Threat of submergence

Print edition : July 03, 1999

A large number of tribal habitats in the Narmada Valley face submergence this monsoon, especially since the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam has been allowed to be increased to 88 metres.

JALSINDHI, which is called the Gateway of Madhya Pradesh by Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activists working in the region, is situated near the State's boundary with Gujarat and Maharashtra. This year's monsoon may well be the last one that three of Jalsindhi's five tribal hamlets will see.

Tribal people affected by the Sardar Sarovar Dam began a unique satyagraha in the villages of Jalsindhi and Domkhedi in Maharashtra's Nandurbar district on June 20. The satyagraha, organised by the NBA, has spilled over to the entire Narmada Valley. From Manibeli and Bhadal in Maharashtra to Jalsindhi and Kakarna in Madhya Pradesh, hundreds of tribal people and villagers from the Valley lined up along the banks of the Narmada along with representatives of voluntary organisations and pledged that they would not leave their homes and land for an ill-conceived project. "We shall drown, but we will not move," was the message they sought to convey to the authorities concerned.

The stand taken by all those who had assembled in the Valley on June 20 was that the decision to raise the height of the dam to 88 metres was unjust since it would cause a great deal of destruction to their homes and land, besides the region's forest cover. After lighting hundreds of lamps which were then set afloat on the Narmada, they pledged to fight the injustice being meted out to them by staying on in their homes and facing the rising waters. The tribal people who were evacuated from 19 villages in Gujarat and people who were displaced by the construction of Kevadia Colony, the site of the main dam, and the canals, also joined hands with the protesters.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam's height has been allowed to be increased from 80.3 m to 88 m after the Supreme Court lifted a stay on raising the dam's height four years ago. In an interim order issued by it in February this year, the apex court granted permission for resuming construction and raising the height to 85 m excluding the humps. On May 7, the court issued an order stating that the height of the humps should not be more than 3 m. According to the NBA, the increase in height will affect 50 to 60 villages.

The people of the Narmada Valley are worried that the Supreme Court may grant permission to the Gujarat Government in July to increase the height of the dam to 90 m. If that happens, the risk of submergence is far greater. The people are particularly apprehensive that there may be a recurrence of the events of 1994. That year, when the dam's height was only 69 m, flood waters rose to a level of 94 m and ravaged Jalsindhi. Even at the current height of 88 m, the tribal belt in the Vindhyas and Satpura ranges are likely to be submerged.

Tribal people and villagers from the Narmada Valley line up along the banks of the Narmada together with representatives of voluntary organisations to take a pledge that they would rather drown than move out.-COURTESY: NBA

NEARLY 2,500 families from the affected villages in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat have returned from the resettlement sites, disillusioned by the poor living conditions there. According to the NBA, about 12,000 residents of these villages face the threat of submergence this monsoon.

In its February order, the Supreme Court stated that the rehabilitation of the people who would be affected by the increase in the dam's height should be carried out in accordance with the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA). Activists of the NBA, however, allege that the court's order has been violated. They have also challenged the claims made by the governments concerned about the availability of land for resettlement, based on which the Supreme Court permitted further construction on the dam.

It is, however, clear that the Supreme Court was kept in the dark about the lack of progress on the "action plan" prepared by the Narmada Control Authority's (NCA) Relief and Resettlement (R&R) sub-group in January this year. The action plan was for launching R&R efforts when the dam reached a height of 90 m. (The NCA's R&R sub-group is the apex body monitoring the relief and rehabilitation operations. It has also the power to take decisions with regard to the dam's height. On January 6, it gave permission to increase the height to 90 m.)

The NCA's action plan showed that 1,221 project-affected families (PAFs) from Madhya Pradesh would be resettled in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh (795 in Gujarat and 426 in Madhya Pradesh). Of the 426 PAFs in Madhya Pradesh, 165 would be entitled for agricultural land in accordance with the State's legal provisions. Members of the NWDTA say that all the PAFs should be given land one year prior to the submergence of their lands and be rehabilitated completely with all the amenities they are eligible for, six months prior to submergence. (The Supreme Court issued a similar ruling in the B.D. Sharma case in August 1991. B.D. Sharma was the Chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. In his report, he questioned the development model adopted in the Narmada Valley, besides raising the issue of the inadequate R&R package for the displaced persons. The Supreme Court considered the report as a petition and gave its ruling. It stated that 960 PAFs from Madhya Pradesh should have been given land in June 1998, considering the fact that their homes would be submerged in June 1999, and that all the 1,221 PAFs from the State should have been rehabilitated completely with all the amenities by December 31, 1998.)

The NCA's action plan contains a table giving a summary of the status of the R&R plan for PAFs from villages in Madhya Pradesh that would be affected if the dam's height is increased to 90 m. The table disproves the claim made by the NCA in the action plan about the progress made by all the three State governments in implementing various aspects of the R&R in accordance with the NWDT's guidelines and the Supreme Court's directions. The table shows that land selection, land allotment and the final shifting of the PAFs can be phased between December 1998 and June 1999, quite oblivious of the NWDT award and the Supreme Court's direction. During the 44th meeting of the R&R sub-group held in New Delhi on June 8, this action plan was discussed and it was clear that no progress was reported by the three States on the plan until May 1999. The R&R of these PAFs was discussed only in June this year when the threat of submergence was imminent.

The NCA's action plan could have been a crucial input for the Supreme Court had it been submitted to the court before the court passed its interim order in February. Surprisingly, the Central Government did not include this plan in its written submission before the apex court during the final hearings held between January 27 and February 18.

OFFICIALS in Gujarat claim that all the resettlement sites in the State have a dispensary. However, experience has shown that the mere existence of a dispensary is not enough. Seven persons who were relocated from Kakarna village in Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh to the Vyara (Rameshwarpura) resettlement site died in April, within 10 days of moving into their new homes. The victims, including a woman, fell ill after contracting a mysterious disease and died a week later. The State Government for its part claims that they died of old age, when in fact only one person was above 50 years of age.

This incident has brought to the fore the problems faced by PAFs in resettlement sites, including uncultivable lands, lack of adequate foodgrains and unclean drinking water. The Gujarat Government has refused to provide dispensaries in those resettlement sites where there are fewer than 500 people. Strangely, this rule applies only to those displaced persons from Gujarat. The Government argued that the NWDT award relating to such a provision applies only to those displaced from Madhya Pradesh and Maharasthra.

The Gujarat Government claims that 88 per cent of those who were affected when the dam's height reached 85 m have been resettled. However, the NBA alleges that a number of these PAFs are facing problems, some of which are so serious that the displaced people can by no stretch of the imagination be termed as having been resettled. The NBA also accuses the Government of not addressing the PAFs' queries about the sites that were promised to them. Under these circumstances, NBA activists question the veracity of the Government's claim that enough land is available to resettle even people who would be displaced if the dam's height is raised to 90 m.

THE Madhya Pradesh Government has, for its part, stated that the land available with it for resettlement is limited. The report of a joint survey carried out by the displaced persons, activists and State officials in March revealed that an overwhelmingly large portion (95 per cent) of the available land is either unfit for cultivation or is of poor quality. The remaining land has been encroached upon. Although the State Government is yet to accept this report, it is clear that Madhya Pradesh does not have enough land to resettle its own PAFs.

Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar.-P.V. SIVAKUMAR

The State Government's predicament is evident from a statement made by it about trying to "persuade" 165 PAFs to opt for resettlement in Gujarat. Activists of the NBA fear that "persuasion" may end in the use of force since the Madhya Pradesh Government has no other option in view of the non-availability of land. For its part, Gujarat has taken the stand that of the 795 PAFs allotted to it, only 120 have agreed to come to Gujarat. Hence, it said, PAFs who do not respond to its notice would be deemed to have opted to stay back in Madhya Pradesh. Displaced persons from Madhya Pradesh probably prefer to be resettled in their own State. The Madhya Pradesh Government has, however, informed the Supreme Court that it does not have enough land to resettle more than the 830 PAFs allotted to it.

The Maharashtra Govern-ment earlier claimed that enough land was available to resettle even those families which would be affected if the dam's height was increased to 110 m. However, it now acknowledges that it has very little land left. Even a few hundred PAFs who were relocated more than three years ago have not been given land at the resettlement sites in Maharashtra. Frustrated, 21 such families returned to their villages, Junane and Selagda, despite the fact that they faced imminent submergence.

ON June 1 and 2, the people of the Narmada Valley went to the NCA, the apex multi-State body monitoring the entire project, at Indore. The detailed question-answer session held at the NCA premises between the officials and the people revealed that the NCA had neither cross-checked nor evaluated independently the information on the availability of land or the States' claims about being prepared for resettling the displaced families.

The satyagraha that began on June 20 will continue through the monsoon season and will highlight the risks involved in proceeding with the construction of the dam without fulfilling the mandatory R&R requirements. NBA convener Medha Patkar announced that activists and supporters of the satyagraha would fast and observe silence from July 4 to 12. She appealed to the people to observe a fast on July 12 to express their solidarity with the tribal people. The peaceful struggle has gained the support of people such as Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy, who, at a function held in New Delhi, appealed to all concerned citizens to take part in the "Rally For The Valley" scheduled to begin from Delhi on July 29 and reach the Narmada Valley on August 1.

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