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Narmada Dams: No Judicial euphemism

Following Narmada Control Authority's (NCA) permission to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam from 110.64 metres to 121.92 metres, representatives of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) met India's Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh on 25 March 2006 asking for the rehabilitation of remaining 35,000 Project Affected Families displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Projects (SSP) in Gujarat. When the Prime Minister's Office did not respond by 28 March 2006 as promised, leader of NBA, Ms. Medha Patkar and two of her colleagues went on an indefinite hunger strike the next day. On 5 April 2006, Ms Patkar was forcibly hospitalised when her condition became critical.

NBA alleged that the NCA gave clearance on the basis of false reports and the decsion to increase height of the dam will cause destruction of the homes, fields and livelihood in about 220 villages in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. This decision is not just a blatant violation of Supreme Court orders, but makes a mockery of the human rights of lakhs of people l living in the submergence area as on April 2006.

Development at the cost of displacement of the marginalised is nothing new to India. The construction of 30 large, 135 medium, and 3,000 small dams across Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat on the Narmada river and its tributaries was bound to make more victims. The government of India does not have any track record of providing proper relief and rehabilitation. Add the ultra-nationalist fervor such as the recent boycott of the Bollywood film, Fana of actor Amir Khan, for merely meeting the NBA demonstrators, the tyranny of the majority becomes clear.

Amongst the dams in the Narmada valley, the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the Narmada has been the most controversial one. The estimated cost of the SSP is about $10 billion i.e. about half of the budget spent on irrigation in postcolonial India. The 133-mile-long reservoir of the SSP is estimated to drown 91,000 acres of land and the canal network will damage another 200,000 acres. The reservoir will directly displace 200,000 people and affect another 200,000 people. A staggering 56 per cent of them are Adivasis, indigenous peoples. According to the government of Gujarat, the tribals constitute 79% of the total Project-Affected Families (PAFs) in Gujarat. In Maharashtra, the tribals constitute 100% while in Madhya Pradesh, they constitute 30% of PAFs.

SSP: A project wholly misconceived

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru considered the dams as the engines of development. All studies carried out by the Central Water and Power Commission since 1955 on the development of the Narmada basin not surprisingly only highlighted the hydroelectric potential without giving due consideration to all other issues involved in the process.

When the SSP was proposed, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) declined to give clearance to the project till 1985-86. The MoEF stated that the rehabilitation plan was not ready, the land had not been surveyed, the areas of land use capability and water availability had not been identified and the land being suggested for rehabilitation prima facie appeared to be infertile. The MoEF even feared granting a conditional clearance as construction would proceed apace and  environmental and rehabilitation measures would become secondary and be neglected. Ultimately, on 24 June 1987, the Ministry of Environment and Forests had to give provisional environmental clearance to the SSP as construction had already begun.

In February 1986, villagers of  Gadher village formed the Narmada Dharangrast Samiti to protest against the SSP. The Narmada Bachao Andolan was subsequently formed as an umbrella organisation of those affected by the dam.

The World Bank which was funding the SSP faced severe criticisms. It appointed an independent review committee headed by Bradford Morse to assess various aspects of the project.

The Morse Committee in its report in June 1992 exposed many shortcomings in the SSP. Amongst others, the main findings of the Morse Committee were - (i) the World Bank and India both failed to carry out adequate assessments of human impacts of the Sardar Sarovar Projects, (ii) there was virtually no basis, in 1985, on which to determine what the impacts were that would have to be ameliorated, (iii) the inadequate understanding on the part of the Governments and the World Bank was compounded by a failure to consult the people potentially to be affected, (iv) the failure to consult the people has resulted in opposition to the Projects, on the part of potentially affected people, supported by activists and this opposition has created great obstacles to successful implementation, (v) the measures to anticipate and mitigate environmental impact were not properly considered in the design of the Projects because of a lack of basic data and consultation with the affected people; and (vi) the World Bank's appraisal took no account of the fact that environmental clearance in India was not forthcoming in 1983 from the Ministry of Environment and Forests because of insufficient information.

A review committee by the name of "Five-Member Group" headed by then Planning Commission Member Dr. Jayant Patil constituted by the Central Government on 5 August 1993 to re-examine the SSP also agreed with the findings of the Morse Committee.

Based on the recommendations of the Morse Committee, the World Bank withdrew. But, India decided to pump in its own resources. Since then the dam has proceeded, often at gunpoint, displacing millions of peoples.

Inadequate resettlement and rehabilitation

As Indigenous Rights Quarterly goes to the print, the height of the SSP has reached 119 meters. In its website, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) maintains that in total, there are 51,447 Project affected families (PAFs) in the States of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat and 43,021 of these are in Madhya Pradesh alone. According to a Status Report of Narmada Control Authority of 31 December 2005, the number of PAFs up to 121.92 meters dam height was 28,742. Of these, the NCA claims that 17,197 PAFs - including 4,729 in Gujarat and 12,468 in Madhya Pradesh, have been resettled. A total of 24778 PAFs, including backlog of 13,233 PAFs at 110.64 meters were yet to be resettled as on 31 December 2005. On the other hand, as per the estimates of NBA, over 40,000 families are still to be resettled as on 1 April 2006.

The lack of rehabilitation and resettlement of the PAFs has been the hallmark of all dams in India. It has been acute in the case of the SSP. Various public interest litigations filed before the Supreme Court since 1994, the Group of Ministers' (GoM) report of 9 April 2006, and very recently, the report of the Oversight Group (OSG) headed by Mr.V. K. Shungulu, former Comptroller and Auditor General of India vouch it.

In April 2006, as NBA continued protest in New Delhi's Jantar Mantar, the GoM comprising of Union Minister of Water Resources, Saifuddin Soz, Union Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment, Meira Kumar and Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Prithviraj Chauhan visited the resettlement and rehabilitation and submergence sites at Khalghat, Dharampuri, Lakhangaon, Borlai 1, 2 and 3, Awalda, Piplud, Nisarpur and Picchodi in Madhya Pradesh on 7 April 2006. In their report, "A Brief Note on the Assessment of Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R & R) Sites and Submergence of Villages of the Sardar Sarovar Project" to the Prime Minister on of 9 April 2006, the GoM held that the rehabilitation and resettlement of oustees (Project Affected Families) of Sardar Sarovar Dam have not taken place in consonance with the orders of the Supreme Court.

The ultra-nationalism reached fever pitch after submission of the GoM report. Prime Minister Dr Singh then constituted Over Sight Group (OSG) headed by V.K. Shungulu ostensibly to over-write the report of the GoM of his own cabinet.  The OSG euphemestically held that the lack of relief and rehabilitation and other deficiencies in most sites can be removed by developing uneven plots and proper maintenance and repair of roads and buildings etc. These tasks, which appear quite simple to the OSG, have not been done by the authorities in the last two decades.

The OSG has rewritten the Narmada Waters Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) award and the Supreme Court judgement of 2000. In its award of 16 August 1978, NWDT had in Clause XI sub-clause IV (6)(ii) specifically awarded that "in no event shall any areas in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra be submerged under the Sardar Sarovar unless all payment of compensation, expenses and costs as aforesaid is made for acquisition of land and properties and arrangements are made for the rehabilitation of the oustees there from in accordance with these directions and intimated to the oustees." The Supreme Court in its judgement of October 2000 reiterated a clear link between rehabilitation and construction for the future, inter alia ruled that "…..Further raising of the height will be only pari passu with the implementation of the relief and rehabilitation and on the clearance by the Relief and Rehabilitation Sub-group…."

In B.D.Sharma Vs. Union of India (1201 of 1990), the Supreme Court ruled that resettlement be completed in all respects at least six months in advance of any likely submergence. However, since 1999, the Supreme Court has sanctioned successive increases in dam height against its own injunctions in B.D.Sharma Vs. Union of India (1201 of 1990). As of today, the dam towers at 119 metres while resettlement and rehabilitation remain incomplete at 85 metres. In spite of this, the environment subgroup of the monitoring agency, Narmada Control Authority, has given the permission to raise the height of the SSP to 121.92 metres in 2005, while the resettlement and rehabilitation subgroup is yet to decide. As the dam rises, the reservoir swells to submerge more and more villages.

Based on the findings of the OSG, Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh submitted to the Supreme Court that it would not be appropriate to pass any direction or orders at this stage stopping the construction of the dam that is designed to serve the larger public interest. Taking the Prime Minister's  submission into consideration, the Supreme Court in its latest order delivered as IRQ goes to the print, declined to stop the construction of the dam and allowed raising its height evenly up to 119 meters in all blocks.

The question is who are “larger public”? Obviously, it does not include the displaced. Any system that seeks to provide development for the majority by trampling the rights of the voiceless is unjust, unfair and unacceptable.

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