the valley of the tigers

It is not much wonder that water becomes such a strong focus for development. It is the basis of survival. The planet has only a fixed amount of water; it is, in essence, a non-renewable resource. It is easy to take for granted, to waste and pollute, when you have it. But when you don’t, as increasing numbers of the world’s population are discovering, water becomes like liquid gold. We can’t live without it


Damming and diverting rivers, harnessing water that otherwise “wastes away to the sea”, is often seen as the epitome of re-engineering nature for human benefit. Irrigation and power projects are commonly thought of as synonymous with increased food production or clean and cheap energy. These projects have become an almost unquestioned foundation for prosperity around the world.

Over recent decades these water projects have become bigger and bigger. Now it is not uncommon for huge areas to be flooded behind dams. Entire ecosystems are submerged. Hundreds of thousands of people, often indigenous or subsistence and farming families, are routinely displaced. All this has been viewed as the price of progress, necessary for the greater common good. But this is changing.

In 1991–2, I was the environmental advisor to the independent review requested by the president of the World Bank to examine the Sardar Sarovar Project being built on the Narmada River in northwestern India. The review was headed by the retired head of the United Nations Development Program, Bradford Morse, and the respected Canadian jurist, Thomas Berger. What has become known as the Morse Report documents an alarming discrepancy between what India and the World Bank said they were doing in the name of “development” and what was actually happening because of Sardar Sarovar. The Bank withdrew from the project in 1993. Then India’s Supreme Court halted construction. 

Alarmed by the growing controversy around large dams in India as well as in countries from Argentina to China, the World Bank and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) established the World Commission on Dams. But in India, the Narmada controversy continued to simmer. Last year it came to a boil again. In a controversial split decision, India’s Supreme Court allowed the Sardar Sarovar construction to recommence.  Shortly afterward, in London, Nelson Mandela released the report of the World Commission on Dams calling for a whole new approach to the assessment of costs and benefits of these mega-projects.  And upstream on the Narmada, the next project, the huge Maheshwar dam in the state of Madhya Pradesh, began moving closer to construction on a business-as-usual basis. In January, 8000 people took to the streets in protest.  And so it continues.

The Narmada is a holy river, Shiva’s river. Lord Shiva is that aspect of the Hindu Trinity symbolizing the power of destruction. Shiva is the remover of all obstacles. It is ironic that what is being proposed for the Narmada is the largest water resources development project in the world, a multi-billion dollar, basin-wide scheme affecting three states with the construction of 30 major, 135 medium, and 3000 minor projects. The first is the Sardar Sarovar Project, the dam furthest downstream in the state of Gujarat. Along with the dam, the project entails construction of some 75,000 kilometres of canals, cutting through thousands of small farms. The decades-long confrontation involves all levels of government, the police, the army and the judiciary. It includes international development agencies, multinational engineering companies and financing institutions, and environmental and human rights organizations in India and around the world. In some ways it is all befitting of Shiva himself.

An inside view of what is unfolding can be seen through stands being taken by two women—Medha Patkar, a catalytic force in the protest movement in the Narmada Valley, and Arundhati Roy, India’s Booker Prize–winning author of The God of Small Things. In 1991, in the village of Manibeli just upstream of the Sardar Sarovar dam site, I sat with Medha Patkar on the steps of the Shiva Temple in an all-night meeting as villagers poured out their concerns about what was being done to them in the name of progress. That village and temple have long since been submerged in the backwater created by the first phase of construction of Sardar Sarovar. Last year it was all brought back to mind when I heard of the galvanizing effect of two essays on development published by Arundhati Roy. In her small book The Greater Common Good, she writes about the Narmada issue in language so clear that it cuts right through the comfortable clutter of economic rationalizations, engineering justifications, legal arguments and political rhetoric we have created to bolster our assumptions of what “develop” means. Through Arundhati Roy, the project-affected peoples of the Narmada have found their voice. A long-held belief, a whole worldview, is being shaken anew from New Delhi to Washington.

 The decades of unquestioned water mega-development projects seem to be coming to an end. Why? The answer comes in response to astonishingly simple questions—Who benefits? Who pays? and How? These questions originate not in public- or private-sector boardrooms. They come from the valleys and villages where those people reside who are being asked to sacrifice what they have, in many cases who they are, all in the name of progress. In India, on the Narmada River, people are now saying no; they will not move. They are taking a stand, demanding nothing short of a new accounting for, and a new definition of, development. If we can truly listen, we will all be the beneficiaries.


Don Gamble   Why would a writer like you be attracted to an issue like the Narmada Valley?

Arundhati Roy   Initially, since I didn’t know all that I know now about it, the attraction was a very instinctive one. The idea of people fighting to save a river was something that I am instinctively attracted to, since, you know from my book, The God of Small Things, my life was spent on the banks of a river in Kerila. For writers not to understand these issues is something that suits the people who build these dams very well because it’s a world of technical mumbo-jumbo and nobody really knows what’s happening. Everyone’s eyes glaze over. It is only a writer of literature, and a writer who is read, who can insist on writing about it in a way that people who don’t know anything about this issue can understand. When you get to understand what’s really happening, then you realize that you just can’t be sitting around writing sweet short stories to address these issues.

DG   For people who wouldn’t be familiar with the Narmada, how would you summarize what you see happening there?

AR   The story of the Narmada Valley is the story, not just of modern India, but of what is happening all over the world. The Sardar Sarovar Project, the first dam on the Narmada, is displacing close to half a million people, half of whom are not counted as “project affected” in order to make the project sound viable. For 15 years this dam has been under construction. They haven’t managed to resettle even one village according to the directives of the Tribunal, which says that villages should be resettled as communities. For 15 years people have been fighting. From there you begin to inquire into the role of big dams. Why is this country so committed to them? What is really going on? Are they really the temples of modern India, as Nehru characterized them?

The figures that you come up with are just so shocking. First of all, shocking because there aren’t any government figures. But then, when you actually keep at it, what emerges is hard to believe. India is the third-largest dam builder in the world. These dams have displaced 56 million people. We don’t have a national rehabilitation policy. We’re told that dams are the key to India’s food security, but they say that only 10 percent of India’s 200-million-ton food-grain produce is from big dams. And you know, 10 percent of all the food that India produces is eaten every year by rats! So what are we doing?

DG   So you are questioning the whole notion of progress?

AR   Exactly! How do you measure progress if you don’t know what the benefits are and what the costs are? Is it an article of faith? Progress for whom? Even the way progress is quantified by planners is absurd. It is quantified by how much you consume. So, India has “developed” because today it consumes 20 times more electricity than it did in 1947. But they don’t tell you that still 80 percent of rural households don’t have electricity. So, just because a smaller section consumes a lot more, India has developed. One would imagine that these are pointers in the opposite direction.

DG   When I was in India I often heard, particularly from World Bank and government officials, that this kind of development is something that people in the West had long ago embraced and India was just following suit. The notion is that this is the price of progress.

AR   Yes. This is what I hear every day of my life in Delhi—that someone has to pay the price for development and that the “voluntary forced displacement” of 56 million people is the price tag. But I have a very crude and simple analogy for this. If you were to say okay, because somebody has to pay the price, the government has decided to freeze the bank accounts of 10,000 of India’s richest industrialists and citizens and distribute their money for the “greater common good,” can you imagine what would happen? So, I think these ideas roll very easily out of the mouths of people who are not involved in paying that price.

DG   Didn’t the government of India and the World Bank both have policies that were exemplary in many respects on resettlement and on environmental matters? Are they saying one thing and doing another?

AR   It’s an unwritten agreement, not just in India, but in the whole business of the World Bank, that you make these humane-sounding, consummately written, policies understanding that they will never be implemented, and that the people they are written about will never see them or hear about them. In fact, one of the things I’m writing now is how as a writer one spends one’s life trying to journey to the heart of language and use language to express thought. These officials are engaged in the exact opposite enterprise, which is to use language to mask their intent. They use language to say things that sound politically correct and perfectly poised in their morality. But it has nothing to do with what is happening on the ground. That is understood! A study was recently released in India that showed that 90 percent of all the river valley projects have just completely broken their environmental guidelines.

DG   Where do we go with these insights, insights that are now becoming more and more common not only in India but all over the world? We seem to have caught the theme of what’s wrong, but what happens now? What is the option here?

AR   I think that the option is a really simple one, but very complicated at the same time. The option to greed is less greed. I see it so clearly. It’s really just a question of using a little bit of wisdom and having some respect for other people’s lives. It would save so much of the world. I don’t think that everybody in the world is an evil-intentioned person. But they don’t understand what the connection is between switching on their light and what happens in a river and what happens to the people who live on the banks. And scaling down the lifestyle without being a Gandhi and or becoming a hermit or going around in loincloth—I don’t think you need to do that. I think you could still live a wonderful life and yet have some respect for what you’re doing.

Instead, people, especially American companies, are here goading us into the privatization of power in order to play, as they say, in the 21st century. Their solution for hunger is to increase the appetites of the well fed. It is lunatic. It makes no sense at all.

DG   The people in the Narmada Valley, in these villages, how do they see what you’re doing?

AR   The only time in my life I’ve felt anything akin to “national pride,” because I’m not a nationalist and I don’t believe in country, is when I go to the valley and see the spirit of the fight. I really think this is the spirit of this country. All over the world, other such fights have been squashed and people have been shot and broken. But here it goes on. And, to me, one of the reasons that it goes on is that the alliances are so wonderful. The movement is often criticized. The people in the Narmada Bachao Andolan [Save the Narmada Movement] are criticized for being outsiders but I think that’s precisely the strength of the movement. Where you have these alliances being made—between urban and rural, between writer and farmer, between painter and fisherman, between student and boatman—that is what gives it its strength and its rigour.

My essay [The Greater Common Good] has been published in the local languages, so those who have read it know what I’m saying. For those who haven’t, or can’t read, they just know that I’m sort of a famous person who said quite simply and unequivocally that “I’m on your side,” and I’m not trying to sound like some reasonable intellectual. I recognize that this is a war and that you take sides. The people know that their voice has to be carried outside the valley, and they know that I’m one of the people who is doing that.

DG   What role are women playing in the Narmada Valley movement?

AR   Well, in the Narmada Valley, especially in the Maheshwar area, you have to just come to see what the women are doing! It is unbelievable. Just tigers! It’s a valley full of tigers. The women in the villages are so ferocious. It’s fantastic to watch, to be involved in something like that. I think that women are the future now. Some time has passed since we’ve unshackled our minds, and that energy is phenomenal. It’s going to change so much of the way the world is and thinks it ought to be. The fight to save a river is also a fight against the notion of a destroyed world. I think women are not as crudely aggressive, and the fight to save something fires our imagination more than the fight to destroy something.

DG   In the end, what does saving the Narmada Valley look like to you? What is the outcome?

AR   I think that we are fighting specific wars in specific ways. And if the world were to join together to save the Narmada Valley it would be a first step toward saving much more. It would be a victory for so much else. It would be a victory, to begin with, for nonviolence, which is one of the most wonderful things about this fight—nobody has picked up a gun, yet. And it is a fight of such magic and such imagination. The only thing, the only thing worth globalizing is dissent. To allow this fight to be crushed will be a defeat for more than the Narmada Valley.

To read more about Arundhati's views, see her book of essays The Cost Of Living, Modern Library, 1999.

For more information about the Narmada River Movement, contact The International Rivers Network (IRN) at 1847 Berkeley Way, Berkeley, CA 94703; phone: 510.848.1155; fax: 510.848.1008; email: or visit the websites and the Friends of the Narmada River at

Don Gamble is a well-known Canadian environmental engineer with over 20 years of experience in water development issues. He is a long-time devotee of Shiva, so he has a natural interest in the Narmada River.

Copyright ©2007 ascent magazine, first Canadian yoga magazine, yoga for an inspired life