The Bargi dam in Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh, was the first large dam built on the Narmada river. Thousands of people, including tribals, were evicted from the villages in this region to build the dam. The record for rehabilitation was extremely poor in the early stages. But prospects improved when the former commissioner for scheduled castes and tribes, B.D. Sharma, turned into an activist and guided the struggle of those evicted, in cooperation with the wider Narmada Bachao Aandolan.
But now, when Sharma has passed away, the threat of displacement has returned. For the villagers who were displaced by the Bargi dam, the construction of a nuclear plant in and around Chutka village of Mandla district could mean being displaced again. They have been living in the area surrounding the proposed plant site.
Two nuclear plants of 700 MW each are being planned in the near future by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India, which will likely be followed by two other plants of the same capacity – 2800 MW in all. In the first phase, four villages are likely to be displaced.
It should be pointed out that in the case of the Tawa dam – the first major damn on a river Narmada tributary – a somewhat similar situation of being displaced a second time had emerged, although the context was different. Those evicted by the Tawa dam were displaced a second time when the Satpura Tiger Reserve was created. Their second displacement was even more avoidable. This phenomenon of two displacements within a generation in the context of both the Bargi and Tawa evictees reveals the extent to which the concerns of tribals and other weaker sections are being neglected in planned development.
People living in and around Chutka have organised themselves under the Chutka Parmanu Sangharsh Samiti to protest against the nuclear plant. People from a large number of villages much beyond the core displacement zone joined the protest, fearing the hazards from a nuclear plant.
Rajkumar Sinha, co-ordinator of an organisation of Bargi dam evictees, said that they have been raising their voice against the displacement as well as raising concerns over the potential hazards. He said that the people who are facing displacement have gone to other nuclear plant sites like Rawatbhata where they met people who were suffering from serious health problems. Earlier, he said, their voices were not heard seriously, but after the Fukushima disaster they began to get more attention. He says that they have also drawn attention to the risks involved in setting up a nuclear plant in a region of high seismicity. The earthquake of 1997 was very destructive and claimed many lives. Sinha also said that there was no deficit of power supply in Madhya Pradesh at present; instead, the state has a power surplus, providing no rational for the project.
To present these viewpoints before the government, the people launched a sadbudhi satyagraha against the authorities. The most popular song at the protest was a prayer seeking wisdom for the government to enable it to take a rational decision.
Activist Medha Patkar visited the protest dharna to lend her support. She said that at a time when there is a worldwide trend to accord more priority to safety and risk aspects, it was unfortunate that these concerns were not getting the necessary attention and priority in India.
People from several gram sabhas have spoken clearly against the nuclear plant and the displacement that will be caused by it. This is a fifth schedule area and hence gram sabhas here are supposed to have much stronger rights under the PESA (Extension of Panchayati Raj to Scheduled Areas) legislation. Despite this, the voice of several gram sabhas is being ignored. Instead of responding with sensitivity to the growing concerns of people living here, the authorities responded by assembling police. But as was evident by the recent protests, most of the evicted people’s villages continue to be opposed to the hazards and the second displacement that will be caused in going ahead with this project.
Bharat Dogra and Baba Mayaram are freelance journalists who have been involved with several social movements and initiatives.