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People's Knowledge in a Paperless Society
Organizing against the Narmada Dam
Don't talk like illiterates!” thundered Justice Kurdukar when asked about the responsibility of the Maharashtra government towards villagers being relocated to Gujarat. As the newly appointed Grievance Redressal Authority for rehabilitation of Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) oustees in Maharashtra, he was, at the behest of the Supreme Court of India, making his first visit to the villages. Gujarat, whose Grievance Redressal Authority began work in May 1999, had already declined to consider the grievances of oustees from other states. Some of these villagers who came to meet Kurdukar in Kevadia Colony (in Gujarat, India) on August 7, 2000 had accepted resettlement in Gujarat only on paper. Once again it seemed that government records took priority over reality as to where and how people were living. A tribal person who does not defer to these records is called an illiterate....What do you call a judge who disregards the people in favor of the records?
More lethal than nuclear bombs are the weapons globalization has produced for gaining control of people—not only their markets and their labor power, but their power to know and judge. Global trade agreements, like strains of the AIDS virus, are ever more subtly assailing people and their institutions of free expression. Recent mass protests against globalization have focused on its political and economic aspects, particularly objecting to the erosion of democracy in favor of rules imposed by multinational trade and finance interests. Less grasped is the urgent need to resist its intellectual repression. Granting private, multinational corporations a status on par with democratically elected governments pushes the use of International Standards for fact-finding and dispute resolution in international languages. People not conversant with such languages and technologies of information—which is the vast majority of the world's people—find that they must struggle to validate their own lives in their own terms.
Living in the mountains and plains of the Narmada river valley, stretching for 1,300 kilometers through 3 states in central and western India, the natural resource-based communities including tribal people also known as adivasis (original inhabitants) have, since 1985, mounted a tenacious struggle against displacement, state repression, and the destruction of natural resources resulting from the Narmada Valley Development Projects. The projects comprise 30 large dams, 133 medium size dams, and 3,000 small dams, along with 75,000 kilometers of canal networks to direct the waters of the Narmada River to wherever the state decrees. The project plan appeared in 1979 after 10 years of deliberations of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal. Sardar Sarovar, the last dam before the Arabian Sea, is a kingpin of the project. The people living in its “submergence zone” got the first hint when surveyors arrived in their villages in 1985 (the year the World Bank agreed to finance the project, but before the government of India gave clearance for it). After three years of village level organizing, seeking information on the extent of displacement and the plans for rehabilitation, the people decided to oppose the displacement and question the projects' claim to “public purpose.” A case filed in the Supreme Court of India in 1994 resulted in a stay on construction pending answers to fundamental questions regarding environmental and social impacts of the project, as well as demonstration that the government could implement plans to alleviate or compensate for these impacts. The case was disposed on October 18, 2000 in a 2-1 majority judgment giving the government permission to complete the dam as originally planned, no questions, no conditions. The dissenting judgment, written by the only judge who heard the case from the beginning, calls for an immediate halt pending Environmental Clearance and prior demonstrable plans for rehabilitation at every five meter increment.
So the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Movement to Save the Narmada), the first people to evict the World Bank, must fight not only for rights over economy, environment, and livelihood, but also for personhood, for humanity. Holding firm to the policy of “Amra gaon ma amra raj” (our rule in our village) the villagers resist state collusion with globalization through their institutions of survival.
The August encounter in Kevadia was not the first time people have faced a struggle just to have their presence counted and their voices heard over the barrage of papers. In February 1999, the Supreme Court's interim order permitted the Gujarat government to raise the height of SSP dam from 80 to 88 meters, bringing 55 villages under partial or total submergence. Of what use was this incremental height increase when the benefits of the dam begin only at the 110 meter level? The counsel for Gujarat called for a “signal” from the Court that the project was on. Only then, he explained, would foreign investment flow into the state. Representatives of the 33 affected villages of Maharashtra, all in Nandurbar District, met the Collector demanding to see the land that the state of Maharashtra had declared in its Supreme Court affidavit as available for resettlement. What was on the affidavits and maps was not there on the ground. On paper the same land can be declared as available for any number of families.
Such wonders of literacy are what the Bhil and Bhilala villagers found out on March 17, 1999, when after two nights and three days outside the Collector's office the people went in truckloads, accompanied by the Deputy Collector, to see the only resettlement site that the office was prepared to show. There they were met by hundreds of women and men already allotted this site. Officials unrolled maps and it soon became clear that wherever the office recorded vacant land, people were cultivating. The government had yet to issue the land titles. At last Deputy Collector Vasave, took the people into confidence. “I am also a tribal, affected by the Ukai project, so I will tell you the truth. We have stated in our affidavit that we have 285 hectares. As you can see there are prior claims on this and only after we settle these can we inform you how much land we actually have.” At once the people cheered, “Adivasi ekta Zindabad!” Long live Adivasi Unity.
Such declarations were prohibited by Justice G. G. Sohoni, the Grievance Redressal Authority appointed by the Supreme Court to look into resettlement and rehabilitation for Madhya Pradesh. He made his rounds to the resettlement sites in June. No slogans, he repeated, threatening that he may have to cite the Narmada Bachao Andolan for contempt. Along went the “independent” judge with his motorcade of government officials and police jeeps. Why so many guns? asked an observer. “I didn't ask for them,” he replied. Asked if he would be willing to visit a village without police, he said, “I don't interfere in these policies. They are appointed for security.”
Slogans are a security measure for the people. Their nonviolent resistance against injustice draws its strength from unity. Speaking in one voice, the villagers are able to articulate their analysis of the situation with an authority that the judge, surrounded by official information, could not otherwise recognize in 15 minute halts at each site. The analysis is clear: the loss the adivasis and farmers will suffer cannot be compensated. Therefore rehabilitation according to law is not possible, and the project must be questioned. “Punarvas niti dhokha hai, dhakka maro mauka hai.” This resettlement policy is a fraud, kick it out, here's the chance.
Everyone knows this. The journalists, the activists, the curious onlookers, all realize that villagers living and cultivating for generations know more about soil, rocks, weeds, and marshes than any of the officials travelling with the judge. The same government official who answers Sohoni's questions with bald figures from official records walks away mumbling, “this site is hopeless.” Yet the judge insists, “Let us find out if this soil can be made cultivable, even if it requires expenditure of crores of rupees.” He tells his secretary, “Send samples to our agricultural institutes and seek their advice.”
Who will gain all these crores of rupees? Only the literate enlist agricultural expertise in the cause of displacing farmers. How would the judge really be able to assess the quality of the land, on which the lives of the people facing displacement depend? Are farmers not agricultural experts? Should tribals practicing organic, subsistence agriculture for generations consent to cropping patterns recommended by government agencies in collusion with multinational seed, pesticide, and fertilizer suppliers? Until students and faculty of higher education resist enlistment and reclaim academic research from the clutches of a Monsanto or a Cargill, globalization will continue to undermine the people's knowledge.
Meanwhile refugee camps, without farmlands, without access to transport or markets, without schools, handpumps or health facilities, pass as resettlement sites and minimum survival becomes the new standard for rehabilitation. During a site visit, Mr. Uppal of the Narmada Valley Development Authority distracts some villagers with the question, “If we put you on this land and said that you have to live here, would you not grow anything here?”
“Objection. Irrelevant” should have been the reply, since the Narmada Tribunal Award talks not about bare survival but restoring families' earlier standard of living. But when big men in gleaming cars and suits, with gun-toting police nearby ask questions in a language the villagers speak with difficulty, there is no debate. Yes, the villagers reply, we would grow something. “That is my point!” the officer rolls up his tinted glass window and drives away.
No wonder the people tend to shout: Ham apne adhikar mangte hain, nahin kisise bhik mangte hain. We demand our rights, not anyone's charity.
Amu akha ek se: we are all one
A direct attack on the government's strategy of divide and conquer, the villagers' unity generates greater unity. As leaders emerge from the village level organizations, the government may take aside a family and offer them a plot of land to appease them. Surviving two rounds of government-sponsored deforestation, severe soil degradation, drought, and threats that those who don't accept resettlement now will get nothing later, the family is in a very vulnerable position. It seems they lose either way. Gaining strength from unity, they reply that they must see the plan for the entire village. When a village as a whole becomes too strong to ignore, the government may again try to lure the village with promises of community resettlement as required by the Narmada Tribunal. At this time the village demands to see the plan for all the 245 villages to be ousted by the Sardar Sarovar Project, all the while raising questions as to the merits of the project, the fate of oustees of other dams along the Narmada, and of other projects throughout the world. We are one, they insist.
Stumbling over numbers was again the order of the day on August 9 when Kurdukar met with villagers individually in Dhadgaon (the block level headquarters). He began, “Remember to tell the truth. How many children do you have?” Seven. “State their names.” Names were listed. “That is only five.” Two children died. “When were they born?” he asked suspiciously. While villagers came prepared to discuss the holistic issue of livelihood, ecology, and human rights with respect to the unjust displacement, now they supplied their children's dates of birth. Thousands waited outside in the scorching sun, but only a dozen could meet the judge that day.
Statistics such as date of birth may be concrete to some yet vague to others. A survey team went to villagers' houses to inquire on infant mortality rates (imr). Though imr is an internationally accepted health indicator, the workers found that interviewing even one family took three to four hours. When was your daughter born? She was born in the year after the drought. Have any of your children died? Yes. When? Last year there was a very late rain, crops were ruined, at that time one boy got diarrhea and died. How old was he when he died? He was born one year after his brother, who was born in the monsoon after my sister's wedding which was fixed during the Holi which we celebrated in my mother's village…”
Like this the years slowly come out…the years of birth, the years of death, the years of drought, the years of flood, the years of cholera, the seasons and events that mark the passage of time and memories of life.
Common Sense and State Innumeracy
It would be wrong to contrast the sentiments of the villagers with the cold mathematical reason attributed to government planners. A dam could never be built on reason alone. Whether on cost, irrigation, or power generation, calculations speak against the building of more dams. Amount of land irrigated is less than double the land lost to submergence and waterlogging. The cost of such inefficient irrigation runs to ten times the cost of local watershed development. Factor in soil degradation, loss of forests, biodiversity, and livelihood; spread of diseases and geological instability, and one questions the rationality of even proposing a large dam. Even politicians when not in power have declared that with a small fraction of the budget allocated to one mega dam they could implement small-scale projects in water harvesting and power generation that would achieve results in one to five years. In contrast, the Ministry of Water Resources stated in 1993 that the waters of Sardar Sarovar would reach the drought-prone regions of Kutch and Saurashtra, via a main canal of length 460 kilometers, in 2025.
Nehruvian metaphor fuels the fervor to build these “temples.” Dam builders have not scored high marks in the math department. The experience of the Bargi dam rings loud and clear with government innumeracy. The first mega dam on the river Narmada, near Jabalpur (Madhya Pradesh) 100,000 prosperous farmers and fishworkers. Engineers first declared that the reservoir would submerge 101 villages, but when filled it actually engulfed 162 villages and some resettlement colonies as well.
The Bargi dam has irrigated only 5 percent of the land it promised to irrigate. Even temples manage water better than this.
Once proud farmers now pace the pavements of Jabalpur. Living in slums, pulling rickshaws, laboring for daily wages, they lament, “Our hands are used to giving, not taking. Had we been organized we would never have let this project go through.”
The Three Meter Mystery
People always suspected that there were errors in the government surveys, not only due to the experience of Bargi, but due to persistent inconsistencies in government information regarding flood levels. Survey markers on the same field would indicate submergence at different reservoir levels. In some villages, houses received notices that their land would be submerged while houses lower than theirs received no notice.
Dr. Ravi Kuchimanchi, who tracked down the error in the government's survey had to set aside his training as a civil engineer and work according to the people's knowledge to solve the mystery of the three meter level difference. Surveying the heights independently, he had two sources of reference. One was the government benchmarks, supposed to be accurate to the millimeter. The other was the people's reports…but they never reported the height of their home or field above mean sea level. They would point out where the waters reached in the 1970 flood. Not mean sea level but their house was the reference, for measuring the water level.
What struck him was that people in different villages would all indicate the same level of water of a flood 30 years ago. Their measurements were as accurate as any survey instrument. At last Ravi got what he needed—an alternate frame of reference from which to check the validity of the government surveys. People's knowledge is more than the oft-displayed medicinal herb and bamboo craft, but the very basis and defense of their independent, adventurous life. An error of three meters across the entire submergence zone would mean an additional 18,000 Project Affected People. When these survey errors were brought to the attention of officials in a meeting with Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Dig Vijay Singh, officials were intrigued but confirmed that they would continue according to the benchmarks and computer simulations in their records.
The fight against centralization of knowledge and natural resources is a fight against globalization, in which people's knowledge—in their own language and with reference to their own experience—is an essential survival tool. In India the battles over patents on neem, turmeric, and basmati rice have drawn attention to the wholesale attack on people's knowledge. Dams further reveal the extent of the attack. The desperate attempts to attract financing for the Maheshwar dam (also on the Narmada) highlight the mutual dependence of resource-centralizing projects on multinational finance which seeks distance from the democratic processes of any single country.
During Clinton's March visit to India, the U.S. company Ogden signed a deal to invest in the Maheshwar dam. After three German companies—VEW, Bayernwerke, and Siemens, withdrew from the project based on reports from independent human rights organizations, the owner of S. Kumars, the Indian private capital behind the Maheshwar dam accompanied Vajpayee on his September visit to the U.S. Even higher than Maheshwar on the agenda of Indo-U.S. trade relations has been the software and telecommunications industry, whose remote security and surveillance systems are the bedrock of globalization. While India rides this information superhighway, the right to information is still denied to the vast majority of its citizens.
The Gujarat police detentions of August 23 and 24, drawing condemnation from organizations within Gujarat as well as Amnesty International, demonstrated to the world that the issues the Narmada Bachao Andolan has raised over the past 15 years pertain not only to victims of submergence in Sardar Sarovar, they impact upon society as a whole. The chance to hear people of the Narmada Valley speak in their own idiom in their own place, the “Saga of Narmada” day-long seminar organized in the village of Nimgavhan, in Maharashtra's tribal belt drew women and men from all walks of life. Those with prior experience of Gujarat repression where Narmada was concerned took circuitous routes through cornfields and gushing streams on that monsoon day. Those who travelled openly to hear the story from the people of the valley, were detained en route and denied their right to information. This right was the first demand of the struggle they came to hear about. It was now their struggle too.
Age aur ladai hai: further struggle ahead
At the recent Independence Day ceremony in Nimgavhan, the Indian flag was hoisted by 93-year-old socialist activist Siddharaj Dhadda, exercising a right for which he had gone to jail in 1935. Before several hundred schoolchildren and guests, he inaugurated the first alphabet book for this region's tribal students, reading aloud the first few letters, Ka: Kukadi, etc. Among those repeating after him were the two government appointed teachers who show up only on national holidays. They explained that they were assigned to teach English, recently made a compulsory subject in Maharashtra. Trouble was, they could not communicate with the children here, who speak not the state language Marathi, but their own language, Pavri.
Rules like the introduction of compulsory English from first grade reaffirm the equation of English with education, development, and progress. Asserting the value of the mother tongue in children's education, the Narmada Bachao Andolan's jeevanshalas (primary schools) have published primers in Pavri, the local language. Asserting their own language has not isolated them; it has on the contrary earned them respect, and visitors to this region from all over India feel glad to learn even a bit of Pavri. Saving government teachers from globalization is one step. People and their knowledge will sink or float not only according to how they speak, but how they are heard.
The judicial system, a prime target for attack by the Multinational Agreement on Investments, needs guidance from the people. The World Bank once thought itself unquestionable where development was concerned, but embarked on “reform” measures thanks to its experience in Narmada. The 183-page Supreme Court Majority Judgment serves as a far more effective weapon of globalization than anything imposed by OECD or WTO, rendering democratic processes irrelevant. For example, a foundation stone laid by the prime minister is cited as an adequate substitute for Clearance by the Planning Commission. The judgment goes so far as to say that once money is spent on a project it cannot be challenged. Such throwbacks to an era of divine right of kings clearly indicates that the institutions of justice and governance will have to reform at the hands of the people's movements.
The people's movements of India hold fast to the slogan they raised in the momentous Harsud convention of 1989: vikas chahiye, vinas nahin. “We want development and not destruction.” The mainstream has had to learn (though slowly) from these mass movements to recognize the difference. Voices are rising everywhere against the rampage of large dams, mines, polluting industries, sweatshops, airports and expressways, designs for health care delivery—all packaged and publicized as Third World aid, while destroying natural resources, traditional knowledge, and vibrant communities. Hundreds of thousands of survivors of Union Carbide corporate crime in Bhopal, still waiting for compensation for illnesses resulting from the gas leakage 15 years ago, and suffering to this day from groundwater contamination due to the leaked toxins, remind us that “We all live in Bhopal.” The recent decision of the New York Federal Court to dismiss their class action lawsuit against Union Carbide Corporation is an urgent call for solidarity.
The demon Mahishasura is said in Hindu myth to be reborn every time a drop of its blood falls to the ground. Globalization similarly seeks to persuade us that it is unconquerable, inevitable. Like the survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster, those confronting the unjust submergence of Sardar Sarovar, and the deceptive development policies and false affidavits that dismiss their voices, are fighting with their lives. For the government, completion of Sardar Sarovar is significant as a signal that people's democratic actions cannot stop projects, no matter how poorly conceived, rather than as a means for supplying water or electricity. With the dam at 88 meters high, the villagers and their supporters remain in satyagraha (nonviolent struggle for justice) throughout the monsoon, not leaving the lowest houses of Domkhedi (Maharashtra) and Jalsindhi (Madhya Pradesh) even as the waters rise, just as they have done in villages facing submergence at earlier heights. “Dubenge par hatenge nahin”—“We will drown but not move out” has never been merely a slogan, but has been proved by the people.
The political lines of globalization are marked by language. Those fluent in the first world's first language, risk confinement into its ways of knowing, judging and imagining, whose repressive streak has become more visible. The dignity and victory with which the fourth and third worlds are resisting these representations are a light of hope for all who experience globalization as repression, for all who live in Bhopal, for all who stand behind the people's own global standards, such as aguas para vida, nao para a morte, declared in myriad languages in the Curtiba Encontro International de Atingidos por Barragens (Convention of People Affected by Large Dams), for all who know that amu akha ek se. Z
LS Aravinda is an activist in India.