The struggle cannot be over

Print edition : May 21, 2010

Medha Patkar: "While there is a ten-fold increase in the costs of the project, only 10 per cent of the promised benefits have been attained.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

MEDHA PATKAR, the 56-year-old leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), is fighting what she calls the final battle. After close to three decades of protests against the damming of the Narmada river, she is battling against the Gujarat governments attempt to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam to 138.68 metres as originally planned. The State government had been denied permission to do so because of its poor record in the resettlement of families displaced by the dam. Now, in what is apparently a back-door tactic, it is attempting to erect 17-metre-high radial gates on top of the existing 122-metre structure.

To many, the NBAs battle may seem a pointless one. But, Medha Patkar points out in an email interview to Frontline that it is not so there are principles involved, and the NBA is not going to let the state forget that it has betrayed thousands of oustees.

Is there any point in continuing the struggle now that the Gujarat government has done exactly what it wants to?

The struggle cannot be over unless the goals are attained. In spite of the fact that in 25 years we have achieved something concrete in terms of rehabilitation, a thorough review, exposure of the real costs and benefits of each project, and implementation of certain social and environmental measures, there is still a long way to go. There are lakhs and lakhs of people to be affected by each of the giant dams, and thousands of families in the submergence area of each of the 30 large dams in the Narmada valley.

Though the governments declared policy and plan is trumpeted to be progressive and land-based, it is obvious that it has not been able to guarantee land to those who lost their livelihoods. The environmental measures have not been complied with yet. To raise the height of the dam disregarding various conditions made in the clearances and the policy promises is unjust.

The struggle will also have to continue to show to the world that whatever little was achieved by submerging the habitats of nature-based communities and incurring huge social, environmental and financial costs is not going to the really needy people of Kutch but to corporates and the big cities in Gujarat. The NBA demands a change in this pattern. The struggle against displacement, destruction and disparity is also to continue with alternative development paradigm and reconstructive work as is being carried out not only in the Narmada valley but across the country.

The Sardar Sarovar dam no doubt was pushed by the Gujarat government with support from Madhya Pradesh and at times Maharashtra. A review of the whole project as well as fair and just resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) of those affected is a must. There is also a need for distributive justice in water allocation within Gujarat for which the people and peoples organisations in Gujarat must take the initiative, and we will surely join them. They should also come forward to save the rest of the valley.

How effective has the Environment Sub-Group (ESG) been through the struggle? You have spoken of gross non-compliance on its part.

The ESG came into existence when the Sardar Sarovar Project [SSP] and the Indira Sagar Project were granted clearance. The Narmada Control Authority [NCA] was strengthened through the formation of the ESG, and also the R&R and the Hydromet Sub-Groups. The ESG has been monitoring compliance of the conditions through various meetings, but even after 20 years they have not been able to ensure full compliance and fulfilment of the stipulations in the [environmental] clearance of 1987. The ESG appointed committees, such as the Devender Pandey Committee [which was appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests and the ESG], but could not implement their recommendations. The ESG could have used the clause in the clearance and the Environment Protection Act, 1986, to stop the work, which it did at times, but not always. Gross non-compliance was brought out by the Pandey Committee.

Yet the ESG, owing to pressure from the representatives of the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat, has given clearance for raising the height of the dam by erecting 17-metre high gates, thus taking the dam to its full height of 138.68 m. The fact that the two State governments concerned even refused to discuss the Pandey Committees report shows the political expediency and falsehood with which the dam is being pushed ahead. This is also because the ESG does not have environmentalists and other committed activists as members. There is an imbalance, and hence politics dominates the decision-making process.

The argument in favour of installing the radial gates is that the dam is Gujarats lifeline. The authorities say that because of the dam (a) Ahmedabad has more water, (b) the canals have been effective and have reached 1.8 million hectares of cultivated land in Kutch and Saurashtra, solving the drought-like situation there, and (c) Rajasthan will be able to get irrigation water. How would you respond to each of these advertised benefits of the dam?

The Sardar Sarovar dam, an August 2002 photograph.-PTI

As far as the two points are concerned, most of the claims of Gujarat and the other States are fraudulent. Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar getting more water than originally allotted is at the cost of water to Kutch, Saurashtra and north Gujarat and also at the cost of irrigation. Water supply to the big cities was not part of the plan. The project originally sought to serve 4,000 villages but the number was raised, and even villages abandoned in the original plan were included.

A research by Gujarats own water resource experts indicates that one-third of the villages, which were shown as being supplied water, have actually not received any. Irregularity, inadequacy and unreliability in the needy tail-end regions have also been thoroughly exposed. Kutchis had to approach the Supreme Court for their due share. The drought situation in Kutch has not been solved by the dam.

What is this talk of canals? In the past 30 years, not even 1 per cent of the canal network in Kutch has been completed, and on the whole, only 30 per cent of the network has been built. Seventy per cent (66,000 km) of canals are yet to be built. Since there is difficulty in acquiring 30,000 ha of land for canals in Gujarat, a committee has been formed to see if a pipeline can be constructed in lieu of the canals. The claim was that the dam could irrigate 2.5 lakh to eight lakh ha of land at 122 m, but in actuality only 70,000 ha has been irrigated. Today, as per the statistics of the Union Water Resources Ministry, Gujarat can utilise only 7 per cent of the reservoir waters.

One pro-dam argument was that Rajasthan required irrigation water, but this is a fallacy. In 2005, the MoEF forbade Rajasthan and Gujarat from irrigating their lands with SSP water and rightly so since they had not finalised their Command Area Development (CAD); these are not yet approved by the MoEF. Without CAD, experts say, cultivable and irrigable land in Rajasthan would be desertified.

The cost-benefit analysis of the project is in the doldrums today. The initial cost of the project, after cost-benefit analysis, was Rs.4,200 crore and the project was given an investment clearance of Rs.6,406 crore. However, today the Planning Commission estimates the cost to be Rs.45,000 crore; the final cost, by 2012, will not be less than Rs.70,000 crore.

Gujarat is now seeking an additional investment clearance of Rs.39,000 crore. All this is not only mind-boggling but reveals the unviability of the project, especially when half of the annual project expenditure is going into debt repayment. For years, the SSP has been taking away a big chunk, that is, up to 95 per cent, of Gujarats irrigation resources. The State receives Rs.5,000 crore as assistance under the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme from the Centre. The Comptroller and Auditor Generals [CAG] Report shows that large funds have been used but have not yielded results. Power generation too is not up to the mark and is being questioned by Maharashtra, which is demanding Rs.1,800 crore in compensation. All this vindicates our fight.

What about the claim of almost-complete R&R?

Nothing can be further from the truth. While the Gujarat government has always claimed that its R&R Policy for the Narmada projects, especially the SSP, is progressive and would give every oustee a better standard of living after displacement, land-based rehabilitation is not being granted to those who are entitled to land and not even to those whose land/houses have gone under water since the 1990s.

Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra claim they do not have land for the few thousand families whose rehabilitation is pending, but they have enough to offer the corporates in whatever measure they desire. About 10,500 families have been resettled. However, even the few that were given lands now face a problem as the Gujarat government has taken it back from them. The fish workers in the valley have not got their fisheries, but plans for commercialisation and contractualisation are under way. The potters too have not received alternative livelihood means as promised in the plans submitted to the Supreme Court to secure a judgment in favour of the project in 2000.

There is unprecedented corruption in land allotment and payment of compensation to the oustees. This is now being investigated by the Justice S.S. Jha Commission. There are more than two lakh people in the submergence area of the SSP, but the Central authorities have dared to permit raising the dam height by 17 m thus causing additional submergence without rehabilitation. Any such move would be absolutely unjust and illegal. No property can be submerged unless all compensation and R&R measures are fulfilled this is what the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award has stipulated and it must be followed in letter and spirit.

There have been rumours of the government leasing out land in the SSP command area to industrialists, of drinking water and water meant for farmlands being diverted to Ahmedabad city, and so on. What are the other irregularities committed by the government? And what are your arguments at this stage against raising the height of the dam?

It is a fact that out of the nine million acre feet (MAF) of SSP waters available to Gujarat, 1.06 MAF was allocated to municipalities (for drinking water supply) and to industries. However, more than that is already supplied to industries at dirt-cheap rates, according to information obtained under RTI [right to information]. That is the reason why the Kutchis and the people of Saurashtra can no longer see the Narmada as a solution to their water woes.

The Gujarat government spent Rs.40 crore on diverting water to Gandhinagar. This is in violation of the original plans as shown by the CAG. That is why the corporates invested money in the anti-NBA campaigns and agitation, whenever it occurred in Gujarat. Moreover, supplying water for irrigation without taking CAD measures is dangerous since the country has witnessed impact in the form of waterlogging and salinisation in dams such as the Bhakra Nangal and in the first stretch of the SSP command area. Diversion of command-area land to industries is also not an unknown feature during the construction of large dams, and the trend has worsened since liberalisation and corporatisation became a core part of economic planning. Centralised water management and land harnessing leads to inequitable distribution of land and water. This must be questioned, and the process has actually begun in Gujarat.

One very strong argument against raising the height of the dam is the status of the project today while there is a ten-fold increase in the costs of the project, only 10 per cent of the promised benefits have been attained. This is reason enough to freeze the dam at its present height and harness the existing benefits honestly. A large part of the canal network in Gujarat and Rajasthan has not been constructed yet. The construction of canals for upstream dams such as the Indira Sagar and the Omkareshwar was unnecessary because they were in villages that were along the river bank and had no need for canals.

Land- and livelihood-based rehabilitation for thousands of families and compliance with planning and execution of almost every single environmental safeguard measure have not been realised. Thus, as per the pari passu clause in the clearance, the dam cannot go ahead. Pushing for the dam would further deprive nature-based communities and escalate the social and environmental costs further. The increase would be in stark violation of the Narmada Tribunal Award, the Rehabilitation Policy, the Action Plan and the various judgments of the Supreme Court.

Do you think the strategies (dharnas, satyagrahas) employed by the NBA have, by and large, been successful? Could the strategies have evolved in any other manner so that the present outcome may have been different?

The strengths of any peoples movement are its strategies and the peoples power. These are the means which, along with the ends, have to be the value framework of any movement. The NBA has always been for non-violent peoples action. The movements can be militant but not violent. No doubt the state is violent in its strategies and paradigm, and yet, as some others, we have not supported armed struggle. We have multiple-front strategies. The strategies cannot be the same all through and hence after a long struggle with data and analysis, which we used in our dialogues with the government at different levels, we realised that truthful answers were not forthcoming, that flawed acquisition and fraudulent rehabilitation was going on, and that the dam was being pushed ahead without compliance in social and environmental aspects.

The NBA approached the courts and got directives issued that the dam could not proceed without fulfilling rehabilitation promises and mitigating its environmental impact. Many court directives improved the rehabilitation policies and made the official agencies more active; yet the battle is not won. This is because the system is callous and the paradigm of development itself is changing fast with the support of elites, including the corporates. There is no democratic space for the vast majority. Our grass-roots-level strategies vary from Koi Nahi Hatega the satyagraha on the land that was to be submerged to long-term fasts by people in the valley and by the activists. These always made the government respond. It was also an appeal to civil society to make them sensitive to the cause, make them look into the data and take a rational position in support of the cause. What other strategies can a peaceful movement follow?

We see there is scope in taking forward the strategies of non-party peoples politics, which can be very effective such as engaging peoples collectives and the media. It is towards this end that the National Alliance of Peoples Movements was formed; yet the destination is much ahead of us. The recent coming together of various alliances has also led to the thinking that it will be useful to have an alternative peoples parliament as also joint struggles against Special Economic Zones and dams and peoples right to natural resources.

In the present world of globalisation, there is no doubt that we have to think of the international scenario, including financial institutions and their influence on the countrys economy and polity. When the NBA fought with the World Bank for eight years, compelling them to withdraw from the SSP, we had to be very strategic in our alliances with international organisations, without ever going in for foreign funding, as also having a dialogue with the bankers.

Along with the struggle, we have been into development too. A part of it has come true through our micro-hydel projects and 13 jeevanshalas (literally, school of life where children are educated with a broader perspective). But struggle alone does not permit the tribal people and farmers to throw themselves fully into reconstructive activities that can regenerate the eco-system of the Narmada and also assert their right to development planning.

Do you ever feel like giving up?

One cannot help thinking of changing paths or giving up a certain burden, but such reactions can never rule when there are lakhs and lakhs of people fighting the battle for survival.

We differ with those engaged in armed struggle even though the issues may be common, since those who have chosen that path do not seem to be showing a sustainable path towards positive long-term social change. Hence one has to be humble and go beyond the immediate achievements and failures and wait for the more utopian dream.

We also see that people certainly are much better with struggle, gaining rights, space and benefits than without it. That the new generation is coming up and taking over the cause from us is encouraging. Meanwhile, the sacrifice and strength of the tribal people and other common people inspire us to continue.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×