In the 21st century, we are witnessing deepening inequities in the control and distribution of water, a basic source of life and livelihood.
The subordination of the agricultural to the urban, the marginalized to the privileged, the fracturing of political affiliations and loyalties, and other issues have intensified the water wars that surface with increasing frequency.
At present, water issues appear to be local, but they have and will continue to have global significance. As water becomes a profitable commodity, it will generate heated debates and confrontations, regionally and globally, centering around issues like first world vs. third world, the rights of indigenous peoples, economic development, environmental rights, and future generations.
Modern Temples of India
When colonial rule ended in 1947, India was impoverished. This left the leaders of the independence movement to reconstruct the nation on the Western Development Paradigm,which was considered the ideal, being based on the technology of progress, the rule of law, and democracy. Electricity and water were the primary resources to run industries, to modernize agriculture, and to improve the quality of life of the citizens.
This paradigm led to massive dam building operations. Nehru, the first prime minister of India, called them the “Modern Temples of India” to underline the importance of dams for development and prosperity.
However, building these dams resulted in the creation of millions of development refugees in India, approximately 11 million by 1980. To date, we do not have an accurate count of those displaced by the construction of dams.
Every dam building project in India and beyond has encountered massive people’s resistance. Dams erase links between nature and the community, between memory and history and destroy dwellings and livelihoods. Only in retrospect can we understand people’s struggle to preserve their subsistence economies, homes, and relationship with nature against the onslaught of the state.
Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement)
To modernize the Indian economy through construction of dams, the government, motivated by the assumption that they would provide water to 40 million people and also generate electricity and water for irrigation, decided in 1979 to build 30 large, 135 medium, and 3000 small dams across the Narmada River. For the first time, resistance to this project addressed the environmental consequences of such massive operations. Social activists Baba Amte and Medha Parker sought to provide information to the people who would be displaced, explaining what was happening to their habitat and asking the government for adequate compensation on their behalf.
This movement, started in 1985, was arguably the first major critique of the contemporary development paradigm. It was also the first people’s struggle in India to keep water as our commons. This movement continues to spearhead the rehabilitation of 250,000 people displaced by construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.
We have no accurate listing of the millions dispossessed and displaced by this dam and other development projects. Because people were uneducated and unaware of their rights, it was easy for the government and its administrative machinery to brutally suppress their protests and act against leader Narmada Bachao Andolan.
The Movement against Privatization of Water
In 2004, the Bangalore Film Society initiated a forum titled “Water Journeys: Forum for the Fundamental Right to Water” to create awareness among youth about the increasing scarcity of potable water for the poor and to engage people in conservation and the fight against the privatization of water.
We mobilized college students from Bangalore to demonstrate against the privatization of water by multinational companies like Coca Cola and Pepsi. Massive agitation against the Coca Cola Water Bottling Plant in Plachimada, Kerala, where potable water had been severely diminished, commenced.
The people’s response was powerful: Coke and Pepsi were in the news for marketing substandard bottled drinks for the public. After the Centre for Environmental Studies published their report on the contents of these drinks, schools, colleges, and the governments of many states in India banned soft drinks produced by these companies.
The leadership of the movement also thought that it was important to highlight water issues unconnected with privatization: diversion of water from villages to cities turning villages into water deserts, mining, river pollution, drying up rivers and lakes, floods, droughts, and climate change. The relentless struggle to maintain water as our commons continues.
To highlight the ways water affects our lives and how its issues are global, we started the international film festival, Voices from the Waters. The impact of the massive social movements for the public control of water resources shaped the festival’s perspective.
The festival focuses on water issues in India with global implications: water scarcity, the dams and the displaced, water harvesting/conservation, water struggles/conflicts, floods and droughts, climate change, degradation of oceans, impact of deforestation on water-bodies, increasing desertification, sanitation and health, river pollution, and the holistic revival of water bodies. The festival addresses one of the most important issues of our time: we must save water, the embodiment of life.
The festival offers glimpses of hope and despair. It has showcased success stories in the struggle for access to water as these issues move across regions, ethnicities, and countries. Over the last ten years, the Voices from the Waters Film Festival has brought together people’s efforts across the world to conserve and to understand the relationship between water and life. Our festival creates a space for people to imagine a new world and to transform the old. The festival also highlights international water conservation efforts and people’s struggle for sustainable development. Both emphasize the need to conserve our water resources for posterity without reducing it to a commodity.
The Voices from the Waters Film Festival engages the public in many different ways: photo exhibitions, art installations, interactions with film directors, discussions with water scholars and grassroots water activists, dance, water songs, and panel discussions. With the films, these events bring together the water community, and propel participation.
 “Narmada Bachao Andolan,” Wikipedia, accessed December 01, 2016, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narmada_Bachao_Andolan.