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After the country won its independence, India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, began calling for the construction of dams to aid in India's development. Many of these dams were proposed on the Narmada River, which flows through the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. In 1978, the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal approved the Narmada Valley Development Project, which included 30 large dams, 135 medium dams, and 3,000 small dams. The most controversial dam was the Sardar Sarovar Project in the state of Gujarat. While it was promised to supply irrigation and drinking water, costs included the forced displacement of tens of thousands of people and widespread environmental damage.
In 1985, the World Bank agreed to finance the Sardar Sarovar dam with a contribution of $450 million without consulting the indigenous communities that were to be displaced.
In 1987, construction began on the Sardar Sarovar dam, and the injustices of the government's relocation program were exposed: there was not enough land available for redistribution, amenities were low quality, and the settlers had difficulty adjusting to new environments.
In response, local opponents, environmental activists, and academic, scientific and cultural professionals founded a cluster of NGOs. These NGOs allied in 1989 to form the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), or the 'Save Narmada Movement', led by Medha Patkar. Since 1985, Patkar had been organizing protest marches against the dam.
Unlike other social justice organizations in India at the time, the NBA directly opposed dam construction altogether and proposed various development alternatives, including decentralized methods of water harvesting. They demanded World Bank accountability for the displacement of millions and initially sought to verify the claims regarding benefits of the dams. Much of the early campaign was focused on transparency from the government and World Bank. NBA employed peaceful marches, protests, and large-scale hunger fasts. They also campaigned against paying taxes and denied government officials entry into villages.
In 1989, Lori Udall of the Environmental Defense Fund, worked with a U.S. Congressional Committee to hold an oversight hearing on Sardar Sarovar, where Patkar could testify against the dam. In addition to working with the Environmental Defense Fund, the NBA would later partner with numerous other human rights, environmental, and solidarity organizations overseas, including the Narmada International Action Committee, Friends of the Earth, and Japan's Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund.
NBA resistance operated at local, national, and international scales, redefining the terms of development, democracy, and accountability. In September 1989, Baba Amte, another prominent social activist and moral leader, led a 60,000 person anti-dam NBA rally in Harsud, a town of 20,000 in Madhya Pradesh that faced submersion. The dam site and its surrounding areas were under the Indian Official Secrets Act, which prohibited the gathering of groups of more than five people. The whole area was turned into a police camp. Despite the police barricades, one year later in 1990, thousands of villagers marched to the town of Badwani, threatening to drown in the dams rising waters rather than be relocated. The slogan, 'koi nahin hatega: bandh nahin banega!' (No one will move; the dam will not be built!) became popular. These rallies and marches helped secure the allies of the Indian middle class and liberal intellectuals, as well the attention of other countries.
In May of 1990, NBA organized a 2,000-person, five-day sit-in at Prime Minister V. P. Singh's residence in New Delhi, which convinced the Prime Minister to 'reconsider' the project.
In December of the same year, five to six thousand men and women began the Narmada Jan Vikas Sangharsh Yatra (Narmada People's Progress Struggle March), marching over 100 kilometers. Marchers accompanied a seven-member team, including Medha Patkar, who all decided to give up their lives for the river. They were stopped on the Gujarat border. The government deployed Gujarati police and bussed thousands of government-supported pro-dam demonstrators from urban centers to counter-protest. The confrontation would last nearly two weeks. Marchers, who each had their hands voluntarily tied together to demonstrate their non-violence, were beaten, arrested, and dragged into trucks in which they were driven miles away and dumped in the wilderness.
Finally on January 7, 1991, the seven-member team began an indefinite hunger strike. Two days earlier Baba Amte had himself committed to a sit-in unto death. As tension rose, Indian and international press, TV, and documentary crews increased their coverage. Environmental activists increased pressure on Washington.
Shaken by the unfavorable news coverage, the World Bank announced it would institute an Independent Review of the Sardar Sarovar projects. The review was the first of its kind and included sweeping mandates and oversight procedures. It may have been the first time in the history of the World Bank that a people's movement influenced their policy decisions.
On January 28, the fasters ended their hunger strike after 22 days without food. Medha Patkar, one of those fasting, was near death. The short-term victory was bittersweet: many were distrustful of the World Bank, but they returned home with the other protesters.
After some claimed the end of the hunger strike to be a victory for the Indian government, NBA protesters claimed to stay in villages until drowning from the Sardar Sarovar reservoir. In response, the government banned Patkar and other activists from the villages during the monsoon, and prohibited the villagers from holding anti-dam protests. The NBA defied the bans, and hundreds of their supporters were arrested during the monsoon months. Known as 'monsoon satyagrahas,' hundreds of individuals refused to move as rising waters entered fields and homes. In most of the monsoon satyagrahas, police physically dragged people out of flooding areas in an attempt to rob the protest of its symbolic power. Arrests, beatings, and detentions rose in Madhya Pradesh, where many declared readiness for monsoon satyagraha between 1992 and 1993.
International human rights NGOs began documenting abuses against NBA activists. A June 1992 report by Human Rights Watch noted increases in arbitrary arrests, illegal detentions, beatings, rape and other forms of physical abuses. Some reports document Indian police shooting and killing individuals during forced relocation. Other NGOs worked to form the Narmada International Human Rights Panel, which garnered support of 42 environmental and human rights NGOs representing 16 countries.
The Bank's Independent Review, known as the Morse Commission, issued its report in June 1992. The report exposed the Bank's violation of its own policies and recommended drastic reform of the relocation programs and environmental assessment. It warned that opposition to the dam was so strong in the affected villages that the authorities would have to use "unacceptable means" to get the dam built. However, the Bank reassured the Indian government it would continue support, but only if the government met benchmarks for reform.
In response to the Morse Commission's report, environmental activists wrote an open letter to World Bank President Lewis Preston, which they published as a full-page advertisement in the London Financial Times. It warned that if the Bank refused to withdraw funding for Sardar Sarovar then NGOs would launch a campaign to cut government funding of the Bank. The letter was endorsed by 250 NGOs and coalitions from 37 countries. Similar actions were taken in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
A February 1993 "Peoples' Referendum" in the Narmada Valley, carried out by the NBA, organized over 22,500 families in opposition to forced relocation.
With mounting pressure from NBA, other citizen activists, and international NGOs and Economic Funds, the Indian government soon canceled the remaining loans knowing that it could not meet the Bank's guidelines, thus ending support from the World Bank for the Sardar Sarovar dam. The controversy led to the creation of the World Bank Inspection Panel in 1993. “It was a milestone for the human rights movement and the first mechanism established to enable local groups to challenge World Bank projects” (Narula).
While the withdrawal of the World Bank was a milestone accomplishment for NBA and social movements across the globe, it was unfortunately not the end of the Narmada dam struggle. Even without the World Bank's support, the Indian government pledged to continue the dam project with its own funds. The Bank's withdrawal in 1993 affected dam construction much less than anticipated. Further, the withdrawal reduced the Indian government's accountability to the outside world. The campaign against the dam refocused their effort on the Supreme Court of India. One criticism of NBA's strategy is that it avoided the Supreme Court until the withdrawal of the World Bank left them no choice.
Construction continues to this day (March 2010). The Sardar Sarovar dam has already displaced well over 320,000 people, with over a million affected by related canal systems and other projects. NBA continues direct action and legal processes with international involvement to stop further dam construction on the Narmada.