Flooded farmers in central India have submerged themselves neck-deep in water – some for as long as 17 days – to protest a state government’s dam project that has inundated their lands.
The concept of demonstration by submersion appears to be spreading in India. Hundreds took to the waters of the Bay of Bengal in Tamil Nadu state on Thursday to protest what they say are the dangers from a nuclear power plant.
About 100 police in central Madhya Pradesh state arrested hundreds of water-logged demonstrators who live along the Narmada River on Wednesday. They were demanding the government adjust levels of a local dam to halt flooding.
The protesters in Harda district – where more than 240 villages have been inundated – had also asked for land and agriculture-loss compensation.
The villagers began underwater demonstrations in late August with a jal satyagraha – as the protest is called. Jal means water and satyagrah is a form of nonviolent resistance popularised by Mahatma Gandhi.
“The state’s brute use of force, even against the media, is a matter of extreme concern.“
– The Asian Human Rights Commission
“Jal satyagraha at Harda has been forcefully disrupted and police are not allowing protesters to converge in the area,” activist Alok Agarwal told Al Jazeera on Wednesday, vowing to file a court case.
About 245 people, including 100 women, were hauled from the water and detained, along with members of the activist group Narmada Bachao Andolan – or Save Narmada Movement.
The Asian Human Rights Commission said roads to the demonstration area were cordoned off by police so the media could not reach the scene. It accused police of severing “communication links of the media so that the news could not be broadcast”.
“The police moved in with force and took into custody the villagers,” the commission said. “The state’s brute use of force, even against the media, is a matter of extreme concern.”
Kalpana Anand, a district official in Harda, told Al Jazeera that compensation had been given to some farmers. She did not elaborate.
But Agarwal said only a few villagers had been given cash, and no one had received new land. Under the government rehabilitation and resettlement policy, authorities are responsible for giving displaced villagers “land for land”.
“Courts have clearly said rehabilitation policy has not been followed, and the government is violating a court order,” Agarwal said.
Al Jazeera requested comment from Madhya Pradesh’s Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. No response was received by publication time.
The water-based protest in Tamil Nadu focused on the Kudankulam Nuclear Power Plant. The anti-nuclear demonstrators are concerned over the process of loading nuclear fuel there. They said they borrowed the idea of submerging themselves in protest from the villagers of Madhya Pradesh.
Millions of Indians have been affected by the dams that line the mighty Narmada River, which stretches 1,300 kilometres through central India.
Controversy has dogged the Narmada Valley Development Project – one of the largest hydroelectric initiatives in the world – since it was launched in 1979. Successive governments have either ignored the issue of displacement or engaged in delay tactics.
While the inundated villagers of Harda district have so far failed to get the government to lower water levels, other demonstrators scored a victory days earlier by employing similar protest tactics.
More than 50 farmers in Khandwa district in Madhya Pradesh spent 17 days neck-deep in water in a desperate attempt to save their homes and land. Children, women and men of all ages, along with activists, braved the rising waters.
They ended the demonstration on Monday when Chief Minister Chouhan agreed to drop the water level. Chouhan also pledged compensation and an investigation into how the area became flooded.
Many of the protesters suffered ailments including severe rashes, blistered feet, and infected wounds after fish began feeding on their bodies.
The government capitulation came after activists from Narmada Bachao Andolan spearheaded a media campaign that garnered national attention. Photos of the unusual water protest went viral on the Internet.
Narmada Bachao Andolan is no stranger to the dam issue, having previously taken the battle to the Supreme Court of India. It ruled land cannot be flooded without relocating and compensating people first.
“The government doesn’t care about people. Only after sustained protests and media pressure did the government act.“
– Chittaroopa Palit, Narmada Bachao Andolan activist
Chittaroopa Palit, a Narmada Bachao Andolan activist who submerged herself in Khandwa district, told Al Jazeera the battle was not over.
“The government has partially accepted our demands, but it has not accepted our demands for the Indira Sagar dam,” Palit said, referring to water levels in Harda district.
“The government doesn’t care about people. Only after sustained protests and media pressure did the government act,” said Palit.
‘Temples of modern India ‘
India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru called dams the “temples of modern India”.
Massive dam projects were planned across the country, but the Narmada River Valley became the biggest battleground. Homes were washed away by the marauding artificial flooding, while people in distant cities enjoyed the benefits from the project.
Formed in late 1980s, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) took up the issue of thousands of displaced people who beared the burden of development.
Sanjay Kak, who made the documentary “Words on Water”, said: “NBA’s opposition to the dam was correct, because the Supreme Court fairly easily said rehabilitation should be done. But actualisation has never been done.”
Kak told Al Jazeera many people displaced by dams in the 1960s in northern India still have not been relocated. “NBA’s biggest contribution was to bring this issue to the fore.”
He said another problem with relocation plans is a large number of people in the region do not have formal land titles.
Similar stories of displacement have been repeated elsewhere in the country, as the rush for natural resources heats up.
“The government doesn’t take the issue of rehabilitation seriously. All through our history, we have seen how rehabilitation has been ignored,” Dilip D’Souza, author of Narmada Dammed: An Inquiry into the politics of development, told Al Jazeera.
Activists say Supreme Court rulings on compensation have repeatedly been flouted by successive governments.
D’Souza said the government views dam projects as progress, but for those displaced, that is hardly the case.