Drowned by the dam

The Sardar Sarovar Project has been dedicated to the nation. The nation must ask: Who is this development for, and at what cost?

Written by Medha Patkar | Published: October 7, 2017 12:05 am
Sardar Sarovar Dam Project, river Narmada, Narendra modi, India news Sardar Sarovar Dam Project.

Was the ceremonial dedication of the Sardar Sarovar Dam to the nation on September 7 a success or a failure? The answer to this question could vary. Some may be influenced by the fact that no chief minister other than Gujarat’s participated in the function. Others may point to the low-key ceremony at the dam site without the presence of 2,000 monks expected from Varanasi. Many others could go with the mainstream media’s frontpage news. Anyway, the crowd at the public meeting addressed by the prime minister at Dabhoi was small.

In fact, there are several clues that can help us decide exactly what was dedicated to the nation — the project or the dam wall. For a project to be dedicated to the nation, shouldn’t it be completed in the first place? When the project in question pertains to a dam, is it enough to raise a wall to its envisaged height or should canals be constructed as well? Only 33 per cent of the canals in Gujarat have been constructed. Can the one dedicating the project and the one receiving the project — the nation — be satisfied if the enormous impacts of the 138.68 metre-high wall on communities upstream and the downstream, about 10 lakh people, and the ecosystem are not taken into account? The nation may not be aware of what has been gifted to it, but will soon realise the betrayal.

The Sardar Sarovar Project was not planned 56 years ago as claimed by the Narendra Modi government but 38 years ago, when the Narmada Tribunal declared its award in 1979. The dam whose foundation stone was laid by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1961 was a different project. It was only 162 feet (49.37 metres)in height without any conflicts, impacts — social and environmental — or a tribunal. The tribunal process for the serious resolution of conflict began much after 1961, by which time no less than six village communities had lost their land to the first-ever acquisition for the project by contractors, in fact, in 1961 itself. When they protested and joined the struggle against the project, these communities were offered a meagre cash package. The present Sardar Sarovar Project, the 455-feet dam, is to be completed by filling a huge reservoir of 40,000 hectare, ousting 244 villages and one township — partly or fully.

In an order on February 8, the Supreme Court ruled that those entitled to land should be paid a package of Rs 60 lakh. It also said that the others who had earlier received a meagre package be paid Rs 15 lakh. The Court also directed that all amenities, mandatory under law, should be in place at every resettlement site by June 2017, perhaps not realising the scale and unfeasibility of the task. The Grievance Redressal Authority was given the responsibility to receive complaints and pass orders that had to be implemented by the state authority.

The state as well as the Grievance Redressal Authority have not fulfilled their duty but have been insistent that the “oustees” should have left their lands by July 31 . But how could they do so since all those eligible for compensation having not received the rehabilitation package and the rehabilitation sites are not ready — they do not have drinking water supply, there are no drainage facilities which has lead to water logging and there is no grazing land for cattle. Their right to rehabilitation, to be completed at least six months before the submergence of their property — land, houses, trees or threshing ground — was upheld as part of their right to life by a three-member bench of the apex court. They stayed strong, in spite of the large battalions of police having moved in and braved threats by the government.

A vast majority of city dwellers, many of them intellectuals who deal with money and markets, must have been startled by the advertisements issued by the Madhya Pradesh government that talked of a Rs 900-crore package for the “oustees”. A large portion of the package was planned for “temporary” resettlement: Tin sheds of 150 to 200 square feet each, fodder for cattle and food camps for thousands of families, all for four months. These are families of farmers who will lose prime agriculture land and at least a few thousand cattle in each village. They also include self-employed fisherpeople, potters, boatmen, traders, agricultural labourers.

In response to the satyagraha by those threatened with displacement, the MP government declared packages that contain promises for cash, rights to fisherpeople, potters and boatmen. But these haven’t materialised and the people continue to struggle non-violently against the violent path of development.

In almost every project, be it related to infrastructure or “smart-city”, there is little concern for compensation and mitigation. People in the Narmada Valley have realised this over the past three decades. The larger question also remains: Who is this development for and at what cost? Dams may be dedicated, as are nuclear power plants, but it’s only a resource transfer from nature-based communities to urban India at an unparalleled cost to not only those who lose but the country as a whole. It’s time we once again debate this question. Else, we will be doomed as a civilisation as the force of nature is punishing us through typhoons, melting glaciers, floods and droughts.

The writer is a social activist and is with Narmada Bachao Andolan and National Alliance of People’s Movements

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