Drowned in politics

Published : May 05, 2006 00:00 IST

A decisive phase in the debate on the Narmada dams passes, with electoral politics proving to be the deciding factor. By lyla bavadam


ON March 8, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) gave the green signal to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam from 110.64 metres to 121.92 m. The permission was given based on the recommendation of the Rehabilitation & Resettlement (R&R) sub-group of the NCA, which said that all those affected by the dam at its height of 110 m had been resettled and, therefore, construction could proceed to the next phase.

Shocked at what it saw as a blatant lie, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) came out with a rejoinder: it said that not only about 10,000 families that were affected when the dam height was increased to 110 m but families displaced when the dam was raised to 95 m were awaiting R&R. The new construction is expected to displace another 35,000 families. Protesting against the NCA's decision, NBA leader Medha Patkar and activists Jamsingh Navgave and Bhagwatibehn Patidar started an indefinite fast on March 28 in New Delhi. They demanded that work on the dam be suspended until the oustees were rehabilitated.

At a meeting on April 15, it was clear that the Review Committee of the NCA was divided sharply on the issue. The divide was on party lines, with the Ministers of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance - Saifuddin Soz (Water) and A. Raja (Environment and Forests) - and Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilaraso Deshmukh, supporting the Centre's resolution to halt construction temporarily and the Bharatiya Janata Party-ruled States of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan opposing it. The matter was referred to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and he passed it on to the court.

On April 17, a three-Judge Bench of the Supreme Court comprising Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal and Justices K.G. Balakrishnan and S.B. Sinha reviewed the matter and said the Centre, the Prime Minister and the three States should resolve the issue in accordance with the court's judgments of 2000 and 2005 and the Narmada Tribunal Award. Within a week of the court's directive the States were told to submit an assessment of the R&R, and give a copy of it to the NBA so that it could file a rejoinder. (The NBA plans to present to the court a fact-sheet based on a 50-village survey done by it.) There is also the possibility of a court-appointed committee visiting the site to see if the R&R is adequate. The court adjourned the matter to May 1. The 2000 judgment essentially said that the construction should be pari passu (alongside) R&R. The 2005 judgment rejected the distinction between "temporary" and "permanent" submergence, thereby giving equal R&R rights to all dam-affected people. The Tribunal Award ruled on aspects of land-for-land, quality of land and resettling communities as a whole .

The April 17 decision added one more point as a warning to the three States. The Bench said: "It is made clear to the State governments that if the relief and rehabilitation to the unfortunate oustees is not granted in true letter and spirit, this court will have no option but to stop the work of the dam."

Official figures say that there are 24,421 families in 177 villages of Madhya Pradesh who will be affected by the additional increase in height. The NBA puts it at about 35,000 plus, about 10,000 more families in Maharashtra and a few hundred in Gujarat. The addition of 11 m is likely to be completed by the end of the year if the work goes on unhindered. While the governments are confident of R&R, the NBA has raised a significant question: "It has taken 25 years to resettle 11,000 families. How then will 35,000 families be resettled within the next five or 10 years?" Furthermore, these statistics apply to those who qualify officially for R&R. There is a whole segment of people who slip through the R&R net. Those affected by the network of canals and those whose land has become islands do not qualify for compensation.

The Prime Minister's failure to deal with the matter immediately is inexplicable, especially since the Supreme Court itself has empowered him as the final arbitrator. It had said in its order of 2000 that in case of a difference of opinion between the NCA and the party States, the Prime Minister shall be the final authority. Moreover, he had the report of his Cabinet colleagues - Saifuddin Soz, Meira Kumar and Prithviraj Chauhan - who saw the dismal state of R&R during their half-day tour of the Narmada valley and presented their findings in the Group of Ministers report. To that extent, the Prime Minister's avoidance of the matter was, the NBA said, "politicking" and a "delaying tactic".

What is bizarre about the series of events is that the Centre refused to act on the report of its own Ministers despite their clear stand on the issue. (It would have been interesting to see the Centre's reaction had the ministerial team given a favourable report on the R&R record. It does not take much imagination to know that immediate clearance to construction would probably have been the outcome without the matter being referred to the court.) The ministerial report condemned the state of R&R in Madhya Pradesh, thereby vindicating the NBA's stand. It said that the Grievance Redressal Authority (GRA), a body set up to ensure complete R&R, had not visited the rehabilitation sites in the past six years and that more than 5,000 petitions were pending with it. It said that retired Justice G.G. Sohoni of the Madhya Pradesh GRA had said that he was frustrated with the immensity of the task and the poor infrastructure made available to him. The Ministers also said that the reports of the R&R sub-group of the NCA and the GRA were "largely paperwork". This observation instantly made suspect the NCA's permission to raise the dam height. According to the NBA, the R&R sub-group members have not visited the valley for the past five years and yet permission to the raise the dam height was given. The damning report makes earlier clearances suspect too.

Complaints of corruption by oustees - most of them pay to be registered - was mentioned in the report. It also exposed the shocking practice of deducting "income tax" from the compensation received. For every unit of Rs.10 lakhs received, Rs.10,000 was deducted. The report deals with the case of the Nisarpur R&R site, which is meant to house 700 families. Like other R&R sites this one too lacks necessary infrastructure. Houses are built on sunken plots, roads get waterlogged and there is no drainage facility. Officials of the NVDA say the site will be ready for habitation by June 30. After their visit to Nisarpur, the Ministers wrote in their report: "The claim that they would be resettled as per law by June 30, 2006, was a cruel joke." The statement could easily be applied to the promises being given to the dam-affected families.

While the Ministers' visit to the valley has given a new direction to the struggle for R&R, it is shocking that it is the first such ministerial fact-finding visit. However, Soz said that despite the negative aspects of R&R, the Centre recognised the need for the dam since it would provide water to the basin States. The statement further reinforces the fact that the political compulsions surrounding the dam will be the deciding factor.

Exploitation of the Narmada issue for political gain was particularly visible in Gujarat. When the main political parties in the State came together on a common platform to support the raising of the Sardar Sarovar dam's height many people misread the message. The general reading of the situation was a simplistic "if the BJP and the Congress can agree on this, then the dam must be beneficial". The reality is that the Sardar Sarovar dam has been such an emotional issue from the very start that no political party has ever dared to oppose it. The so-called coming together of the Congress and the BJP on this issue is not so much a result of consensus as an attempt by each to gain public support.

The BJP is so vehemently pro-dam that its slogan "Bandh wahi banega" (the dam will be built at the proposed site) is frighteningly close to the Ayodhya hysteria of "Mandir wahi banega" (the temple will be built there). There is no longer any opposition to the dam per se but the underwritten violence continues. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's decision to go on a hunger strike could be dismissed as a childish quid pro quo if it were not for his past history of directing public opinion and action. One thing was clear from the full-page advertisements in national dailies listing powerful people who supported the dam to the saffron robes that flocked around Modi on his hunger-strike dais: Modi was firing all guns. The underlying threat of violence was unmistakable and was actually articulated by Swami Sachidanand of the Dantali Ashram who sat with Modi on his 51-hour fast. The Swami said: "We are a non-violent people but if required we can also be sons of Guru Gobind Singh and Chhatrapati Shivaji." The Swami also runs a pro-dam organisation called the Narmada Jal Rakshak Sangh (Organisation for the Protection of Narmada Waters) although its function is vague. More direct violence came when activists of the Yuva Morcha (the BJP's youth wing) ransacked the Vadodara office of the NBA, damaging furniture and destroying documents.

The Gujarat Congress too has not been averse to violence over the dam issue. During a water conference in Ahmedabad in 1999, party workers attacked participants. Later, in 1995, in another offensive by Congress workers, documents were burnt in the Vadodara office.

The Prime Minister's evasive handling of the situation proved yet again that Sardar Sarovar continues to be a political issue in Gujarat.

While the BJP's central and State leaderships have been consistent in their support to the dam, there has been difference of opinion between the Congress' central leadership and its State units. For instance, in his early days as the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh had opposed any increase in the dam height, saying the dam's benefits did not outweigh the huge R&R problems. The Congress in Maharashtra too at one point was opposed to increasing the dam height for the same reasons.

Later, the Maharashtra government is believed to have given its consent, but the stand taken now by Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh is opposed to further construction. (The report of the Monitoring and Evaluation committee has said that the State's claim of having completed R&R is false and all the Action Taken Reports should be withdrawn.) Seeing its central leadership vacillating on the issue, the Gujarat Congress became even more vociferous in its support for the dam.

The Congress at the Centre understood the fears of its Gujarat unit and refrained from making any decision: it passed the buck to the court. Its thinking in this regard was in terms of short-term gains. The Gujarat Congress is weak anyway and is unlikely to gain any political mileage since the public already saw that as Modi's triumph. Instead of pandering to the hopeless hopes of the Gujarat Congress, the Prime Minister could have built on the chances of bringing the party back to power in Madhya Pradesh. Giving a clear signal to halt the construction on the dam would have strengthened the Congress in the R&R-beleaguered Madhya Pradesh. Sadly, political compulsions have guided the Narmada saga and political maturity continues to be lacking on the issue.

As before, this time too the NBA was urged to compromise on the situation. What is not recognised is that the NBA has been compromising throughout its struggle. How else does one explain the change from a `no dam' stance to a position in which it does not oppose the construction per se? The fact is that the organisation no longer opposes the dam - it says it cannot argue against an existing 114-m high concrete structure and so it has taken the next best course of action, which is to demand proper R&R. By no stretch of the imagination can this be called unconstitutional or anti-development or anti-Gujarat.

Through the spectacle of political antics and high-profile campaigns one simple but brutal fact is being lost - that tens of thousands of people who have so far led reasonably sustainable lives will be without homes and livelihoods.

For them it is a choice of two evils. At best, the affected people will be relocated as nuclear family units sacrificing their traditional social fabric as village communities. At worst they will drift until they ultimately find themselves in urban slums.

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