An Old Letter

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achyut_standingWhile rummaging through old letters recently I came across one which I had forgotten about, written by my uncle Achyutkaka in 1988 – a few years before the Narmada Bachao Andolan had begun to publicly raise the issue of the destructive nature of large dams.

Achyut Patwardhan who passed away in 1992 at the age of 88 had been a freedom fighter and was one of the founders of the Socialist Party. After Independence he gave up active politics and concentrated on social and educational work.

At the time this letter was written I was busy making films against communalism and this note slipped from my conciousness, although it may have remained in the unconscious as several years later Simantini Dhuru and I made the film “A Narmada Diary”.       Anand Patwardhan


Achyut Patwardhan
Shanti Kunj
The Theosophical Society
Adyar, Chennai 600020

3rd February 1988

My Dear Mithuni,

It is not surprising that your letter arrived when I have been thinking of you and writing to you about something that has distressed me for weeks.

The Sardar Sagar Dam and the Narmada Sagar Dam were conceived in 1948 when big dams and hydro-electric power was all the rage. So Punjab had its Bhakra-Nangal and Orrisa its Mahanadi Project and even Maharashtra its Koyna Dam – why not Gujarat grab the lion’s share of the waters of the Narmada flowing into the sea for power and irrigation? This was the brainchild of an ambitious and influential man – the Chief Minister of Gujarat was Dr. Jivraj Mehta former Dean of KEM College in Bombay, and husband of Hansa Mehta who was a close kin of the Diwan of Baroda Sir Manubhai Mehta.

These plans refused to take into account the unfavourable and disastrous features of these projects. It was the fashion to think “big” and Nehru was himself taken in by this trend that was then considered a symbol of economic progress of town (industry) and agriculture. Since then big dams are recognized as an ecological hazard and even the World Bank is not keen on providing the promised financial loans.

However Punjab had lost its irrigated area to Pakistan and Bhakra had a logic of correcting a historical disability resulting from the amputation.

Even the Mahanadi Dam which was the largest earth-work dam in India has lost its glamour somewhat and it has cracked at places needing new engineering skills. The Koyna Dam became a tragic affair when earthquake damaged and destroyed several villages. The earthquake is recognized to be the result of water storage.

The misery created to thousands of peaceful small agriculturists and landless people by these dams is a forgotten tale of woe.

However at Sardar Sarovar now there are tens of thousand adivasis who run from pillar to post to find the land allotted to them by Govt. on fictitious plots. The plots just do not exist anywhere! They are to be absorbed like waste-water in the flood of new immigrants to already over-crowded towns – adivasis are most ill-equipped to achieve the adjustments necessary for survival and more. The damage to forests and wild life and ecological diversity is incalculable.

There was a very good article in the Illustrated Weekly a few months ago and a special issue of the Sanctuary on dams. However what is necessary is a traditional pilgrimage along the bank of the Narmada with a camera to see and record the terrible tale of displacement and uprooting that is spreading fear and misery among hundreds of thousands of adivasis and other dwellers on the Southern bank of the Narmada and also the Northern bank. One can walk from Amarkantak (MP) to Broach (Gujarat) (which is the traditional pilgrimage) and grasp the monstrous implications of this grandiose project which are being brushed off by the Rajiv Govt. with scant respect or attention.

Luckily the head of the Project Mr. Verma has resigned in protest as no lands have been provided for the displaced and he is willing to speak out. ( vide Indian Express editorial date: 3. 2. 88).

I think that someone with your skills and aptitudes as well as someone whose heart is capable of grasping the misery of these (to-be-) displaced hundreds of thousands and someone foolhardy enough to take the traditional Narmada pilgrimage with a camera alone can measure up to the challenge.

There is an interesting side story of the Tehri dam which you should also record to burn the lesson in public consciousness – No More Big Dams. We must replace them with hundreds of medium and small dams.

I can only invite you to see this tragedy – the rest would happen if it is to happen.

With love


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