ORAL HISTORY NARMADA - The lived experiences of the people of the Narmada Valley

Updated: Jul 9, 2020

Constructing large dams on rivers and diverting water has been one of the major interventions of human beings in the water cycle. India has been the world’s third largest dam builder (after China and the USA), constructing over 5500 dams and “taming” almost all rivers of India. These large dams, hailed as “temples of modern India” by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, have contributed significantly to the country’s economic development. But there have been many hidden and not-so-hidden costs that the nation had to pay. Submerging large tracts of land, forests and displacing millions of people from their homes has been a huge cost. For many decades, those who were rendered homeless due to dams did not have a voice; justice and fairness was denied to even the most vulnerable among them, such as the tribal communities. They were just invisible in a completely insensitive development discourse. Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the movement to protect and save the holy river Narmada, gave visibility to these millions of oustees of large dams and brought home their voices to the nation’s conscience. After NBA, it was no longer possible to ignore these “project-affected-people” and pretend as if they did not exist. 

A still capturing the indomitable spirit of the women of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Photo source: Oral History Narmada website

NBA’s struggle was centred on construction of large dams on river Narmada, India’s largest west-flowing river. Originating in Amarkantak in the Maikal range of Eastern Madhya Pradesh, Narmada traverses three states - Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat - before it meets the Arabian Sea. The Narmada valley supports a bewildering diversity of socio-cultural practices, encompassing the lives of several adivasi settlements in the forests and the non-tribal rural population. It is one of the longest rivers in the country, wrapped around many religious myths and legends. Simultaneously revered and desecrated, Narmada speaks the story of many rivers that are being dammed, diverted and polluted to satisfy human needs.

After independence, the government came up with a scheme of constructing several large and medium structures on the river, dividing up its flow completely between the three riparian states. This mega-project ran into major difficulties as there was a lack of consensus among the three states about the distribution of river water and the height of the dam. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) was set up in 1969, which gave its award on 12th December 1979, leading the way to construction of large dams on the river. One of the largest among them, Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) became the battleground for the intense and non-violent struggles by the displaced people of the valley seeking fair treatment. 

A shot of the 110km long Jan Vikas Sangarsh Yatra starting from Rajghat, Madhya Pradesh in 1990. Photo credits: Ashish Kothari.

Oral History Narmada is a phenomenal effort to capture the memories and living voices of several decades of struggle in Narmada valley. This website puts together a treasure of people's personal histories, reminiscences and stories of the mass struggle for survival against rising adversity. This arduous compilation has been planned and carried out by Nandini Oza. As a participant in the struggle and afterwards, over several years, Nandini has painstakingly recorded, compiled and edited these oral history narratives for public consumption. The website is a portal that leads to the lived experiences of the people directly affected by the dam. It helps us understand the profound influence that people’s struggles have on the development debates the world over on large dams.

Water Practitioners Network is happy to present to its readers these tales of struggles and endurance. The love and co-existence of the people and their river is eloquently captured in the Oral History of Narmada. Do give it a visit!

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Village Jatashankar
Tehsil Bagli
District Dewas
Madhya Pradesh – 455227

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