Bangalore Mirror, May 29 2017, Madhya Pradesh: “Poor oustees, particularly tribals, have been looted by middlemen. They have lost their livelihood and are not daily wagers. Their installments have been siphoned off by the middlemen. When oustees appeared before the Commission (they) were not even having clothes to wear. They have wrapped small cloth or towel round their waist when they appeared before the Commission.” (1358 families make up the “poor oustees.”)

This excerpt from the SS Jha Commission Report (JCR) appears in the recent Supreme Court (SC) order that asks that all the families displaced due to the Sardar Sarovar Dam across the Narmada river be properly compensated and resettled before they are asked to leave their villages. Formed by the Madhya Pradesh High Court in 2008 to look into the massive irregularities in the relief work done by the Madhya Pradesh (MP) state government, the Jha Commission submitted its report after seven years of investigation.

The SC order recognizes other details of corruption in the JCR: the sale deeds of the compensation land for the displaced were often fake; the grants to help them make a new start were taken away by middlemen; the houses meant for them, which remain unoccupied, were built with shoddy materials. These deplorable acts of crime, the JCR says, could never have happened without the collusion of the land acquisition and the rehabilitation officers.

The popular imagination of fair compensation is a mathematical one: lose two acres here and get two acres elsewhere. Moving to an unfamiliar social environment, however, without ties of family and friends and rebuilding one’s life and livelihood is a tragic and difficult experience. The last three decades of struggle by people displaced due to the building of large dams and industrial projects have made these truths very clear. The JCR and the SC order are aware of them. By insisting that the displaced be given land and financial support to rebuild their lives, they try to make displacement socially less painful and morally less objectionable. But, as the JCR showed, the implementing agencies do not show a shred of concern.
What could at best be a rough, a very rough, compromise – i.e., accepting land elsewhere in place of the home and land one has lost – itself is not attained.

Led by the charismatic and courageous Medha Patkar, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), has struggled for over three decades to keep the country’s eyes open to the predicament of the villagers and tribals in MP, Maharashtra and Gujarat threatened by the mammoth Sardar Sarovar Project. Never wavering from non-violent means of struggle, the NBA made it difficult to have easy ideas of India’s development. Big dams meant large displacement and dispossession. If the displaced weren’t treated fairly, the NBA made us see, then “development” was only a russ of the powerful to get what they want at the cost of the powerless.

Between 1961, when Nehru laid the foundation for a 160 feet high dam to the present plan for a 455 ft high dam, the dam has been a tortuous saga of political manoeuvre and determined social protest (A fine account of this history and the NBA struggle is found in Sanjay Sangvai’s The River and Life: People’s Struggle in the Narmada Valley, 2002).

The MP government’s disregard for the recent SC order is obvious. Instead of ensuring proper rehabilitation, it is preparing to evict over 18,000 families in around 190 villages in Madhya Pradesh by end-July. The reason: the Gujarat government will close the gates of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in July to raise the water level in the reservoir from around 122 metres to 139 metres.

Indeed the SC order asks all the three states, MP, Maharashtra and Gujarat, to ensure that the displaced are resettled properly by end-July. The affected families are nearly 40,000 in number. Since the three states are not showing signs of a response, Patkar has launched a three day “Save Narmada, Save Life” yatra, starting at Indore, Madhya Pradesh and ending at Vadodara, Gujarat (June 5 to 7). The NBA has placed hard questions in front of the country yet again.