Who Will Shatter the Conspiracy of Silence Around Those Displaced By the Sardar Sarovar Project?

Affected people who owned property are still awaiting proper rehabilitation, while others are not even being recognised as affected.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat on September 17, 2017. Credit: PIB

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat on September 17, 2017. Credit: PIB

With the BJP ruling in the Narmada riparian states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, a conspiracy of silence seems to have engulfed the government on the issue of rehabilitation and resettlement of people displaced by the mega Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP).

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been at the helm of those urging the project forward, first as the chief minister of Gujarat and now as prime minister. On his 67th birthday on Sunday, Modi “dedicated’’ the SSP to the people. Obviously, with elections in Gujarat slated for later this year, the matter has assumed urgency – so much so that even the not-so-auspicious pitru-paksha was set aside for colourful festivities at the dam site in Kevadia.

Modi hailed the gravity dam as an “engineering feat,” which it no doubt is, second only to the Grand Coulee gravity dam in the US. The 1.2-km-long and 163-metre-high (from its foundation) dam on the Narmada river originating in Madhya Pradesh is expected to bring irrigation to Gujarat and Rajasthan in the 18:1 ratio. The dam has an installed capacity of 1450 MW for electricity generation, which is to be shared between Madhya Pradesh (57%), Maharashtra (27%) and Gujarat (16%).

Also read: Narendra Modi’s ‘Gift’ to the Nation Is Set to Submerge Lakhs of People

The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) award was notified in December 1979 and the utilisation of waters at 75% dependability was assessed at 28 million acre feet (MAF). Of this, 18.25 MAF was allocated to Madhya Pradesh, which faces the largest submergence of fertile land and displacement of tribals and others for this dam. Gujarat was allocated nine MAF, Rajasthan was given 0.50 MAF and Maharashtra was allocated 0.25 MAF.

On June 17, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) chaired by the secretary of the Union water resources ministry gave permission to close all the sluice gates to allow the Narmada reservoir level to rise to its full height of 138.68 metres from the then 121.92 metres, signalling the completion of the project. The NCA gave its permission based on the reports of the environmental and rehabilitation and resettlement sub groups.

As soon as he became prime minister, Modi took keen interest in the closure of all but two sluice gates of the dam. Apparently he also wanted rehabilitation and resettlement to be finished quickly. Promptly, all states declared they were done with the resettlement of oustees on their list, until courts stepped in and gave people a fresh hearing.

The full reservoir level of 138.68 metres, however, sounded the death knell for several hundred families whose houses and agricultural fields fall in the submergence zone many of who are still living in their villages and township because of the lack of rehabilitation and resettlement. In government books, however, all officially-affected 40,827 families in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra have been rehabilitated. By the government’s own account, of the nearly 2.5 lakh people displaced by the Narmada reservoir alone, 50% are tribals from Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.

The Medha Patkar-led Narmada Bachao Andolan, which has been at the forefront of raising the demands of displaced tribals and villagers, disputes government claims and has told the courts that 40,000 families are still to be rehabilitated in 192 villages and one township in Madhya Pradesh alone. Most of the 88 rehabilitation and resettlement sites lack the amenities and facilities that the government must provide under the law and as per the NWDT award, including piped water supply, sanitation facilities, a school, a hospital, a community centre, markets and so on.

Also read: On Narendra Modi’s Birthday, Will He Remember Those Fighting for the Narmada?

Corruption by touts and land mafia marred the cash compensation offered to farmers and landowners in the Narmada valley in this region, who were asked to buy land themselves from the open market. Such displaced people were given one cash instalment, and asked to use that money to bring proof of land purchase for them to qualify for the second and further instalments. Hundreds of people fell into the traps of the land mafia and touts, who usurped the first instalment and gave them false or duplicate land purchase papers. The government turned their back on them, leaving them high and dry. This needs to be looked into seriously.

But this is only one section of the project-affected people – those who have land. There are hundreds of others whose houses and land are fully or partially submerged from backwater effect, canal networks and around the command area of the dam whose claims are being ignored.

Protestors at the jalsatyagraha in Chhota Barda village. Courtesy: Narmada Bachao Andolan

Protestors at the jalsatyagraha in Chhota Barda village. Courtesy: Narmada Bachao Andolan

So far, the Congress was responsible for the conspiracy of silence on the dam oustees, but suddenly it too has woken up to the need for exploiting the SSP dam issue before the Gujarat assembly election. On Sunday, the party came out with a statement that the BJP had failed to construct canal works for Narmada waters to travel to the parched Saurashtra and Kutch, in whose name the mega project was conceived.

This was in fact first flagged by the NBA when it questioned the costs and benefits of the multi-purpose mega project. The 33-year-old struggle of the Narmada Bachao Andolan led to the best-ever rehabilitation and resettlement package for project-affected people. In fact, shoddy rehabilitation schemes had made the World Bank, which funded the project initially, withdraw in 1994. Based on its on-field experience, the Andolan also played a key role in the amendment of the earlier archaic Land Acquisition Act.

Committed as Modi is to the need for “har khet ko pani (water for every farm)” and to accelerate last-mile projects for bringing more land under irrigation, he cannot shut his eyes to the very farmers, tribals, rural and semi-urban people who are being displaced by the mega project in the valley. Landless farm labour, share croppers, fishermen and boatmen are not recognised by the governments as affected, raising questions on a development model that brings in its wake disparity and inequity.

Also read: Despite SC Intervention, Those Displaced By Sardar Sarovar Dam Project Struggle With Uncertainty

The least the Modi government at the Centre and the BJP governments in states can do is to ensure that each person displaced from his/her home, land and livelihood is rehabilitated and resettled as per the norms. Those who have lost their livelihood because of the dam must be given alternate employment to stem migration and oblivion. Already, the Maharashtra government has claimed before the NCA that of the 23 families that officially remain to be rehabilitated in the state, three have died with no heirs and 20 were untraceable.

Whether in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra or Gujarat, the dam-displaced people are the citizens of the country and the country owes them a debt for sacrificing their land, houses, river, livelihood, culture and civilisation for the benefit of urbanites and industry. As a sewak of the people, Modi must ensure that each displaced person is rehabilitated and compensated as per the prescribed norms and with dignity.

As Justice Rajinder Sachchar said, “The government is willing to spend Rs 1 lakh crore for a bullet train, but is not worried about thousands of people who are going to be uprooted from their homes. Irrigation canals are not even ready and government thinks it has done enough by diverting waters for industry by taking away homes of people uprooted by the dam.’’

Gargi Parsai is a Delhi-based journalist.  She can be reached at [email protected].