India Rivers Week · Western Ghats

Dr. Latha Anantha, CPSS and River Research Centre: For the rivers to flow..

Above: Latha with her friends at Athirappilly Falls. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

It is difficult for me to write impersonally about the work of Bhagirath Prayas Samman recipient Dr. Latha Anantha. She is Latha Chechi to me, a close friend and more of a sister. The bond is based on water and rivers, possibly stronger than blood. This is only an attempt to introduce the readers to the exemplary work of Latha Chechi (and that of the River Research Centre and Chalakudy Puza Samarakshan Samithi team) as the recipient of the first Bhagirath Prayas Samman for “exemplary capacity for combining sound research with the mobilization of community, political and state agencies, and for ushering in a unique methodology of consensus- based conservation of rivers in the country’”.

Latha Anantha award

Ravi receiving Bhagirath Prayas Samman Award on behalf of Dr. Latha, from Justice Madan Lokur
Ravi from CPSS receiving Bhagirath Prayas Samman Award on behalf of Dr. Latha, from Justice Madan Lokur

Latha is an agricultural scientist by education and holds a doctorate in the subject. But how did she start working with rivers? In 1989, Latha was a part of a nature camp which took her and many like her into the Silent Valley National Forest. Then, Silent Valley National Forest was declared as a protected area only 4 years back after protracted, and possibly one of India’s foremost anti-destructive dam struggle, led by people. (A fascinating account here )

It was here that, under the guidance of Dr. Sathish Chandran Nair, Latha saw that while forests of Silent Valley are the birth place of beautiful river Kunti, Attapadi region was devoid of forests and most streams were dried up. The Bhavani river was hardly flowing there. The contrast was self revealing. It was here that the connections between forests and water and rivers and tribals and wildlife were forged. She says she was a changed person after witnessing all this.

In 1995, Latha married Unnikrishnan, also an ardent river lover and activist (and a poet!) and together they conducted several nature camps for children and young adults all over Kerala, always coming back to the Chalakudy River and her thick forests near Vazachal and around. By then, she had made friends not only with the river, but with the Kadar tribes who lived with the Chalakudy, on her banks, one amongst them was young Geeta. The learning and exploring continued for a few years, until in 1998 they heard that a dam project on Chalakudy, the Athirappilly dam, had received sanctions from Delhi. They were shell shocked. Back in 1998, this couple and their friends like Ravi, in a remote part of Kerala knew nothing of EIA Notification, sad monotony of sham EIAs, compromised EIA agents, project-friendly meetings at MoEF, nothing. But they persevered.

Latha Unni

Helped by stalwarts like Dr. V.S Vijayan, Dr. Sathish Chandran Nair, this tenacious group slowly put the jigsaw puzzle together, piece by piece. They understood the EIA Notification of 1994, got hold of the EIA and saw how the Kadar tribe, living just by the river was not even mentioned. They say how the fact that Chalakudy was already dammed six times before it comes to Athirappilly and how 35% of its flows are already diverted was hidden from the EIA. .Kadar tribal settlement was mentioned incorrectly outside the project impact area. Latha by then also realized that the mandatory public hearing was also not conducted for this project.

Now there was no stopping this group, which also included hydrologist Madhusoodan and botanist K Amitha Bachan. Ravi and Unni filed a case in Kerala High Court in 2001, challenging the EC granted to Athirappilly and Latha & team did all the research, putting together a water-tight case. The court ruled in favor and asked for a fresh public hearing.

Latha and friends already had strong ties in the Chalakudy region. This was not a single day affair, but a trusted relation built over years. The tribals knew this team’s love for them and their river. They listened and they discussed. They were aghast at the dam building plans. The public hearing saw overwhelming participation not only from the tribal communities, but from scientists, shop keepers, hotel owners, farmers, gram panchayat members, etc. The District Collector witnessed this and would not push the project until a river basin study was done, possibly the first such in India.

Public Hearing of Athirappilly Project
Public Hearing of Athirappilly Project

There was a lull in the meantime, giving a false sense of security for these Chalakudy lovers. But it also gave them time to get introduced and work with friends like Himanshu Thakkar from South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People (SANDRP), Shripad Dharmadhikary from Manthan with whom they had been in touch for long, supporters like Dr. Ramaswmay Iyer, etc. Through SANDRP, in 1998 itself, the group had made submission to the World Commission on Dams opposing the Athirapally project. The CPSS, in collaboration with SANDRP, organized a meeting on the report of the World Commission on Dams at Thrissur on June 22-23, 2002.  A meeting against Interlinking of Rivers in Kerala was organized by CPSS and SANDRP on July 12-13, 2003. A book “Tragedy of Commons: The Kerala Experience in River Linking” was published in 2004 by River Research Centre & SANDRP.

Shripad Dharmadhikary at Vazachal rapids, also threatened by the Athirappilly project Photo: Himanshu Thakkar
Shripad Dharmadhikary at Charpa Falls, also threatened by the Athirappilly project

But Athirappilly dam plan put up its head again in February 2005 when the project gained Environmental Clearance through back door from the MoEF. This time the EC was challenged by none other than the young Geeta, the Kadar woman, living on the banks of the Chalakudy who filed a PIL in the High Court of Kerala in April 2005 challenging the new Clearance granted to the project. The Athirappilly Gram Panchayat President also filed a PIL on EIA violations. The High court again upheld the plea and ordered for a public hearing afresh! This public hearing in 2006 witnessed massive turnout of the tribal community members.

Geeta ji, the petitioner for Athirappilly Project in the backdrop of the falls. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
Geeta ji, the petitioner for Athirappilly Project in the backdrop of the falls. Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

In the meantime, Latha also wrote to Jairam Ramesh to intervene in the issue and Unni and Lathachechi met him personally when he was in Kochi. He issued stop Memo to KSEB on January 4th 2010. After this KSEB again approached MoEF. Once again PIL was filed in HC challenging the EIA in 2007 and is still pending in the HC.

This proposal was again recommended environmental clearance by the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) on River Valley Committee in their meeting in May 2007. However, following directions by Kerala High Court to KSEB, the project came back before EAC in March 2010 and was again discussed in April 2010 and July 2010, till when no conclusion could be reached by EAC and EAC had asked for more information and clarifications. There is no mention of the project in any of the minutes of the subsequent EAC meetings[1].

Since then there has been a lull on the plans though it has not died out completely. River Research Centre, though existing since many years back informally, was formally registered as a Trust. RRC, Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshan Samiti and Latha’s dedication is one of the strengths of Athirappilly waterfalls, which would have been dammed and dried long before if it was not for this people-led, nonviolent struggle.

The Athirappilly Falls Photo: Himanshu Thakkar
The Athirappilly Falls

Latha was simultaneously working on campaign against the proposed Pathrakkadave HEP across Kunti River near Silent Valley National Park on several angles such as community mobilisation, EIA, Public hearing, etc. The very destructive dam project has been stalled and the public sentiment and pressure is very big on this project as not to build the dam.

Since early 2000, she has also been involved in education program for children along the banks of the Chalakudy River. RRC and the Schools for Rivers program were instrumental in forming a ‘Kuttikoottam’ (meaning a group of children) of more than 50 children aged between 10-20 years who would set out to know more about their panchayath, its natural resources, human resource potential, culture, folklore, institutions, governance, destruction of environment, problems faced by the river and related livelihoods etc. ( More on it here)

Latha_Geeta RiverSchools

While working on environmental governance and advocacy, CPSS has also worked on novel and promising initiatives like Reservoir Reoperation Model. The project is steered by CPSS and Forum for Policy Dialogue on Water Conflicts in India of which Latha is a Steering Committee member.This model is specifically aimed at dammed rivers, where impacts are supposed to be a way of life. In the much-dammed Chalakudy, RRC, with its dedicated members like Ravi and others demonstrated how operations of a hydropower scheme can be and should be changed to maintain summer irrigation in the downstream and also rudimentary flows for the river. This is far from perfect, but a great step in the direction. At the heart of these processes is joining the dots and bringing people together: from power company, irrigation department, farmers, local self-governments, etc. In April 2013, the CM of Kerala agreed to increase the off peak generation of Poringalkuthu Left Bank Hydro Electric Project. More on this here.

Latha also played an active role in the Save Western Ghats Movement group. In a meeting of this group  Kothagiri in Keystone Campus,  Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh made the announcement of Western Ghats Expert Ecology Panel, after relentless advocacy by the group, including Latha. The subsequent Panel under the leadership of Dr. Madav Gadgil and what followed had deeply affected the environmental discourse in India. The way MoEF and government of India hid Gadgil report was a shameful, underlining the unwillingness of the administration to take any visionary or long term actions towards people-led environmental governance. Along with organization like Goa Foundation, RRC was a part of the petition filed in the NGT against this opacity and for implementation of the Gadgil Report. The court ordered the MoeF to bring out the Gadgil report. The din that followed, especially in Kerala, was massive and bewildering.  Gadgil Report was then subsumed to the problematic Kasturirangan Committee, which decision itself was flawed. Powerful interest lobbies, including religious groups, did not miss a single opportunity at misleading locals about eco sensitive areas. If Western Ghats was tense, Kerala was in the eye of the storm. At this juncture, Latha chechi came out and wrote about Kasturirangan Committee report as one of the reason for political polarization for Kerala, and asked for a sane and democratic approach through the Gadgil Report. Latha organised meetings as well as participated in many meetings and debates organised on the subject all over Kerala.

She has also been working endlessly on the issue of eflows, from upcoming as well as existing dams and has engaged consistently with the MoEF on this. Way back in 2009 RRC, along with SANDRP and Svaraj organized the first consultative National Workshop on Eflows. She has also co-authored the first Primer on Environmental flows, aimed not at scientists, but at community groups and activists who are more likely to urge for the implementation of the concept of eflows. (http://www.internationalrivers.org/files/attached-files/eflows_primer_062012.pdf)

While keeping a balanced, soft spoken and people friendly stand she has not shied from criticizing consultants like NIH and CIFRI for their shoddy eflows assessments. She has served on several government appointed committees in Kerala and has been a resource person for countless programs on rivers and forests. She also serves as the South Asia Advisor, International Rivers and is the Ashoka Fellow, 2012.

Latha’s story, intrinsically linked with River Research Centre, CPSS, Chalakudy River and beyond is a story of soft spoken courage. It is a story of bringing people together and looking at a river as a shared heritage, not only as a part of a conflict.

Today, Latha is undergoing a challenging time physically, undergoing several rounds of treatments. But mentally, she is the same strong and sensitive river woman of the Western Ghats.

She is a natural recipient of the Bhagirath Prayas Samman and we look forward to having her back with us soon in her full form:  singing, laughing and loving rivers as she does..

Parineeta Dandekar (parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com)

Near Jog Falls on Sharavati, made dry by the Linganmakki Hydropower Project Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
Near Jog Falls on Sharavati, made dry by the Linganmakki Hydropower Project Photo: Parineeta Dandekar

[1] For details, see: https://sandrp.in/env_governance/EAC_meetings_Decisions_All_India_Apr_2007_to_Dec_2012.pdf

India Rivers Week

Union Minister Uma Bharti at IRW: “Government will not proceed with interlinking of rivers if environmental consequences are adverse”

Press Release:                                                                                                                                                              Nov 27, 2014

“Government will not proceed with interlinking of rivers if environmental consequences are adverse”, says Uma Bharti, Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation at the India Rivers Week 2014

Sushri Uma Bharti, Union Minister of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation speaking in the valedictory function of the first ever India Rivers Week hailed the first ever event on the vital issue. She emphasized “if we want to save our rivers, the first step is to ensure that no untreated effluent or sewage is mixed with treated water and finds its way into our rivers.” She assured that minimum environmental flows will be maintained in the river itself . Manoj Misra, member of the organizing committee of India Rivers Week cautioned her not to proceed hurriedly on the project given its adverse social and ecological consequences.

The Indian Rivers Week-2014 conference awarded individuals and organizations the “Bhagirath Prayas Samman” for their dedicated work on river integrity and safety. Mr Justice Madan Lokur, Hon’ble Judge, Supreme Court of India was the Chief Guest at the Awards Ceremony, held on 26 November, 2014. Speaking on the occasion he stressed on the need to put in place alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to resolve water conflicts. Courts are not the best option for this, he said. Sri Anupam Mishra, Gandhi Peace Foundation, who was the Guest of Honour in this ceremony spoke on the value of time-tested systems of water harvesting and the need to promote the use of indigenous knowledge to solve water problem instead of gigantic and destructive schemes like interlinking of rivers.

Akhil Gogoi receiving Bhagirath Prayas Samman award from Just Madan Lokur of SC 261114
Akhil Gogoi receiving Bhagirath Prayas Samman award from Just Madan Lokur of SC 261114

The awards were given to the following extraordinary individual/ organisations:

Dr Latha Anantha, Chalakudy Puzha Samrakshana Samiti who has worked on safeguard the integrity of the river Chalakudy (Kerala) was awarded for her exemplary capacity for combining sound research with the mobilization of community, political and state agencies, and for ushering in a unique methodology of consensus- based conservation of rivers in the country. Their group has been able to stop clearance to the Athirapally project on the Chalakudy for close to two decades now.

Akhil Gogoi, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti who has successfully utilised the Right to Information Act in conjunction with mass mobilization of communities with respect to ill conceived projects in river Subansiri (Assam) that could threaten their life, property and livelihoods. Due to the efforts of KMSS led by Akhil Gogoi, in association with a number of other organisations, the government had to make large number of changes in the construction and operation of the Lower Subansiri project and work on the project has remained stalled for close to three years now.

Koel Karo Jan Sangathan, an organization born in 1976 for untiring efforts to safeguard the integrity of the rivers Koel and Karo (Jharkhand). Koel Karo Jan Sangathan has through community mobilisation effort to conserve their sacred sites and to look at alternative development paths in place of the proposed Koel Karo hydroelectric dam. The Sangathan has carried on a long and heroic struggle in the face of enormous pressures from the vested interests, battling tremendous odds to forge one of India’s foremost resistance movements to save rivers, riverine communities and their culture. The Sangathan has demonstrated the use of many innovative methods of struggle including people’s curfew and people’s check points.

Koel Karo activists singing song at IRW 261114
Koel Karo activists singing song at IRW 261114

K J Joy, SOPPECOM, Pune speaking on the issue of community initiatives for conflict resolution on rivers said that “there is a need to recognize the complexity, diversity and heterogeneity of conflicts around rivers. These conflicts often end up in courts for redressal. The experiences and struggles reveal limitations in the processes being handled in the court, thus raising the question of whether courts/tribunals are adequately equipped to redress these conflicts. At the same time there are several community evolved and driven resolution mechanisms, sometimes in the form of customary practices. These are often co-opted and/or sabotaged by vested interests and inappropriately mandated state agencies/ laws. There is a need to search for policy, legal and institutional avenues for legitimizing these resolution practices, and also frame alternative mechanisms within a normative framework of social justice, sustainability, and equity and democracy.”

Bhai KK Chatradhara on behalf of the group on “Campaigns for protection or rejuvenation of rivers” said that “river rejuvenation should be looked at from a holistic perspective – from source to sea. Cumulative Impact Assessment including downstream impact assessment should be done before taking up of any new project. That should require consultations with and consent of Gram Sabha and local panchayat raj institutions. Local community people should be involved in discussions and decision making processes at all levels. Effective cost benefit analysis including options analysis and direct and indirect costs incurred such as cost of decommissioning, aesthetic and landscape loss, disaster potential of an area should be assessed. Sand auditing should be carried out.”

​Deliberations at India Rivers Week-2014, New Delhi

Preeta Dhar representing the group on “Good legal interventions and secured rivers” pointed that “there is a need for addressing outdated laws and standards, gaps and for accounting for changes in technology.” The greater role of panchayati raj institutions and local communities in governance was stressed. The group also recommended the need for use of legal spaces to develop best practices and do go for strategic litigation.

Sudhirendar Sharma, speaking on behalf of the group on “Dams decommissioning and restored rivers” said that “decommissioning of dams is new in the Indian context and in the light of the Mullaperiyar Dam, highly contentious and political. The arguments favoring decommissioning, if at all, are in a nascent stage both in terms of arguments, language and its presentation. The idiom of decommissioning has yet to be located. Locating decommissioning in the context of potential politics is weak in argument and smells of what critics might argue as a case of kinetic politics.”

The India Rivers Week event is being organized between 24-27 November, 2014 by a consortium of NGOs including WWF India, INTACH, SANDRP, Toxics Link and PEACE Institute Charitable Trust, with additional support from Arghyam (Bengaluru), International Rivers (Mumbai), and Peoples Science Institute (Dehradun) to discuss, deliberate and exchange their experiences and ideas aimed at the conserving, rejuvenation, restoration of rivers in the country. With ‘Rivers in crisis’ as the theme, the Conference endeavors to devise a National Charter for Rivers and promote a National Forum for Restoration of Rivers.

Amita Bhaduri of India Water Portal

MEDIA REPORTS:

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/river-interlinking-nda-government-uma-bharati-india-river-week-ken-betwa-river-link-ganga/1/404126.html

India Rivers Week

India Rivers Week Day 2 roots strongly for Flowing Rivers!

 INDIA RIVERS WEEK _ November 25, 2014

A river is an ecological system that flows and performs many functions” says Ramaswamy R Iyer, former Secretary to the Government of India, at the India Rivers Week 2014

Over 125 river experts, planners, researchers, artists, enthusiasts and activists from different parts of the country that have congregated at first ever India Rivers Week being held in Delhi, discussed and debated on how to define a river. Ramaswamy R Iyer, former Secretary to the Government of India, defined the river as “A natural organic hydrological ecological system that flows & performs many functions.” The attempt was to pen an aspirational, visionary and implementable definition of rivers to underpin an India Rivers Charter”, to be prepared at the end of these deliberations.

Manoj Misra of PEACE Institute, New Delhi, speaking at the India Rivers Week-2014, said the working group he convened defined river as a, “Hydrological, ecological, geomorphic living entity containing other life forms, landscape level ecosystem in dynamic equilibrium between rainwater, snow, glaciers surface water, groundwater, sea, estuary and providing a large number of social, cultural, ecological and economic services to people and ecosystems all along its basins.”

The event is being organized between 24-27 November, 2014 by a consortium of NGOs including WWF India, INTACH, SANDRP, Toxics Link and PEACE Institute Charitable Trust, with additional support from Arghyam (Bengaluru), International Rivers (Mumbai), and Peoples Science Institute (Dehradun) to discuss, deliberate and exchange their experiences and ideas aimed at the conserving, rejuvenation, restoration of rivers in the country.

Can we think in terms of ‘rights of the river’ and then make it part of some legal system, questioned different groups. The groups were discussing the rivers right to unfettered flow, space for flood plains, flood, breathe, perform ecosystem functions, lateral connectivity and natural water.

Manu Bhatnagar, INTACH, representing the deliberations of another group said, “River is a living commons that drains a catchment along a natural course with natural and dynamic flow and providing ecological goods and services necessary for the development and sustenance of human civilizations under challenging social, economic, political and climatic drivers.” Speaking on the issue Professor Brij Gopal noted that, “River regulation is the root of all problems. We need to regulate human activities”.

“We are not obliging the rivers by editing her flow, we in fact are obliged by the rivers due to their life-giving flows”, said Mallika Bhanot, representing another group.

The conference also deliberated on what a river is not. Manshi Aasher said that a river is not static, an artificial drain, lifeless, embanked/ obstructed, without sand and sediments, carrier of wastewater or just a channel of water.

A living, wide, water course which has natural fresh, flow of water above and under the surface, in its course, nurturing life forms, ecosystems, culture, conserving biodiversity in it and is inclusive of small and big tributaries in its catchment area.

Shashank Shekhar explaining about river flows, clarified, “The flow with its natural variability includes natural water, nutrients, sediments and biota and is the defining characteristic of river systems.” Dinesh Mishra, Barh Mukti Abhiyan, said, “Rivers are self cleansing, flooding is purifying and rivers become pure after floods.” Pranab Choudhary discussed the issue of conservation of biodiversity as against utility and noted the importance of defining and protecting rights of riparian communities especially the poor, including from downstream areas, today these are neither assessed, nor compensated.

Paritosh Tyagi summed up the discussion by saying that the older concept of River Action Plan that focused on river flow should be replaced with focus on the complete basin.

2015 Rivers Calendar The organizers have brought out the 2015 desk calendar featuring the photos of 12 different rivers and highlighting the sacrifice tribals have made during the famous struggle against the Koel Karo project in Jharkhand.

From Sabita Kaushal, India Water Portal

India Rivers Week

Celebrating the story of Koel-Karo resistance: KKJS gets Bhigirath Prayas Samman at first India Rivers Week

Above: KKJS Activists receiving Bhagirath Prayas Samman Award from Justice Madan Lokur Photo: IRW

We are happy to share the story of Koel Karo Resistance even as the Koel Karo Jan Sangathan gets the Bhagirath Prayas Samman at First India Rivers Week (IRW) meeting at Delhi on Nov 26, 2014. The Award is being given by Justice Madan Lokur of Supreme Court of India. The Award includes a citation, a scroll and cash prize. KKJS is one of he three awardees, the only organisation to get this award this year. IRW is being organised by Peace Institute, WWF-India, INTACH, Toxics Link and SANDRP. It is honour for the exemplary work done to protect a river. The citation says:

The Organisers of India Rivers Week 2014 have great pleasure in awarding the

BHAGIRATH PRAYAS SAMMAN

To Koel Karo Jan Sangathan

in appreciation of its dedicated, valiant, untiring efforts to safeguard the integrity of the rivers Koel and Karo 

(Jharkhand).

Koel and Karo are tributaries of river Brahmani in the state of Jharkhand 

threatened by the Koel Karo hydroelectric projects. 

Koel Karo Jan Sangathan was born in 1976 as a community mobilisation 

effort to conserve their sacred sites and 

to look at alternative development paths in place of the proposed Koel Karo dam. 

The Sangathan has carried on a long and heroic struggle in the face of 

enormous pressures from the 

vested interests, battling tremendous odds to forge one of India’s foremost

 resistance movements 

to save rivers, riverine communities and their culture. In Feb 2001, 

8 people died in police firing 

during the struggle. The project remains cancelled due to the struggle.

The Sangathan has demonstrated the use of many innovative methods of struggle

including people’s curfew and people’s check points. The Sangathan has successfully 

mobilised support from villagers, academicians and political parties to ensure that t

heir rivers are still flowing free and pristine. Women of the river basin have played a 

key role in the Sangathan’s work.

It is an honour to recognize and celebrate the 

extraordinary and truly Bhagirathan efforts of the

Koel Karo Sangathan in ensuring the 

integrity of the rivers Koel and Karo.

Dignitaries on the dias to give away the first Bhagirath Prayas Samman Photo: India Rivers Week
Dignitaries on the dias to give away the first Bhagirath Prayas Samman Photo: India Rivers Week
Soma Munda ji of the KKJS, an intergal part of the struggle for decades Photo: IRW
Soma Munda ji of the KKJS, an intergal part of the struggle for decades Photo: IRW

A brief story on the long and arduous struggle 

According to the people of Munda tribe in Jharkhand, the whole planet was once under water. It is Sing-Bonga, the god of the Mundaris, who fashioned the earth with some clay from the bottom of the ocean. This he then populated with plants, trees, birds, animals, and finally, with human beings.

Munda Tribes celebrate Mehla Festival in Tapkara. Photo with thanks from: Felix Featurs/ Panos Features
Munda Tribes celebrate Mehla Festival in Tapkara. Photo with thanks from: Felix Featurs/ Panos Features

Thus is it that the Mundaris live on the land gifted to them by the Father of all human beings. Over the centuries, the already-sacred landscape became dotted with clusters of sasandiri- the stones marking the resting places of ancestors located at places specified by Sing-Bonga.

Sasandiris in Jharkhand Photo: The Heritage Trust
Sasandiris in Jharkhand Photo: The Heritage Trust

For much of the latter half of the 20th century, the Mundaris had to wage a long and hard struggle against the State to protect this sacred trust. Unlike how many other similar stories go, this ends in victory. That too, is a testament to the strength of the Mundaris and their deep connection with their lands.

The project: The story begins in the 1950s, when a hydro-electricity project was first conceptualised by the Bihar State Electricity Board[1]. This project aimed to generate 710 MW of electricity by the construction of  two earthen dams at a then-estimated cost of 157 crores[2]. Of these, one was a  55-meter high dam on north Karo and the second  was a 44-meter high dam on south Koel River.

The Koel RIver Photo from : Wikipedia
The Koel RIver Photo from : Wikipedia

The real cost of the project was far more than what any project report could budget for, and this was to be paid by the soon-to-be displaced Munda tribals. The 1973 project report estimated that 125 villages would be affected. This was contested by the locals who stated that 256 villages would be affected[3]. Also at stake were approximately 152  sarnas (sites for ritual festivities) and 300 sasandhris (Mathews, 2011).

The people: The Mundari were largely ignored when the project was being finalised. Roads were built and offices established without consulting the villagers. It is only when land began to be bought up that the people of the affected villages came to know of the plans for their ancestral lands. At that time, probably because they were unaware of the full implications  of the project, the Mundari were not opposed to the dam in principle. What disturbed them was the opacity and corruption in the land acquisition.

The struggle: This corruption caused the residents of the Koel and Karo rivers to form a group each to safeguard their interests. The dissatisfaction increased when the survey work led to damage of crops in the area. The two groups came together in 1976 as the Koel Karo Jan Sangathan (Koel Karo People’s Organization) KKJS to offer united resistance to the construction work and demand that work be entrusted to local people. It is also around this time that incidents such as deaths due to drowning near Kutku dam and lack of proper rehabilitation for the displaced of Subarnarekha dam opened the Mundaris eyes to the danger that this construction posed to their way of life. Extensive agitation in the following years led to work being stopped in 1979 till the issues could be resolved. The following year responsibility for the project passed from the Bihar State Electricity Board to the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation, causing a setback to the negotiations.

Till 1984, the villagers successfully prevented any work on the site using a variety of non-violent means despite the presence of troops sent in by the State officials to enable the land acquisition officials. The Mundharis worked to prevent the troops and officials from having access to water, firewood and even preventing them from going out into the forest to defecate. “We told them they can’t defecate on our sacred groves..”, said Soma Munda of the KKJS in an interview[4].

In August 1984, the Supreme Court ruled against the use of force to acquire land. The Government of Bihar then offered to build two ‘model villages’ for the Mundharis to decide whether they would agree to relocate. The KKJS retorted that it would first be essential to relocate the sasandiri. The two ‘model villages’ were never built, and things were at a standstill for the next decade.

Matters picked up again in 1995 when the then Prime Minister, PV Narsimha Rao declared his intention to lay the foundation stone of the Koel Karo project. The Mundaris resisted this by astonishingly simple and effective means- nearly 25,000 people lay down on the roads effectively blocking access.

Road Blockade in protest of Koel Karo Project Photo from: India Environment Portal
Road Blockade in protest of Koel Karo Project Photo from: India Environment Portal

In December 2000, the state of Jharkhand was carved out  of Bihar. Just two months later, in February 2001, the police fired 75 rounds (unofficial estimates say 150) on a peaceful crowd at Tapkara killing eight people and injuring more than 30 (PUCL,2002). The Tapkara shooting understandably sparked censure from the country and may have forced the government’s decision regarding the dam.

Meeting organised by Koel Karo Jan Sangathan after the day of firing. Photo: Frontline
Meeting organised by Koel Karo Jan Sangathan after the day of firing. Photo: Frontline

The result: In August 2003, the Koel Karo project was scrapped, ostensibly for financial reasons; The price had escalated from Rs.157 crores in 1976 to Rs.3,000 crores in 2003[5]. However, the KKJS as well as several others who have been linked with the struggle consider the sustained resistance to be the primary reason for the project being scrapped. It took another seven years for the government to shut down all offices and reassign staff. But on 21st July 2010 the Koel Karo project became history.

The reason why: Koel Karo is today one of the very rare instances in India where tribal peoples have successfully persuaded the government to shelve a sanctioned project. This is not due to any dearth of such similar struggles by equally determined people throughout the country. What is the difference?

One reason put forth by anthropologists is the strong sense of tribal identity. The Mundari have a strong and democratic tribal leadership system which continues today. They have a history of asserting their rights since the 19th century. The Chhota Nagpur Tenancy Act (1903) which safeguard the rights of tribals to their land is just one of the instances where they have brought pressure to bear on the government to maintain their tribal identity. In that respect, they see very little difference in colonial rule and the current government, both being secondary to tribal government. This is the reason that the Koel Karo struggle was able to mobilise people in their thousands and present such an united front. While the tribal governance may account for the united resistance put up by the Mundharis, their motivation however came from a far older source.

Fights of Birsa Munda Photo from: Sivatravelogue
Fights of Birsa Munda with the British Photo from: Sivatravelogue

It came from Sing-Bonga Himself. The Mundharis quite simply had no option but to hold on to their land. It is here that their ancestors were, and all through the resistance, not once did Sing-Bonga appear in a dream and give them permission to relocate the sasandiri. This deep and inviolable connection with the land was key to the struggle and manifested itself in the resistance slogans. Initially, the slogan was  “Jaan denge par jamin nahin denge (we will give our lives, but not our lands)”.  After Tapkara, they changed it to  Jaan bhi nahin denge, jamin bhi nahin denge, dam ko rok lenge” (we will give neither our lives nor our lands but we will stop the dam)”.

Dayamani Barla Photo: Tehelka
Dayamani Barla Photo: Tehelka

The struggle was lead by a number of tribal and non tribal leaders, notable amongst them is Ms. Dayamani Barla, who was involved with Koel Karo since 1990s. She says, “The natural resources to us are not merely means of livelihood, but our identity, dignity, autonomy and culture have been built on them for generations. These communities will not survive if they are alienated from the natural resources. How is it possible to rehabilitate or compensate us?’[6]

Later when Ms. Barla was imprisoned while upholding tribal rights, she wrote from the prison, ” I never overlooked the questions raised by the Jharkand people. The flowing water of the Koyal, Karo and Chata rivers is a witness to this. I learnt to write with my fingers in the mud and sand of this land. On the banks of the river Karo, while grazing my sheep, I learnt to bathe and swim. The shade of grass and trees covered with dew filled in the sky, gave me love.”

Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan puts the success of this movement down to persistence. The Mundharis successfully kept up an unrelenting and non-violent resistance for nearly three decades. To put this into perspective, it is in December 1929- only 18 years before achieving freedom- that the Indian National Congress passed a resolution calling for complete independence. Even dominion status was only demanded since 1916, when the All India Home Rule League was established. By that count, the Koel Karo struggle has lasted as long as India’s struggle for self-rule in one way or another.

And finally, Dharmadhikary points out one overwhelming lesson that present and future struggles can learn from Koel Karo. ‘Such struggles,’ he says ‘can be won.’

– Chicu Lokgariwar, chicu.l@gmail.com

Author is with India Water Portal and is based in Uttarakhand

Fishing at Koel River Photo: Uttam Krishn Pal
Fishing at Koel River Photo: Uttam Krishan Pal

Further Reading:

Bela Bhatia, Resistance and Repression, Frontline 2001 http://www.frontline.in/static/html/fl1805/18050430.htm

Kamayani Bali Mahabal, Dayamani Barla, The Voice of Jharkhand http://kractivist.wordpress.com/tag/dayamani-barla/

About Koel Karo Struggle from Friends of Narmada http://www.narmada.org/related.issues/koel.karo/koel.karo.appeal.html

Vasavai Kiro, Smitu Kothari, Savyasaachi, Culture, Creative Opposition and Alternative Development: Sustaining Struggle in the Koel-Karo Valleys

https://icrindia.files.wordpress.com/2012/03/29-culture-creative-opposition-and-alternative-development3.pdf

[1]     Mathews Rohan. 2011. The Koel Karo People’s Movement in Eastern India. URL: http://www.ritimo.org/article877.html

[2]     The Telegraph, 2003. Dam warriors in praise for son-of-soil. 05 August 2003. URL: http://www.telegraphindia.com/1030805/asp/jamshedpur/story_2234167.asp

[3]     PUCL Bulletin, September 2002. The adivasi struggle for land rights at Koel-Karo. URL:http://www.pucl.org/Topics/Industries-envirn-resettlement/2002/tapkara.html

[4]     Down to Earth. Leaders renege, but tribal collectivism holds forth. Down to Earth. July 31, 2003. URL: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/node/13200

[5]     The Telegraph. 2003. Dam warriors in praise for son-of-soil. Jamshedpur.05 August 2003. URl:http://www.telegraphindia.com/1030805/asp/jamshedpur/story_2234167.asp

[6]     Basu Maushumi. 2008. ‘Indian woman with a steely resolve’. BBC News. 21 October 2008. URL: