Marxism, the Working Class Movement and the Issues Raised by the Narmada Bachao Andolan

C.N. Subramanian

It is a no mean achievement that a popular movement should force the World Bank to withdraw from one of its major projects in India and force the state to suspend work on the project. Today the likelihood of the project being wound up altogether is quite high. It is noteworthy that this movement is predominantly fuelled by the peasants - rich and poor, the agricultural labourers and the tribal people, all of whom stand to be displaced by the dams. It is also noteworthy that while on the one hand the working class movement has largely remained apathetic to the anti-dam movement the majority of the left wing political parties who don the mantle of Marxism have opposed it.

The victory of the people of the Narmada Valley has been the victory of the precapitalist social classes working with an ideology that may be best termed in Marx's and Engels' words as 'reactionary and Utopian Socialism'. It is indeed an anachronism of our times that the torch bearers of anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles at the mass level are the classes which 'vegetate side by side with the rising bourgeoisie'. As pointed out earlier the very success of the movement underlines its importance and Marxist-Leninists can choose to ignore it only at their own peril and at the cost of the cause of Communism.

The Dam and the People

The Narmada Valley Development Plan is perhaps one of the most ambitious river valley projects in history. It envisages 30 big, 135 medium and 3000 small dams on the Narmada and its tributaries. The two principal mega dams are the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the Narmada Sagar Dam to be built at the tail-end and the middle of the Valley respectively. Some of the small and medium dams have been already been completed (like the Bargi and the Tawa dams) while of the two mega dams only the Sardar Sarovar dam is under construction.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam is intended to irrigate large tracts of land in Gujarat, provide drinking water to drought-prone villages and towns and generate electricity. It is officially stated that about 48 lakh hectares of land would be irrigated, drinking water will reach about 40 million people in 5725 villages and towns and about 1450 MW of electricity will be produced. A major plank of the Gujarat government is that it will help canalise water to the chronically drought-affected villages of Kutch and Saurashtra.

These claims of the protagonists of the dam have been contested and shown to be grossly exaggerated. For example it has been definitely proved that these calculations are based on an erroneous estimation of average annual dependable water flow in the river. While it was estimated that the amount of water available at the dam site at 75% dependability was 27.22 million acre-feet (MAF) actual flow data indicates that this figure when checked against the data for the last 42 years for which information is available should be 22.69 MAF, that is a good 17% less. While the estimated efficiency of the Sardar Sarovar dam is dependent upon the execution of the upstream projects like the other 3500 odd dams and catchment area treatment, the costs of executing all these have not been estimated. Needless to say work on most of them has commenced. In other words it is unlikely that the dam will be able to function anywhere near its projected efficiency.

A perusal of the literature on the subject makes it clear that while the authorities have been serious about electricity generation and irrigation for the central Gujarat (the region where capitalist agriculture is most developed) little or no home-work has been done on canalising the waters to the drought hit areas which incidentally fall at the tail-end of the canal system and in any case are likely to be completed last if at all. As for providing drinking water to the drought hit districts no realistic plan or costing is available.

This is not the place to repeat the arguments so forcefully put forth by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) publications; however, it may be pointed out that the project seems to be a losing proposition even from a strictly capitalist point of view. If one were to calculate the costs to be incurred and the returns likely to be gained the benefit cost ratio varies between Re. 0.88 : Re. 1.00 to Re. 1.12 : Re. l. If one were to believe the Narmada Bachao Andolan then for every rupee invested in the project we can expect a return of 88 paise, i.e. it is a clear losing proposition. Even the usually optimistic government sources put the returns at Re. 1 and 12 paise. This is far below the norm established by the Planning Commission for such projects, i.e., 1.5 : 1. It needs to be noted that this calculation does not take into to account a large number of expenditures and losses (like the cost of forests to be submerged or the cost of providing drinking water to the villages).

By all accounts the projects seems to be an ill-founded one. Yet there is such a desperate attempt to save it. This can only imply that the present generation of the bourgeoisie by myopic self interest are out to ransack the future. Who is it that the Gujarati capitalists and the World Bank are calling upon to pay for the cost of lining their pockets?

It is estimated that the reservoir alone will submerge about 6 lakh hectares of land of which more than half is forest land. These are forests of regions classed as one of the 12 Vavilov zones, important for bio-diversity on earth, especially the dry regions. About 2 lakh hectares of agricultural land are expected to be submerged, most of which are from Nimar - an ancient and a very fertile agricultural belt in the country. (The Narmada Sagar upon whose completion the efficiency of the Sardar Sarovar is dependent will submerge about 91,000 hectares of land roughly half of it being excellent agricultural land. Incidentally it is expected to irrigate only about 1.23 lakh hectares of land.)

Now tens of thousands of people inhabit these agricultural lands and the forests. It is estimated that over one lakh people live in 245 villages that will be affected by submergence. In addition to these about 140,000 peasants are likely to be affected by the construction of canals etc. (the 75,000 Km. long canal network alone will require about 73,000 hectares of land). Several thousands of fishermen living downstream will also be adversely affected. There is no official survey or assessment of people affected outside the submergence area.

Of the people to be affected by such displacement a substantial number are peasants and agricultural workers; however, the overwhelming majority of them are tribal people. It is difficult to define the term tribal here: for operational sake we may take this to mean those communities within which internal stratification is very minimal. A major reason for such limited development of stratification is the very limited resource base which allows very little accumulable surplus. Most of them are dependent on primitive agriculture, gathering forest produce and grazing livestock in the forests. The degree of commercialization is very minimal. These people (mostly Bhils and Bhilalas) have waged an incessant struggle throughout history to retain hold over these forests and hills. This struggle has both shaped their identity and formed a strong attachment to their lands. Perhaps none understand the land and the forests, its potentials and products and methods of using them on a sustainable basis better than these people.

While the tribal people spend most of their time in their own villages and forests around them, they migrate seasonally to neighbouring peasant villages to harvest crops and earn some cash or grain. The lands on which the adivasis practice their primitive agriculture usually are classed as forest lands technically not available for cultivation but which have been under the use of the adivasis since time immemorial. The adivasis are denied titles to those lands and are held to be encroachers and are subject to periodic illegal exactions by the forest officials. The peasant villages usually set in fertile valleys are stratified into various hierarchically ordered castes, some being relegated into being landless untouchable outcastes. Among the peasants some are very rich, producing for the market, using modem machinery and wage labour. The rest of the peasants are middle and small farmers. The rich peasants may have large holdings but large feudal land holdings are a rare phenomenon. As mentioned above they use the underpaid labour of the dalits and adivasis.

The compensation promised by the government is highly unequal: only those who already own land and can show their title to it are entitled to land compensation. Thus the dalit labourers and the adivasi 'encroachers' are not entitled to any land compensation. (Gujarat however, promises land to all though it has not been able to show how it proposes to keep its promise).

Of the people threatened with submergence the overwhelming majority are adivasis and as such the tribal question is central to the whole issue.

The dam first threatens to submerge the forests, i.e., the home of the adivasis and when it reaches its full projected height will submerge the lands of the peasant villages further upstream. There have been suggestions for reducing the height of the dam so as to reduce the submergence area. But that might only save the peasant villages and whatever the height of the darn the adivasi settlements will be submerged. Of this more later.

The displacement of these peoples for the sake of a dam whose objective is to provide electricity to the factories and water to capitalist farms raises several pertinent questions. The life and culture of these people is inextricably linked to the hills and forests they live in. They have been using the resources offered by the land efficiently and in a sustainable manner and are not known to have suffered the kind of deprivation the semi-proletarian masses suffer elsewhere. To remove them from this environment that sustains them is tantamount to destroying their means of livelihood. Of course they have been offered lands elsewhere (it should be noted that most of the tribal oustees are not entitled to land compensation as they have no title to the land they use). But this will a) disperse their communities, so that their identities and collective life will be destroyed; b) they will be relocated among communities with known antipathy towards tribal people and more adept in the methods of grabbing land; c) relocate them in agricultural regions which bear no similarity to their forest homelands and require skills they do not possess. The long and short of all this will be the eventual dispossession of these people and their conversion into landless unskilled labourers. In other words they will be dispossessed of their rich ancestral lands and resources (which will be converted into a capital resource for the neighbouring capitalists) and converted into wage labourers. Essentially this is one of the cruder forms of primitive accumulation of capital outlined by Marx in the third volume of Capital. While in this they share the fate of the upper caste peasants and the dalits of the submergence villages there is an additional dimension of the tribal question: the right of a people to self-determination and the right to their cultural identity.

Several studies of the resettled people (by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences etc) make it adequately clear that the resettled people have been reduced to conditions of severe deprivation soon after their relocation.

The tribal people of the country as custodians of some of the richest lands (being forests and mineral rich lands) have been subjected to incessant pressures to part with their lands without any adequate compensation or share of the benefits of exploitation of those resources. The struggle is almost over in the rest of central India where the mining corporations and the forest department have established absolute control. The Narmada struggle is one of the last such struggles being waged by the tribal people. The success that has so far attended this struggle is significant and needs further analysis.

Before we go over the history and politics of the movement it may be pertinent to point out that it has been conclusively established that there just is not enough land available in this country today to resettle the displaced population and ensure them at least the present level of prosperity. This was the finding also of the Independent Review committee set up by the World Bank. The Bank was finally forced by the recommendations of this committee to withdraw from the project.

The Movement

The antecedents of the movement go back to the early 1980s when some non-government organizations working for the just resettlement of the displaced people realized that adequate resettlement was just not possible and the only way was to oppose the construction of the dam itself. Meanwhile several organizations had begun organizing the tribal people in the region, some in the Jhabhua district of Madhya Pradesh (MP), some in the Dhule district of Maharashtra. Medha Patkar, who had begun in 1985 organizing the tribal people in Maharashtra shifted to Nimar district of MP in 1987. This was a watershed in the movement. Nimar is the richest tract to be submerged and had the most developed agriculture and its share of kulaks. The peasants and the agricultural labourers of Nimar rapidly joined the movement and provided it with a strong support. The Narmada Bachao Andolan claims that the dalits and women of the district have turned out in large numbers to support the movement and as such concientization and organization of the dalits has been proceeding.

1989 marks another significant watershed. More than 50,000 people gathered at Harsud, a town that would be submerged by the Narmada Sagar Dam to protest and take an oath to prevent the construction of the dams. The famed slogan koi nahin hatega: bandh nahin banega! (No one will move; the dam will not be built!) gained currency in this rally. The rally was also significant for the tremendous success it had in mobilizing the liberal intelligentsia and the metropolitan middle classes.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan is a composite organization and movement, composed of organizations working with the express purpose of bringing about social change and empowerment of the deprived sections (the Khedut Mazdoor Sanghatana of Jhabua) and those working with the express purpose of preventing the construction of the dams. The core of the organization is based in Nimar and Dhule districts. There are village and tehsil level organs which try to draw the affected people into democratic participation.

With the Harsud rally the Narmada Bachao Andolan had come of age. It had a strong backing of the militant tribal people, the peasants (the rich and the poor) of Nimar and the urban intelligentsia. This is the bloc of classes and strata on which the Narmada Bachao Andolan bases itself.

Since its inception the movement has been fighting on the uncompromising agenda of opposing the dam. This is one demand that really binds together the bloc: the adivasis will not stand to gain from any other demand, the agricultural labourers will not stand to gain from any other demand. While the Nimar peasants will not mind settling for better compensation or reduced height of the dams they would also stand by the demand for no dam. Despite all pressures and temptations the Narmada Bachao Andolan has held on to the demand uncompromisingly. This has held together the bloc and ensured the success of the movement. Of late signs of weakening of the bloc is seen in the lukewarm support coming forth from the prosperous peasants of Nimar who were its enthusiastic supporters earlier. This is attributed to the very success of the movement which has forced the MP government to fight for reducing the height of the dam so as to reduce the submergence. (The MP government has been negotiating with the Gujarat and central governments on this issue.)

Because of the support of the metropolitan middle classes and the liberal intelligentsia the Narmada Bachao Andolan has been able to fight a fairly successful media and legal battle, factors which were crucial in forcing out the World Bank. Medha Patkar has been raised into a cult figure. The repeated threat of Medha Patkar to fast unto death or end her life in the waters of the Narmada if the demands of the movement for review of the project are not accepted has helped to rally the intelligentsia and at every point met with the desired ends. But it must be noted that all along there has been an equally forceful and committed action by the adivasis and peasants participating in the movement. Such action by the deprived classes in normal circumstances would have fetched ruthless suppression by the state. State repression in this case though not absent has been comparatively mild (for example in over a decade of struggle no single death by firing has been reported). Perhaps part of the reason for this is the tremendous support enjoyed by the movement among the middle classes and the ability of the Narmada Bachao Andolan to play upon the contradictions between Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan has by and large refrained from engaging in supporting or opposing one or other political parties, though its orientation has by and large been towards the left. It has also taken initiatives in forming a front of organizations fighting on various democratic issues (civil liberties, the CMMS, Bhopal gas victims etc). Its brushes with the working class movement have been minimal: the association with Niyogi's CMMS being the most significant. The Narmada Bachao Andolan extended support to the striking workers of JP Associates, the contractor building the dam. It has also maintained close relations with some Trotskyite trade unions in Gujarat (the only unions to support the movement in Gujarat). The other trade unions of Gujarat including those led by the CPM and CPI have chosen to oppose the movement ostensibly in the interest of Gujarat state.

Sustaining the bloc of classes constituting the movement has also influenced the framing of its ideological underpinnings. Here are some quotations from a statement of the Narmada Bachao Andolan:

'The model of development and its corresponding political implications have led to extreme centralization within the system with no space for the people... in decision making.... The people's control over their natural resources is being taken away for the benefit of small section of political- social elites..' 'The large dams, the green revolution package, the unmindful industrial-urban expansion have resulted in more degradation of our land....' 'The disparity has been abetted by emphasis on capital intensive technology, western indicators of development instead of primacy to peasant cultivator, the landless labourers, unemployed labour force, conservation of soil,... The development on the one hand deprives our people of the right to and access to resources and at the same time destroys the non-renewable natural resource base rapidly. At some point we will have to raise the question of the social life style which is the root cause. Gandhi becomes more relevant in this context....' 'The capital intensive centralized mega projects based development with the corresponding political process in form of control of technology by handful of political elites,... and contempt for people's voice, their understanding, their science and indigenous knowledge base.. all this can be sustained only on the basis of the partnership between powerholders in this land and their multinational moneylenders..'

What we have is a critique of modern industrialization on the lines of Gandhi, accompanied by an uncritical glorification of the indigenous. There is no suggestion that the present ills may also be attributable to landlordism, unequal distribution of land, low wages, casteism and the oppression of dalits.... In fact the movement has been remarkably silent on issues that may cause ruptures within the bloc of classes that constitutes it. Considering the need to sustain such a bloc to fight the dam it may not be wrong to be silent on these issues. However, the leadership of the Narmada Bachao Andolan has been attempting to build a nationwide movement for alternative (Gandhian) notions of development on these lines.

Thus despite the great importance of the movement and its success, the social composition, the ideological underpinnings and leanings of the leadership tend to take it towards some form of reactionary obscurantist socialism. Such an ideology leaves little or no space for any active participation of the industrial working class in the movement, for it seeks to dismantle modern industries. Thus both mobilization of the working class and its support for the movement has been very minimal.

Nevertheless it is a great shortcoming of the working class movement of the country that is has not realised the importance this struggle against the primitive accumulation of capital at the cost of the toiling people. It is imperative for the working class to extend support to the movement and ally with it in order to strengthen it and build an alliance of the toiling people fighting against imperialism and its clients in the country. It is also necessary to generate a debate within the movement with the Gandhian ideologues and strengthen scientific socialist currents in it.

The movement has also raised issues not confronted by Marxists in the past. The unquestioned acceptance of capitalism's role in the development of productive forces needs to be replaced by an active assessment of the sustainability of such development and its long range impact and launching struggles to prevent the myopic capitalists from stealing the future.

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