India's Water Wars

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The Narmada Valley Sardar Sarovar Big Dam Project is the largest of 30 planned large dams on the Narmada River and it has inspired twenty-two years and three generations of protests, making it, and all big dams, one of the most important and controversial social issues of modern India.

In Delhi, at Jantar Mantar—the section of town where organized protests are held—we sat surrounded by thousands of rural farmers from all over India. They had gathered to sit, sing, chant, and march in protest over land rights and against further construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, and others like it.

Big Dams are a guaranteed way of taking a farmer's wisdom away from him. They're a brazen means of taking water, land and irrigation away from the poor and gifting it to the rich. Their reservoirs displace huge populations of people, leaving them homeless and destitute. Ecologically, they're in the doghouse. They lay the earth to waste. They cause floods, water-logging, salinity, and they spread disease...
--Arundhati Roy, author of The God of Small Things

As we walked into the crowd with our camera, we looked at faces filled with resolve and the power of cooperative action, and into the desperate eyes of so many suffering from the humiliation of displacement. The farmers had assembled into a convincing symbol of unity—enduring the elements night after night with little food and water—but the truth is many didn’t have a home to return to.

We had come to the protest, called ‘Action 2007’, in order to interview Medha Patkar, social activist and advocate for peoples vulnerable to massive dam projects in India. Medha is the leading voice of Narmada Bachao Andolan, a grassroots NGO organization mobilizing indigenous and tribal peoples, farmers and environmentalists in opposition to the Sardar Sarovar Project. She is also the founder of the collective ‘National Alliance of People’s Movements’, an alliance of groups in India committed to a non-violent path toward social and political justice and ecological protection, and the recipient of numerous awards, including the Right Livelihood Award, and the M.A. Thomas National Human Rights Award.

“There are people who are asserting a right to life and livelihood because the development paradigm is going against the majority of the people,” says Medha. She claims India needs an alternative economic and political perspective, not just Western models of development, which have been imposed on Indians and are not sustainable. Closer to the point, she declares, “No one eats dollar notes!”

So what is all the controversy about? The Sardar Sarovar dam project proposes providing hydroelectricity to people in three states and irrigation and drinking water to drought-prone areas. Those in support of the dam claim it will supply 30 million people with water and will irrigate crops to nourish 20 million. It is an image of growth, developmental progress, and a source of political pride and leverage for the Indian government.

But those in opposition, like Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy and others at the protest, tell of the millions negatively affected by the development, which is displacing thousands, falsely promising resettlement and rehabilitation with cultivable lands, submerging homes and forest farmland, disrupting fisheries and natural habitats, salinizing land alongside the miles of canals and rendering them useless, and spreading disease. In fact, already the project has managed to make areas prone to flooding and drought worse than ever before, and has pushed many thousands into slums and extremely tough living conditions. Such controversy and widespread effect has attracted international attention and brought all big dams into question.

Among the suffering are the rural farmers. In the last twenty years Indian farmers have been committing suicide at an alarming rate due to rising economic difficulty, global change in demands and standards, and a general lack of support to villages by the government, which previously had been available. Now, due to the Sardar Sarovar dam project, hundreds of thousands of farmers have lost their land, many of them poor tribal communities relying on natural resources.

Ultimately, however, the movements against the Project have failed, as the Sardar Sarovar big dam is slowly and steadily nearing completion. But protests like ‘Action 2007’ and leaders like Medha Patkar, and authors like Arundhati Roy have brought considerable attention to important issues surrounding controversial big dam projects and to the rising water concerns around the world.

Despite the limited success of community organized movements, which sometimes have little impact on government policy, author and activist Arundhati Roy still believes in them:

We have to support our small heroes. We have to fight specific wars in specific ways. Who knows? Perhaps that's what the twenty-first century has in store for us. The dismantling of the Big. Big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big contradictions, big countries, big wars, big heroes, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the Century of the Small.

And the small are attracting the attention of the world—thanks to the Internet and documentary films, albeit slowly.

Sitting with Medha Patkar, I am impressed. With long silver hair and in her 50’s, she has slept in the street for nights without complaint and is in good spirits. She has given speeches, brought many different people together, and has sat in support for long days and well into the nights. The farmers believe in her. And despite all her responsibilities, she found the time to give articulate and heartfelt responses to our questions.

After two days at the protest, we had heard the call of ‘Action 2007’, advocating for a new paradigm of development that has a wholistic view and uses smaller, localized water harvesting techniques that are designed according to local communities and environments, and for self-reliance. Most importantly, it asks that the world consider people and diversity as well as modernization.

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