A report by Milind Ghatwai, ‘The means to block or release a dam’ (IE, September 19), commenting on not just the latest Jal Satyagraha in the Narmada Valley, but the overall costs and benefits of large dams on the Narmada River and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, has compelled me to respond. The lack of updated information and accurate data on the Narmada projects as well as the impact of the people’s movement has led the author to conclude, without figures or detailed analysis, that while the struggle has achieved a good deal for the dam-affected, it has also cost much in terms of deferred benefits. The author, not so new to the NBA and Narmada, should look into the chronology of big dam projects like Sardar Sarovar, Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar to learn how decades were lost in interstate conflicts over Narmada Valley development projects.
The Sardar Sarovar project (SSP) was stalled during the decade-long tribunal proceedings from 1969-79 and so were other projects not permitted by the ministry of environment and forests, the official sanctioning agency. Rightly so, due to the enormous and irreversible social and environmental costs. Massive displacement, along with the permanent loss of natural resources and damage to the ecosystem, would require compensatory and mitigatory measures.
Does the author suggest that projects can go on without full compliance on these, damaging the catchment, shrinking the river itself and thereby reducing benefits? Should the projects not protect the command area to be irrigated from waterlogging and salinisation? If so, then taking a position that, without legal and fair compensation, no project work should continue so as to avoid irreparable loss to either people or nature has only helped gain development benefits, but with justice and sustainability.
Let the author also review his far-from-perfect statistics. The Indira Sagar dam is to destroy, through submergence, more than 93,000 hectares (ha), including prime agricultural land and forests, and a few more thousand hectares through canal excavation, only to achieve irrigation for 1.23 lakh ha of cultivable land. Is this justifiable? The Supreme Court’s ruling against raising the dam height for the SSP in 2000, or not filling of water beyond a court-approved level in Omkareshwar or Indira Sagar, is not the Andolan’s whimsical or irrational diktat, but the outcome of serious violations of the law.
The author seems not to have studied either the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal Award (the law stipulating no submergence without prior and full rehabilitation), or the Madhya Pradesh government’s rehabilitation policy (shared by three other states in Sardar Sarovar), the conditional clearances granted by the ministry of environment and the Planning Commission, or even the SC’s judgments in the case of each of these dams. The author’s statement that the NBA has lost several court battles, including one in 2000 against the SSP, is without full knowledge of the conditions in that judgment.
The revision of the SC’s remarks against the NBA in its judgment of May 2011 also appears to not be known to the author, since certain remarks (in the case of Omkareshwar) have already been expunged. If we were to charge the Narmada authorities for perjury, we could have done so several times when they submitted false figures and made baseless claims, for instance, claiming the number of families to be rehabilitated in MP, Maharashtra and Gujarat as “zero”, while two lakh people continue to reside in the submergence zone.
The crux of the remarks by the author are related to the benefits lost. Let us be sued again and we will expose the reality. In case of the SSP, it is the Gujarat government that has failed to build the canal network over the last 30 years. In violation of the original plan, the diversion of water to corporations and cities is at the cost of irrigation and drinking water supply for the rural and needy areas. The oustees have the legal and human right to rehabilitation prior to dam or canal-building.
No point blaming the people’s movement Mr Ghatwai! Blame the nexus of the contractor-politician-bureaucrat. Having quoted leaders like Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the article doesn’t analyse those statements. If anyone looks into the seriousness of problems a dam like the SSP creates, one would question the denying of land to the thousands dispossessed by it.
The state pointing to the non-availability of land is unacceptable. First, MP, like other states, is locating and diverting agricultural land to corporations, religious trusts and other private entities. Second, the government never admitted to the shortage and claimed on oath in court that land was available and would be purchased. Third, the present land allotted being rocky, with houses standing on it, is cheating, illegal and inhuman. Yet, it is only the struggle by the people, supported by the activists who have become a part of their life, which has led to land-based rehabilitation and part compliance on environmental protective measures. But much still remains to be done. Official ministries, agencies and committees deny permission to proceed further. Such decisions or court directives are not anti-development; rather they are inevitable to ensure true development and prevent human tragedy and destruction.
Crucially, however, it is not just the SSP that is suffering from the malaise mentioned above. Many other dams in the country are also not delivering on benefits, not following environmental norms and displacing people while becoming mired in scams. The irrigation scam is still unfolding in Maharashtra and the damage to the exchequer is being done by the neta-babu-builder nexus, not by people’s movements, who are acting as a much-needed pressure group and exposing the flaws in our planning and governance process. These mega projects have become monuments to mismanagement, corruption and injustice. It is time we asked who the culprit is.
The writer is leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan