Rights

Sardar Sarovar Dam's Water Level Rise Threatens Livelihood of Communities

'Clear out on your own or we will throw you out,' the police allegedly told 40-year old Dwarki Mukesh, a resident of Pichodi village in Madhya Pradesh.

On August 22, 2019, Hukkam Chand, a 27-year old fruit seller from Pichodi village in the Badwani district of Madhya Pradesh was warned by the police. “Leave your house in two days or we will get a bulldozer and break it down.”

Hukkum’s family is one of at least 15 households in Pichodi living in the ‘submergence zone’ – vulnerable to sinking by the reservoir waters of the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat.

Hukkam’s neighbour, Dwarki Mukesh, a 40-year old cotton farmer and mother of three children told The Wire that she was scared when district authorities entered their homes with police. “The police gave us two days – they told us, ‘clear out on your own or we will throw you out!” Dwarki said.

On the same day, in the Jangharva village in Badwani district, as many as 70 police officers, accompanied by key authorities including the tehsildar and the sub-divisional magistrate tried to force residents out of at least 10 low-lying houses in the village. The authorities planned to relocate them to temporary shelters built by the Madhya Pradesh government a few kilometres away.

Hukkam Chand stands in front of one of the plots allotted to his neighbour from Pichodi. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

Lakshman Gopal, a 62-year old farmer from the same village, died of a heart attack hours after he was threatened and shoved by police authorities. Lakshman was trying to negotiate with policemen to prevent his nephew’s eviction, as the family was receiving visitors including a young mother and her newborn child. Lakshman pleaded that the family would move a day later and that their visitors could not be expected to stay in a shed.

The police even removed personal belongings including utensils and beds from the two houses in Jangharva and put them in a truck. These were later returned to the families.

A signboard denoting water levels at the Sardar Sarovar dam. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

The Sardar Sarovar dam reservoir provides portable water, hydroelectricity and irrigation to Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. As the Gujarat government plans to fill the reservoir to its maximum limit of 138 metres, residents of low-lying villages in five villages in Dhar and Badwani districts told The Wire that they were afraid of losing their homes, lands, and livestock without adequate rehabilitation and resettlement benefits. Families are also at risk of being forcibly evicted.

Also read: Gujarat High Court Halts Land Acquisition Near Statue of Unity

Temporary shelters

Previously when reservoir water levels have risen, like it did most recently in 2017, successive state governments of Madhya Pradesh have attempted to relocate affected communities to temporary shelters. In 2017, the Madhya Pradesh reportedly used lathis with nails in them to force villagers out.

A temporary shelter in Sondol village. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

The Wire examined one temporary accommodation site in the Sondool village. The 180 square-foot shelter consisted of a bare, single room without electrical fittings or piped water. The room contained only two small windows for ventilation. Residents have no provisions to cook in the shed, and are provided with food packets twice a day by the government.

“Over the last few weeks, at a number of locations, the police and other district authorities have been trying to evict families living in submergence areas to temporary sheds” Rahul Yadav, a Narmada Bachao Andolan activist told me. “But hundreds of villagers have pending claims and will not vacate their lands unless they are properly rehabilitated.”

Review of resettlement claims

Following Lakshman’s death, district authorities and members of the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) accepted to review the status of rehabilitation claims for all 730 plus residents of Jangharva village on August 24, 2019.

Over six hours later, the residents of Jangharva submitted over 230 individual and group claims to authorities regarding fair compensation for the submerged agricultural land, alternate plots for housing, and cash claims to build new homes, among other provisions.

A claimant from Jangarva discusses his case with district officials and members from the Narmada Valley Development Authority. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

During this meeting, officers were often impatient with locals, instructing them to not describe the specific issues they faced, but to adhere to a format: to spell out their names, followed by the names of their father or mother, and the specific claims they were seeking.

House plots for claimants in Pichodi

On August 17, five days prior to threats of eviction, Hukkam and members of fifteen families were shown an alternate plot of land in Badwani town – the first time they visited this site. Each of the fifteen plots was marked out in grids of 60×90 square feet. An alternate housing plot is one of several key components of the resettlement and rehabilitation policy of the Sardar Sarovar project.

The land allotted to the Pichodi residents had not been levelled properly and was overgrown with weeds. In one plot, a large pit measuring ten feet across was filled with rainwater.

None of the fifteen families have been given the title deeds to their new plots. Further, a Madhya Pradesh state government scheme of five lakhs and eighty thousand rupees for claimants allotted housing plots to build new houses, had only been partly paid to eight of the fifteen families. The remaining seven families had not received any compensation.

On August 24, 2019, the police force did not visit the village to clear them out. But Narmada Bachao Andolan activists are concerned that it may be a matter of time before the police begin to force people out.

Also read: Statue of Unity: An Open Letter to Sardar Patel by Medha Patkar

Legal framework for resettlement and rehabilitation

The Narmada rehabilitation policy is founded on an award made by the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal in 1979. Under the award, eligible claimants are entitled to two hectares of alternative farmland with irrigation facilities, a 60×90 square foot plot, and a cash compensation equivalent to the replacement value of the house.

Further, on each rehabilitation site, villagers were promised civic amenities including running water, electricity, primary school, and a dispensary. The rehabilitation process was expected to be completed at least six months prior to the submergence of the village.

A temporary shelter. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

This Tribunal award is further supplemented by a number of state-level rehabilitation policies and Supreme Court orders that provide cash compensation for affected families including a cash compensation of five lakh and eighty thousand rupees by the Madhya Pradesh government to each family to build a new house.

A Supreme Court order in 2017 announced a sixty-lakh compensation package for families who were unable to buy agricultural land under a previous state government scheme, and fifteen lakh to affected families who were earlier cheated by land brokers.

Narmada Bachao Andolan – a grassroots movement fighting for rehabilitation benefits of local communities in the Narmada valley – estimates there are over 32,000 affected families in the submergence area of the Narmada valley in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Each family is entitled to one or more claims under the various resettlement and rehabilitation plans.

The status of ‘farm-islands’

Rajghat, a hamlet in Badwani, has been reduced to an island with roads, access paths and electricity poles inundated by reservoir water. Low-lying fields with cotton and wheat have been submerged. Sometime in early August, as water levels increased, district authorities cut out electricity to Rajghat and instructed boatmen in charge of government fibre-glass boats to not ferry residents to their village.

On August 12, six men from Rajghat trying to cross over to their village in a wooden canoe were electrocuted. Two of the men who held on to an electric wire to stabilise their canoe died.

An estimated 40 acres of rich farmland in Rajghat has been reduced to an island because of the flooding. Without bridges and roads connecting their farms to the mainland, farmers complained of specific challenges they faced accessing their farms, ploughing their land and transporting their cotton harvest to the mainland.

District authorities have told villagers in Rajghat that they would determine further compensation claims and assess impact after the reservoir water-level has been raised to its maximum level.

Residents of Rajghat village rely on boats to travel to the mainland. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

According to the officials of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL), 204 dams in the state were full up to 70% capacity. To date, the Gujarat government has received close to 86% of average rainfall in the monsoon period.

Medha Patkar, an activist and spokeswoman for the Narmada Bachao Andolan felt the Gujarat government could prevent significant human rights impacts by releasing water from the Sardar Sarovar Dam and lowering reservoir water levels. “The filling of the reservoir is like a slow poison”, Medha Patkar told me, “In a year, when the Gujarat government does not really need exogenous sources of water, surely the government can adopt a more principled approach.”

Also read: The Undercurrents of the Water Crisis in Gujarat

She urged the Madhya Pradesh government to conduct an independent investigation on reports of forced evictions, to stop efforts to accommodate families in temporary shelters. She also urged the government to properly review and address pending claims made by affected communities.

Reservoir waters of the Sardar Sarovar dam have submerged trees and electric poles in Rajghat. Photo: Nikhil Eapen

“Rehabilitation is not just about resettlement, but it should be livelihood-based. Rural communities have a complex structure of livelihood which are dependent on natural resources and this must be respected and professionally managed.”

On 25 August, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) began an indefinite fast led by women representatives in the Badwani district, demanding the Gujarat government open the gates of the Sardar Sarovar dam.

The NBA has called on the Gujarat government, the central government and the Narmada Control Authority – an inter-state administrative body – to reschedule the reservoir filling to the final limit of 138 metres by one full year.

Gajendra Rajput a 20-year old BSc student who lives in Rajghat told me, “This is a self-sufficient village – our trees, our lands, our homes, our cattle and places of worship are all here.”

“I don’t know for how much longer Rajghat will be around.”

Nikhil Eapen is an independent journalist based in Bangalore.