A higher Sardar Sarovar

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

THE controversial Sardar Sarovar dam, on the Narmada river, has hit another high with the decision of the Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) sub-group of the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) to raise its height from the present 90 metres to 95 metres. There are two sub-groups of the NCA; the other being the environment sub-group, which had earlier given permission to raise the height to 100 metres. The R&R sub-group, however, decided on 95 metres and as per an earlier NCA decision the lower height was agreed upon.

Those who oppose the dam question the validity of the decision, saying that it goes against the October 2000 ruling of the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court had ruled in favour of increasing the dam height provided all R&R measures were completed before the height rose above 90 metres. The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which has consistently opposed the dam, says that R&R has been incomplete.

The decision on whether or not to increase the height was meant to have been taken in March. At that time an informed source in the R&R department of the Maharashtra government told Frontline: "There are two possibilities. Either the sub-groups will follow their conscience and reject any proposal to increase the height or they will give in to the pressure of Bharatiya Janata Party politics and give the green signal."

The decision of May 18 indicates that the latter was the case. There is documented evidence that the rehabilitation and resettlement is incomplete. The NBA has carried out a number of surveys by committees in which there has been representation for the government. Every survey has proved the fact that there are vast numbers of people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar project who have received no form of compensation. Even if the work of the NBA and various semi-government committees is considered biased, the veracity of the claim cannot be doubted when the Grievance Redressal Agency of the Maharashtra government itself has admitted that all the displaced in the State have not been resettled. Though the Gujarat government claims that all those people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar project have been resettled, figures gathered late last year by the NBA show that there are at least 30,000 families that are yet to be resettled. These figures do not take into account the families that are affected by other constructions of the approximately Rs.30,000-crore project.

"Jingoistic politics" is how the NBA explains the decision to raise the height. In January this year the Prime Minister had announced that the project would go ahead, no matter what. The statement caused an uproar since at that time the decision to raise the height rested with the two sub-groups of the NCA and the Prime Minister's statement was seen as an attempt to influence them. The statement was also made prior to the byelection in Rajkot - Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's constituency. Rajkot, in the Saurashtra region, is a water-deficient district and water from the Sardar Sarovar dam has been a long-standing election promise to Saurashtra's farmers.

Other political compulsions explain why Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, who had been opposed to the dam, suddenly did a volte-face. He has from the start admitted that the State has no land for resettlement (a vital clause of the Tribunal Award is that the displaced people should be given arable land and not cash compensation). Unable to keep its earlier promise of resettling the people displaced in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat has been attempting to modify the Tribunal Award to include cash compensation.

The majority of the displaced are from Madhya Pradesh and their dissatisfaction could have a negative effect on Digvijay Singh's government in the Assembly elections, which are due in early 2004. To avert any repercussions, Digvijay Singh is removing all obstacles in the way of the Gujarat government modifying the Tribunal Award. He has withdrawn the suit in the Supreme Court against Gujarat's inability to provide rehabilitation and resettlement.

Lyla Bavadam
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