With the spirit that has infused the Narmada movement for 32 years, the mood at Chikhalda is defiant

Bhagwatibai’s husband is unwell and at home with no one to attend to him, and her farm in Nisarpur village in Madhya Pradesh has been neglected for days. But Bhagwatibai is sitting defiantly with fasting protesters in the adjacent Chikhalda village, where hundreds of policemen had arrested 12 Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activists, including Medha Patkar, on August 7. “If I don’t resist now, there will be nothing left to resist in the future,” Bhagwatibai says.

The pall of eviction hangs over 191 villages and a township in Alirajpur, Badwani, Dhar and Khargone districts of the Narmada valley, where an estimated 40,000 families of farmers, adivasis, fishers and potters stand to lose everything that they have ever had — land, homes, livelihoods, social relations and their connection with the river — to the Sardar Sarovar dam, where sluice gates have been closed for over two months.

The reservoir is filling up, and a gazette notification was issued to residents to vacate the submergence area by the end of July.

Shanobai of Chikhalda village is defiant. “If we are evicted, we will be like fish out of water,” she says. “We will resist eviction until our last breath.”

The Madhya Pradesh government claims to have compensated, resettled and rehabilitated all affected families, but the on-ground situation is very different. While the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award of 1979 and Supreme Court judgments have laid down minimum standards for rehabilitation, according to NBA, most of the 88 resettlement sites have not even been levelled, leave alone infrastructure provided, in terms of drinking water, roads, drainage, electricity, schools and healthcare. We were astonished to see tin sheds being constructed as housing in some of these sites.

Just not enough

Official notions of compensation — a parcel of land elsewhere or cash — are no replacement for the loss of a way of life attached to the river and the forests.

In 2000, the Supreme Court linked rehabilitation of those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar project to Article 21 of the Constitution, implying that it was a fundamental right. It cited another judgment that stated: “Rehabilitation is not only about providing just food, clothes or shelter… The overarching projected benefits from the dam should not be counted as an alibi to deprive the fundamental rights of oustees… Rehabilitation should take place before six months of submergence…”

In a reversal of this spirit, the apex court in February allowed for the operation of the dam at its full height of 138.68 metres even though rehabilitation has been grossly inadequate. It mandated the government to put in place all facilities at the resettlement sites by July 31, as if what had not happened in over two decades could be finished in five months.

It also, shockingly, stated that after this deadline, project-affected families must leave the submergence area, else the government could forcefully evacuate them. Even today more than 6,000 complaints of unsatisfactory rehabilitation are pending with the Grievance Redressal Authority. Until these are dealt with, eviction cannot take place legally.

A life cut short

“With the gates closed, if there is a full monsoon, water levels can rise drastically within 48 hours,” says Rohit Thakur, a young volunteer with NBA, adding that his village Ekalwara will also be submerged.

We recall our own investigation of the Narmada dams, back in 1983, when the site was being cleared for the construction of the dam. We had pointed to the potential for widespread ecological damage, including forest submergence, waterlogging and salination, and loss of fish. “Sardar Sarovar’s life could be cut short just like Bhakra dam,” says a resident of Chikhalda wondering if these sacrifices are going to be futile.

In 1987, when the Centre gave environment and forest clearances for the dam, it was on the condition that environmental assessments and measures to offset impacts take place along with the construction. This has not been followed. The Environment Sub-Group of Narmada Control Authority, which is supposed to monitor compliance, did not even meet between 2010 and 2016. Finally, when it did meet in August 2016 and May 2017, it rushed through many critical issues, ignoring evidence-based submissions.

Addressing the people on fast, Maheshbhai of Kundiya village challenges the government: “Even if the State uses force, we will follow the path of non-violence and fight for our rights, come what may.” With the same spirit that has infused the Narmada movement for 32 years, the mood at Chikhalda even after the arrests is a defiant “ladenge, jeetenge” (we will fight, we will win).

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