Controversy over a dam

Print edition : July 04, 1998

There has been no meaningful dialogue between the promoters of the Maheshwar dam and the district administration on the one side and the people and the Narmada Bachao Andolan on the other.

THE controversy over the dams being built across the Narmada has once again surfaced with work starting on the 400 MW Maheshwar hydel power dam in Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh. The Rs. 1,569-crore project, the first private hydel project in the country, is being constructed by the Shree Maheshwar Hydel Power Corporation Ltd and is one of the 30 big dams on the river.

It appears that the absence of proper communication between the textile company S. Kumars and the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is the major factor that has heightened the controversy.

The controlling equity stake of Shree Maheshwar Hydel Power Corporation is vested with the S. Kumars group, whose business interests have so far been confined to textiles. According to the director of S. Kumars Synfabs Ltd, Vikas Kasliwal, whose family hailed from the area, the group entered the power sector because "it is the biggest thing in infrastructure development." Other equity holders are Bayernwerk Group, VEW Energie, Siemens AG and ABB.

The Maheshwar dam is located in the Nimar region, which is populated by Patidar and Rajput farmers who have modest but prosperous landholdings. They refer to the river as Narmadaji. Since 1996, the NBA and the residents of the 61 villages that will be affected by the dam have resisted its construction. The NBA demands complete information about the dam and a review of the project based on the cost-benefit ratio, the displacement and resettlement of families, the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), the Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) and so on.

Residents of Jalud village protesting at the dam site on April 22 and 23. They were later arrested.-COURTESY: NARMADA BACHAO ANDOLAN

Rallies and other forms of agitation, including a hunger strike by activists of the NBA, resulted in intervention by the State Government. In February, it passed an order to halt work temporarily at the site until a task force presented a report on June 30. S. Kumars appealed to the Government against the order saying that a wall was essential at the site to prevent silting of the pit dug for the powerhouse by monsoon floods. In March, the Government granted permission to build the wall, and since then the wall has become the focus of a dispute. The NBA says the wall is actually a part of the powerhouse's wall, while S. Kumars maintains that only a part of the wall is meant for this powerhouse and the rest is for the security of the pit. NBA activists say that local residents squatted at the site in protest on April 23 and were arrested and beaten. The police deny this but the NBA has produced photographs of injured protesters as well as their discharge certificates from a local dispensary.

Following the incident, the local residents set up seven checkpoints on the way to the project site. Men and women kept a round-the-clock vigil. They have stopped the entry of construction materials into the area. When truck drivers resisted, they poured water on the cement bags. Sub Divisional Officer K.L. Anjna warned that there would be action against the "illegal" checkpoints. On May 31, those who guarded the checkpoints were arrested and 60 trucks carrying the cement were allowed to enter the site. The NBA estimated that 500 persons were arrested. A press release that it issued claimed that NBA leader Medha Patkar and activist Chittroopa Palit were beaten and dragged to the Mandleshwar jail.

There has been no meaningful dialogue between the promoters of the dam and the district administration on the one hand and the local residents and the NBA on the other. The confusion is compounded by the different agendas of the protesters. The NBA protests against the existence of the dam while the residents of the villages, although they support the NBA, have indicated that they would settle for a better relief and rehabilitation package.

Kasliwal says that "the NBA is trying to prevent any overt dialogue." He says that he attempted in vain to meet Medha Patkar through her father and also through Shabana Azmi, actress, activist and Rajya Sabha member. At present there appears to be no meeting ground since the NBA is firm on preventing work on the dam and S. Kumars is determined to go ahead with it. S. Kumars inserted full-page advertisements in the local English and Hindi newspapers detailing "the truth behind the project".

Officials of the district administration say that the NBA has no local support and that protestors are brought in from outside. Anjna, however, told Frontline that he believed that the NBA had influenced the local residents. Lakshman Patidar, a farmer from Sulgaon village, said: "We would have never been able to band together all the villages, organise rallies and set up checkpoints on our own. Tan, man, dhan se hum andolan ke sath hai. (We are wholeheartedly with the Andolan)."

The controversial "security wall" under construction.-COURTESY: NARMADA BACHAO ANDOLAN

Early this year, Kasliwal addressed a rally attended by more than 1,000 protesters at the dam site. He said that he tried to clarify their doubts and allay their fears about the dam.

RELIEF and rehabilitation seem to be at the core of the dispute. Protesters quote a Madhya Pradesh Electricity Board (MPEB) resettlement report, which says that S. Kumars has not provided the required amount for relief and afforestation. However, S. Kumars says that Rs. 177.80 crores will be spent on relief and rehabilitation and 'catchment area treatment'. Claiming that its relief and rehabilitation package is "comprehensive and liberal", S. Kumars says that a reputed Delhi architectural firm has been commissioned to plan the villages, where the displaced families would be resettled. The company promises to provide public utilities, roads and electricity to the villages.

However, the situation on the ground does not tally with these claims. Residents of the villages say that notifications for land acquisition have not been issued and a survey has not been done. The NBA says that the first notice was served in February 1997, to acquire land for the company's housing colony. According to the NBA, no notices were served with respect to the land that was acquired for the dam site. Several local residents alleged that the land was acquired in 1986 by force. According to Dasratbhai of Jalud village, a part of his field was occupied and his irrigation pipes were filled with cement in order to prevent him from cultivating the field. The price offered for the land is also a contentious issue. Local residents say that the market rate is about Rs. 1 lakh an acre (Rs. 2.5 lakhs a hectare) while the Government offers only Rs. 20,000.

The farmers are also angry that that their fields have been enclosed by a barbed wire fence. A resident of Jalud village said that he had lost Rs. 20,000 because he was barred from entering his vegetable field.

The Maheshwar dam site. The "security wall" under construction is in the background.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

OF the 61 villages that will be affected, 13 will be submerged totally and nine partially. As per government rules, villages that will be fully submerged should be rebuilt near their original sites and those that will be partially submerged should be located in the same area above the maximum water level.

Dr. N.B. Jain, the company's director for relief and rehabilitation, says that the rehabilitation plan will benefit the landless since the government's policy is that every adult should get 5,400 square feet of land. For instance, Jalud village is spread over 2.6 ha but the new village will be 13 ha. However, although the company will pay for the transportation of construction materials, the actual cost of construction must be borne by the residents themselves.

Cost escalation owing to the delay in implementing relief and rehabilitation measures will also become a major issue. In his notes prepared for a Cabinet meeting, Deputy Chief Minister Subhash Yadav said: "The Government will not bear the cost of delays in relief and rehabilitation and measures to protect the environment. These will have to be borne by the MPEB."

At present, for the residents of Jalud, which will be the first village to be submerged, relief and rehabilitation work is under way. They will be relocated 3 km from their present village; they will be provided buildings for a school, a dispensary and a panchayat office.

Although the new site is acceptable to Jalud's residents, they have rejected the fields that are being offered to them in a rocky hill. S. Kumars, which says that the land was selected with the approval of the sarpanch, proceeded to level the area and crush the rocks. The farmers, however, claim that the first rain will wash away their efforts. Fertile black earth is being spread on the barren land, but this had led to trouble. The black soil is brought from a dry lake bed nearby. The Dalits who raise crop on the lake bed have protested against the depletion of their cultivable land.

ACCORDING to the S. Kumars' schedule, the reservoir will be filled in 2002. The displaced persons will be rehabilitated a year prior to this. The process of relief and rehabilitation calls for a resurvey of the earlier report by the MPEB, but S. Kumars says that the schedule is affected because the company is prevented from entering the villages. According to officials at the dam site, surveying has been undertaken only on an area that extends 15 km on both sides of the river.

In an effort to educate the displaced persons about their rights, the NBA took them to meet families similarly displaced by the Bargi and Tava dams. The relief and rehabilitation work in these cases has turned out to be disastrous because the backwaters of these dams submerged even the resettlement sites. However, Jain says: "There is absolutely no chance of the new areas being submerged." Explaining the lay of the land, an engineer at S. Kumars said: "There will be no submergence since 60 to 70 per cent of the width of the dam is within the natural flood plain." Going by the contour maps examined by this correspondent, submergence levels will be in the range of 50 to 100 metres on either bank from the existing high water level of the river.

One complaint of the families that would be displaced was that they were not aware of the level of submergence. Kasliwal said that in an effort to allay this fear the company had attempted to construct footpaths on either bank to indicate the submergence level. However, he said, the local residents prevented the work with threats of assault.

An NBA signboard warns anyone associated with the dam against entering the village. All the villages that oppose the dam have put up similar signboards.-

To bolster its case, the NBA cites the instance of the withdrawal of PacifiCorp, an investor in the project, in early 1996. In response to a letter from the NBA, which detailed the destruction of a sustainable economy, Dennis Quinn, vice-president of PacifiCorp, says in his letter dated May 7, 1998, that his company withdrew because of a policy decision "not to pursue energy infrastructure investments in India". Quinn says: "We regard the issues described in your letter very seriously. We have much respect for the S. Kumars organisation but we also respect the concerns of the people expressed in your letter to us." He adds that "if PacifiCorp were to re-evaluate an investment position in the project in future, it would only be under the condition that the needs of the mass of affected people be properly addressed and consensus regarding how the project proceeds is reached by all stakeholders, including the Narmada Bachao Andolan."

The protesters also quote from a survey conducted by the Department of Earthquake Engineering of the University of Roorkee, which says that the dam lies in the tectonically disturbed Narmada-Son-Damodar region. The report says: "The fault can be reactivated at any time given the recurrence of nearby quakes." It mentions a 1938 earthquake, which measured 6.25 on the Richter scale with its epicentre only 70 km from the dam site. However, Girish Bakre, senior vice president of S. Kumars Power Corporation Ltd, claimed that the dam had been designed to withstand an earthquake that measured 7 on the Richter scale.

THE Maheshwar dam is crucial to the Narmada Valley Development Authority's scheme of things. It will be part of a complex comprising the Maheshwar, Indira Sagar and Onkareshwar dams. Apart from generating power, Maheshwar will be the key project for water regulation and the maintenance of water use account for Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

An MPEB cost analysis report highlights the key role of the Maheshwar dam when it states that "the project is viable even if the upstream Indira Sagar and Onkareshwar projects are not constructed." The NBA objects to this "haphazard planning" and questions the Government's judgment in constructing a terminal dam (that is, Maheshwar) before tapping the source waters (that is, completing Indira Sagar). Serious questions are being raised about the one lakh hectacres of land that will be submerged by Indira Sagar as well as the inadequate relief and rehabilitation for 249 villages. It is imperative that Maheshwar be constructed prior to Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat. The filling of Sardar Sarovar will mean that its backwaters - extending up to 214 km - would submerge the foundations of the Maheshwar dam, according to the NBA.

The NBA has also protested against the Narmada being virtually turned into a series of backwaters. After the 214-km stretch of Sardar Sarovar backwaters, there will be a series of three dams, which will also form backwaters. This dam-backwater series will occupy about 400 km of the river. This, say farmers, will cause waterlogging in the black alluvial soil and destroy its vitality. The NBA says that this fact was pointed out by a former Chief Engineer of the Madhya Pradesh Government, R.L. Gupta.

The PPA is also a matter of dispute. Being a hydel power station, Maheshwar will only provide peaking power, that is, power required during the maximum demand period. This period is usually late in the morning and at night. Thus the station will be functional only for between five and six hours a day and the MPEB will purchase and distribute the entire 400 MW produced. An MPEB report on "necessity and cost-benefit analysis" says that the shortfall in the peak demand of the State is 1,500 MW.

The PPA was not made available to Frontline, but according to the NBA, the MPEB has a 35-year agreement to purchase 90 per cent of the power generated. Pointing at the low water capacity in the dry season and hence the low power production, the NBA argues that the PPA disproportionately favours the project.

S. Kumars says: "Maheshwar has been found viable at a dependability of 90 per cent" (It argues that hydel power stations work on the concept of dependability while thermal power stations work on the concept of Plant Load Factor). It is an accepted fact that for a hydel power project to be viable, it has to maintain its dependability (or power production) at 90 per cent of the installed capacity. S. Kumars believes that this will work favourably for the tariff. Thus, in the best case scenario the simple average of 35 years' tariff works out to Rs. 1.61 a unit and in the worst case scenario it will be Rs. 2.33 a unit. Currently, power is available in the State at Rs. 1.70 a unit.

In a paper entitled "Maheshwar Dam: Loot of Public Money", Girish Sant and Shantanu Dixit of the Pune-based Prayas present the flip side: "The project is mainly justified on the basis of its ability to generate power during the period of system peak. But as the calculations based on the detailed reports clearly indicate, the project will generate over 60 per cent of its peak power (or 78 per cent of total power) in the four months of monsoon, when power demand is relatively low."

Sant and Dixit also argue that many projections for the Maheshwar dam presume the completion of the Indira Sagar dam without taking into account that this project suffers from a deficiency of funds. Prayas' calculations raise the tariff to a whopping Rs. 7 to 9 a unit. Opposition to the PPA also comes from Deputy Chief Minister Subhash Yadav, who reportedly described the PPA as "suicidal".

The Maheshwar hydel project appears to be a case in which the pros and cons are balanced. Arguments for the saving of the sustainable economies around it are arguments against increasing power demands. The absence of a dialogue makes the search for solutions all the more difficult.

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