Sardar Sarovar

Unkept promises

Print edition : October 13, 2017

Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar and oustees of the Sardar Sarovar Dam project at a rally for proper compensation and rehabilitation in Bhopal on May 4. Photo: A.M. Faruqui

A view of the dam that was dedicated to the nation by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 17. Photo: PTI

The flooded Rajghat village in Badwani district of Madhya Pradesh after water was released to fill the dam. Photo: Courtesy Narmada Bachao Andolan

The BJP lays claim to the Sardar Sarovar dam by inaugurating it on Modi’s birthday and in an election year, but resettlement and rehabilitation remains dismal.

Fifty-six years ago, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone at Gora in south Gujarat for a 49.4-metre dam on the river Narmada.

Disputes among Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra over sharing water from the river led to delays in the project until the setting up of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) in 1969 which resolved them. Over the decades, the dam grew in height gradually and it now stands at 138.68 m—89 m taller than originally intended. The argument was that the taller the dam, the better for irrigation and drinking water supply, and power generation. But the fact that it would entail much more rehabilitation responsibility never seemed to have been taken seriously.

The increase in the height of the dam is at the core of the controversy over Sardar Sarovar. In 1991, the dam’s biggest funder, the World Bank, was forced to commission an independent review after seeing the extent of resistance to the dam. The Morse report, as the review is commonly referred to, flatly said resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) of people in such vast numbers was not possible and that the environmental impact had not been properly assessed. The Bank withdrew from the project. But work on the dam continued, though the corresponding R&R did not.

The R&R policy of the NWDT of 1979, the special Rehabilitation Policy of the Madhya Pradesh government of 1993 and the special rehabilitation package announced by the Supreme Court on February 8, 2017, have not been implemented in their totality. Besides corruption and inefficiency, there was seemingly a deep-seated belief that the people affected by the project—largely rural and tribal populations without formal education—can be easily swindled of their rights.

On September 17, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar dam. Days before the inauguration, water was released from upstream dams so that the Sardar Sarovar would be at its full capacity. A citizen petition to the President on the same day puts it in perspective: “To close the dam gates and fill the reservoir to celebrate Narendra mahotsav (festival of Narendra), causing the forcible drowning [of] thousands of families in the process, is one of the greatest human rights violations in the history of free India. Such bizarre and colossal abuse of power is unheard of in any democratically governed country.”

As water filled Sardar Sarovar, more than 7.70 MAF (million acre feet) of water was held back in the dam’s 214-km-long storage area. The submergence zone has drowned 192 villages and one town, affecting about 40,000 families. For many of the project-affected people (PAP), R&R is still on paper.

The official website of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited says: “The submergence at Full Reservoir Level (FRL) is 37,690 ha (86,088 acres), which comprises 11,279 ha agricultural land, 13,542 ha forests and 12,869 ha riverbed and waste land. In all, 245 villages of the three States, viz. 193 villages of Madhya Pradesh, 33 villages of Maharashtra and 19 villages of Gujarat, are affected. Only 3 villages of Gujarat are fully affected, while the remaining 242 villages are partly affected. In Madhya Pradesh, out of 193 villages, more than 10% agricultural land will be submerged only in 79 villages, in 89 villages less than 10% agricultural land or only houses will be submerged under FRL, due to back water of 1 in 100 years flood. In 25 villages, only government waste land will be submerged.”

NBA’s fight

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which has been fighting for the PAP for 32 years, says about 40,000 ha of land will go under water when the reservoir is full. In effect, this land can be considered lost for ever because it will not be habitable even when reservoir levels drop. Although the government refers to 193 villages affected in Madhya Pradesh, it has in fact lumped a township together with 192 villages.

There are also certain important distinctions to be made in the R&R that the government has failed to do. Adivasi hamlets that are dependent on forest land and riverbed cultivation, big and prosperous villages in the Nimar plains that have thrived because of the rich silt, and the communities of artisans and small traders there—all these require specific resettlement and not the one-size-fits-all resettlement that is on paper.

Knowing what sort of land is being submerged is crucial to any R&R programme. Official statistics say that 11,279 ha is agricultural land and dismisses the rest as wasteland, riverbed and forest land, thereby expressing the authorities’ utter ignorance of the way rural livelihoods are earned. Farming on riverbeds, gathering forest produce, and grazing cattle on so-called wastelands are integral to village life.

There has also been a slow whittling away of the legal provisions and the basic human principles of R&R. For instance, the initial rehabilitation package was relatively well thought out, with entire villages being resettled as a whole on arable land that was as close as possible to the original location. Over the years, the track record of rehabilitation has deteriorated to the extent that there are still people who are not recognised as PAP despite having lost land and home years ago.

Left in the lurch

In February this year, the Supreme Court allowed cash compensation to be introduced instead of the earlier insistence on land for land. The court granted permission on the condition that rehabilitation should be completed by July 31 this year. The order suited the State governments very well, and just before the monsoon the Madhya Pradesh government sent evacuation notices to more than 18,000 families living in the submergence region. These families were eligible for cash compensation. But there are about 40,000 families that are practically invisible as far as the new order is concerned. They are not eligible for any compensation because of poorly carried out surveys.

Over the years, Sardar Sarovar has grown from being just an infrastructure project to something much larger. For the government of Gujarat and for the Bharatiya Janata Party, it was something to prove a point and the party has tried to make it its own (even though it was started during a Congress regime). The date of the dam’s inauguration reflected this. September 17 is Modi’s birthday; the year is crucial too since Gujarat goes to the polls towards the end of 2017.

The Sardar Sarovar dam was held up as an exemplar of the Gujarat model of development. The public was reminded about this when Chief Minister Vijay Rupani recently made a jibe at the State Congress saying: “Without any apparent reason, the Congress did not give necessary permission and clearances to Gujarat under the leadership of Modi ji , who was the Chief Minister. When Modi ji became the Prime Minister in 2014, within 17 days he cleared all files that had been pending for 90 months and gave permission to install gates on the Narmada dam [thereby increasing the dam height to its present 138.68 m].”

The Gujarat government has been pushing the greater good against individual rights argument, but the NBA says that the majority were dispossessed so that a minority could benefit. The latter is the reality. Take, for instance, the claim that electricity and agricultural and drinking water will be the priority usage of the Narmada waters and especially so in the drought-prone regions of Gujarat. In reality, the canals first pass through heavily industrialised and urban areas which will grab most of the water before it can reach water-starved Kutch and Saurashtra. Likewise is the announcement that 18 lakh hectares in Gujarat would be irrigated by the Narmada waters and 9,000 villages and four crore people would benefit from it. When the dam was inaugurated, Modi even promised that water would flow to the India-Pakistan border some 600 km away to serve Border Security Force personnel. His rhetoric precedes the ground reality that just about 30 per cent of the total canal network has been constructed and parts of the built sections are already in disrepair.

The political tom-tomming continues. There is no doubt that the inauguration of the dam is the first salvo against the opposition before the upcoming Assembly elections. What is to be seen is whether the State’s voters will see the project for what it is or whether they will be taken in by the development lie.

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