Rising height, growing doubts

Published : Feb 27, 2004 00:00 IST

NBA leader Medha Patkar on a fast near the State Secretariat in Mumbai on January 28 on the issue of the rehabilitation of dam-affected families. - VIVEK BENDRE

NBA leader Medha Patkar on a fast near the State Secretariat in Mumbai on January 28 on the issue of the rehabilitation of dam-affected families. - VIVEK BENDRE

As approval for a crucial increase in the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam is awaited, there is concern about whether Maharashtra will complete the resettlement and rehabilitation of the affected people in time. There are also doubts whether the State will, ultimately, benefit in any way from the project.

THE 18-year-old conflict over the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) has reached a decisive phase. The dam, at present 100 metres high, is waiting for clearance from the Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) Sub-Committee to be built up to the height of 110.64 metres. This height is crucial to the SSP because it is only when water falls from that height that the giant turbines will begin to turn and generate electricity. The electricity generated initially will be only about 30 MW. But, as activist Ravi Kuchimanchi said, this figure is enough for the pro-dam sections to go ecstatic about the benefits of the dam. When the Bharatiya Janata Party won the elections to the Madhya Pradesh Assembly, it was expected that the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat and the Uma Bharati government would join forces and demand a further increase in the dam height despite the R&R-related issues. The likelihood that the two States would resort to such a course of action is partly evident in the Rs.400-crore guarantee that the Madhya Pradesh government has given in the case of the Maheshwar dam despite lending agencies and potential partners worldwide declining to consider the project.

The pro-dam stance has meant that the moral responsibility of R&R falls entirely on Maharashtra. This was clear on January 29, at the tenth meeting of the Review Committee of the Narmada Control Authority (NCA), the monitoring agency of the SSP. The meeting was attended by Narendra Modi, Uma Bharati, Rajasthan's Minister for Irrigation Shambar Lal Jat, and Maharashtra's Minister of State for Revenue and Rehabilitation Ramraje Naik Nimbalkar, and chaired by A.C. Sethi, Minister for Water Resources at the Centre. Nimbalkar said that although there was pressure from the other three States to agree in principle to increase the height of the dam, he was "strongly against it". The other participating States insisted on agreeing to increase in principle the height of the dam and simultaneously carrying out the rehabilitation work. Nimbalkar said that the Maharashtra government would draw up a time-bound programme for rehabilitation and prepare a monthly progress report. The next meeting of the Review Committee is on February 12, before which the Grievance Redressal Authorities of Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat will be consulted about the state of R&R in the respective States.

Activists are apprehensive that the "pressures" that Nimbalkar spoke of resisting at the last meeting might be too much for Maharashtra to resist a second time, especially with elections just round the corner.

While a decision by consensus is preferred, there is a provision in the NCA that allows a decision by vote. There is also a Supreme Court order of 2000, which says that in case of differences, the NCA should refer the matter to the Prime Minister. The judgment categorically stated: "The Award of the Tribunal is binding on the States concerned. The said Award also envisages the relief and rehabilitation measures, which are to be undertaken. If for any reason any of the State governments involved lags behind in providing adequate relief and rehabilitation, then the proper course, for a court to take, would be to direct the Award's implementation and not to stop the execution of the project. This court, as a federal court of the country especially in a case of inter-State river dispute where an Award had been made, has to ensure that the binding Award is implemented. In this regard, the court would have the jurisdiction to issue necessary directions to the State, which though bound, chooses not to carry out its obligations under the Award. Just as an ordinary litigant is bound by the decree, similarly a State is bound by the Award. Just as the execution of a decree can be ordered, similarly the implementation of the Award can be directed. If there is a shortfall in carrying out the R&R measures, a time-bound direction can and should be given in order to ensure the implementation of the Award. Putting the project on hold is no solution. It only encourages recalcitrant States to flout and not implement the award, with impunity. This certainly cannot be permitted..." The decision to defer the raising of the height of the dam was taken because of Maharashtra's stand on incomplete R&R. "We aren't against a national project but we will insist on R&R in terms of the policy announced by the Maharashtra government," said Rehabilitation and Assistance Secretary Krishn Vatsa, emphasising that the State will give the green signal to construction once R&R is complete. A time period of three to four months was set for this.

Following a hunger strike by Medha Patkar and three other Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activists, the State agreed either to implement or look into matters of entitlements and linkages between submergence, displacement and rehabilitation. Of the three States, Maharashtra has always been open to dialogue with the NBA. While acknowledging this, activists disagree with certain vital elements in the State's R&R process. A major point of disagreement is the State's insistence on using the Action Taken Report (ATR) as a baseline for R&R. The ATR says that 177 project-affected families are yet to be resettled. The NBA disagrees and says that it would prefer the State to rely on the Task Force report of 2002 on the matter. Not only was the Task Force an independent body that had representation from the State, the NBA and other organisations, but it also gave a more accurate picture of R&R. According to the Task Force report, over 2,000 families have to be resettled before the dam can be allowed to rise to 110 m. The NBA says that about 3,000 people living on the riverbanks need to be resettled because of poor living conditions brought on by rising water levels.

Activists of the NBA say that the State's contention that R&R will be completed in a few months is either an attempt to buy time or a claim made out of ignorance of the magnitude of the task at hand. The impending general elections could be another reason for setting such an unrealistic timeframe. According to a clause in the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award, R&R should be completed at least six months prior to the start of construction and land has to be identified for the purpose one year before construction begins. This means that at least one year before work begins on raising the dam height, people who will be affected by the construction should have visited and agreed to accept the land they will receive as compensation. This aspect of the Tribunal's Award has never been honoured. Indeed, there are cases pending of families that were unsettled when the height of the dam was at 80 m.

One of the arguments of the NBA has been that Maharashtra stands to gain very little from the dam. Officials reject this argument by citing the Supreme Court order which says: "In a federal set-up like India, whenever any such Inter-State project is approved and work undertaken, the States involved have a responsibility to cooperate with each other." To substantiate their position the NBA summarised a cost-benefit analysis of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL), which the latter had placed before the Maharashtra government in May 2003. In its report, the NBA maintains that the project will not benefit Maharashtra for several reasons, including R&R, cost of energy and reliability of supply. The report says: "Taking into consideration the above contradictions and questionable assumptions in GoG's cost-benefit analysis, not only does the picture of large profits accruing to Maharashtra begin to dissipate, but the spectre of a massively wasteful diversion of public funds begins to surface... It is important to keep in mind not only the economic costs of the project, but also the very real human and environmental costs that accompany it, and to question whether the dispossession of 33 villages in Maharashtra and the inundation of a river valley can be justified (if justifiable at all) on such shaky economics."

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