PUCL Bulletin, July 2003

Narmada river project dooms thousands
-- By Kuldip Nayar

A glossy, expensive pamphlet containing a speech by the Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, has landed on my table. This is through the courtesy of the State Information Department. My first reaction was why should the Government indulge in this type of wasteful expenditure when it is yet to rehabilitate thousands who have been uprooted following natural calamities in the State such as drought and earthquake, and last year's man-made carnage.

I was curious to read Mr. Modi's observation that "the timely cooperation among the States" overcame the delay on the Narmada river project. The two States he has referred to are Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. In fact, they have done more harm than Gujarat. After taking the stand that the dam would not go above a particular height, they surrendered to the pressure of Mr. Modi and that of the Prime Minister's Office. The Gujarat Narmada Award, endorsed by the Supreme Court, said clearly that rehabilitation, including the allotment of land and house-sites, should take place six months before submergence. It also said that the oustees should be rehabilitated as soon as they are uprooted.

But what is being done by the Modi Government amounts to contempt of court. And this is not the first instance by any means. There is no land available in the three States where the reservoir of the Narmada dam is still devouring the land of thousands of 'adivasis'. Many are awaiting rehabilitation. Gujarat has no land to give. Under the award, if Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh cannot find the land, Gujarat has to do it. I recall that the members of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) at Ahmedabad had assured us some years ago that they would raise their standard of protest if the Gujarat Government did not fulfill its obligation of giving land for land. But I have not heard their voice of protest.

No legal opinion has to be sought to infer that more people should not be disturbed until there is land to rehabilitate them. Over 40,000 peasants are at present in the reservoir area. They must get land before the monsoon sets in. But there is nothing on the ground to indicate that the Government has got the land, that the homes or primary schools are ready to transfer even a fraction of the 40,000 before the rains.

For some time, the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, did not give in on the height of the dam, realising that the more land was submerged, wider would be the devastation in terms of ploughed land, houses and the like. But on political considerations, he finally gave in. The danger is that the Modi Government, on the one hand, and the Centre, on the other are pressurizing Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh to agree to the increase in the height of the dam. It would be a disaster. Lakhs of people would suffer.

Maharashtra has openly gone back on its earlier assurance that it will give cost compensation, not land. The award stipulates land for land. The cash compensation is too little for buying land. Ready cash tempts the poor to buy consumer goods, which they otherwise have no money to purchase. Land, good or bad, does help them earn a living.

The Gujarat Government's claims on rehabilitation are false. Figures have been cooked up. What the Supreme Court and the Tribunal had wanted the State to do has been covered up by rhetoric. Sensitive Gujaratis are conscious that the promises made to them have not been kept. But they are afraid to speak out lest they should be dubbed "anti-dam crowd". An independent study has been conducted to verify the facts. The Housing and Land Rights Network of the Habitat International Coalition (HIC) dispatched a fact-finding team to the Narmada Valley to investigate the effects of the 2002 monsoon and to assess the status of rehabilitation of the people affected by the Valley projects.

The HIC is an international movement of organisations and individuals working in the area of human settlement. The team visited affected villages and rehabilitation sites and met officers of the Grievance Redress Authority (GRA) and the Narmada Bachaao Aandolan. It found that the submergence due to the 2002 monsoons and raising of the dam's height in May 2002 have destroyed the crops and homes in the villages affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, rendering some villagers homeless. The people there face a severe food and drinking water storage problem.

The rehabilitation sites that the team visited are not fit for habitation. At the Gahelgaon and Gopalpura sites, Dhar District (Madhya Pradesh), there were some rocky, uneven plots for housing and the villagers said that they had rejected the resettlement sites as unsuitable, in part because there was no provision for agricultural land or alternative lively-hood. These unprepared sites are designated for persons affected at the current dam height of 95 metres. The residents of Chikhalda, also in Dhar district, affected by the height of the dam, have not been resettled at all. The rehabilitation site chosen for the people of Chikhalda was itself subject to submergence. The Action Taken Report of Madhya Pradesh showed them erroneously as resettled.

The chairman of the Madhya Pradesh GRA admitted that he had no infrastructure to verify the NVDA's claims. This has serious implications for the functioning of the GRA. The affected told the HIC-HLRN fact-finders that the NVDA official against whom they had complained for falsely including families in the list of rehabilitates was sent to investigate the matter. The GRA's independence becomes even more crucial as the Supreme Court has expressed the view that its function obviates the need for the court to interfere. The affected people in the Alirajpur Tehsil, Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh, who are predominantly tribal, told the team that though they had been cultivating the land for generations, their names did not figure in the land records and now their lands are going to be submerged with no entitlement to any compensation.

The building of the Narmada Dam is an old hat. Whether there were better ways to harness the water so that fewer people would be affected has been a topic of discussion for years. However, human rights activists went to the Supreme Court on that count and the court fixed the height of the dam at 95 meters. The point at issue is not the existence of the dam but the Modi Government's propaganda, on resettling the people who have been uprooted.

It is strange that New Delhi should talk about interlinking rivers when the fallout of the Narmada dam is strewn all over Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Thousands of people remain unsettled and unhappy. Imagine the plight when lakhs of them will face new environments, new places and new ways of living.

A background paper prepared on the subject envisages the constitution of storage reservoirs on the principal tributaries of the Ganga and the Brahmaputra in India, Nepal and Bhutan, along with interlinking canal systems to transfer surplus flow of the eastern tributaries of the Ganga to the west, apart from linking of the main Brahmaputra and its tributaries with the Ganga and the Ganga with Mahanadi. What it really involves has not yet been spelled out.

But take the Brahmaputra project, which has undergone a thorough examination. The Government of India enacted a law in 1981 to assess whether it was possible to transfer the surplus Brahmaputra waters to the Ganga. The plan prepared talked of creating large storage reservoirs to collect water of the major tributaries of the Brahmaputra. So stupendous was the work that it is more than two decades since the project has been lying with the Centre for consideration


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