“Ma Rewa Tharo Paani Nirmal, Khal Khal Behto Jaaye Re.”
The Indian Ocean song on River Narmada from the album Kandisa, released in March 2000, brought to the fore the traditional prayer offered to the river Goddess in Madhya Pradesh, the state which constitutes 80% of the river basin. In October of the same year, in a landmark judgment, the Supreme Court allowed the government of India to raise the height of the Gujarat based Sardar Sarovar Dam to 90 metres.
The judgment set aside the objections raised by the powerful lobbying organization – the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) which was fighting for the cause of displaced villagers due to the twin constructions of Sardar Sarovar and Indira Sagar dams on the river Narmada. The NBA activists had virtually adopted this song as their anthem.
Narmada river bank near Jabalpur
River Narmada (“The giver of pleasure” in Sanskrit), known earlier as Rewa (“A new beginning” in Sanskrit), has been a witness to such dualities and differences for millions of years. The river basin itself lies between the Vindhya range to the North and the Satpura range to the South, and is estimated to have been created 250 million years ago.
The 1,300 km long river is the longest East – West flowing river in India. The river basin nurtured the World Heritage Site of Bhimbetka, the ancient cave shelters containing preserved rock paintings said to be 15,000 years old and the oldest known human settlement in India, exploration of which has lost out in favour of the relatively modern Indus-Saraswati civilization.
The oldest known human fossils in India have been discovered along the banks of Narmada in the Hathnora village in Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh. But yet again, the site awaits proper recognition as a protected site; with a relatively lower focus by Archaeological Survey of India and Anthropological Survey of India vis-à-vis their work in the North.
Bhimbetka Cave Paintings
River Narmada practically divides India into North and South as a physical landmark. The ancient Anupa kingdom is said to have been impregnable with the Mahishmati town on the banks of Narmada acting as a stronghold. Perhaps the makers of the 2015 superhit movie Bahubali will clarify whether Mahishmati is the present day Maheshwar or Mandhata or Mandla in the eagerly awaited second part of the movie!
The mighty Gupta Empire, Khalji Empire, and the Mughal Empire from Akbar’s dominant times, all stopped North of Narmada. King Harshavardhana of the Pushyabhuti dynasty who ruled most of North India between 606 and 647 CE was stopped in his tracts by the mighty river. While he continued to expand in North and West from the present day central Uttar Pradesh, his conquest of the South required him to defeat the Vaishnav Chalukya king Pulakesin II. In a decisive battle fought on the banks of river Narmada, the elephant army of Harshavardhana was defeated, following which the two mighty rulers agreed to fix their respective boundaries to the North and South of Narmada. The Aihole inscriptions in the Bagalkot district of modern day Karnataka – several hundred kilometers from the site of action – capture the story of this battle. In the 9th century, the Pratihara king Bhoj from modern day Ujjain used Narmada as his southern boundary to defend against the Rashtrakuta dynasty rulers.
In the more contemporary times in mid 16th century, Baaz Bahadur, the last Sultan of Malwa, is said to have wooed his queen Roopmati, with the promise of constructing a palace for her at Mandu (Mandavgarh in Maratha literature) with a view of Narmada.
In late 1700s, Ahilya Bai Holkar, the queen of Holkar dynasty from Indore, established her capital at Maheshwar, on the banks of Narmada. Her palace fort located adjacent to the river is still a sight to behold. In 1820s and 1830s, the Maratha army led by Peshwa Bajirao I used the Narmada river crossings at a small village Akbarpur, close to Maheshwar, to establish their supremacy over Malwa and much of North India. Crossing Narmada was a daunting task for large armies in that era, with a sharp gradient of 1700 feet spread over a few dozen kilometers to the North.
Railway Bridge on river Narmada at Bharuch, Gujarat (Photo: Pablo Ares Gastesi)
The Maratha armies took advantage of this geography multiple times to establish their northern supremacy. Peshwa Bajirao I died on the banks of the river at Raverkhedi in one such battle preparation, in the present day Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh.
In the modern era, Narmada flows strong carrying the economic burden of supporting millions of lives not just in Madhya Pradesh, but also in Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan.
The much maligned Indira Sagar dam in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh is the largest water storage facility in the country. The dam also has an installed capacity of 1,000 MW power generation, and since 2005 – the year of becoming operational – has been a water and power lifeline for most of western Madhya Pradesh.
The downstream Sardar Sarovar project in Navagam in Gujarat, which became operational in 2008, has been a lifeline for the Saurashtra and Kutch regions in the state – often prone to droughts. The project has an electricity generation installed capacity of 1,450 MW. The 534 long Narmada canal also satiates the perennially rain deficient districts of Barmer and Jalore in Rajasthan, a state which was included in the Narmada water award by the Supreme Court despite not being a riparian region.
The NBA waged long battles to stall or delay these projects for better rehabilitation of the affected villagers, but eventually the courts ruled in the favour of the larger benefits accruing to three states. The protests which spanned over two decades have died over time, but not before creating a well funded, well oiled NGO complex, and launching the political careers of several NBA activists.
Narmada continues to support the economy of Madhya Pradesh in unique ways. The state has long positioned the marble rocks of Bheda Ghat near Jabalpur as a popular tourist destination. But going beyond that, the agricultural prosperity in the districts of Khandwa, Harda, and Hoshangabad, in no small measure borne out of the various damming projects, has recently led to an interesting financial experiment.
Forests of Amarkantak (Photo: LRBurdak)
IDFC Bank, the newest private bank to start operations in India, has established 15 branches in these three districts on the first day of operations, with heavy dependence on modern technology and a business driven by minimal paperwork. The village of Chutka in the Mandla district has been proposed as the location for India’s newest nuclear power plant. The abundant waters of Narmada, to be used in the all important cooling function of the plant, no doubt played a big role in site selection and approval.
Narmada was also the first river in India to be linked to another river. The Narmada – Kshipra link is driven by lifting the Narmada waters to 350 meters and then laying a 50 km long pipeline to pump the waters into Kshipra. This basic river link has been operational since 2014 and its success has come on the back of Madhya Pradesh having abundant power, partly thanks to the Indira Sagar dam project. The talk of creating upstream river ports in Bharuch in Gujarat and Hoshangabad and Mandla in Madhya Pradesh surfaces from time to time. Once the various dam projects between Indira Sagar and Sardar Sarovar are completed, this maybe the next big river investment for the two states to consider.
In Gujarat too, Narmada is expected to drive tourism with the upcoming Statue of Unity – a statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel to be constructed facing the Sardar Sarovar on the river island of Sadhu Bet.
The Narmada originating from the small Narmadakund in Amarkantak in Anuppur district of Madhya Pradesh and flowing through Maharashtra and Gujarat, joining the Arabian Sea through Gulf of Cambay, is the fifth largest river in India. A participant in glorious, sometimes unexplored history and bloody brutal geography, the river continues to be the lifeline of the state of Madhya Pradesh. “Amarkant se nikli O Rewa, Jan jan kari rayo thari sewa, Sewa se sab pawe mewa, Aso ved puran batayo re” goes the traditional prayer.
As Madhya Pradesh turns 59 years old on November 1, 2015, the state continues to consume the fruits – mewa – of its dependence on Narmada. How the state uses this symbiotic relationship with the river in coming decades will define how much and how soon it leapfrogs the long years of economic stagnancy.
Ma Rewa Performed By Indian Ocean
Aashish Chandorkar is Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of India to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. He took up this role in September 2021. He writes on public policy in his personal capacity.
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