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‘Traditional knowledge should be integrated with scientific research’

Activist Nandini Oza, who recently published The Struggle for Narmada, says oral history is a means to record and understand local environmental knowledge

A view of the Statue of Unity in Kevadia colony of Narmada district.
A view of the Statue of Unity in Kevadia colony of Narmada district. (PTI)

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In 1961, the foundation stone of the Navagam dam (now known as the Sardar Sarovar Project) was near the Narmada river in Gujarat, and the government began acquiring land, which belonged to the adivasi communities who had lived there for generations. Thus began one of the country’s longest and most powerful mass movements, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). About 245 villages across Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh were submerged by the project, displacing 250,000 people. In The Struggle for Narmada (Orient BlackSwan, 915), activist Nandini Oza recounts the untold history of the movement through the voices of two prominent adivasi leaders, Keshavbhau and Kevalsingh Vasave. Oza’s interviews with the two leaders provide a nuanced understanding and an oral history of the adivasi communities, their idea of development, and their resilience. First published in Marathi as Ladha Narmadecha in 2017, the book was recently translated into English. In an interview, Oza discusses the continuing work of the NBA.

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Why did choose to tell the story of the NBA through Keshavbhau and Kevalsingh Vasave?

I have collected 80 oral histories of people from the three affected states, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. All of them played a key role in the struggle. However, I worked with these two leaders from Maharashtra closely, and their village, Nimgavhan, bore the brunt as the dam submerged it. Kevalsingh and Keshavbhau were not just oustees; they were full-time activists in the NBA. Keshavbhau began his journey as an activist before the NBA started and outside activists arrived. He and Kevalsingh could capture the entire story of the struggle—their lives before dam, the protests, displacement and rehabilitation—comprehensively. Also, their struggle is still on. They have been displaced; a lot of their demands are still pending. Their stories immediately draw attention to the injustice they are still facing, besides the significant role they played in the Narmada struggle.

Is the NBA still relevant?

It’s very much required to hear these voices. We are experiencing the extremes of climate change that are displacing vulnerable communities now. But people were talking about it and questioning the development model for a long time. Listening to people whose livelihoods depend on natural resources will provide a better understanding about the kind of impact development is having on the environment. Oral history itself has become more relevant today because people are realizing that there is immense value in traditional local knowledge and wisdom. This knowledge people have should be integrated with scientific research. They are complementary.

How has life changed for both these leaders? Many of their demands have not been met. What keeps them motivated?

Their lives have changed enormously. Keshavbhau is in serious economic trouble like many oustees. Only a few have done well. The whole agriculture pattern changes, and in displacement you are only provided with some piece of land, you are not compensated for the grazing land, river, forests. So, obviously your economic condition is going to be impacted. However, he remains very optimistic. Once displaced, you continue to fight. The Kevadia colony people’s land was taken away in 1961, their second and third generation is fighting even now. There may be less or more intense phases, but both these men continue to struggle even now. I keep telling people that activists like us, who are not impacted directly, have the option of being less associated with the struggle. But for oustees they have to continue to struggle; they have no choice.

Keshavbhau Vasave (left) and Kevalsingh Vasave, one of the prominent adivasi leaders of the movement. 
Keshavbhau Vasave (left) and Kevalsingh Vasave, one of the prominent adivasi leaders of the movement.  (Nandini Oza)

What is the status of the movement now?

People have not been rehabilitated as per the tribunal’s award for rehabilitation or as per the Supreme Court judgement. In Maharashtra, displaced families were to be given irrigable land, which did not happen. The Madhya Pradesh government offered cash compensation instead of land, which was completely against the tribunal’s decision. So, the fight continues on all these issues. In Gujarat, there is a new challenge. The Statue of Unity has come up on the land of the six villages comprising Kevadia colony, which was acquired to build dam infrastructure, offices. So, not just these six but more land from adivasi villages around the Kevadia colony are being diverted for tourism. This is what the NBA feared earlier. The adivasis of Kevadia colony are now saying that if the land is not required for the dam, it should be returned to them. So, the struggle is not going to end in this generation.

What is the legacy they want to leave behind?

In spite of the great impact the displacement had on them and their families economically and otherwise, Kevalsingh and Keshavbhau firmly believe that the next generation, no matter what they do, should spend part of their time working for the community and environment. They want the youngsters to understand, through their work, how important it is to continue to fight.

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