Nandini Oza's Work On Oral History of the Narmada Struggle

Oral History of the Struggles around Sardar Sarovar Narmada Project (SSP)

This note is about my work of disseminating and preserving the oral histories of the people who have played leading role in the struggles around the Sardar Sarovar Narmada dam project.

The Struggle
The Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) being built on the river Narmada is one of the largest dam, hydropower and irrigation projects in India. It has been the target of intense struggles by the affected people of the Narmada Valley for over half a century now. This struggle, known widely as the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), has been recognized as one of the powerful people’s movement of Independent India. This non-violent struggle using several innovative strategies has demonstrated how a mass movement of the marginalized can translate into a powerful force against dominant interests. It has also brought to the fore questions around the current developmental model and has built a case for equitable and sustainable development.

Oral History of the Struggle and its Significance
The Narmada struggle has been frequently reported in the media and there is reasonable knowledge about the movement and its issues but there are still many limitations in its documentation.

One of the most important limitations has been that much of the media reportage and other documentation have focused on either the issues, or major events or the prominent faces of the movement. The role, contribution and the vision of the local leaders, activists and the common people, particularly women and tribal leaders and activists who have formed the backbone of the struggle finds little place in its documentation.

Another issue is that the Narmada struggle is seen mainly as the NBA, the well-organized movement spread over the entire project affected area that began around the mid-1980s. While this is certainly true, what is not known well is that the earliest resistance against the project dates to 1961 when the foundation stone of the project was laid by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. From then onward the Narmada valley has seen a series of protests and movements against the project, some spontaneous and unorganized, others more structured and organized. These struggles prepared the ground for the emergence of the subsequent struggle in the form of the NBA. Indeed several of them eventually became a part of the larger fabric of the NBA.

My work on the oral histories of the struggles around the SSP addresses these limitations by recording the experiences of those whose roles/experiences have not been documented so far. In doing these recordings, I have been able to  bring in my own experience as a full time activist of the NBA for over twelve years and another eight as the resident of the Narmada valley to weave together narratives of the hitherto less known histories of a struggle that has been going on for over half a century now. 

Main features of the Oral History
The first stage of my work has involved the documentation of the oral history of the struggle around the SSP in the form of digital recordings of interviews of senior leaders and activists of the movement. I have now with me 80 interviews  of the key leaders and other activists. The recordings run into over 400 hours in 7 languages and dialects - Hindi, Marathi, English, Gujarati, Pawari, Bhilali, Nimadi. 

The current stage of the work involves bringing out these oral histories in the public domain. I plan to do this initially as published books and subsequently in the form of the original audio recordings themselves. The entire exercise is quite large in scope, and will be spread over next several years. It is envisaged that various outputs will come out from time to time.I plan to bring out a total of five books based on the oral histories that deal with the different aspects of the struggle in the Narmada valley.

The First Output

Rajhans Publications a leading publisher in Marathi has recently (July 2017) published my book titled, ‘LaDha Narmadecha’ (Struggle for Narmada). This book, is based on the oral history of the two senior Adivasi leaders, Keshavbhau and Kevalsingh Vasave of the NBA. The book also has extensive footnotes by me as an activist of the NBA.  The book was brought out first in Marathi for its regional reach. The book has been well received and has been listed as one of the ten best sellers for the year 2017 by a popular Marathi portal Akashrnama/ Granthnama. 

Current Work
 The next book (the second in the series of five) that I have begun work on is based on the oral history of senior advocate and distinguished human rights activist of Gujarat, Shri Girishbhai Patel who has been a pillar of the NBA struggle as well as a part of many other popular movements in the state.

1.  The interview of Girishbhai Patel, senior advocate in Gujarat High Court and one of the founding members of  NBA recorded in the years 2009 and 2017 runs into thirty three hours. It covers the history of Gujarat since independence and can be called a people’s history covering all the important people’s movements post independence in the State. It is a history that leads up to the emergence of the Gujarat Model with Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) as the symbol and at the center of the current development model pursued in the State. It is also the history of the people’s struggles around the Narmada project. The book based on the oral history is therefore a social and political history of Gujarat with emphasis on SSP and developmental politics around it. 


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