Narmada, Then, Now and Again

By Bhamati Sivapalan and Ishita,

In the afternoon of June 12th 2014, the Narmada Control Authority cleared the increase in height of the Sardar Sarovar Project.  Eight years after the Authority had last sanctioned such an order, the renewed enthusiasm to steamroll through the impasse decision can only be attributed to the ‘acche din’ that have befallen us.

But acche, bure and manifestly average days have for the last many years in this country tended to show fewer and fewer distinctions. Illustrating this was the Congress hailing the NCA’s decision. Eagerly displaying political opportunism, the Gujarat Congress committee slipped in that Manmohan Singh, former Prime Minister had set the ball rolling in 2006 by filing an affidavit in the Supreme Court seeking permission to raise the height. The BJP, for its part, maintained its air of maddening smugness.

File Photo: NBA activists protesting at Jantar Mantar (Courtesy: Mukul Dube)
File Photo: NBA activists protesting at Jantar Mantar (Courtesy: Mukul Dube)

The long tradition of pauperizing people for the scale of industrial development is continuing full pitch- as the decision indicates. The decision, taken illegally directly by the PMO’s office negates the democratic and processual provisions that the government is meant to follow. Does raising the dam height serve a purpose except as a fillip for our esteemed prime minister’s ego? Much like the ‘Statue of Unity’- displacing 77 villages – to be created in the same Narmada region.   Be it bullet trains or dams, the technocratic development paradigm we have embarked upon is bent on destroying all people and nature that stands in the way. In the process destroying the dignity of life and struggle, where choice and aspirations of people do not matter. Increasingly, the myth of anti-development is taking over public discourse and after some time in the Narmada Ghati, one wonders who is anti-development, the State or people?

In 1992, an international review commission came out with the Morse Committee Report that started the process that led to the withdrawal of the World Bank’s funding. It clearly and objectively stated that the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), including the dam, is ineffective; that rehabilitation and compensation on this scale is impossible; that the economic costs does not equate its returns and that the environmental and social costs to be incurred have not been adequately measured. So, while the WB withdrew funding in 1993, our government continues to persevere in their efforts, raising the dam height and spending more and more money to hide its ineffectiveness. An independent report by the Tata Institute of Social Study (TISS), Mumbai, in 2008 clearly spelt out that raising the dam height from 122 to 139 meters would only slightly increase power generation while having no impact on realizing better irrigation potential or availability of drinking water. It would moreover do so at the additional cost of submerging 200 sq. km of land and displacing 150,000 people (other estimates of displacement now are higher at 2,40,000). One wonders where all these lakhs of people will go?

There are a series of problems with the SSP; if on the one hand the Narmada Bachao Andolan had critiqued a model of development and raised the question of alternative solutions, it had also critiqued the process by which rehabilitation and compensation was provided to the people. If, at the inception of the dam, there was a perception that the dam would benefit people and agriculture, that belief has vanished in the face of evidence and time. Saurashtra and Kutch- drought prone areas that were to receive water from the dam have received barely enough to irrigate 1.6 percent of cultivable land in Kutch, 9 percent in Saurashtra and 20 percent in the dam’s command area within Gujrat. Agricultural areas, particularly in Gujrat are suffering from almost drought conditions in 2014, but it is illegal for peasants to use water from the dam or it’s reservoirs. And this scenario has nothing to do with the availability or quantity of water, but rather it’s commodification and price.

Among the many problems inflicted by the project are health issues such as malaria due to water stagnation. Construction of canals have led to further appropriation of farmer and peasant land such as in Mandil. Large tracts of forest-land have been destroyed even before submergence, thousands of families have lost their lands and crops due to release of dam water and submergence due to the monsoons. Existing riverine ecosystems have been destroyed. The list of promises made before that have not been kept is a sizable one – canal systems to supply irrigation water have not been completed, land- for- land for those displaced is not available to most people and where land has been given, its quality is so poor that even the foundations of a house cannot be built, compulsory afforestation has not happened amongst others.

Increasingly, there are clear indications that additional water from the dam will be supplied to industrial regions such as the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor- a mammoth project of industrialization that seems to have no head or tail, let alone any comprehensive planning or cost benefit- assessment.

Moreover, massive corruption as exposed by the Jha commission report has led to cases in court that are still pending. And yet, the government is persisting on raising the dam height. 30 years have gone by and even a gesture of recognizing people’s struggle seems to be impossible for our Government. An old man at Pipri village, calmly yet exasperatedly, spoke out against officials. They can stop lying to our faces, he said. Officials blithely asserting that the villagers’ land is not in danger of submergence, despite ample evidence to the contrary are only insult to injury.

The additional submergence is going to affect 2.5 lakh people living in 245 villages. Do numbers only matter when there is a rupee or dollar sign before them? Or does our government, and do we as people have the capacity to comprehend both the social and economic devastation that has been caused by the SSP and that will be exacerbated further? Are we willing to sacrifice people, lands, ecosystems just to produce water and electricity largely for industrial use and investments that may or may not materialize?

The Narmada Samvaad yatra organized in condemnation of the proposed increase took place from the 23rd to 25th of August in the Narmada Ghati, It was a show of spirit and solidarity that the NBA has kindled time and time again. This also meant that some of us, who had never set foot in the valley before, got the dubious opportunity to view the colossal arrogance of this ‘development project’ up close.  A diversity of class, caste, gender, educational backgrounds, interests and professions came together across the 3 days of travel from Kalghat in MP to the adivasi village of Manibeli in Maharashtra. Composed of representatives of various social movements and organizations, trade unionists, lawyers, writers, journalists, teachers, students, artists, film makers and social activists from Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Delhi, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Telangana and West Bengal, along with farmers, agricultural labourers, adivasis, from the Ghati, the group travelled to regions effected by the SSP, specifically those that will be part of the ‘additional submergence area’- a non-descript word that symbolises the lose of homes, fertile agricultural fields, forests, schools, health, social systems and ways of life and living. In rallies and speeches, one could sense the heavy history of the movement, which has through ups and downs sustained for the last 30 years.

But amongst the threat of destruction is also new hope and new strategies that create rather than destroy. While maybe incipient, efforts such as – the inauguration of a fishworker’s collective in Manibeli, discussions on what different people can do to support the struggle – challenge the SSP as a sign of the follies of big men. One hopes that we all have the will to continue to support the communities who have made NBA synonymous with people’s struggles in India and the rest of the world. It was announced during the yatra that the struggle will intensify if the decision to raise the dam height is not revoked by the 10th of October.  This decision is also backed by an assertion of a provision in The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013, which states that acquired land, left unused, or that for which compensation has not been taken will revert back to it’s rightful owners after five years. Numerous numbers of people in the Ghati fall into this category and the NBA has resolved to follow through on this provision.

Manibeli one of the first villages to be affected by the submergence is populated by adivasi people who have refused to move. With every increase in submergence of their lands and fields, they move up the hill, living on an island in the midst of the dam- situated in Maharashtra- facing Gujrat. Every basic right for them has been a struggle, from healthcare facilities to schooling and education- most of which is still not available. Their livelihoods have already been severely compromised. The boat ride over the dammed river was deeply affecting. The landscape strikes immediately for its unnaturalness. Hills, which would have taken a day’s trek to reach the top, sat almost entirely submerged and only slightly peeking out of the huge tank that the river now appears to have become. Chetan Bhai, an old timer with the movement, sang protest songs with infectious enthusiasm. The group joined him, and matched tune. How will the dam get constructed if the people don’t budge? the song asked. The question rang like a hard slap. Because the people hadn’t moved, and yet there it was – that goliath of a dam. There was no getting around the feeling of dejection and eeriness, as we passed over the waters that quietly concealed beneath it submerged villages and houses and lives and memories.

Large dams are in question world over; their efficacy has been utterly tarnished. We on the other hand persist in building them. If post independence, there was an imagination of progress fueled by large dams, that is no longer the case – development today seems to base itself on the denial of facts, figures, science and rationality.

There is no subtlety to the message. Time and again, by reducing people to numbers and development to wholesale, blind destruction, a grotesque history is being etched in concrete. But concrete is concrete – very much prone to crumbling. In the age of assembly line clearances of development projects, the Narmada struggle and its people stand as reminder that the ideas we seem to be embracing whole heartedly as a nation has exacted very heavy costs – on some. When both an emotional and rational appeal fails, one wonders what is left. As Roy wrote in an article about Narmada in 1990’s, “To slow a beast, you break its limbs. To slow a nation, you break its people”. Our people have not broken yet, but until when do we keep taking the beating?

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