Thursday, 15 March 2018

Startling news: RO-RO Ferry, Ghogha - Dahej (Gujarat)


Prime Minister Mr. Narendra Modi  likes to inaugurate projects and at times even before they are fully completed. The inauguration of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) just before the Gujarat assembly elections in 2017 is one such case. The canal network of the SSP is yet to be completed. 

Another project which was inaugurated  by Mr. Modi just before the Gujarat elections in 2017 was the Ghogha Dahej RO-RO ferry service. The inauguration of the ferry service was done with great fanfare and the project called the dream project and an invaluable gift to India:

However, startling facts regarding the ferry service have been reported by one of the leading newspapers of Gujarat, Saurashtra Samachar dated 14-March-18. I translate important excerpts from the Gujarati news paper for wider readership here:

OBSTACLE: There is a requirement of hundred meters channel for the ferry as against which only fifty meters has been constructed.

"Ghogha –Dahej ferry service in danger due to problems in dredging.

"The sand excavated by dredging is being dumped just nearby.

"The problem of silting in Ghogha and Dahej has become dangerous.

"Saurashtra Samachar, Ground Report:

Ro-Ro ferry, Photo: Financial Express

"Bhavnagar: To start Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream project Ghogha- Dahej RO-RO ferry in April, the joint secretary of Shipping Ministry has taken to task the officers of GMB (Gujarat Maritime Board) and has given an ultimatum to complete all the works by 31st of March. However the reality is absolutely the opposite.

"In order to navigate the RO-RO ship, a five meter deep and hundred meters wide navigation channel is required. By 13th of March, out of the hundred meters channel, only fifty meters of channel has been completed. Besides, as per the agreement contract, the sand excavated by dredging which had to be dumped five kilometers inside the sea, has been dumped just nearby. Because of this, the navigation channel is getting more dangerous.  Four meters high heaps of sand and hard creta have been created just close to the water due to which the natural flow of water has been obstructed. And experts are voicing fear that in summer sea currents  more severe than the ordinary will be experienced in this channel. Due to financial problems between the GMB  and the contractor, the work had become slow and its direct impact is being seen on the project.

"Ro-Ro ferry as decided is of the size of 23 meters, and as per the rules, the width of the channel should be four times more than the ferry but that has not happened.

"Violation of Environmental Clearance too has taken place:

"Concerned ministries of the Central Government had given necessary permissions for dredging for the Ghogha-Dahej, Ro-Ro Ferry service and some conditions were imposed.  The environmental clearance given was for the dredging of four million cubic meters. Till date dredging of 3.70 million cubic meter has been completed and yet out of a hundred meters of channel, only fifty meters has been completed. Dredging work on both sides, at Ghogha and Dahej remains to be completed. Under such circumstances there is clearly a possibility of the violation of environmental clearance. Besides this, once the channel is completed, survey will have to be carried out by National Agency and then navigation chart is to be prepared, and accordingly the work of installing boya remains to be done.”

As I write this, I am reminded of the serious concerns raised by experts about the rush to commission a NTPC project in Uttar Pradesh in which forty two workers died due to a blast. 


Thursday, 25 January 2018

In Memory of Indutai Khanolkar

Indutai was different, very different. Parents of not all middle class activists in the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) were happy that their well educated daughters and sons left lucrative careers to be a part of a people’s struggle, where there was not only no income but personal risk too- risk of facing state repression, jails, and attacks by political goons. But Indutai not only supported her daughter Medha Patkar lead the NBA but she faced the many added challenges that Medha took upon herself like indefinite fasts and jal samarpan. This was possible only because Indutai was as much a political activist in her own right as she was a mother. But today when Indutai is no more, I sit back and think how tumultuous it must have been for her to balance her political ideology with her feelings as a mother. Indutai did it with resilience, insulating the NBA from her turmoil in those trying times. 

Indutai Khanolkar. Photo Source: FIRSTPOST

Indutai was as much an active part of the NBA as the hundreds of supporters of the struggle from outside the submergence zone who worked for the movement tirelessly with utmost commitment and zeal. It was because of ardent supporters like Indutai that the NBA spread far beyond the banks of the River Narmada. 

After having retired from the postal department in the year 1987, Indutai dedicated her life to the issues of women as part of the organisation Swadhar. Her own upbringing was amidst Rashtriya Sewa Dal. Her husband Late Shri Vasant Khanolkar, was a well known trade unionist. With such background it is not surprising that Indutai was herself an active member of NBA and visited the Narmada valley often particularly when the villages were facing the threat of eviction or submergence. In those days roads and transport was poor. She took many arduous journeys through bumpy roads, rickety public transport and often on foot to reach the remote submergence villages in the Vindhya and Satpura mountain ranges to be with the people of the Narmada Valley struggling for their river and survival. Even at an advanced age, she lived like any other in the villages, even in those areas which had no electricity and/or occupied by police threatening people to move out. Coming from Mumbai it must have been hard but she was so much at home whenever she came that it felt she was herself a resident of the Narmada valley. 

I will always remember her quiet but stead fast, ever so helpful presence not only in the Narmada valley, but also in many of the NBA programmes, fasts, indefinite sit – ins and dharnas in the cities too. In the early and mid nineties NBA had a full-fledged office in the city of Mumbai run by senior activists like Lata P M, Ganesh, and so many others. Indutai took up many of the responsibilities of NBA that typically spilled over out of the office and she was available 24x7 for any help that was required. Indutai’s own house was often like an extended office. 

 I wish to recount one incident narrated by Keshavbhau Vasave, a senior Adivasi leader of NBA which will vividly describe the diverse roles Indutai played in the movement. Originally told in Marathi, I translate some excerpts from Keshavbhau’s interview for wider readership. Here Keshavbhau talks about his ordeal when he went to Mumbai in the early nineties from his far away remotely located forest village Nimgavan on the banks of Narmada to get his passport issued. Keshavbhau as one of the founding members and leaders of NBA was chosen to go to Sweden to receive the Right Livelihood award on behalf of NBA along with Medha Patkar. Keshubhau shares:

“...After I was selected to go abroad I reached Mumbai to stay for a month to get my papers ready. I went to every office to get documents... While issuing passport the following question arose:

 ‘While going abroad, on your way and in case of an accident [death], your body will be reached to Mumbai. At whose house should it be reached in Mumbai? ...You belong to Dhule district. Who should it be reached to at Dhule?’[1]

“I gave the address of Dashtrath Tatya at Dhule.

 “[While in Mumbai] I was given place to stay at the Yuva[2] office. I was staying there alone...After reaching there [Yuva office] different kinds of scenes began to float before my eyes.  Since a month I have left my wife and children and have come to Mumbai. I have to go abroad. I have to accept the award.

“But where is your body to be reached?’

 “After having been asked this question, I was reminded of it constantly- even in my sleep. After that, I thought, there is nothing wrong if I do not go. I have left my small children [back home] to come here [to Mumbai]. If something untoward will happen on the way, nothing of me will remain.”

It is interesting that when such thoughts were going on in Keshavbhau’s mind, his reference point in Mumbai was Indutai. This was often so with many other NBA activists also. Keshavbhau further narrates: 

“Instead of that if I will cheat upon Medhatai’s mother and go away [back home] – what harm is in it? I picked up the phone and called Medhatai’s mother and lied to her- ‘Aji, I have not come prepared to go abroad. My clothes, etc are all at home. I had come to get my passport done. I need to get my clothes. So I will go home and come back’.

“‘No! No! Medha will surely be angry with me. You cannot go’, this is what she [Indutai] said.

“‘I will go today and return tomorrow or the day after’, I was saying this [to Indutai]. I was not able to concentrate. I was weary of staying in Mumbai for a month. I was spending days eating vada-pau.

“‘Okay, will you return day after tomorrow morning...If you will not return, Medha will definitely scold’, she said.

“‘Aji, please send a boy here. This is because I have not seen the ST stand’, I said. Immediately in no time, a young boy came and reached me to the ST Stand...”

This is how Indutai played so many different and important roles in the NBA and supported the many activists and activities of the struggle. For all of us who have been a part of the NBA, she will always be remembered as one among us and also as a very brave mother. Very brave indeed.

Today, Narmada Bachao Andolan loses yet another of its members in Indutai and we salute her.

[1] Possibly these questions were asked in those days while issuing passport to those not familiar with “main stream” languages.
[2] The organisation Yuva has been one of the main supporters of NBA and played a very important role in the struggle particularly in its formative years.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

One who traveled on the less travelled paths

Dinkerbhai Dave, one of the strongest pillars of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in Gujarat passed away on the morning of the 9th of January 2018. I remember Dinkerbhai in so many different ways- a friend, a colleague, more like a member of family. I remember him even more as one who dared to challenge the establishment in the State of Gujarat over Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) where few did. But most of all, I will remember him as the one who fought adversaries with jest and worked in most unpleasant of circumstances with an absolute jovial disposition. 

Dinkerbhai, third from left, expressing his determination to fight the Sardar Sarovar Project along with the people of the Narmada Valley. Photo Sourrce: Not Known.

I recall a meeting with select proponents and opponents of the SSP in Navsari in South Gujarat in the year 1990. Even before the meeting could commence two busloads of political goons of the then strongman and Chief Minister Chimanbhai Patel barged into the premises and physically disrupted the meeting. While all of us were shocked and dejected, Dinkerbhai in his typical jovial manner lightened our moods so that we could get back to the work we had assembled for. He said, “These are all bhaduti manso [paid people]. We should not get disappointed because of them. Many did not even know where SSP is being built”. NBA’s meetings in Gujarat were on many occasions disrupted, be it in Bhavnagar, Ahmedabad, etc but Dinkerbhai helped in restoring the faith and mood to keep going and more so with upbeat energy. Dinkerbhai could make light of the most unfavorable of situations and simply go on. Nothing could dishearten him. This was his biggest strength. 

Dinkerbhai in the center in one of the programs of the NBA. Photo Source: Not known

I recall yet another occasion when I had accompanied Dinkerbhai to Lokbharti, the esteemed Gandhian rural educational institute near Sanosra, Bhavnagar in Gujarat.  Dinkerbhai himself was a student of Lokbharti once. We had gone there to request the persons in charge to let NBA place its view point before its students as to why it opposes SSP. Dinkerbhai was very confident that at least Lokbharti would not turn us down as other organizations and institutes in Gujarat we normally approached did. I do not wish to name the person now but one of the senior administrators at Lokbharti told us, “First you go and convince Babubhai Patel, our senior. If you will succeed in convincing him, we will invite you to a meeting here.” 

Now, Babubhai Jashbhai Patel, a Gandhian had chosen to become the Narmada Development Minister and that too in the Chimanbhai Patel Government. Babubhai as Narmada Minister was one of the strongest proponents of the SSP among the Gandhians although he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time of Machu Dam breakage in Morbi in which five to ten thousand people had died. In spite of being a witness to one of the worst dam disasters in the world, Babubhai was presiding over the building of SSP as the Narmada Minister. There was no way in which we could have convinced Babubhai although the NBA had debated the issue with him earlier at a meeting organized by some senior and respected Gandhians at Vedchi. I was deeply saddened that even Lokbharti would turn us away like this! But Dinkerbhai laughed and said, “Don’t you worry, this is a small thing. We will come again. Let us right now go to meet the Gandhian Ashram head near Amreli.” And off we would go laughing and joking to try our luck elsewhere. This is how with Dinkerbhai in the lead, NBA could hold many a meetings across Gujarat on the issue of SSP amidst unprecedented opposition. 

Dinkerbhai loved rivers. Dinkerbhai on his farm on the banks of River Sarabrmati, Dholka, Gujarat. Photo: Nandini Oza

Dinkerbhai, a strong Gandhian at heart, tried his best to debate the issue with other veteran Gandhians of Gujarat at the risk of being sidelined by his own Sarvodaya family to whom he was close. Dinkerbhai often approached Late Shri Chunibhai Vaidya, another respected Gandhian to convince him to withdraw his steadfast support to Chimanbhai Patel in building the SSP. Although Chunibhai Vaidya himself had once fought against the adverse impacts caused by dams like Dantiwada and Sipu in Gujarat, particularly in the downstream areas, Dinkerbhai could not convince him.  Instead, Dinkerbhai himself lost some of his leverage among the many Gandhians and the well placed Gandhian institutes in Gujarat. But such things did not matter to Dinkerbhai and he never lost heart. Dinkerbhai tirelessly traveled the length and breadth of Gujarat to organize NBA meetings and succeeded in organizing meetings at many places. This was possible only because Dinkerbhai engaged with the nastiest of proponents of the SSP in a lighter vein and in a friendly way even after suffering insults sometimes. This character of Dinkerbhai to engage with even angry opponents jovially helped NBA sustain and grow in Gujarat. Dinkerbhai was deeply rooted into the culture of Gujarat and this too helped in the expansion of NBA in a hostile atmosphere. And so did his genuine simplicity, selflessness and sincerity. 

As the opposition to the SSP grew and as submergence in the Narmada Valley commenced, Dinkerbhai convinced the organization he was working full-time to let him give over fifty percent of his time to the NBA. And to the credit of the organization, they let him do so. And so did his family, more importantly his very loving wife Jayshreeben who managed their home in his absence. His family supported him in spite of knowing well that if Dinkerbhai did not associate the way he did with the NBA, he would reach places in Gujarat’s political and social life.

Dinkerbhai stood with the people of Vadgam, the first village in Gujarat to submerge in the dam waters when waters rose and entered the homes of the people for the first time. He would walk many kilometers across hills to reach without fail the submergence villages heavily guarded by the police and where entry was prohibited. This Dinkerbhai would do by convincing the police of the sanctity of his purpose and by befriending them.  On reaching, in spite of being tired to the bone, he would engage everyone describing vividly how he had managed to achieve the near impossible fete. And all would laugh forgetting for a while the tragedy unfolding around them in the Narmada valley.

Dinkerbhai sharing his views against SSP as a Gujarati with the people of the Narmada Valley. Photo Source: Not known.

Last year, when I had the good opportunity to visit Dinkerbhai at his home in Dholka, one of the first things he did was to take me to see the dysfunctional Narmada canals which were built at great cost taking up the lands of farmers but had not once supplied water to the parched fields. When Mr. Narendra Modi inaugurated the dam before the Gujarat State elections in 2017, Dinkerbhai called to say that it is time we travel across Gujarat and bring out the facts of the Narmada Canal and that large parts of it were not yet built/completed or if built, many parts remained non- functional. He was very keen to expose the truth behind the project which the PM had just inaugurated. My last conversation with Dinkerbhai in December 2017, just a few weeks before he left us was when he once again reminded me to insist with Shripad (Dharmadhikary) to take a month off to accompany him to assess the  canal network of SSP and its other claims. " I will make all other arrangements", he said. Such was Dinkerbhai's commitment to the NBA and the issues it had raised. 

There are countless other incidents concerning Dinkerbhai in the NBA and his contribution to the struggle can fill pages. It would not be possible to narrate all the incidents but it is important to share one particular incident here. In his interview, respected Girishbhai Patel, the founding and veteran member of the NBA while recalling the incident of the arrest of over eighteen NBA activists and supporters in Gujarat in the late eighties for having breached the draconian Official Secrets Act at Kevadia Colony has this to say about Dinkerbhai:

“The right to freedom of speech is important in an open society…That is, people have the right to know and to be informed about the affairs of the State…We used to hold meetings frequently there [at Kevadia]. The area around Kevadia as well as the area around the [Sardar Sarovar] dam was already declared prohibited area... Once it was decided to have a large meeting of all the three States and many people had come. At that time they [Government] declared that this is a prohibited area and no meeting can be held. …

“As people had already arrived, we were wondering what to do next…It suddenly struck us that night that let us defy [the Official Secrets Act]…  How should we go was an issue as there were CID and police personnel everywhere. At many places people were stopped and cordoned off by the police. We had formulated the whole plan as to where in the market place should everyone reach before the program that was scheduled to start at ten in the morning. 

“We had worked out in detail how and who should give a signal so that everyone would assemble at one time before anyone would know of the plan… That day morning, each one of us took our position in a different place; someone at a tea stall, someone at the hotel, someone at a shop, someone on a scooter, and so on… Likewise we all 10-12 people assembled. And exactly at the given time, all of us, shouting Narmada Bachao slogan came together. The police were taken by surprise. They caught us all…We were taken to the Garudeshwar police station. This was the first agitation against the Official Secrets Act in the whole of India and this happened in our Narmada struggle…The Act was such that no meeting could be conducted at any place where the Act [is in place] or if an area is declared prohibited…The punishment was severe and its jurisdiction was under the district and sessions court... Therefore this was a major issue in law- free speech verses official secrets...   

“…we were taken to Garudeshwar [police station] that morning… We were to be produced [before the Magistrate] within twenty four hours. The police was writing down everyone’s name. Many pleasant incidents took place. We were given good snacks but Dinkerbhai decided to play mischief [Laughs]. He was asked his name. He replied- ‘Dinker Dave.’ He was asked his father’s name. He said- ‘I will not give my father’s name.’ He was asked the reason for his denial by the police. So he said, ‘I have not come here after seeking permission from my father!’ [Laughs]…

“That fellow [police] said that the matter will not proceed any further if Dinkerbhai does not give his father’s name and, ‘We will not produce anyone before the court.’ The arguments went on till afternoon. We wondered why all this has had to come to Dinkerbhai’s mind right now! [Laughs]  I finally told Dinkerbhai. ‘Give the name or else we will have to spend the night here if they will not produce us.’ Ultimately he gave the name [of his father] and we were produced before a first class Judicial Magistrate at night…”

This was typical of Dinkerbhai to convert most serious of adversity into a kind of comic situation and move ahead!  And so, every one of us in the NBA awaited Dinkerbhai’s arrival and he would spontaneously turn a serious and sometimes gloomy atmosphere into a happy and energetic one. 

Dinkerbhai took death lightly too! On his Face Book Post of 24th December 2017, as if he had a premonition, he writes, “मै भारत फ्री [फिर] जन्म लेकर लोकस्वराज स्थापित करना चाहता हू!” And when I read this yesterday, in midst of my sorrow of having lost a dear friend, I could not help smiling for Dinkerbhai had already planned where he wished to be reborn and what he wished to do! 

We will miss you Dinkerbhai and terribly so. Zindabad. 

11th January 2018

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Sangam House-International Writers' Residency, Nrityagram, Bangalore

Having just returned from a four week stay at Sangam House International Writers’ Residency, I can well say that Sangam House is a writer’s paradise. Initiated by a group of acclaimed writers, Sangam House is hosted within the beautiful premises of Nrityagram, the dance school founded by Late Protima Gauri Bedi near Bangalore. The sprawling campus of Nrityagram where the Sangam House Writers’ Residency is hosted has been designed by the well known architect Gerard da Cunha. The local material, exposed stone and brick structures, mud tiles, in-situ flooring, thatched roof, simple but attractive architectural designs that seamlessly merge with the beautiful landscape of Nrityagram add to the aura of the writers’ residency. Stone and mud sculptures as well as striking photographs of dancers in sensual thribhangi (three bends of the body) Odissi postures by renowned artists adorn the Nrityagram campus. The architecture and the art at Nrityagram further inspire writers to be their creative best.

Nrityagarm. Photo: Shripad Dharmadhikary.

Nrityagram. Photo: Shripad Dharmadhikary.

Exposed stone and mud structures at Nrityagram. Photo: Nandini Oza

Among the many beautiful structures of Nrityagram, the residential complex for the writers’ named Kula which means home, is also brilliantly designed and constructed with local material. It is at the Kula that eighteen to twenty writers from across the world are offered a maximum of four week residency every year. The Sangam House receives over hundred applications from writers around the globe. At a time, there are up to eight resident writers at the Kula between the months of November and February every year. The Sangam House residency has hosted around hundred and fifty writers from across the world since its inception a decade ago.

Kula, Sangam House Writers' Residence. Photo: Nandini Oza

Rooms for writers at Kula. Photo: Nandini Oza

The individual rooms offered to the writers at Kula have all the modern facilities although the design is traditional. The writers’ have the entire day to themselves to write without a care of the daily humdrum. There is a well stocked kitchenette with generous supply of food and drinks within the Kula that the writers can avail of any time of the day. Besides, delicious and very healthy meals are provided by the Nrityagram kitchen in the dining area shared with the acclaimed Odissi dancers of the dance school. Lunch with the lively and beautiful dancers in their colorful attire is an added delight where writers get an opportunity to interact with the dancers closely.  

The common area at Kula. Photo: Nandini Oza

 The path from the Kula to the Nrityagram common dining area itself is a dream walk with diverse species of plants and trees with wonderful bird life. On the way one passes the dancing areas of the school where dancers with fit and flexible bodies practice tough Odissi dance steps and postures. The disciplined regime and fitness of the dancers too inspire the writers to follow suit. The Gurukul Parampara practiced at Nrityagram is a very humbling experience. The writers’ are free to watch the dance practice at the Nrityagram dance school during the day or in the evenings at the amphitheatre.  The amphitheatre is an attractive structure made of stone and red mud where Nrityagram hosts its annual dance program called Vasantsabbha which some of the lucky writers get to see. While there are writers' residencies across the World, the confluence of dancers and writers at Sangam House is unique and special.

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Along with the lovely campus, there are other features of the Sangam House residency that are specially designed for writers and cater to their needs. A carefree writing time for a month amidst pristine nature away from the maddening crowds is rare and an absolute delight. Often birds such as the hoopoe, bulbul, woodpeckers, partridges, sun-birds, etc can be seen while the writer is at the writing desk overlooking a window. The windows open to wide expanses of green fields and trees. Writing is essentially an individual exercise, many times quite isolating and lonely. Sangam House carefully offers the required isolation and space that a writer requires during the day. At the same time it offers an excellent opportunity to writers to mingle with other resident writers from across the world in the evenings.

Four week of stay with seven other writers at Sangam House is not only an enlightening experience but it is also an opportunity to develop lasting friendships. Writers at Sangam House leave behind their published books which are stocked in a library across the Kula with free access. While writers read and write through the day, long walks through the famous grasslands of Hesaraghatta where Nrityagram is located are popular. And then at sharp seven in the evening, winding up the day's work, one and all come together to sing, eat, dance, share writings and lives over drinks and food. Delicious dinner is sent across to Kula by Nrityagram kitchen and to it, some additional dish is added by a cooking enthusiast writer. Once a week, the writers cook together, mostly the cuisines of the region they belong to. With sumptuous and diverse food, yogasan at the Nrityagram yoga centre built out of stone and thatched roof becomes a must.

Hesaraghatta grassland. Photo: Shripad Dharmadhikary.

The regular readings at Sangam House open up diverse writings in different languages before the resident writers. The readings are special as the writers capture the right essence of the prose or poetry they have themselves created. That there are carefully selected established and upcoming writers at Sangam House, makes it possible to learn about the experiences, opportunities, struggles and challenges faced by the writers in different corners of the world.  The talks over dinner meander from writings to publishers, from royalty to translations, from agents to editors and so on. Therefore there never is a dull moment when writers come together in the common area of the Kula every evening. Sometimes, taking inspiration from the writers, dancers too join and share their writings which are varied in content and substance. This is also the time when the writers have an opportunity to offer something to the dancers in return for all the things learned from them. 

 As the creative evening spills over into the night, the writers have the company of the Kula’s three loving dogs, Kapita, Guru and Chiku. And then, when the hoot of the owls and stridulating of the crickets and the croaking of the frogs and the chirping of the geckos get louder, it is time for all to retire to the rooms for a fresh start the next day.

 When life is a struggle for most writers’ in the real world no matter which part of the globe, Sangam House Writers’ Residency is an oasis for both established and upcoming writers. It could only have been brilliant minds that conceptualized Sangam House and more importantly compassionate hearts that have turned Sangam House into Sangam Home for its writers.