High and dry

Published : Feb 16, 2002 00:00 IST

The Centre decides to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam, inviting criticisms of violation of the rights of the displaced families.

IN a shocking turn to the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) controversy, the Union government decided on January 25 that the height of the dam should be raised from 90 metres to 100 m by June 2002. In October 2000, the Supreme Court had allowed the construction to proceed up to a height of 90 m from 83 m, evoking sharp reactions from the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which represents the project-affected families (PAFs) (Frontline, November 10, 2000).

The announcement came in the wake of a meeting the Prime Minister held with the Chief Ministers of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, Narendra Modi and Digvijay Singh respectively, in New Delhi. An indication that the government was pulling all the stops out in an effort to raise the dam height was provided by the presence of a number of high-level functionaries at the meeting. Among them were the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary Brajesh Mishra, Gujarat State Chief Secretary G. Subba Rao, Narmada Water Resources Secretary N.B. Desai and Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd Chairman Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, Vice-Chairman V.B. Buch and Managing Director K.C. Kapur. Conspicuous by their absence were representatives of Maharashtra and Rajasthan, the other riparian beneficiaries of the SSP.

The Prime Minister's intervention is expected to expedite the clearance for the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) and environment subgroups of the inter-State Narmada Control Authority (NCA).

"Petty political expediencies," is how the NBA summed up the latest government move. "It may be a pre-Assembly election bonanza for Narendra Modi or a bargain for Madhya Pradesh, which is seeking to privatise another controversial dam on the Narmada - the (Indira) Sagar Complex. Either way the decision subverts the judicial directive and commits contempt of court," the NBA said.

The latest government decision has several flaws. The issue of the dam height has been through a prolonged legal process, and the Supreme Court's October 2000 directive on the SSP is yet to be implemented. Two, the designated authority, the NCA, has been given official responsibility for all decisions relating to the dam construction. Three, the Union government seems to think that all the displaced people can be rehabilitated in the space of one month despite there having been no official master plan for R&R for almost 20 years. Four, representatives of Maharashtra and Rajasthan were not present when the decision was taken.

It is an accepted fact that any construction can be sanctioned only by the NCA, after it has received the necessary clearances from its R&R and environment subgroups. It is on record that the subgroups have not approved the raising of the dam height from 90 m to 93 m. They actually refused clearance, yet the Gujarat government pushed the construction plan ahead. While the operative portion of the majority judgment of the Supreme Court stated that the R&R subgroup had decided to permit the construction up to 90 m, its chairperson, Asha Das, had on two occasions denied this. She continues to maintain that the decision was solely the Supreme Court's.

The time-frame agreed upon at the January 25 meeting is so unrealistic that it can only be assumed that there is no intention to follow the set guidelines. In its October 2000 judgment the Supreme Court had asked for a preliminary R&R report. This is yet to be submitted. But it was decided at the meeting that the R&R process would be completed so that work could start by June, which is practically impossible.

According to the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT), the raising of the dam height has to be preceded by the rehabilitation of families that, would be affected by that, one year in advance. The Supreme Court has upheld this rule. If this had been followed in letter and spirit, those affected at 90 m would have had R&R arrangements made by June 2000. This did not happen. Even the acquisition of land for the residents of villages that would be submerged at 90 m was not completed.

As per the stipulations of the Tribunal, PAFs at 90 m should have been allotted cultivable land, with irrigation facilities, and house plots at R&R sites capable of accommodating the entire village and provided with civic amenities. By now they should have taken possession of the lands and been well on the way to proper rehabilitation. This has not happened, and this fact is recorded in the official correspondence of February 19, 2001, in which the chairperson of the R&R subgroup has directed the Chief Secretaries of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh to complete by March 2001 the resettlement of those affected by the increase in the dam's height to 90 m.

In fact, both Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have officially admitted that they have no land suitable for resettlement. Even until September last, Digvijay Singh reiterated this. Madhya Pradesh filed a civil suit demanding a new Tribunal in order to replace the land-for-land policy with cash compensation. And in violation of the Tribunal Award, it started disbursing cash compensation. The Supreme Court has taken a strong stand in the matter of "land for land" instead of "cash for land".

The October 2000 judgment says: "The displacement of the people due to major river valley projects has occurred in both developed and developing countries. In the past, there was no definite policy for the rehabilitation of displaced persons associated with the river valley projects in India. However, there were certain project-specific programmes for implementation on temporary basis. The compensation of land was given under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. The cash compensation was the practice which resulted in the resettlement of displaced families becoming unsustainable due to squandering away of compensation money. This type of rehabilitation programmes deprived the poor and illiterate tribals from their lands, houses, wages, natural environment and their socio-economic and cultural milieu. Realising the difficulties of the displaced persons, the requirement of R&R of PAFs in the case of Sardar Sarovar Project was considered by the NWDT set up in 1969 and the decisions and final orders of the Tribunal in 1979 contained detailed directions in regard to the acquisition of land and properties, provision of land, house plots and civic amenities for the resettlement and rehabilitation of the affected families. In view of this, a rehabilitation policy has emerged and developed along with SSP."

In a petition before the Supreme Court regarding the height of the SSP, Madhya Pradesh had argued that the higher the dam, the more the number of families to be resettled. After the January 25 meeting, the Madhya Pradesh government agreed to withdraw the petition. The NBA attributes this to vested interests. Madhya Pradesh plans to construct another giant dam, called the Narmada (or Indira) Sagar Project. Withdrawing the petition is essentially a means to obtain clearance for the new dam. This will also help hasten the progress on the Maheswar dam, the construction of which has been suspended in view of lack of finances and the non-existence of R&R.

Maharashtra has accepted that all existing data need to be reviewed before locating land to rehabilitate the PAFs in the 33 villages coming under the SSP in the State. The Justice Daud Committee has exposed the reality of displacement and rehabilitation, forcing the government to admit that a clear picture will emerge only after the completion of the Task Force survey.

According to the NBA, "more than 30,000 PAFs are waiting to be rehabilitated. In the past 22 years the State governments have shifted less than 10,000 families, and their rehabilitation is still incomplete. Officially, all families affected at 90 m height have been resettled. However, a survey of the 66 affected villages, conducted by the NBA, reveals that 1,061 families remain to be resettled in Maharashtra, 1,960 families in Madhya Pradesh and 195 families in Gujarat. The NBA has submitted the list to the NCA, which is verifying the list for Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

Inaction and poor documentation on the part of the government have compounded the situation. The number of PAFs in Madhya Pradesh has increased from 33,014 to 35,716 with the possibility of further increases. The extent of submergence has increased from 20,722 hectares to 23,425 ha. The NBA says, "The increase in the PAFs is yet to be reflected in the R&R subgroup and NCA records, which retain the old figures." Maharashtra admits that there are 2,555 claims from families yet to be declared affected in addition to the 3,221 families already listed. Gujarat has also admitted that the number of PAFs will increase. It is not clear how many families will finally be affected by the project, just one indicator of how out of touch the government is with the realities of the dam project.

Under the Tribunal Award, a clear and fair system exists for R&R. Any change in the Award or any attempt to amend or bypass the procedures of the NCA and its subgroups would amount to subversion of the law and violation of the rights of the displaced families.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment