“Drowned Out” focuses on the valiant but futile struggle of the people of Jalsindhi, a poor farming village in India, who are facing eviction as their ancestral homeland is submerged under the waters of the Narmada Dam. This was not exactly a recent struggle, as the dam project began under Nehru back in 1961 and had been progressing at an uncommonly slow pace ever since. The villagers resort to various tactics, ranging from hunger strikes to court challenges to beating on the police officers who arrive to evict them. Even the promise of governmental resettlement will not get them to budge. But as the completed dam begins to fill and the river begins to wash away their homes, can the villagers stay and run the risk of drowning in protest?
This is clearly a one-sided documentary, with a wealth of sneery references intended to cast doubts on India’s engineering prowess and political insincerity. The fact that the dam is part of a massive project to provide water to millions in drought-scarred regions somehow doesn’t register with the filmmakers, who only see the disruption of a small and miserably poor village’s existence as being the best argument against the project.
For those who can sympathize with the people of Jalsindhi, the handsomely produced “Drowned Out” provides a chilling example of how India’s government fails to address issues of poverty and inadequate social services. Typical is a notice of eviction posted on the door of the dirt-floor home of a villager, who sheepishly acknowledges that the notice is of no value to him since he is unable to read. In a country where millions of people are literally living in muck and mud and are unable to read a simple letter, the notion of sinking millions into sophisticated dams may suggest India’s priorities are highly out of order.