The Sardar Sarovar project cannot be complete without resettlement of the thousands displaced or affected

The decision to close the 17-m-high (55 feet) gates of the Sardar Sarovar dam was taken on June 16 by the Narmada Control Authority — 56 years after the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone in 1961 — and published by the mainstream media as a “historic decision”. No one remembered that Nehru had, in his speech, warned that the people from the first six villages whose lands were taken away, overnight with standing crops, should be done justice to. How tragic it is that those 300 families (now grown into 900) are still not compensated for their lands and properties not declared as “project-affected”, even though their lands are used for the Sardar Sarovar Project offices, staff quarters, roads and storages, parking lots, all for the dam project.

The sanitised version

Media reports didn’t refer to the agitation by the project-affected, including Adivasis from resettlement sites and submergence areas within Gujarat, under way at Kevadia Colony near the dam site. The agitation’s leaders were arrested and hundreds stopped by the police as recently as June 6-7, when supporters and activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan too faced arrest at the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border.

There is no mention of protests in most of the villages in Madhya Pradesh (and a township, Dharampuri) that would be flooded, partially or fully, when the waters would rise to 138.68 m, 55 ft higher than the 122 m crest level (dam wall height) at which the dam was stopped for the last eight years. The ‘completion’ of the project will likely be used as the main plank in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) campaign for the next Assembly polls in Gujarat. This, when the ground reality is starkly different in the densely populated submergence area. Can all lives and livelihoods be resettled and rehabilitated by July 31, the deadline given by the Supreme Court’s order of February 8, 2017, when no orders have been passed by the Grievance Redressal Authority by June 8 as directed? The rehabilitation sites are not ready, with no drinking water, no proper roads, drains and culverts, no grazing grounds and other amenities which are mandatory. Tenders are just floated for crores of rupees worth of works and timelines stretch way beyond the deadline.

Game of numbers

In the Narmada Control Authority’s meeting on June 16, the State governments, including those of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra as well as Gujarat, all belonging to the BJP, reported full compliance on rehabilitation, which is an utter falsehood.

The apex court has taken cognisance of the ‘tentative figures’ of families yet to get land, but the court is obviously far removed from ground zero to know the hardships, massive corruption, cheating, exclusion that the farmers, labourers, potters, artisans, shopkeepers and all occupational categories have faced over the years. Their insistence upon full and fair compliance of law (the Narmada Tribunal Award), the States’ rehabilitation policies and Supreme Court judgments of 2000, 2005 and now 2017, have led the state to blame the movement as anti-development and anti-national.

The game of numbers (of project-affected families being reduced by thousands) just before the decision was taken to raise the dam height and submerge more lands and houses was exposed by none else but the Supreme Court itself in its 2005 judgment. Much more has taken place since 2008. The backwater levels were declared as reduced and the houses of 15,946 families declared as out of submergence area, after having those acquired and transferred to the Narmada Valley Development Authority of Madhya Pradesh. The remaining rehabilitation benefits to these families were withheld without following any legal procedure.

The hill Adivasis of Maharashtra, Gujarat and Alirajpur district of Madhya Pradesh had to be allotted land as per law, as they did not accept cash in lieu of land and insisted on land to resettle. However, hundreds remain to be given land, hundreds are yet to be declared as affected, and hundreds — especially poor women — are yet to receive civic amenities at the sites. All this is discussed or noted in the correspondence but never admitted at meetings for sanctioning the rise in the height of the dam.

Distributive injustice

The rehabilitation sites in Madhya Pradesh present the worst scenario. About 78 sites are not liveable, as investigation reports have concluded. Those who received meagre compensation instead of ‘replacement value’ for houses cannot build houses and resettle. Many of them have received house plots that are not levelled; others haven’t got possession even now. At least 18,346 families have been evicted from their villages, as acknowledged in the gazette notification of May 27, 2017 — our estimate is at least twice that number. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister has promised to provide houses under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana to some families, but house plots will be returned to about 5,000 families that had been paid money in lieu of plots by the authorities.

People, even poor, cannot accept temporary resettlement; or agree to one-third of the lawful area of house plots now being offered; or shift to rented houses or tin sheds. Employees from government departments are trying to force people to sign ‘Vachan Patras’ agreeing to shift before July 15, with a vague statement that “I am willing to take whatever benefits government offers as per the rules”. Intimidating warning posters are pasted late at night on walls in all the villages. The strategy is to intimidate and to lure, if possible, at least 2,50,000 people (at the original backwater level, as per the tribunal, based on field surveys) from the villages on one hand and closing the gates to flood and flush them out with all properties and belongings, out of their riverine cultural environs, without full and fair rehabilitation. Without disbursing cash package to all beneficiaries as per the Supreme Court’s order, how can the government conclude the chapter on Sardar Sarovar?

The Madhya Pradesh government has shown the rehabilitation balance as ‘0’. Maharashtra too has cheated Adivasis and permitted a rise in the dam height. Gujarat never listened to the oustees crying out for justice. The story of Narmada is unfolding in the State: the survival of Adivasi oustees is at stake as they lack access to drinking water at many sites even as the government prioritises water for projects of big industrialists, for sites along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor that will span 60% of Gujarat, and for cities over villages and small towns.

The real questions

The question is not how many years the struggle continued with non-violent forms of satyagraha, or how many years have passed since the dam was laid. The question is why did the World Bank withdraw from the project? What is the real number of families not yet fully rehabilitated and now to be forcibly evicted? Why is the dam being pushed just before the Gujarat Assembly elections? Why wasn’t the water diverted into canals and to Aji dam in Saurashtra when the same amount of water was available in Sardar Sarovar since 2006 and the canals were empty and not fully built? Why are the issues of the downstream impacts to sea ingress and salinisation not resolved to date?

The biggest question is, are the judgments of the apex court fully complied with? The answer is no. Should the common people from the rural and tribal communities be made to run from pillar to post for the same? And even before they get the answers or the results, could the dam gates be closed, their fates sealed and justice denied by the governments that do not care and commit contempt of not only the courts but of the law? Let the sensitive readership and citizenry of this country answer.