The Narmada Valley: Villages Flooded, Livelihoods Destroyed

By Riam Firouz

On June 11, 2007, the government of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh closed the gates of the Omkareshwar Dam in the Narmada Valley, flooding dozens of villages, agricultural land, and homes. To protest the loss of their homes and livelihoods, the women of one affected village, Gunjari, refused to move from the rising water flooding their village for nine days until a proposal to compensate them was put forth by the state government.

The women of Gunjari are not alone in their struggle. Hundreds of thousands of people will be displaced by a series of 30 large dams being built in the Narmada Valley, of which Omkareshwar is just one. When the reservoir is at its full height, 50,000 small farmers will be displaced and 5,800 hectares of intact natural forest will be destroyed. Most displaced villagers have not received any compensation, neither in the form of land nor cash. Those who have been compensated have been short-changed by a resettlement policy that runs rampant with corruption.

A High Court trial set to start on July 24 will help decide the rights of villagers displaced by this season’s monsoons. Five thousand protesters have since June 4 been braving monsoon season storms while gathered in front of the state government’s district headquarters. They are demanding compensation in the form of agricultural land for cultivators, as well as land for the adult sons and unmarried adult daughters of these cultivators. Two protestors have now ended a 37-day hunger strike with a call for more action in hopes of getting their demands met.

Since the protests began, as many as 12,000 complaints have been filed against the Narmada Hydro-Development Corporation (NHDC) which, along with the State Government of Madhya Pradesh, owns shares in the dam. The NHDC has a controversial record with past projects, including forcibly removing affected people at gunpoint from their villages. Nothing seems to have changed this time around, as power and water were cut off to villages in an attempt to oust the residents. Meanwhile, most villagers whose land has already been inundated have nowhere to go. As protester Sarika Devi remarked, "We will not move from here. We will stay here only. We have no other options, what else can we do. No one is helping us."