At a crossroads

Print edition : May 08, 1999

India's National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU

While the Narmada Bachao Andolan has managed to sustain its programme of protests against large dams in Madhya Pradesh, it appears to be heading for a setback in Gujarat.

THE Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which fought for the rights of families displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the Narmada river for 14 years, is at a crossroads. Despite having an active presence in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, the NBA faces bleak prospects in terms of resolving the issues that formed its core concerns.

The final hearing in the SSP case in the Supreme Court resumes on May 7. This follows the submission of a report by the P.D. Desai Committee, which was set up by the court to examine whether the relief and rehabilitation measures taken by the Gujarat Government were adequate. Sources say that the Desai report does not endorse the NBA's case against big dams. Nor does it justify complaints by people displaced by the projects of inadequate relief and rehabilitation measures, they say. It is reliably learnt that the report gives the Gujarat Government a clean chit; activists therefore fear that the Supreme Court may allow the State to increase the dam's height by 5 metres to 90 m, as laid down in the court's interim order of February 18.

Without waiting for the verdict on the status of displaced persons in Gujarat, the NBA renewed its agitation against the Madhya Pradesh Government's move to build major dams on the Narmada in that State. On April 7, the NBA launched a dharna in Bhopal. More than 500 people, who are affected by large dams such as Maheshwar, Lower Goi, Jobat, Upper Veda, Maan, Bargi, Sardar Sarovar and Narmada Sagar, participated in it. Seven NBA activists went on a hunger strike in Bhopal but after 11 days, on April 23, the police took them to hospital and force-fed them. The NBA deployed seven more activists to continue the fast. The NBA's demands include the stopping of the ecological destruction and social disruption in the Narmada valley.

The Narmada Valley Development Project (NVDP) consists of 30 large dams, 135 medium dams and more than 3,000 small dams on the Narmada and its tributaries. Except the Sardar Sarovar Project, all the dams will be located in Madhya Pradesh. The Madhya Pradesh Government constituted a Task Force in January 1998 to review the Narmada valley projects and prepare an alternative framework to develop water and energy resources in the valley. It was chaired by former State Chief Secretary S.C. Berar, who is involved with the people's movements in the State.

The Task Force submitted a report on the Maheshwar project in November 1998 and an overall report in January 1999. The reports acknowledged the grave situation arising from the displacement of people and recommended an alternative approach to develop water and energy resources in the Narmada valley. The Task Force also recommended that the projects not be taken up if the rehabilitation of the affected people and environmental protection could not be ensured. The NBA alleged that no project in the valley ensured the rehabilitation of the affected people and that the lives of thousands of people were likely to be disrupted during the monsoon.

The NBA urged the State Government to follow the recommendations of the Task Force, suspend all the projects, carry out comprehensive surveys and implement alternative projects as recommended by the Task Force. Chief Minister Digvijay Singh agreed to go in for alternatives in the case of new projects, such as Veda and Goi, but refused to accept the Task Force's recommendation for a review of the economic viability of the Maheshwar project. The Task Force's role was only advisory and therefore its recommendations were not binding on the Government, sources close to the Chief Minister said.

The Rs.1,760-crore, 400 MW Maheshwar project is India's first hydel project in the private sector; it is promoted by S. Kumars. Other stakeholders in the project include German companies Bayernwerk, VEW Energie and Siemens. Quoting "reliable sources", the NBA claimed that Germany had decided not to extend guarantees to the project and that two German companies had withdrawn from it. The Shree Maheshwar Hydel Power Corporation Limited (SMHPCL), the company involved in the project, denied this, saying that the two companies are slated to acquire 49 per cent equity in the project.

After investigating the project, a German environment and human rights organisation, Urgewald, reportedly advised the two German companies and the German Government to keep away from the project. The NBA alleged that power from the project would be prohibitively expensive. The Madhya Pradesh Government has agreed to purchase power at the high rate of Rs. 5 to 8 a unit, and assured a 16 per cent rate of return to the company. According to the NBA, the Government is shouldering all the risks while the company is set to take all the profits.

The Task Force recommended a re-examination of the cost-benefit analysis of the project and the feasibility of the rehabilitation programme. The NBA claimed that there were cheaper alternatives to the project, which would have a far less severe impact on the social and environmental fronts and create a higher potential for employment locally.

The NBA has the backing of social worker Baba Amte, who arrived on April 21. He was apparently distressed by the alleged "inhuman" behaviour of the police in dealing with the protesters, including women. He vacated the Government guest house as a mark of refusing official hospitality. The State Government, however, has justified its action by saying that it cannot watch the fasting activists die. The NBA's struggle, it appears, is set to continue.

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