Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU
RIVERS: JULY 01, 2001
Anand Vivek Taneja
The writer is a student of History of Ramjas College, Delhi University and a supporter of the Narmada Bachao Andolan.
Amarkantak - October 4, 1999
Where the Narmada is born, Shiva's daughter. Where it is still a child, rather than the "Ma Rewa" of hymns and popular veneration. Where you can ford its grassy banks in two steps, and enter thick forests of Sal. Where half a kilometre after it leaves the Narmada Mandir, it meets its first dam. A small, inconsequential dam; but enough to turn a stretch of musical, swift running little river into a fetid, weed-choked marsh. It had to be constructed 500 odd metres from where the river officially begins because the groundwater of Amarkantak is rapidly vanishing. The water is claimed by bauxite processing at BALCO, the aluminum factory.
Around Jabalpur - October 6
We watch the river grow as we travel along it. From swift running stream in the Mahadeo Hills around Amarkantak, to truck-washing depth at Dindori, to flood-causer at Mandla, upstream from the Bargi Dam. But always the sense of something lost. In Amarkantak drawing rooms, apologies for having to use a ceiling fan in October; "before it used to be so cool, always." The fields on the road to Dindori are fenced, enclosing pyre-like stacks of wood; victims of the Sal-borer pest. In Jabalpur, Vinay Ambar, T-shirt painter and cartoonist, whose studio we shelter in at night, says, "We live our life in the abstract today... Nobody knows why we do what we do anymore. No reason. No reality."
Bargi Dam - October 7
Atop the Bargi Dam, the first of the 30 big ones planned on the Narmada and its tributaries, watching the sun go down over the peaceful lake of the reservoir with Bablu Patwal, who has spent his youth opposing it from "half pant to full pant." Hard to believe that this was the scene of a violent crisis less than a month ago, with the waters rising because of the rains. If the gates had been opened, Jabalpur would have been flooded; because they weren't, Mandla was. Jabalpur was saved because of the Indian Ordinance Factory there. Next to the dam, a village that had to threaten sabotage before they got piped drinking water. Tomorrow we go into the dam reservoir, which covers 14,000 hectares and irrigates 8,000.
Inside the Bargi reservoir - October 8
We pass the awe-inspiring shikhar of the temple of Bijasen village. It juts improbably out of the water in the reservoir like a particularly symmetrical iceberg. We row past it as Bablu tells us of all the fairs that happened in the village, around this very temple, of how wealthy everyone was, how contented with life. Today's Bijasen is a claustrophobic cluster, huddled on a steep slope between reservoir and hill-top. The people had accepted the cash-compensation option for their land because they believed the dam could never be built, because according to legend, the Narmada cannot be stopped. So how much? Rs. 56,000 for 19 acres. Rs. 4,000 to 8,000 for two to four acres. Government jobs, five acres of land to each family, adequate monetary compensation promised to all project affected. In 162 villages, nobody got a thing.
"We were stupid," says Narayan Baba in a nearby village, "We should have stayed where we belonged. We should have refused to budge. Even a child knows that his seat is reserved till he gets off at the station." Talk turns to politics and the just concluded elections. Logically, it turns to election issues. "What issues?" Narayan Baba asks, "Here you're stuck between the water and the steep slopes of the hills. That's the only issue." He looks at us as if we possibly cannot imagine what has been lost.
Maheshwar - October 12
For that one has to travel to Nimad, bound north and south of the river by the Vindhya and Satpura ranges. The river is broad and brawny, and along it stretch flat fields, with dark, fertile soil. One has to stand on the Maheshwar ghats, below the soaring, architecturally priceless, temple built by Ahilyabai Holkar in the 18th Century, reaching into the sky. And as you climb up the steps towards the temple, you see small marble plaques that tell you how high the floodwaters reached. The highest plaque is about 20 metres above the level of the ghats. That sort of flooding would cover almost all the land visible from the top of temple, green and smiling in the October sun. Historically important monuments like the fort at Mardana and Ahilyabai's temple would go under. That sort of flooding could happen; as parts of Nimad are in the planned submergence area of two dams - the Sardar Sarovar and the Maheshwar Project.
Mandu - October 13
From Rani Rupmati's palace in Mandu, on the edge of the plateau falling away to the checkerboard pattern of the fields of Nimad, the Narmada is a silver ribbon, glistening in the distance. A broadening of the silver ribbon would not be a bad idea at all. The flooding, devastation and destitution would be invisible. It is said that Rupmati would not drink water till she caught a glimpse of the Narmada and with its bloating she would see it effortlessly. But did she ever find enough time away from Baz Bahadur and fighting Akbar to travel among her people?
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