived, I noticed our seven bags and three cases of bottled water making their way to the boat before us, in the arms of activists. I realized that Bob and I, too, were being borne along, from Joe through Champalal, then Shripad, all the way to Medha. I peeked inside the temple from the entrance and got a glimpse of what looked like eternity: a sleeping sadhu, a shrine behind him, and stone bathed in a murky golden sunlight. Eternity interrupted: the temple, called Hapeshwar, would be submerged if the dam was built to its full height. The authorities had considered this fact, and constructed a new temple on higher ground, but nobody visited it—and besides, the activists were saying that it would eventually be inundated, too. (The drollness of India is infinite.) The oldest of the Narmada Valley's thirty-two major temples, the archaeologically significant Shulpaneshwar, was the first to be submerged; now people worshipped there by taking water from a spot on the reservoir's surface directly above it. "So what?" a local politician dismissively told journalist Sameera Khan, when she asked him how he felt about the temple's inundation. "It still exists."
I encountered Medha Patkar for the first time in March 2000, at the World Bank-funded World Water Forum in The Hague. Neither Medha nor the event dazzled me. The event assembled water ministers from 115 nations for the ostensible purpose of ratifying a policy statement advocating World Bank-devised solutions to the world's burgeoning water scarcity problems. A lack of unanimity on the merit of this prospect became evident at the opening ceremony, which was disrupted by four antidam activists. Two disrobed on stage, one rappelled from the balcony to the auditorium floor, and one climbed an interior wall, all while shouting denunciations of water privatization and a dam under construction in Spain. After that, the conference followed the Bank's prodam, proprivatization script all the way to its sixth and final day. Ismail Serageldin, the suavely attired World Bank vice president who oversaw drafting of the proposed proprivatization agenda, proclaimed that the conference would mark "the birth of a movement." He gave every evidence of taking for granted the water ministers' endorsement of the agenda right up until the moment they voted it down, on the conference's last day. With this jaw-dropping development, the conference gained entry on a long list of World Bank water fiascoes.
With more than four thousand people attending, the conference was part debating society, part trade fair, and part showcase for disenfranchised politicians. Among those wandering the halls were Shimon Peres, Robert McNamara, and Mikhail Gorbachev, who held a press conference to extol environmentalism with his familiar mustachioed Soviet-era translator at his side. Expert panelists at about eighty overlapping workshops argued over dams, water scarcity, privatization, and full-cost water pricing. The emphasis on private enterprise resonated in the bizarrely festive World Water Fair adjacent to the conference hall, where corporate giants such as Vivendi and Nestlé's Perrier Vittel SA installed pavilions alongside those of United Nations agencies, while women in mermaid costumes danced and rock musicians sang "Water Makes the World Go Around."
Within this dystopian eddy, Medha and Arundhati Roy, the writer and pro-Andolan activist, circulated like drifting leaves; they made solemn, defiant appearances at colloquies on such grave subjects as globalization and privatization, and concluded with a press conference of their own. The two women were the odd couple of Indian antidam activism. Roy dazzled: the Booker Prizewinning author of The God of Small Things was making a celebrity appearance, a star turn. At thirty-nine, she was seven years Medha's junior, and beautiful. She wore stylishly casual Western clothes and spoke with a verbal command that Medha's English lacked. Her accent carried just a hint of her native Kerala, enough to make her seem tropical, flamboyant, unknowable. She lured her listeners with verbal intimacy, while holding them at bay with her politics and indignation. At the press conference, she explained her radicalization in lyrical fashion: "As my book sold and sold and sold, I watched the air grow blacker, the fences grow higher, the people pushed into dark places like lice, and still my bank account grew." The conference, she said, "is a meeting of powerful people who've come to stroke each other's backs"; a better alternative for participants would be to visit the Narmada Valley "if you want to see a really magical war being fought." Roy charmed her audience even as she cut it dead. She was witty, impetuous, fierce, and extravagantly self-involved, as evidenced by her announcement that she would attend no more conferences like this one. What surprised me was that that declaration mattered to so many people. From the floor, an Oregon State professor named Aaron Wolf, a specialist in international water politics, sweetly asked her to reconsider, as if he were a disappointed fan. She declined. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Deep Water by Jacques Leslie. Copyright © 2005 Jacques Leslie. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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