The politics of dams

Print edition : January 16, 2004

Water flowing over the top of 103-metre high Sardar Sarovar dam, the largest dam in the Narmada Valley project. - VIVEK BENDRE

The Digvijay Singh government in Madhya Pradesh paid the price for ignoring the demands of those displaced by the Narmada Valley project. Now, under a BJP government will there be a change in the resettlement and rehabilitation policy?

UNLIKE the Congress(I), which has waffled on the issue of the Narmada Valley Project, the Bharatiya Janata Party has always maintained that the dams will be built. Hence the coming to power of the BJP in Madhya Pradesh will have its impact on the activities of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which is spearheading the struggle against the project.

All of the 30 large dams (the small and medium dams take the total to more than 3,000) save one, proposed to be built on the Narmada are located in Madhya Pradesh. The largest and the most controversial dam, Sardar Sarovar, is in Gujarat. A Supreme Court judgment in 2000 allowed the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam to proceed to 110 metres of its proposed ultimate height of 138 m. The BJP government in Gujarat hailed the judgment as "progressive". Work on the other dams had stopped because of lack of funds or had not been initiated because of opposition from the NBA.

A clear indication of the new BJP government's pro-dam stand is the announcement of Narmada Minister Anup Mishra that if the Sardar Sarovar dam is allowed to rise to its full 138-m height, Madhya Pradesh will be a beneficiary of the hydel power that will be generated from the dam. Further support for the dams is evident in the fact that work on the Upper Beda dam is scheduled to start; construction machinery was brought in immediately after the elections.

Of the other dams in the State, Narmada Sagar is almost ready. Impoundment started in November 2003, causing tremendous submergence in the upstream areas. The waters are still rising. In the downstream areas, the livelihoods and agricultural activities of riverine communities such as the Kewats, Kahars and Dhimars have been severely affected. Work on the Maan dam is almost complete, while work on Omkareshwar will begin soon. The foundation stone for the latter was laid by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee three months ago.

With BJP governments in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Rajasthan, the three States that stand to benefit from the dams, the NBA will have a tough job on hand. (Maharashtra is the fourth State involved in the Narmada project.) A much higher level of consensus between the three governments is expected, and the NBA and the oustees will no longer be able to bank on inter-State differences.

However, says Chittaroopa Palit of the NBA, it can work both ways. "The BJP will also be aware, or should be made aware, that the defeat of the Congress(I) in the Narmada valley areas was because of the hostile attitude of the previous government towards the affected people in the dam areas."

Over the years, the Digvijay Singh government had perpetrated a series of injustices on the people of the dam-affected areas. It distributed cash compensation instead of land to Sardar Sarovar Project oustees. The Adivasis of Alirajpur tehsil in Jhabua district of Madhya Pradesh had sat through a month-long dharna in the summer of 2003 demanding agricultural land but the government did not pay heed.

The Congress(I) government refused to negotiate with the NBA on the dam issue. Instead, it persisted with attempts to resume work on the Maheshwar dam. Protests by the local people and the NBA resulted in police action and imprisonment of the demonstrators. The protestors also highlighted the financial irregularities on the part of the government.

The government also handled the Maan dam issue in a manner that Palit describes as "cruel and callous". It ignored the oustees' demand that the rehabilitation policy be implemented. The authorities even refused to meet them. The government severed electricity connections, bulldozed school buildings and sealed hand pumps at the height of summer. The 29-day protest fast in 2002 by the affected people and NBA activists elicited an indifferent response from Digvijay Singh, who told the press: "How can I help it if these people die?" The fast was ultimately called off and the government established a Grievance Redressal Authority. But almost immediately afterwards, it evicted the people of Khedi-Balwadi village near the Maan dam.

The Congress(I) government extensively used the services of the special armed forces in evicting people in the mega dam Indira Sagar (formerly Narmada Sagar) area, bulldozing village after village, denying land-for-land compensation and indulging in large-scale corruption in the cash compensation and valuation processes.

Meanwhile in mid-August this year, with the rains in full force, Panthiaji, the first village to be affected by the new Omkareshwar dam, was evacuated. It is true that both Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar dams are Centrally controlled and hence the State government was not entirely to blame. But this did not diminish the State's role in the violence and the failure to rehabilitate people. The voters certainly recognised this fact.

But Palit points out: "I must also qualify that the Congress leaders directly involved in the Narmada projects did not lose. For example, Subhash Yadav, former Narmada Minister won, as did Jamuna Devi, Deputy Chief Minister, who consistently spoke up for Sardar Sarovar Project. So did Rajnarayan Singh of the Indira Sagar Project area."

To a great extent, the Congress government, by its failures, handed the State to the BJP on a platter. Digvijay Singh failed to develop any infrastructure, refused to buy available electricity from other States, and increased electricity costs by 800 per cent.

Palit says: "He was hostile and tyrannical to poor people's struggles, including those by the NBA, and he consistently supported industrialists and gave them huge tax subsidies amounting to hundreds of crores - Rs.150 crores to Coca-Cola and Bajaj alone - while he cut off all single light connections of lakhs of consumers who were consuming something like 1.5 per cent of total electricity. He chose to follow the reforms agenda. For example, in the power sector he followed the Asian Development Bank's agenda. The ADB conditionalities led to power tariffs being increased by 800 per cent, and 50 per cent of all electricity connections of farmers - that is, six lakhs out of 12 lakhs - in the State being cut off as a result of these high tariffs."

In the previous election, most of the valley had voted for the Congress(I). This time, even villages that were with the NBA voted for the BJP. It was not a manifestation of no-confidence in the NBA, Palit claims. "I don't think the NBA's influence has diminished, but what were we to do? Hold brief for a completely ineffective and tyrannical government? So we left it to the people and they voted against the Congress(I) government," she says. With smaller parties unable to provide an effective option to the voters, the BJP became their only alternative.

Palit believes that in the coming months the people of Madhya Pradesh will learn or relearn that the BJP is no better than the Congress(I). This government may even be different from the Sunderlal Patwa's BJP government of 1991 because the communalisation of Madhya Pradesh is far from complete, though the communalisation of Adivasis has taken place to a great extent.

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