Maheshwar dam

Victory and vindication

Print edition : June 05, 2020

AT a protest against the Maheshwar project, in Mandleshwar, Madhya Pradesh, on March 17, 2008. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

A view of the Maheshwar dam, a 2010 photograph. Photo: Mahim P. Singh

An agency of the Madhya Pradesh government issues a Termination Order against the Maheshwar hydro project on the Narmada and brings to an end the over two-decade-long struggle against the project.

WHAT does it feel like to be vindicated after 23 years of shouting yourself hoarse and after facing legal and physical threats and standing up for the rights of the voiceless masses? Chittaroopa Palit has just one word to describe it: elation.

Her joy and relief stem from the Termination Order issued to Shree Maheshwar Hydel Power Corporation Limited (SMHPCL), which is owned by the S. Kumars group, for its 400 MW hydropower project on the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh. Chittaroopa Palit, Alok Agarwal and others of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) have struggled for over two decades to halt the project. The Termination Order vindicates the NBA’s position and is doubly relevant because it was issued by the very agency that SMHPCL was associated with, M.P. Power Management Company Limited (MPPMCL), an agency of the government of Madhya Pradesh.

The order, dated April 18, terminated the power purchase agreement (PPA) and subsequent amendatory agreements for the Maheshwar power project executed between S. Kumars and the State government and its agencies. The escrow agreement and the rehabilitation agreement for the project were also terminated, vide orders dated April 20 and 21.

The reason for the termination was the cost of the power. The cost of generating power would have been Rs.18 per unit, which the Termination Order describes as “abnormal and very high, much beyond the initial estimations or the agreed cappings, considering prevailing power market scenario and therefore to purchase power from the project by MPPMCL shall be at the cost, expense and burden of the general consumers of the State of M.P. as the entire power purchase cost is a pass through to the consumers…. Therefore, the continuation of the instant PPA… with SMHPCL is also against consumer and public interest.” Thus, the project was terminated in the public interest.

There was more though. S. Kumars, the project’s promoters, had repeatedly failed to comply with financial and technical deadlines. The Termination Order points this out and also says that this defaulting resulted in delays in commissioning the project. The order cites the direction of the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal in its judgment dated March 12, 2018, to the Central government to carry out a forensic audit of SMHPCL under the supervision of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India from 2005 or earlier in order to unearth fraud and to punish those responsible. The Termination Order points out that the direction for investigation makes it clear that some serious fraud had been committed with regard to the public funds infused into the project.

The Maheshwar dam, as it is commonly referred to, would have been one of the 30 large dams on the Narmada. If the gates of the dam had been closed, it would have submerged lands and homes in 61 villages in Madhya Pradesh’s Khargone district. As it is, the presence of the dam wall resulted in the submergence of some villages between 2012 and 2013.

The dam was originally meant to be implemented at a capital cost of Rs.465 crore, which the State ultimately said it lacked. So, in 1994 it was privatised, the first and only such dam on the Narmada to be so (it was also India’s first privatised dam). In 1994, it was given to S. Kumars through a PPA, which Chittaroopa Palit describes as “anti-people”. Under one of its clauses, the Madhya Pradesh government would have had to pay S. Kumars crores of rupees of public money every year for 35 years from the date of the commissioning of the project whether or not it purchased the electricity. When S. Kumars came into the picture, the capital cost of the project was Rs.1,489 crore, which was later increased to around Rs.1,500 crore.

Throwing light on the convoluted financial deal, Chittaroopa Palit said: “The 400 MW Maheshwar project was slated to generate electricity mainly in the four monsoon months at a time when electricity is in excess, that too a mere 80 crore units, whereas after meeting the entire demand of Madhya Pradesh, there is a surplus of 3,000 crore units available at Rs.2.5 per unit. But as per the PPA…, even if the State government did not purchase this prohibitively expensive electricity, it would still have to pay around Rs.1,200 crore rupees per annum, which for 35 years adds up to a whopping Rs.42,000 crore. Thus, it is clear that Rs.42,000 crore belonging to the public of Madhya Pradesh would have been looted even without purchase of electricity from this project, from which they have been saved by the termination of the PPA.”

Explaining the core of the NBA’s fight, Chittaroopa Palit said: “From the very beginning, there were many financial irregularities and defaults surrounding this project, because of which the work of the project was stopped… for the last 10 years. Whether Congress or BJP, all governments have attempted to benefit the project promoters at the cost of the public. The… CAG of India has in as many as five reports—of 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005 and 2014—recorded various grave financial irregularities relating to the project. In its 2014 report, the CAG of India asked why the government had not terminated the PPA. Apart from this, in 2001, the erstwhile head of the lenders consortium, IFCI Ltd, had clearly stated in its report that S. Kumars had diverted Rs.106.4 crore of public funds meant for the Maheshwar project to other entities, including a sister concern. In this regard, since 2001, the Narmada Bachao Andolan has been repeatedly demanding a forensic audit of the use of thousands of crores of rupees of public funds raised by Shree Maheshwar Hydel Power Corporation Limited for the Maheshwar project. It is noteworthy that in its order dated March 3, 2018, the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal [NCLAT] directed a forensic audit of the SMHPCL, under the guidance of the officials of the CAG of India.” The Termination Order also refers to the forensic audit the NCLAT mentioned.

The NBA painstakingly gathered data, met with the Chief Minister and heads of banking and financial institutions, filed petitions, dealt with lawsuits and threats of physical violence and kept up the spirits of the local people as it built up a case to show that the project was unviable.

Between 1999 and 2000, the case for the dam started crumbling. The NBA had taken the battle to the international level. Foreign companies associated with the project such as VEW Energie, Bayernwerk, Siemens and Ogden Power backed out. Enraged at the NBA’s success, S. Kumars took the matter to court and got a gag order issued against the NBA that lasted for 10 years and prevented the activists and the affected people from holding press conferences or demonstrations. Protesting that there was no effective rehabilitation and resettlement plan for the 60,000-plus people who would be affected by the project, the NBA filed petitions before the National Green Tribunal and the High Court of Madhya Pradesh. The court directed completion of rehabilitation of people before submergence. Chittaroopa Palit said: “It is noteworthy that even after 23 years, more than 85 per cent of the rehabilitation of the affected people remains to be done and the full extent of submergence remains unknown.”

The fight against this dam has been long and hard. In the early days of the fight, communication consisted of an erratic landline phone connection. And though the affected people believed they were being wronged, they were often overwhelmed and frightened by the might of the government and private enterprise. It was the total commitment and creativity of the activists that kept up the fighting spirit of the affected people, and sometimes, this was done through audacious plans. One such was the dawn raid on the dam that this correspondent was witness to. It was a memorable example of activism in the late 1990s.

After leaving Mumbai at 5 p.m. and driving through forest areas through the night, the Frontline team of this reporter and the photographer Vivek Bendre arrived at Maheshwar at 4 a.m. The village of Sulgaon was quiet but people were wide awake. There were no lights, but the people still stuck to the shadows when they moved about. Commands were passed in low whispers. The only other sounds were those of the night, some of which the villagers imitated in a prearranged code. The village animals were tethered but restless and uneasy at this unaccustomed activity. There were people from the neighbouring villages of Mardana, Behgaon, Pathrad, Bhatiyan and many more that were affected by the dam. There must have been about 3,500 people there, but one would not have known it. As daylight started to tinge the sky, there was palpable excitement and tension. It was easier to see the numbers now. They had been stationed at various spots. And then as dawn broke, on one command, they all rose and charged, a wild rush of more than 3,500 people breaking cover yelling, screaming, dodging trees, stumbling over rocks until they arrived at their objective: the large, rocky blasted site of the reservoir basin. Chittaroopa Palit and Agarwal’s dawn raid to capture the Maheshwar basin was a success. The police had been expecting some action—it was, after all, the peak of the activism in the 1990s—and had stationed personnel on the dam wall side. They least expected the raid to literally occur behind their backs. 

The victory was, of course, short-lived. Police personnel outnumbered the protesters. They swarmed down the sides, lathis flailing. The policewomen true to their training reached under the hems of saris to give a fierce tug on petticoats to loosen them and cause the saris to come loose, leaving the woman protester more concerned about her modesty than the protest. But, wise from past experience, the activists had tied cords around their waists to hold their saris and thus were safe.

It did not take long for the police to round up the protesters, pack them into vans and take them to jails in neighbouring towns. This was the expected outcome and did not detract from the success of the dawn raid. It was a gallant effort, and the victory, though brief, bolstered the determination of the village residents.

Although the Termination Order has been issued, a few questions remain. What happens to the actual dam itself? The dam wall has been standing 36 metres above the reservoir basin since 2011 when it was completed, but it has received no regular maintenance. The Madhya Pradesh Energy Department said in a letter dated April 28, 2016: “There has been no maintenance of the dam, powerhouse and hydraulic gates and dewatering of powerhouse from 2012, because of which the gates have become damaged and are in a dangerous condition, and the entire Maheshwar project has fallen into disarray.” 

The dam wall has to be decommissioned and demolished. Once this happens, he The river will then be able to flow freely and bring back some semblance of earlier life. Water pollution levels will drop, local fishing activity will resume as can riverbed cultivation in the dry months. It will also ease downstream and upstream submergence, especially of those areas that had already gone under water. The S. Kumars company bought some of the land for the dam and the government acquired some. The acquired land could either be used for some public cause or revert to the original owners. It would be a semblance of justice if it was the latter.

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