Environment

Dammed in the Narmada, Damned by the State

The Gujarat government rushes to fill the dam. The Madhya Pradesh government admits 178 villages are yet to rehabilitated. Local residents watch as they lose their homes and farms to the water.

There is a haunting video of Ranjana Hiralal Gore online. She is sobbing. Draped in a blue and white sari, she tugs firmly to the edge of a metal gate outside her door, as her son and husband attempt to loosen her grip. The water has reached her waist. “Chalo! Chalo!” the men persuade her, as she gingerly steps forward.

She says something about ‘praying’ and ‘how she is being killed’. She holds on to the side of a canoe for support. At one point in the video, she says, “I’ll come, I’ll come”, asking the men to let go of her arms. They refuse.

As the Gujarat government fills the Sardar Sarovar dam reservoir, thousands of families in Madhya Pradesh with pending rehabilitation claims watch their homes and fields being inundated. The dam is the world’s second-biggest, is located in Gujarat and provides water and electricity to Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

The Madhya Pradesh government has allotted Gore’s family a housing plot on a resettlement site. Under one of the government’s schemes for families affected by the project, she is also entitled to receive Rs 5.8 lakh to build a new house. This has not been paid.

However, there is a deeper trauma assailing people like Gore in the Narmada valley.

A man sits on top of his house waiting to be rescued in Semalda village. Photo: Narmada Bachao Andolan

A man sits on top of his house waiting to be rescued in Semalda village. Photo: Narmada Bachao Andolan

Sangeeta Kanera, a Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activist, told The Wire, “It is one thing that Ranjana’s family has not received her housing grant but it is a completely different thing to watch your house being submerged.”

According to the NBA, as many as 32,000 families have one or more claims pending under various resettlement and rehabilitation plans.

On September 5, according to a tweet posted by the NBA, Praveen Vishwkarma, a tailor from a village named Khapar Kheda that has partly been submerged in Madhya Pradesh’s Dhar district, attempted suicide by jumping off a bridge into the Narmada reservoir. He was rescued and later taken to hospital. According to people close to him, the government had compensated Vishwkarma for his drowned field according to the terms of a Supreme Court judgement in 2017, but he had been struggling to buy an alternate plot of farmland with the handout.

The families that have won proper rehabilitation rights in the Narmada valley have had to fight long and hard for them.

Between August 25 and September 2 this year, the NBA activist Medha Patkar was on an indefinite hunger strike on the Narmada’s banks, sitting under a yellow plastic tent in front of a blue banner that read, “Narmada is our lifeline, we will not let it become our maran rekha.”

In August 2019, water was creeping up into this Chikalda resident's home. In September, it is likely to have been submerged. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

In August 2019, water was creeping up into this Chikalda resident’s home. In September, it is likely to have been submerged. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

On September 2, Patkar and eight of her peers in the NBA – Bhagwatibai Patidar, Nirmalabai Yadav, Subhadrabai, Bhagwan Bhai Patidar, Bhuvan Bhai, Kishore Bhai, Jitendra Kahar and Dheeraj Bhai – from villages at risk who later joined the strike, ended their fast after the Madhya Pradesh government assured them that it would rehabilitate affected families and attempt to stop the dam from being filled.

Three days later, in a public statement, the 34-year-old Narmada movement announced that the Madhya Pradesh government had revised the number of affected villages to 178 from a previous estimate of 76, from 2017.  The movement has since criticised Madhya Pradesh for not having been honest about the number of people affected.

In 2017, the state was ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which claimed the dam affected 6,000 families in 76 villages. However, it publicised neither the names of the villages nor the number of claimants there.

The Gujarat government’s decision to speed up the rate at which the dam is to be filled has made matters worse. The water in the basin, scheduled to be filled gradually up to 135 m by the end of September, stood at 135.9 meters on September 7 itself. This quickening has become possible presumably because officers from the Central Water Commission (CWC), a technical department under the Ministry of Jal Shakti, the Central Soil and Materials Research Station (CSMRS) and the Central Water and Power Research Station (CWPRS), have green-lit it.

However, it is not clear if the Ministry of Jal Shakti or the Gujarat government can decide, or act, unilaterally. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal requires any decisions on the “rules of regulation and water accounting” to be framed by the Narmada Control Authority (NCA), an inter-state administrative body set up for the project.

In a letter he sent to the Union water resources minister, Kamal Nath, the current chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, alleged the Government of Gujarat had violated the NCA’s schedule issued in May 2019. The schedule says that the dam was to be filled up to 135 m by September and to 138.68 metres by October 15. Nath took charge on December 17, 2018.

On two separate occasions in August 2019, Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani, a member of the BJP, told reporters the state did not need to seek any permissions to fill the reservoir to its maximum capacity.

But as the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat fight, activists ask whether the dam should be filled at all. For example, Joe Athialy, the executive director of the Centre for Financial Accountability, New Delhi, questioned “the logic of filling the dam” when the canal system remains incomplete.

Athialy shared photographs of the canal network in Kutch, Gujarat, from July 2019. “Large parts of the canal are still under construction in Kutch and water cannot be channeled to these parts,” he said.

The NCA has admitted that only 53.5% of the proposed sub-minor canal network, covering 48,320 km, has been built thus far. A sub-minor canal is the final branch in a larger canal network that reaches its intended consumers, such as farmers.

The Sardar Sarovar dam provides water and hydroelectric power to the three states but its main purpose is irrigation. Specifically, it was to irrigate 1.8 million hectares of land in Gujarat by 2010 but the state missed the target by miles. In 2017, surveyors estimated the dam had irrigated only about 0.64 million hectares of agricultural land – less than 35%.

Tremors

Villagers stand outside in the open after tremors in Mandil village. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

Villagers stand outside in the open after tremors in Mandil village. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

The NBA has also claimed that in at least 32 of the affected villages, the reservoir’s waters either flooded or were at imminent risk of inundating the area. At the time of writing, the hamlets of Chikhalda and Nisarpur were among the worst affected because the Narmada had flooded the whole villages.

Hukkam Chand, a fruit-seller in Badwani district who had faced improper eviction threats, had told this reporter that the waters had already submerged 35 houses in his village, Pichodi. He told The Wire that only eight feet separate the river’s wrath from his own house.

On August 27, The Wire visited Mandil village, also in Badwani district, where families have reported experiencing tremors. “The blasts happen at night. They also happen during the day,” Narsingbhai, a local resident, said.

He pointed at his house’s ceiling, where a portion of mud brick had cracked and fallen to the floor. “That happened this morning,” he said. In twenty minutes, the ground had shaken again.

On September 8, Narsingbhai confirmed over the phone that the tremors had spread and become more intense. “In five minutes, this afternoon, we experienced five separate blasts,” he said. “The tremors can throw people to the ground.” In a September 5 statement, the NBA said the residents of at least 11 villages in the region had similar experiences to share.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has regularly championed the cause of the Sardar Sarovar’s cause. As the chief minister of Gujarat in 2006, he undertook a 51-hour fast demanding the Centre – than ruled by the Congress – to raise the dam’s height. In 2014, soon after being elected to the Centre himself, Modi approved plans to raise the height to 138.68 meters. He inaugurated the dam in September 2017, organised to coincide with his birthday.

Last month, Modi tweeted that he had “thrilling news”: the water’s level in the dam had breached the 134-m mark. He also posted photographs urging new visitors to take in the “breathtaking view”. However, more recently, he has been mum about the local families’ pending rehabilitation claims.

Not surprisingly, the families were offended. “I want to ask Prime Minister Modi if he considers the people of Nisarpur to be a part of India,” one farmer The Wire over the phone referring to his native place. “If he does, I appeal to him to come and see this destruction.”

He emailed photographs to this correspondent. There was water everywhere: in front of the temples, in the panchayat office, over all the main roads, with a flotsam of plastic items. The houses looked desolate. A green film of algae was growing on the surface.

Nikhil Eapen is an independent journalist based in Bangalore.

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