The Drop in the River

Love—in the production of affective networks, schemes of cooperation, and social subjectivities—is an economic power.  Conceived in this way, love is not, as it is often characterized, spontaneous or passive.  It does not simply happen to us, as if it were an event that mystically arrives from elsewhere.  Instead it is an action, a biopolitical event, planned and realized in common.
Michael Hardt & Antonio Negri, Common Wealth, p.180


 |on the way to a “hilly” Adivasi area, NBA flag blazing from the jeep|

I received this missive a couple of days ago from a dear friend and mentor.  It is a phenomenon that I feel rippling in circles everywhere, the conscious committed act of joining together -not necessarily in love at first.  But with intention, it seems to always come.

A key nuance of the work, the mantle that NBA has taken up is to build solidarity amongst very different people, across horizons, caste, religion, and of course gender.  Effectively to combat racism and sexism not only because it is right, but because it is absolutely vital to winning any battle against the state.  This was lost on me upon first getting here.  Medhadidi would speak about working (also known as “organizing” where I come from) first in the “hilly” areas and then moving to the “plains.”  I interpreted this talk as some kind of NBA manifest destiny – that they were simply expanding their geographical reach.  But implied in this seemingly simple statement is a world of effort to bridge differences.  My first couple of site visits were in the Nimadi plains, where people seemed activated and organized.  And then I went to the “hilly” towns, like Bhaadal and Bitaaraa.  Slowly Medhadidi’s words began to take on meaning:

|waving to chilli sorters on the way to the boat and Bitaaraa| 

The hilly areas, where NBA’s work first began, is more or less 100% Adivasi.  Physically, these villages are spread out with large distances between family fields, and seasonality in farming, grazing and shepherding – due to the river’s changing face from monsoon to drought every year.  Culturally, people are reserved, independent, and appear gentle and believing.  The more I ask about these folks, the more I learn of a history of government authorities, policemen, and bureaucrats who have taken advantage of the Adivasi ways, demanding royal treatment on visits, exacting tribute where none is due, and making life harder for people who already follow a beautiful but rough path.


|intrepid Medhadidi crossing the alluvial plain at the base of Bitaaraa village|

This became most obvious in Bitaaraa, another village located on the Narmada River.  On this visit, it so happened the government doctor had boated in and was making his rounds as well.  Just that week, a child had died in nearby Bhaadal.  And now his brother was terribly ill.  Upon meeting the doctors, Medhadidi had them join our village meeting.

And then let them have it.

For almost two hours, she lambasted them on the poor health services in the region: visits routinely skipped by doctors, lack of medical facilities, medicines or education, the difficulty and expense for so many Adivasi’s (some of whom do not engage in the cash economy at all) in getting themselves to a town for health check-ups.  And grilled these men on why it had been so long since anyone had seen these villagers. 

Scolded is more accurate.

She then asked the villagers to recount how many children died that year.  Amongst just the men sitting with us the number climbed to 10, then 15.  (This didn’t include women who may have had birth complications, nor women who may have died in pregnancy/childbirth). During this time, at first the Adivasi men present held quiet.  But upon the momentum kicked up by Medhadidi, they came out with hard stories of sick kids who expired after a few days – their faces a mask of anger though their words were few.


|afternoon meeting in Bitaaraa|

The racial component was clear.  These people look and act different, on top of which they are not “educated” or inculcated in typical Indian bureaucratic society.  And it was they, regularly cheated of services and resources, who were being asked to sacrifice not only land and home for these dams, but surely their nature-based way of life in re-settling miles from the riverbed.  This is surely worth fighting for.


|meeting participants and their apprentices|

So onto Nimadi, the plains areas – where farmers have been exposed to the Sarkari (government) and politics for years now.  These peoples are primarily non-Adivasi, caste-based,  integrated into Indian society, and for the most part, better off than the tribals.  They were also more cynical about the issue as their politicians had failed to protect them from the large dams on Narmada.  Because the Sardar Sarovar Dam offers few benefits to Madhya Pradesh where these farmers live (most of the water and power will go to the state of Gujurat), while asking them to shoulder most of the impacts, Madhya Pradesh had been against the dam at the beginning, with politicians taking up the cause.  But it was quickly abandoned, for political horse-trading, gerrymandering, or very possible, it was just too hard to keep Gujarat at bay.  What did it matter anyway?  The fancy engineers claimed it would only affect a handful of thousands of families – and provide water for 50,000 of India’s poorest.  (We will revisit the Travesty of these numbers in my next installment).  Hence, the Nimadi villagers, already deserted by their politicians, took more time to trust that NBA in fact was here to stay and fight for their cause.

As the damn building started, so too did the building amongst people – across Adivasi and non, within Nimadi’s castes as well.  And everywhere, the effort to activate the ever-conspicuously missing Indian woman.

I can’t comment on the 25 years of holding meetings, ensuring people did not disrespect each other on class, race or gender lines, could look each other in the eye, learn how to follow and lead both.  What I can tell you is something I witnessed one night that floored me.  That was truly revolutionary.


 |the tragically beautiful reservoir below Bitaaraa|

On our way back from Bitaaraa, an Adivasi family hitched a ride in our jeep – ironically because their children were sick and needed attention.  Attempting to take the least amount of space possible, husband,wife and four kids had quietly crammed themselves in the back of the vehicle with our luggage.  We insisted on taking our bags and the oldest child in our back seat to give them more room.  Before reaching home, we stopped at a festivity in a Nimadi town, where the town’s mayor insisted we eat dinner at his home (such is the way when I travel with Medhadidi). 

We pulled up to a veritable mansion, and entered a marbled hallway, leading to a large open room to be served dinner langar-style.  The Adivasi family stayed in the car at first, assuming they weren’t invited.  They had to be nudged out of the car, gently pushed into the house, and asked to sit for dinner.  As they came in, instead of sitting on the chairs, sure enough in typical Adivasi fashion, they squatted in a corner.

It was astounding.  The temerity with which they came in, the children shoeless and dusty, the parents quiet and unassuming.  And then, the most wealthy and respected Nimadi family in town served them dinner as honored guests just like us.  Perhaps it was because they came with us.  Perhaps it was not as extraordinary as I imagined.  But watching as the family ate in that huge white hall and these plains people served us food, I felt a pride in humanity that is often fleeting. 

And remembered how when the family first joined us in the car how my own mind jumped first to germs and self-preservation.  How I was more concerned about getting sick than getting these children better.  Short a thought it was, it came and went.  A gentle reminder that I too can focus on difference when I am scared, when it serves me.

I have heard since then that in the struggles against submergence, the Nimadi people would organize, take shifts, and join the Adivasis in the dhoop satyagraha – standing in the rising waters for days and nights.  They would protest, get beaten, get jailed – some of whom had nothing to lose from the dam, but felt the injustice. 

Riding back that night after dinner, as the warm little body sitting next to me slowly lulled to sleep against my side, there was little else to do but put my arm around him and feel that this child is mine too. 

Two days later, we learned that the second child who was sick in Bhaadal had been brought into town for help. He had received a blood transfusion and was immediately sent home after. He died the next morning from complications.  Another child lost to…take your pick:  

  1. Poor medical access 
  2. Botched up medical care
  3. Pocketed funds intended for health care
  4. All of the above


|the girls of bitaaraa sporting sleek short hair|

For him, a song by the girls of Bhaadal – about the value and potential of a child to become a star.  A reminder that all these children of ours require us to forget our differences and even ourselves for the running river.


About v*

I live, work, and play in Oaktown CA. I have a deep interest in how people's movements germinate and grow, which was the impetus for the travel blog, Moving with Medha. Now, my head is in creating healthy people and communities. A broad net, but a fun one to bounce in.
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