Environment, SEPTEMBER 12, 2003

Woes of the displaced

Print edition : February 06, 2015

Chimalkheda village, just days before it was submerged completely. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Hapeshwar temple in the first week of August 2003. It was one of the halts for pilgrims undertaking the "parikrama". It was submerged in 2004. Photo: Vivek Bendre

A year can be a lifetime along the Narmada. Those living along its banks have, in a sense, lived many lives because of the drastic changes they have seen it undergo in the past two decades, changes that would normally have taken centuries to occur. Life along the river was founded on the gentle faith that “Narmada maiyya provides for us”. That faith has been eroded.

Before 1999, Jalsindhi stood high above the river. Reaching the hamlet was a tricky exercise. The arrival at its banks was announced by a sudden bump as the boat’s prow burrowed into a muddy cliff. I was expected to leap out of the boat quickly as the steep wall of mud at the water’s edge would suck my feet if I lingered too long. It took about 10 minutes of walking before the slope eased off to give way to fields. Today when the boatman stops at Jalsindhi his anxiety is apparent. The river has risen and the boat lands almost level with the hamlet. He is no longer sure of the currents, and the feel and pull on his tiller is unnatural. The river is now controlled by the opening and closing of the dam gates upstream.

Among the many activities relating to the river that have been lost is the Narmada parikrama. The 2,600-kilometre pilgrimage, a circumambulation of the river from the source to the mouth and back, took about two years to complete. Starting at Bharuch in Gujarat where the Narmada meets the Arabian Sea, a pilgrim would walk upstream stopping over at hamlets and temples. After 12 months, he was expected to reach Amarkantak, the source of the river in Madhya Pradesh. Here, he would cross over to the opposite bank and continue his walk back downstream, following the same spiritual routines, until he reached the mouth of the estuary. The pilgrimage is now next to impossible to make since the familiar landmarks have vanished. For instance, Hapeshwar temple, which stood 60-odd metres above the river level, was submerged in 2004. The comfort of hospitality is gone because several villages do not exist any more. The walk is not only dangerous to undertake, some sections of the circuit are out of bounds because of the security cordon around the dams. The Narmada project envisaged 30 major dams, 11 on the Narmada and the rest on its tributaries; 135 medium dams; and 3,000 minor ones. At 138.62 metres, the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat, is the largest of the Narmada dams.



EVERYTHING along the river Narmada has changed drastically. The physical dimensions of the river are unrecognisable even to those who have lived on its banks for generations. At one time, travelling on the river was an awe-inspiring experience. The towering cliffs on the riverside dated the geological age of the river to the Stone Age—a mind-boggling 1,50,000 to 20,00,000 years ago. Now, because of the 103-metre-high Sardar Sarovar dam, the river has expanded to three times its original breadth and its present depth is not known. Whereas previously the Narmada was swollen only during the monsoon season, now it is perpetually a vast expanse of water.

The changes have been rapid. Children recall that a few years ago they could ford it on foot at many places. In fact, boats were uncommon along the river. But crossing on foot has become infrequent now. In still water near the banks people use a hollowed-out log in which they balance themselves precariously. The hollow logs are no use in deep water or when there is a swift current. For midstream crossings, people cling to a log and dog-paddle across.

Regular submergence has also brought in its wake diseases. The waters rise and flood low-lying fields. When they recede, rotting plants make the water foul. For most villages here, the river is the only source of drinking water and the intake of this contaminated water has resulted in an increase in intestinal infections like dysentery and diarrhoea and skin infections such as scabies and boils.

Nowhere are the consequences of the dam more plain than in the lower reaches of the river, especially at the point where it enters Gujarat from Maharashtra. At Chimalkheda village, the sky-blue flag of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) flutters in the middle of the river. It is on a submerged tree, which stood on land that went under water in 1994. After the 1994 submergence, people restarted their lives, building homes and cultivating land further up the hillside. Every monsoon would bring high waters and some loss of crop. This year the tragedy has been serious. A combination of factors —heavy rain, the release of water from the upstream Tawa dam, and the closure of the downstream Sardar Sarovar sluices—resulted in a high flood.

That this was a planned flood is evident. On July 5, three batches of government officers, including a Deputy Superintendent of Police, arrived at the hamlet. They warned the people of impending floods, suggested that they pack up their possessions, and offered to take them to Kevadia in Gujarat. The residents refused. “They spoke to us as if it were a temporary move but we knew that we would never be allowed back here if we left. It was a tactic to get us out, take our land and give us nothing in return,” said Noorji Vasave, a village leader. To “convince” the people further to leave, the officials ordered the huts to be demolished. But a mass protest stopped this. On July 28, as the waters rose the officials returned at night. This time they brooked no arguments. Those who resisted being “rescued” were arrested and taken to Gujarat. The implication: accept land in Gujarat. Realising this, they went on a hunger strike, and so they were brought back to Maharashtra to be jailed. While they were in jail, their houses were demolished by the State administration.

The displaced families are agreeable to the idea of resettlement provided their basic demands, of cultivable land and community relocation, are met. The decision to accept rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) has not been an easy one for them but the steady construction at the dam site has left them with no choice. Most of them have no proof of land ownership. If they do have pattas (land deeds), it is only for a small section of the land that they have cultivated or used for grazing for generations. Those without pattas are not eligible for land. Land records are rarely updated, and people who have been tilling the land for years after inheriting it from their parents are not listed as co-sharers.

In Manibeli village, for instance, only 45 of the 300 families have been declared as eligible for R&R. The rest, it seems, are not the government’s responsibility. Vithalbhai of Manibeli estimates that about 1,000 acres (400 hectares) of land under cultivation in the village is held without deeds. None of this will be considered for recompense.

The Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh governments have to relocate and rehabilitate the maximum number of displaced persons, although Gujarat benefits the most from the Sardar Sarovar Project. Madhya Pradesh has consistently maintained that it has no land for R&R, and it offers cash compensation even though the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA) stipulates a land-for-land policy and forbids cash compensation. Maharashtra had given the impression of implementing a fair R&R, but it is increasingly clear that the State government’s commitment to R&R is mainly on paper.

It becomes an issue for the administration only during the monsoon. Noorji Vasave said: “We asked the officials why we only saw them during the monsoon. Why is it that they never come to us during the dry season?”

Further evidence of the government’s apathetic attitude is to be found in the tin shacks on the hill above Chimalkheda. At one time these were used by Irrigation Department officials. In 2000, when the Supreme Court permitted further construction on the Sardar Sarovar dam, the Irrigation Department abandoned the area and the shacks. The wireless unit maintained for the convenience of department officials was taken away and Chimalkheda was left with no communication facilities at a time when they were most needed. The sheds now represent the official madad kendra (assistance camp) of the State government. The sheds leak profusely during the rains and are unbearably hot in summer.

In a letter dated July 30 and addressed to Noorji Vasave, the Collector’s office at Akkalkua in Nandurbar district has promised compensation for whatever loss was recorded by the official panchnama (recording). Vasave says the panchnama recorded the loss of crop, poultry, animals and homes in the recent floods.

Meanwhile, the people try and live under plastic sheets, eating what little they managed to salvage from their homes. The Adivasi economy in this region is very simple. Barter is still preferred to cash exchanges. Families eat what they grow, saving some grain for the next year. But as there was a high level of submergence last year too, the residents of Chimalkheda have no surplus grain at all.

The rising waters have marooned Chimalkheda. The NBA wants the marooned people to be considered as project-affected. But the government holds that since the marooned people have not lost their land, they are technically not eligible for R&R.

Further downstream from Chimalkheda is Manibeli—the first village to be affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam 10 years ago. The village, a mere 5 km from the dam, was affected when the dam was 50 m high. Submergence has now become a way of life for Manibeli but the residents are faced with a tougher choice than in any other affected village. Villages on the banks of the river have responded to each rise in water level by moving further uphill. Manibeli did the same but after 10 years and a submergence of more than 90 m, Manibeli has reached the top of the hill. The village now literally has no place to go. A rich harvest of corn, jowar, bajri, tuvar, moong and harad covers the hillside. Children play in the school compound. There is an air of prosperity but it is ephemeral as is apparent when Dhamanbai, a former gram panchayat member, sums up the situation in a flat tone: “We have to make a decision but we have no options. The one choice before us is so terrible that we cannot even consider it. They want us to leave this rich land and live on rocky soil. The government is turning us into beggars.”

The Maharashtra government has not implemented even basic rehabilitation of the affected villages. Precise information is unavailable because the rising waters have cut off contact with the area. But it is estimated that about 33 Adivasi villages in the north Maharashtra district of Nandurbar have been submerged.

In June, when NBA leader Medha Patkar staged a dharna in Nashik, the government assured the NBA that rehabilitation would be carried out immediately. To date, no Government Resolution has been issued to implement the rehabilitation as discussed with the NBA (a GR for rehabilitation was issued but it did not contain what the government and the NBA had agreed upon).

On July 26, the waters of the Narmada began to rise with alarming rapidity. By July 28, the submergence was widespread. Heavy rain alone was not responsible for the flood. On July 26, about 1,05,000 cusecs of water was released from the Tawa dam upstream. At that time the water level at the Sardar Sarovar dam further downstream was 100.29 m. Water released from Tawa takes about 30 hours to have an impact at the Sardar Sarovar site. Two days later, another 1,50,000 cusecs of water was released from Tawa. This was followed by yet another release of 2,00,000 cusecs. It had a disastrous effect downstream. Water rose to a height of 108 m. About 12,000 families were affected, four jeevanshalas (schools run by the NBA) were submerged and five others were threatened.

The raising of the dam height to 103 m has contributed substantially to the devastation. Ravi Kuchimanchi of Action for India’s Development, an NBA supporter, said, “Last year, the waters rose to 108 m in September. This year it happened in July. There is every possibility that the waters will rise to 120 m later this monsoon.” The rapid rise of the waters was evident everywhere. The Nimgavan school was completely submerged despite its safe location on a steep hillside about 90 m above river level. Likewise, the Hapeshwar temple which, though it stands on a riverside bluff about 60 m above river level, was partially submerged.

After giving a day’s warning about the rising water, the district administration started forcibly evicting people from the villages. “The promptness of the administration when it comes to demolishing our houses and arresting us is admirable. But when it is a matter of conducting surveys or of rehabilitating us or finding us new homes and fields, it drags its feet,” said Keersingh Padvi, an Adivasi activist from Nandurbar who was one of those arrested.

The accusation is a valid one. Since 1994, the tragic-drama of submergence repeats itself every year in the affected areas, with villages experiencing various degrees of submergence. Yet nothing is done about implementing rehabilitation measures. The administration offers no explanation why the rescue operations also involve breaking houses. Nor is there any satisfactory explanation as to why R&R is not carried out.

A task force headed by a retired Bombay High Court judge and comprising representatives of the government and the NBA had submitted a report on the status of R&R along with the requirement. Although the government agreed to implement the recommendations made in the report, action is yet to be taken. The State’s irresponsible attitude was further exposed during the monsoon session of the State legislature and in the Rajya Sabha. In response to queries from Shiv Sena MLAs in the Maharashtra Assembly and from K. Chandran Pillai, Communist Party of India (Marxist) Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha, the Ministers concerned said that all 234 families in Maharashtra and more than 1,800 families in Madhya Pradesh in the affected zone of 100 m had been rehabilitated. The reply was meant to squash any objection to raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam.

As the government violates the NWDTA as well as laws relating to human rights and constitutional provisions for the tribal people in raising the height of the dam, the activists and the affected people continue to speak of redress through the legal system and the administration. Their attitude is a measure both of their desperation and of their faith in the justice system.

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