As Narmada Struggle Reaches Its Most Critical Phase, Governments Must Listen to the Displaced

In Madhya Pradesh, where the scale of displacement is highest, the government has gone back on its previous promises of adequate rehabilitation.

The struggle of Sardar Sarovar dam evictees and affected people has entered its most critical phase. Several people who face eviction are fasting and standing in water in a peaceful jal satyagraha to resist the eviction. Medha Patkar was on an indefinite fast to demand satisfactory rehabilitation for everyone evicted before she was removed from the protest site on Monday (August 7) by the police. Some people will recall previous such movements and say that this is a familiar scenario – but actually it is not.

With the increase in the dam height and the closure of the gate, the situation has become much more precarious for people who face displacement. This is why it is important for the authorities to very quickly reach an agreement on the basis of the basic principle of ‘satisfactory rehabilitation first, eviction and submergence later’.

This principle has been followed in almost all the agreements and written directions given at the early stages of the Sardar Sarovar Project, so all that the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) is really asking the government is to follow its own written commitments. However, the government has often stated that it has more or less completed its rehabilitation obligations. While this is not entirely true even in Maharashtra and Gujarat, where the scale of displacement is much less than Madhya Pradesh, it is in Madhya Pradesh that the gap between the previous agreements and the actual rehabilitation is unacceptably high.

It is understandable then that the focus of the struggle is now most visible in Madhya Pradesh, where the government has gone back on its promise of providing land to evictees. Later, even the cash-based rehabilitation with all its inadequacies was marred by massive corruption as exposed in the Jha Commission report as well as other official reports, not to mention the extensive media coverage of the same.

As a result, most of the people facing eviction are not in a position to arrange for proper rehabilitation on the basis of whatever meagre compensatory payments they have received so far. The basic question is, given the fact that the most important initial agreement of providing land to displaced people was openly flouted by the Madhya Pradesh agreement and that very large-scale, officially-documented irregularities took place in the distribution of cash compensation and other rehabilitation work, are most of the people threatened with displacement in a position to start a new life at a new place which will be comparable to the life they had been leading before displacement?

The NBA has been making available a lot of evidence that the people facing displacement are not ready for satisfactory rehabilitation, including detailed lists of various categories of displaced people who have not received a fair deal. If necessary, the government can order an independent assessment of this – but then that assessment must be truly impartial and based on extensive interviews with affected villagers.

An NBA activist showing her feet during a previous jal satyagraha against the Sardar Sarovar Project. Credit: PTI/Files

An NBA activist showing her feet during a previous jal satyagraha against the Sardar Sarovar Project. Credit: PTI/Files

The main reason why senior officials had recommended the provision of land for displaced people was that they understood how necessary this was for satisfactory rehabilitation. But sadly, the Madhya Pradesh government took the arbitrary and unilateral decision not to honour this commitment.

While satisfactory rehabilitation is clearly very important, this is certainly not the only issue on which the NBA has continued its struggle for over three decades. The NBA raised a host of issues about adverse ecological and social  impacts, exaggerated claims of benefits in official reports and even about the desirability of the project itself.

These were considered important enough to become a point of discussion in development-related debates around the world, to the extent that even the World Bank was compelled by the gathering tide of public opinion to agree to an independent review of this project and its financial support for it.

This became the basis for the Morse Committee Report on the Sardar Sarovar Project, also known as the Report of the Independent Review. This report, based on the study of the available reports, travel in the project area and interviews with all stakeholders, concluded in very clear words, “We have discovered fundamental failures in the Sardar Sarovar Projects.We think the Sardar Sarovar Projects as they stand are flawed , that resettlement and rehabilitation of all those displaced by the projects is not possible under prevailing circumstances, and that the environmental impacts of the projects have not been properly considered or adequately addressed.”

Thus the serious objections raised by the NBA do not stand in isolation; they have been confirmed by the extensive review and eminent experts. The government should clearly pay adequate attention to all the important concerns being expressed regarding the need to first arrange satisfactory rehabilitation before any submergence can be allowed .

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.  

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