Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that mobilised tribal people, adivasis, farmers, environmentalists and human rights activists against the Sardar Sarovar Dam being built across the Narmada river, Gujarat, India.
Their mode of campaign includes hunger strikes and garnering support from noted film and art personalities (notably Bollywood film actor Aamir Khan). Narmada Bachao Andolan, together with its leading spokespersons Medha Patkar and Baba Amte, were the 1991 recipient of the Right Livelihood Award.
Post-1947, investigations were carried out to evaluate mechanisms in utilizing water from the Narmada river, which flows into the Arabian Sea after passing through the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Due to inter-state differences in implementing schemes and sharing of water, the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal was constituted by the Government of India on October 6, 1969 to adjudicate over the water disputes. This Tribunal investigated the matters referred to it and responded after more than 10 years. On December 12, 1979, the decision as given by the Tribunal, with all the parties at dispute binding to it, was released by the Indian Government.
In 1985, after hearing about the Sardar Sarovar dam, Medha Patkar and her colleagues visited the project site and noticed the project work being shelved due to an order by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India. The reasons for this was cited as "non-fulfillment of basic environmental conditions and the lack of completion of crucial studies and plans". What she noticed was that the people who were going to be affected were given no information, but for the offer for rehabilitation. Due to this, the villagers had many questions right from why their permission was not taken to whether a good assessment on the ensuing destruction was taken. Furthermore, the officials related to the project had no answers to their questions. While World Bank, the financing agency for this project, came into the picture, Patkar approached the Ministry of Environment to seek clarifications. She realized, after seeking answers from the ministry, that the project was not sanctioned at all, and wondered as to how funds were even sanctioned by the World Bank. After several studies, they realized that the officials had overlooked the post-project problems.
Through Patkar's channel of communication between the government and the residents, she provided critiques to the project authorities and the governments involved. At the same time, her group realized that all those displaced were only given compensation for the immediate standing crop and not for displacement and rehabilitation.
As Patkar remained immersed in the Narmada struggle, she chose to quit her Ph. D. studies and focus entirely on the Narmada activity. Thereafter, she organized a 36-day long, solidarity march among the neighboring states of the Narmada valley from Madhya Pradesh to the Sardar Sarovar dam site. She said that the march was "a path symbolizing the long path of struggle (both immediate and long-term) that [they] really had". This march was resisted by the police, who according to Patkar were "caning the marchers and arresting them and tearing the clothes off women activists".
There were groups such as Gujarat-based Arch-Vahini (Action Research in Community Health and Development) and Narmada Asargrastha Samiti (Committee for people affected by the Narmada dam), Madhya Pradesh-based Narmada Ghati Nav Nirman Samiti (Committee for a new life in the Narmada Valley) and Maharashtra-based Narmada Dharangrastha Samiti (Committee for Narmada dam-affected people) who either believed in the need for fair rehabilitation plans for the people or who vehemently opposed dam construction despite a resettlement policy.
While Patkar established Narmada Bachao Andolan in 1989, all these groups joined this national coalition of environmental and human rights activists, scientists, academics and project-affected people with a non-violent approach.
Within the focus of Narmada Bachao Andolan towards the stoppage of the Sardar Sarovar dam, she advised addition of World Bank to their propaganda. Using the right to fasting, she undertook a 22 day fast that almost took her life. In 1991, her actions led to an unprecedented independent review by the World Bank. The Morse Commission, appointed in June 1991 at the recommendation of The World Bank President Barber Coinable, conducted its first independent review of a World Bank project. This independent review stated that "performance under these projects has fallen short of what is called for under Bank policies and guidelines and the policies of the Government of India." This resulted in the Indian Government pulling out of its loan agreement with the World Bank. In response, Patkar said "It is very clear and obvious that they used this as a face-saving device", suggesting that if this were not to happen, the World Bank would eventually would have withdrawn the loan. The World Bank's participation in these projects was eventually cancelled in 1995.
She further undertook a similar fast in 1993 and resisted evacuation from the dam site. In 1994, the Bachao Andolan office was attacked reportedly by a couple of political parties, where Patkar and other activists were physically assaulted and verbally abused. In protest, a few NBA activists and she began a fast and 20 days later, they were arrested and forcibly fed intravenously.
Patkar led Narmada Bachao Andolan had filed a written petition with the Supreme Court of India [the nation's apex court] seeking stoppage of construction on the Sardar Sarovar dam. The court initially ruled the decision in the Andolan's favor thereby effecting an immediate stoppage of work at the dam and directing the concerned states to first complete the rehabilitation and replacement process.
The Supreme Court also deliberated on this issue further for several years but finally upheld the Tribunal Award and allowed the construction to proceed, subject to conditions. The court introduced a mechanism to monitor the progress of resettlement pari passu with the raising of the height of the dam through the Grievance Redressal Authorities (GRA) in each of the party states. The court’s decision referred in this document, given in the year 2000 after seven years of deliberations, has paved the way for completing the project to attain full envisaged benefits. The court's final line of the order states, "Every endeavour shall be made to see that the project is completed as expeditiously as possible".
Subsequent to the court’s verdict, Press Information Bureau (PIB) featured an article which states that:
Amongst the major celebrities who have shown their support for Narmada Bachao Andolan are Booker Prize winner, Arundhati Roy and Aamir Khan..1994, saw the launch of Narmada:A valley Rises, by filmmaker Ali Kazimi.This film documents the five week long Sangharsh Yatra of 1991. The film went on to win several awards and is considered by many to be a classic film on the issue. In 1996, veteran documentary film maker, Anand Patwardhan, made an award-winning documentary on this issue, titled: 'A Narmada Diary'.
The Narmada dam's benefits include provision drinking water, power generation and irrigation facilities. However, the campaign led by the NBA activists has held up the project's completion, and the NBA supporters have indulged in physical attacks on local people who accepted compensation for moving.Others have argued that the Narmada Dam protesters are little more than environmental extremists who use pseudoscientific agitprop to scuttle the development of the region, and that the dam will provide agricultural benefits to millions of poor in India.