A small story to start this, a story that inspires me every day.
Imagine the setting, first of all: a village called Bilgaon, a day’s travel from Bombay. It sits on a spur above the confluence of two rivers, surrounded by gorgeous hills. One river is called the Titodi, after the call of a bird you find there. The other is the Udai, and it flows some 100 feet above the Titodi, falling into it in a spectacular waterfall.
That 100 feet was the spark for what I saw happening here.
When I first got to Bilgaon, two young men were also here. With the enthusiastic help of the villagers, they were building a dam across the Udai. Not a huge dam, but not a trivial one either. It is about 200 feet long and some six or seven feet high. Simultaneously, they built a channel for the stored water, going around the spur. Half the channel was actually dynamited through the rock. At the end of the channel, they built a tank, then another channel downhill from there to a shed above the Titodi. And in that shed, they installed a generator.
You know what this is about. In January of 2003, someone flipped a switch in that shed. For the first time ever — since the Trojan war, through the times of Chandragupta Maurya, George Washington and Jawaharlal Nehru, through 55-plus years of Indian independence — for the first time ever, 300 houses in Bilgaon had electricity.
I have this memory of watching one of the young men set off some of the blasting for the channel. First, he carefully figured out where he wanted to dynamite. Then he drilled a hole into the rock at a precise angle, and this hole was not made with a drill, but by hammering on an iron rod. He poured some explosive into the hole with his fingers, then laid a long fuse. Then he shooed all the labourers, and all of us gawkers, away up the hill. When we were far enough from him, he took the cigarette that dangled from his mouth, lit the fuse, hitched up his trousers and strolled up the slope to where we stood. Not halfway up the slope, there was a loud thump and huge chunks of rock went flying, one or two clear across the Titodi.
No, this was no toy.
So who were these two young men? Engineers about two or three years out of engineering college in Kerala. Young engineers like I once was. Doing what we engineers were trained to do — find a problem, design a solution, go implement it and make
Yet how few of us actually manage to do what we were trained to do.
Especially in these days of ‘Iraq’ and ‘terrorism’, you hear a lot of talk about patriotism. Sure, there are people who paint flags on their cheeks, or proclaim loudly that they are patriots and want us to applaud. Fine, but let us remember that there are others who paint no faces, make no proclamations. They just live their patriotism.
In Bilgaon, several such people did some hard work. Not just to build a dam, but to build a nation.
An American President, I remember, used to go on at length about a thousand points of light. I have never known quite what he meant, if anything. (Maybe the thousand points were in his head.) But to me, that phrase has always suggested that nations are not built by waiting for governments to act. Because typically, they don’t. Instead, they are built by small, inspiring efforts by individuals. By thousands of points of luminous excellence.
And in Bilgaon today, you can see one — or 300 — such points of light.
That is an entire story, by way of introduction. Why do I tell it here?
Because I have always felt that within this Bilgaon effort lies the essence of what the Narmada Bachao Andolan is about. There are ways in which what I saw happening there is the real meaning of that word we hear so much, non-violence.
Oh yes, non-violence is about not taking up guns, not killing people. It is intimately part of the truthful, moral resistance Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi made famous as ‘satyagraha’. What’s more, and contrary to what various modern revisionists like to tell us, Gandhi’s ahimsa was no instrument of cowardice. Ahimsa was a powerful weapon, used to great effect by a canny, courageous man, a consummate politician.
Yet I have also always felt there has to be a context, a meaning, a larger milieu if you like, in which non-violence takes on form and body. That was the ultimate message Gandhi offered us. For him, non-violence was about showing the world an alternative, a different way. An alternative to British rule, yes; an alternative to armed freedom struggles, that too; but most profoundly of all, an alternative way to be. To live.
And that is the message I hear in Bilgaon, and from the NBA. Of course the NBA had everything to do with what happened in Bilgaon – they asked the two engineers to come to the Valley and search for places they could set up their “microhydel” projects, and Bilgaon was the second such place. They wanted to demonstrate – to the villagers just as much as to the world – that there are alternatives to large dams, and to waiting for governments to build dams. There are realistic, viable alternatives that are available right now to those who want to take them.
But it is more than just alternatives and demonstrations.
What is interesting about the NBA’s long resistance to the dam projects on the Narmada is not just that it was entirely non-violent. I do not think this movement would have lasted two weeks, let alone the two decades it has, if it was only about non-violent resistance. Couched solely in those terms, non-violence is likely too abstract to resonate, and will thus have a limited shelf life. At some point, the NBA understood that if they wanted the support of people who lived near the Narmada, they would have to speak a different lingo.
So the NBA has shown people that they can make choices as they live their lives. To me, that is what their struggle really is about. The best way to a better life, the NBA has made clear over the years, is not an indefinite wait for governments to act and provide and be just. Governments cannot, or do not, do all that; and therefore this waiting is certainly the worst way forward. Instead, the NBA’s message is subtly about making your own efforts to better your own life. By raising your voice, but also by doing things. It may not be a conscious, explicit message, but it is there for the taking nevertheless.
And again, I believe this is the fundamental meaning of Gandhi’s message. Self-reliance, and that founded on non-violence. Swaraj, he called it.
Everywhere else in the country, and indeed the world, you will find instances of protest movements that have turned to the gun. ULFA in Assam, for example, began as a student-led protest against what they called infiltration by the non-Assamese, specifically Bengalis. Finding it hard to be heard, ULFA eventually turned to violence. Yet that meant an instant loss of credibility. Today, they are widely seen as just another set of thugs.
The NBA didn’t end up that way. And to fully understand that, it is worth looking briefly at its history.
The River Narmada runs through central India, emptying into Gujarat’s Gulf of Cambay. For many years, planners in Gujarat have eyed this always-beautiful river, wanting to find a way to bring its liquid bounty to parched, drought-stricken Kutch and Saurashtra districts. That, of course, meant a dam, or a series of dams. When they first began thinking about it, Jawaharlal Nehru had famously proclaimed dams the “temples of modern India”. By building them — and we Indians quickly became some of the world’s most industrious dam-builders — India was showing off its engineering prowess and technical knowhow, showing that we had shaken off the yoke of colonialism, showing we could stand tall and proud on our own.
But there was a darkness behind that shimmering vision. Nobody liked to think about it, if they knew at all, but it was there. The people displaced by those dams had, without exception, been treated in a manner that brought shame to the ideals of independent India. They had been summarily shoved off land they had called their own for generations, left to fend for themselves as best they could. And they watched as their land disappeared under the long lakes that ballooned out behind the new dams.
As plans for damming the Narmada took shape, there was no reason to expect anything but the same story to unfold.
That — in the early 1980s — is when a young doctoral student at Bombay’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences, interested in studying social inequality, decided she would do her field work among tribals in northeastern Gujarat. Medha Patkar wanted to find out how the country’s development had affected tribals. In particular, she wanted to learn what changes the proposed dams on the Narmada would bring to the lives of thousands of people it was uprooting.
The changes were going to be catastrophic; that much was obvious. But the dam builders, like with previous projects, had no particular plan, nor even the desire to satisfactorily rehabilitate the people they would displace.
The NBA grew from these roots, from the demand for adequate relief and rehabilitation (R&R) measures. One result is that the Narmada projects have spelled out some of the best such measures in our history. In practice, of course, these very measures have been ignored and flouted.
But there were lessons apart from R&R. The NBA soon realised that the very basis for the projects was flawed; the very model of development they represented, a gigantic mistake. This is true for various reasons, but here are two.
First, the estimated water flow in the Narmada that governed the original planning of the dams turned out to be wrong. The flow is some 25 per cent less than the estimate; naturally, this makes a difference to the plans to use the water.
Second, there are people within sight of completed dams on the Narmada who remain in the darkness Bilgaon knew till three years ago. Naturally, they question “development” that utterly passes them by, and we must too.
So the NBA began to wonder: could so many thousands of people be legitimately asked for enormous sacrifices to further such projects? Was the national interest — never to be questioned, always the proffered
reason for this kind
of development — really being served? Would the Sardar Sarovar Project actually deliver what it promised?
There have been various twists and turns over the years; the reality is that the dam is still being built. By that metric, people say the NBA has failed. Yet the NBA’s great success is that it has brought about a widespread questioning of notions of development. Never again will a major project happen without those questions being raised.
And what’s more, the long struggle has sown the seeds of the search for alternatives, the resolve of self-reliance. One of those seeds is – or 300 are — in Bilgaon.
And I believe it is because of those seeds that the NBA did not go the way of ULFA and other resistances. When you have reason to hope — and what else are those seeds, but hope? – non-violence takes on meaning and character.
Great debates often rage about abstract ideas. Secularism, socialism, free markets, casteism — and non-violence, they have all generated much discussion and more than their share of heat. But more and more, I believe that if they are to mean anything, these ideas have to find body. You have to translate them into daily life, show their relevance to ordinary lives. Absent that, the abstractness itself frustrates, and leads to the viciousness that characterises our debates over these issues.
This is what I take away from Bilgaon and the dam there. It is a truly inspiring effort, yes; a stellar example of the only kind of patriotism that makes any sense to me, yes once more. But it is also about struggle and questioning, self-reliance and non-violence. It is about how you make those things relevant to you.
I think of it this way. Better those thousand points of light, than the light, and heat, from a conflagration.
~ Dilip D’ Souza is a Bombay-based writer, author of The Narmada Dammed: An Inquiry into the Politics of Development.