Medha Patkar and Baba Amte / Narmada Bachao Andolan

(1991, India)

...for their inspired opposition to the disastrous Narmada Valley dams project and their promotion of alternatives designed to benefit the poor and the environment.


Baba Amte was one of India's most respected social and moral leaders, while Medha Patkar, a graduate in social work, is one of the initiators of The Save the Narmada Movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan, NBA). NBA has mobilised itself against the disastrous Narmada Valley dams project - the epitome of unsustainable development, both for its huge ecological impact and the displacement of about a million people that it caused - shifting the political focus to the promotion of alternatives designed to benefit the poor and the environment.

Contact Details

Off Kasravad Road Navalpura
Madhya Pradesh 451 551

Website of the support group


The Narmada is India's largest westward-flowing river and is of immense religious and cultural importance to the people living on its banks. It is also the subject of the largest river development project in the world, the Narmada Valley Project, which envisages the construction of thirty large and hundreds of small dams along its length.

The Narmada projects are the epitome of unsustainable development. Two of the largest proposed dams, Sardar Sarovar and Narmada Sagar, have been under construction since 1961. According to Narmada Bachao Andolan, the dams force the displacement of about a million people and affect many more, largely poor peasants and tribals. They also cause immense ecological damage through the inundation of forests, including prime habitats of rare species. Resettlement and compensation have been totally inadequate and there is not the remotest prospect that the displaced people, the 'oustees', will be adequately resettled, nor that the ecological damage can be compensated for. There are also real doubts, borne out by the experience of large dams elsewhere in India, that the dams will yield their projected benefits of hydropower, irrigation and drinking water. The project is set fair to become another human and ecological 'development tragedy'.

The Save the Narmada Movement (Narmada Bachao Andolan, NBA) is the people's movement that has mobilised itself against this development since the mid- and late-1980s. It has succeeded in generating a debate across the sub-continent which has encapsulated the conflict between two opposing styles of development: one massively destructive of people and the environment in the quest for large-scale industrialisation; the other consisting of replicable small-scale decentralised, democractic and ecologically sustainable options and activities harmoniously integrated with both local communities and nature.

In place of the dams, NBA calls for an energy and water strategy, based on improving dry farming technology, watershed development, small dams, lift schemes for irrigation and drinking water, and improved efficiency and utilisation of existing dams.

Narmada Bachao Andolan was initiated by Medha Patkar along with other colleagues. Medha Patkar is a graduate in social work, who moved to live among the tribals of the Narmada Valley in the mid-1980s and alerted them to the fate that awaited them with the dams. Having founded NBA, she remains one of its main catalysts, strategists and mobilisers. During the Narmada struggle, Patkar has faced repression and has been arrested several times, She also undertook many Satyagrahas (pledge for truth) and long fasts. In a confrontation between NBA supporters and pro-dam forces in 1991, her 21-day fast brought her close to death.

Baba Amte, (1914-2008), was one of India's most respected social and moral leaders. Most of his life he devoted to the care and rehabilitation of leprosy patients. His community of a few thousand patients at Anandwan has done much to dispel prejudice against the victims of leprosy. In 1990 he left Anandwan with the words: "I am leaving to live along the Narmada... Narmada will linger on the lips of the nation as a symbol of all struggles against social injustice."

The decade-long struggle in the Narmada valley has resulted in suspension of the work on the Sardar Sarovar dam project through the movement as well as the Supreme Court's intervention. NBA questioned and compelled the World Bank that supported the dam with a US$ 450 million loan to review the Sardar Sarovar project. NBA has also exposed fraud in the environment compliance reports and massive corruption in the rehabilitation leading to a judicial inquiry. Even if the wall is complete (122 m high in 2009), the further erection of 17 m high radial gates was not permitted, due to non-compliance on rehabilitation and environmental measures. There are more than 200,000 people in the submergence area of this single dam with the best of agriculture and horticulture and all community life going on with temples, mosques, trees, schools, dispensaries, Government buildings etc.

NBA has also spread to other large dams in the valley, such as Indira Sagar, Maheshwar and Omkareshwar. For two of these dams, the High Court of Jabalpur stopped the filling of the reservoir until land based rehabilitation is done.

The issues of land for the displaced, the rehabilitation policy at a national level and development planning without displacement have become national issues with NBA interventions, influencing policy making and mass movements. NBA has been effective in its multiple strategy at the executive, legislative and judicial level, campaigning against the destruction and displacement caused by large dams and for the rights of the affected people - farmers, laborers, fishermen and others.


Acceptance Speech by Medha Patkar

December 9th, 1991

More than one hundred and fifty thousand people in and around the bountiful and peaceful valley of Narmada are forced to raise a struggle of life and death. After a long period and an unforgettable process devoted to knowing the dam and the dam-builders, they have declared a total opposition to their uprootment and to its root cause, the Sardar Sarovar project. And to every other such unjust and destructive mega-project, along with the anti-people, non- sustainable policies of natural resource development and distribution that it symbolises!

They are tribal and poor people, farmers and labourers, fishermen and forest produce gatherers, small enterprisers and artisans, belonging to about 250 communities. They are socially and economically disadvantaged. The tribal - adivasis, the aborigines - mostly living far from the market and centres of economic and political power, and yet self-reliant, least monetised, and integrated with the forest, a rich natural resource-base; their life-support. Those in the plains have prime agricultural land support. They are united through the generations by the rich habitat, the Narmada Valley, and now by sharing an unprecedented catastrophe. Today they have risen as one man to fight the gigantic forces representing the short-sighted power-hungry politicians, the self-centered supine bureaucracy, the rapacious contractors, neo-colonial lending agencies and the vulgar consumerist elite population.

The fight has not been an easy one. The tribal people have had to walk down hundreds of kilometres crossing rugged mountain ranges, and men and also women come out on the streets for protest actions and mass-politics hitherto unknown to them. While initially they had had to run from village to the World Bank compelled to discover the devastative onslaught on their life and livelihood being planned without their knowledge.

Later they were taken as a threat to the illegitimate and inhuman plans and policies that favour a handful of vested interest. Since then, the peaceful agitators from the valley have had to face hell - the brutal caning and other forms of force, false legal accusations and arrests, cheating and other ill treatment in the extravagant campaign against the movement, disrespect and deception, insensitivity and unexpected callousness even toward their right to life and their fight for the same.

And the situation has not improved, but rather worsened during the last few months. Today 300 or more people - men and women, young and old from the villages - are in jail for no reason of theirs, but for having taken to the most non violent way of protest within the boundaries of their own village against the dam related survey work undertaken with the help of 100 armed policemen armed with slings, tear gas shells and guns. Of course they would not mind courting fearless arrests with conviction and dignity, but they were certainly not prepared to take the vulgar oral abuse of women agitators, unjustifiable beating of men and women even 70-80 years old, and such things which happened between 21st and 30th of November, 1991. But the most disgusting and condemnable action would be what the governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra have planned for the next few days - forcible eviction with police and bulldozing of the families of Manibeli, and of the idol in the oldest Shiva temple of Shurpaneshwar, located in Manibeli. The most critical phase is ahead of us, and the commitment of our save or drown squads to the resolve DOOBENGE PER NAHIN HATENGE -'Will drown but not move' - will be put to test during the next few months.

But they are not alone. Similar struggles are on in the other valleys and hills. Tehri and Suvarnarekha in India, Kedung Ombo in Indonesia, Bulbino in Brazil. People in the rural and tribal regions are compelled to justify their survival; establish their right to the traditional generations-old source of livelihood; protect their properties, community life and culture from the encroachers - not just the colonialist consumerist societies outside and within their nation state, but also the State itself as the wildest and the biggest encroacher.

It is at this moment that the struggle is being recognized as a symbolic guiding force in the terms of the perspective propounded and the people's power expressed. We accept the Right Livelihood award with all the humility at our command as an expression of solidarity and support to the cause. The perspective which the Award propagates is clear from its motto. The most respected words of the leader of our beloved country, India, Mahatma Gandhi: "The world has enough for everyone's need but not for anyone's greed".

We accept this prestigious honour with a feeling of unprecedented responsibility to fight not just against the SSP and other large dams in the Narmada Valley, but also to propound the just and sustainable development through a worldwide movement.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan today would earnestly request the world community to acknowledge the fact that Sardar Sarovar (SSP) and such projects are unjust and unjustifiable human and environmental devastation. They are conceived and pushed ahead not as the optimum and inevitable solution to the problems of water and energy, but through decisions guided by political expediency. They involve large scale displacement of not just thousands of families, but of communities; even a tiny "civilization". They are claimed to have been appraised but that is within a faulty framework of costs and benefits (like a GNP without a measure of environmental degradation), and exercise of manipulated data-generation and distorted valuations. They swallow large chunks of our millennia old capital - land, forest, water, cultural and archaeological sites and monuments; and drain financial resources, giving some greening and glowing benefits but for a much shorter period than expected. They cannot be built unless the people in the valleys are cheated by enforcing unjust modern laws and unless their valiant struggles for right to life are crushed!

It is not the SSP and such centralized projects of water supply and hydro power generation - but a decentralized, people oriented participatory strategy of land and water management, and varied sustainable ways of energy generation (with biomass and human population too) with conservation strategy - that would assure life and livelihood to the millions of people in this world and generations to come.

Sardar Sarovar, the focus of opposition, is the largest out of 30 major irrigation and hydro power projects, with 3165 other dams proposed to be built in the Valley of Narmada. The decision on this dam, it is said, was made through various investigating committees and the tribunal. The tribunal especially considered the views of the three states Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra - represented by their chief Ministers and bureaucrats aiming at resolution of the political conflict. But in no way were the tribal and peasant communities and their riparian rights to - or even their unique and non-replaceable relation with - their mother Narmada, taken into consideration. The mute nature and powerless inhabitants of the Valley never were among the parties.

The government went on, with many ad-hoc principles and provisions added to the original, presuming their readiness to move out but without even an honest assessment of the scale of displacement, and resettlement plans, not just provisions, to execute. Even today while 150 000 people are recognised as 'the oustees', not less than another 200 000 to be affected by canals, infrastructure or sanctuary and afforestation - all parts of SSP are left out and forgotten.

The environmental impact assessment always was further away from the ideal. The basic studies are said to be carried out simultaneously and the Ministry of Environment and Forest, have had to declare this as unacceptable and the conditional clearance granted to the project as lapsed.

How can the project be established as 'beneficial' when these preconditions to valuations and assessments are left unfulfilled? The fast silted reservoirs and waterlogged command areas of other dams in India stand testimony to the unavoidable future of SSP if pushed ahead at this cost, uninvestigated and ill-planned. At whose cost...

And for whose benefit?

Whatever may be the publicity claims of governments and the world's largest bank, the project is not meant for quenching the thirst of the people in Saurashtra or Kutch. Neither is the ever escalating number of villages to be provided with drinking water (growing from zero to more than eight thousand!) truthful, nor is the plan and budget for the same ready or included in the project cost. Irrigation estimates too have to face downward reduction with the waterfowl in Narmada reduced by 15 % and cash crops like sugarcane awaiting to take the toll. What would then the drought affected areas in the beneficiary state of Gujarat hope to receive? They have a long wait of 17 years only to realise that the industrialists and cultivators in the "main corridor region" of Gujarat have robbed them of their share, and the parched lands can't be sprinkled with the holy waters.

But these are just a few glimpses of the untold truth behind the "dream of lifeline" which the common people are made to believe in. There has been a systematic effort to politicise the dam by our vote bankers in alliance with global moneylenders, calling themselves not just a Bank but the International Bank of Reconstruction and Development. The World Bank has not just extended a small scale assistance but has brought with it (since 1979) legitimacy and credibility along with the racket of multilateral and bilateral agencies. It has no doubt calculated the Economic Rate of Return 13 % for SSP, but the risk analysis applied today brings net benefit to zero.

It set golden principles and conditions and then the changing deadlines to extend and not to follow. And it always pointed at the monitoring and mission reports until those embarrassed the Bank.

And so the Project goes on... even when the sanctions under the law of our land are withdrawn by the official authority, when Independent Review initiated by the World Bank is on, when the people in the valley are not ready to move out even if to die ... With only 10 % of the enormous Rs 120 000 million or more spent, no doubt the death trap is being set but the neck is still out. It is still not too late. The world of commons - if not the houses and parliaments, the ministers and conferences - have no choice but to take a pause, listen and act.

Today it' s the voice of the struggle, singing; tomorrow it will be the death bell ringing,

The World today is facing a challenge that is becoming increasingly acute day by day. For years and decades a few dominant countries and a small elite population in each developing country have ruled the world, exploited the human and material resources, in their favour. When the oppressed and the deprived have begun raising their voice on issues beyond immediate relief and gain.

The problems and the struggles, no doubt, are discussed in various reports and will find place in the UN conference in 1992. But despite this superfluous superstructure the reality on the ground makes us not just worried but impatient.

What has a country like India done to itself, following the western economy and policy blindly? We have come to destroy 50 % or more of our land allowing it to degrade because of the cash crop pesticide-fertilizer economy that is geared to international markets.

Our forest wealth has been reduced to less than 10 % of our landmass. All this has an unavoidable economic impact that make the poorest and the downtrodden face the backlash of the very development that is justified in the name of equity and justice.

But our rising GNP cares not to reflect this harm and loss. The magnitude of our unirrigated land and unused water bodies are "used" by our government and the interested lenders. But only we, the people of India, know how and why many of our avowed irrigation and water supply schemes either become non functional or have benefits directed to the "no priority" luxury industries. Our list of "No water source villages" on the contrary has kept growing. For a few more decades we may be able to boast of self reliance in cereals. But we certainly feel ashamed to announce the starvation deaths.

We look forward to the twenty-first century and the world economy but unfortunately not the hungry thirsty millions dragging behind. We have a growing chain of five star hotels with queues in their backyards of ill fed children, the pillars of our future. This is in almost every country in the third sector, including South America. Blindly awaiting a stroke of fortune called development and modernization. All that comes on the way is to be borne as the inevitable, and left more and more donors to the World Bank and the IMF to tackle.

All this needs to be checked if we care for realisation of the values of equity and justice. Only if the vast majority of our population is to be fed and clothed then a balanced vision with our own priorities in place of the Western models is a must. The latter indicate dehumanization of populations through machines, an increasing rift between man and nature and a civilization in a hurry to exploit their and others natural capital without a place to dump their waste. Their disrespect for indigenous communities, is to be remembered on the eve of the 500th anniversary of Columbus not discovering, but conquering, America. Their colonial and neo-colonial ambitions continue to exploit the nation states through manoeuvred politics of international aid. The multilateral agencies aided mega projects are adjusted sectors - even education have been the tools.

There is no other way but to redefine "modernity" and the goals of development, not to narrow it to "environment" but to widen it to a sustainable equitable just society based on harmonious non exploitative relationship between human being to human being, and human being to nature. We cannot be either politically naive or apathetic or playing the unseen hand of free economy.

The victims of development are to be reached out to, mobilised and organised into non party movements of political relevance, based on peoples empowerment and peoples politics with a new political ideology and consciousness, may call it Environmental Democratic Socialism.

Not just green, but green and red ideas together can lead us to the right livelihood. The seeds of this are still alive in many a tribal societies which cannot be allowed to be extinct. They have to say "NO" to plundering their natural capital and cultural wealth if the world is to behave. Bows and arrows will not help. Non violent opposition to the uncivilized traditions of big dams and mega projects like Narmada, with our souls converted into weapons, ready to defend our way of life, our bodies are flushed out, can be our humble attempt not just to save the eternal Valley but the questions of humankind.


Narmada Bachao: Glimpses of a Remarkable Resistance


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