25 years of Save Narmada Movement

Has Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), one of India’s best-known peoples’ movements, run out of steam? Or is it still relevant in its new avatar as a force to reckon with? After all, the NBA has failed to achieve its primary goal of blocking big dams on Narmada, including the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat.

The short answer to the question of NBA’s achievement is that it has forced a paradigm shift in our understanding of Development. Earlier, the ‘deity of development’ was above critical enquiry and any numbers of people were ‘disposable’ but the whole concept has now undergone a sea change. Nobody seemed bothered about the future of the evacuees when thousands were displaced for the Bhakhra dam in Punjab or HEC factory in Ranchi. For a long time, resettlement and rehabilitation was not even factored in the planning of big projects

(It is interesting to note that the offshoots of Narmada movement are still rocking Indian public life. For instance, the Adarsh Housing scam which resulted in the resignation of Maharashtra Chief Minister in November 2010 was unearthed by the activists associated with the movement. The campaign was started in 2008 by Medha Patkar and retired IPS officer Y P Singh. For details see the im4change link: http://www.im4change.org/news-alert/call-napm-for-more-bre
Also, whatever little we know about the dark side of the mega-buck lake city Lavasa has come out due to RTI applications and petitions filed by many such activists)

It has been estimated that somewhere between 25 and 50 million people were displaced since Independence without proper resettlement or rehabilitation. For more information on displacement please see http://www.im4change.org/empowerment/displacement-3279.html.  
Although opinions differ on the total number of displaced people since independence, the links at the bottom will give you a rough idea of the numbers and the enormity of the issue. 

In this very grim background, we come to know that the NBA kicked off around 1985, as a protest against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in Gujarat. The movement soon brought together the tribal people, the farmers, and the environmental and human rights activists against the Sardar Sarovar and others dams being constructed and planned on the Narmada River in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Gradually it developed as a forceful movement and presented a discourse that not only challenged the utility of the Narmada valley projects but whole lot of big irrigation projects anywhere in India or in the rest of the world.

The NBA has very strictly followed peaceful methods of struggle. Under the leadership of Medha Patkar the movement very soon turned into an International protest, gaining support from NGO'S all around the globe. Medha Patkar first shot into headlines after her long hunger strikes to protest against the Dam projects and to highlight the issues of rehabilitation. The movement also got the support of well-known social activist Baba Amte from the very beginning. Medha Patkar and Baba Amte, together received the Right to Livelihood Award in 1991 for their contribution to the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
For many international and Indian activists, the NBA movement site emerged like a pilgrimage. The movement triggered a string of hunger strikes, foot marches, rallies in different cities of the world. There were intensive media campaigns to show the world as to how the authorities ignored the basic principles of rehabilitation of displaced people.

The high point of the movement came when the World Bank had to withdraw its US$ 550 million loan from the Sardar Sarovar project. The bank had earlier appointed a team to assess the progress in resettlement and rehabilitation of the oustees, which, after touring the valley, had found the progress insufficient. The loan was withdrawn soon after.

This left the Dam project in limbo for some time, but the Gujarat government, with the support of the Centre, decided to go ahead with the dam which left NBA with no option but to continue the struggle. For its role in the cancellation of the WB loan, the NBA became very unpopular among Gujarat’s elite and the middle classes, and Medha Patkar had to often face their violent anger and outbursts.
After failing to stop the construction of the Dam through peoples’ mobilization, the NBA took recourse in the judiciary, a step that proved to be controversial among its supporters. The leadership finally went to the Supreme Court and challenged the construction of the Dam without proper resettlements and rehabilitation of the oustees. On October 18, 2000, the Supreme Court delivered its judgment on the Sardar Sarovar Project. In a 2 to 1 majority judgment, it allowed immediate construction on the dam up to a height of 90 meter. The court, in subsequent steps, further authorized construction up to the originally planned height of 138m.
This judgment came as a blow to the movement. The NBA’s role was subsequently confined to resettlement and rehabilitation which continues till date. There are plans to build over 3000 big and small dams along the Narmada River. The construction of some of these projects, such as the Tawa Dam and the Bargi Dam in Madhya Pradesh, is already nearing completion. So, this comes as further bad news for the Narmada movement despite many protests and rallies.
However, it will be unfair to judge one of independent India’s most significant peoples’ movements as a failure only because it could not block a particular dam’s construction. The NBA has clearly succeeded in raising and popularizing the issues of human suffering and environmental loss due to big projects. The movement has raised many questions by joining the dots between big projects and the issues of livelihoods, biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and forestry. All this has given rise to the demand for formulation of a comprehensive development policy in which people are treated as partners and stakeholders.

On the occasion of the NBA’s 25th anniversary Medha Patkar summarized the concept of development to a news magazine as: “…We don’t need the development that snatches basic right to live from the people…Slum dwellers in Mumbai are being uprooted. Farmers in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh are being displaced. Efforts are on to construct big dams in the North-East and injustice is being done with the affected population. The big dams are already totally exposed and we now know that they are not cost effective anymore. But instead of learning from the mistakes, blunders are being repeated.”

And this is the lesson the NBA offers to the whole world.

For more details on displacement/ NBA, please see the displacement section on the Inclusive Media Site (www.im4change.org) and the following links:

Judgment of 18 October 2000 (Minority Judgment) of the Supreme Court of India (Narmada Bachao Andolan Vs Union of India and others) please see

Where are livelihoods in land acquisition policy? http://www.im4change.org/category/where-are-livelihoods-in

Life History of Medha Patkar


Medha Patkar’s important intw on movement and other issues
NBA's response to World Commission on Dams Report



The Story of Narmada Bachao Andolan: Human Rights in the Global Economy and the Struggle Against the World Bank by Smita Narula (2008), PUBLIC LAW & LEGAL THEORY RESEARCH PAPER SERIES WORKING PAPER NO. 08-62, Social Science Research Network,http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1315459



The Woman Who Walks on Water by Sanjana Chappalli, Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 44, November 06, 2010,

Medha Patkar's important interview on movement and other issues

NBA's response to World Commission on Dams Report


Narmada Bachao Andolan completes 25 years by Rahi Gaikwad, The Hindu, 25 October, 2010, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/article84

Sardar Sarovar: 40,000 families still to be resettled, The Hindu, 25 October, 2010, http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/article84

Key Narmada Bachao Andolan activist dead by Gargi Parsai, The Hindu, 23 May, 2010,http://www.hindu.com/2010/05/23/stories/2010052363201300.htm 

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