Civil society expert team finds gap between official promises and the situation on the ground.
As Narmada dam rises, states continue to lie about rehabilitating affected people, says new report

Photo Credit: Sam Panthaky/AFP
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As monsoon clouds approach the Narmada valley, a new report released in Delhi on Saturday seeks to refocus attention on the precarious existence of thousands of people living along the river in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra who face submergence on account of the Sardar Sarovar Dam built downstream in Gujarat.

The submergence area expanded last year after the Gujarat government was given clearance to raise the height of the dam by 17 metres. The clearance came in June 2014, soon after the Narendra Modi government took charge at the Centre.

According to official estimates, as the height of the dam goes from 122 metres to 139 metres, about 48,300 people will be affected as 37,500 hectares of land in 245 villages across three states goes under water. Activists maintain that the figures have actually been underestimated.

The dispute on the numbers aside, the main contention remains over whether the state governments have abided by the condition that people affected by the project will be rehabilitated before they are displaced. According to orders of the Supreme Court and terms set by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, the height of the dam can be raised only after people displaced by the project have been compensated and arrangements have been made to resettle them.

The state governments of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat have maintained in court that rehabilitation measures had been substantially completed.

But the report finds that such claims are “manifestly untrue”. The rehabilitation efforts remain on paper and large numbers of people continue to be excluded from its purview as state authorities have fixed the submergence limits well below the river’s actual flood mark, it alleges.

The report has emerged from a two-day visit in May by a team that included leaders of the Communist Party of India, legislators from the Indian National Congress, and two independent experts to some of the affected villages in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Here’s what the team found.

Unfair exclusion
The team met villagers who complained that they had been “unfairly excluded from being declared as project affected people”. Officials claimed these families lived above the level upto which water could rise in the event of an “extraordinary flood”. For instance in Ghazipura village, the level had been fixed by the authorities at 144 metres and families living above that level had been excluded. But as the team found, in 2013, flood waters in the village had risen to 146 metres and homes and shops had been inundated for three months.

Even at the height of 122 metres, the dam was causing havoc in the area. In the town of Dharmapuri, the team was told that the authorities had stopped development work, “well aware of the fact that a major part of the town will get submerged with the height increase”. Yet residents had still not been informed, let alone compensated.

The team heard many complaints that “the identification of project affected families was driven by bribes and corruption, and those willing and able to pay the officials, got counted and were offered better alternative plots”. But the team did not probe specific complaints since a judicial commission is investigating them.

Poor compensation
Pema Bhai, a farmer from Awalda village in Badwani, told the team that the compensation offered to him for five acres of his land came to just Rs 5.58 lakh, which is less than one-third of the market value of land in the interiors of the district. “This has led to many families rejecting money as compensation – which is being illegally forced by the government, and demand full land-based rehabilitation,” states the report.

Unsuitable land
But even when the government has offered alternative plots of farmland to the displaced people, it has often turned out to be uncultivable. The team met people from Ekalwara village who had been offered and had rejected rocky plots of land in Dhar district.

“The Madhya Pradesh government is thus showing a fictitious ‘land bank’ of about 5,000 hectares,” said the report, “most of which cannot be handed over to the oustees, since it is either uncultivable or unirrigable or is under encroachment and hence most of these are not suitable for agriculture.”

Undeveloped rehabilitation sites
Not only are people to be given farmland as part of the rehabilitation, they are also to accommodated in housing sites. The team visited a housing site close to Dharampuri which it described as “wilderness”. The report states, “It is difficult to understand whether the government is trying to raise a wilderness here or settle human beings and how anyone with a family can go and start living in this place without any basic amenities.” To force people to move to the site, the government had shifted the local hospital close to this site, and away from the village where over 2,500 families continue to live.

“There are cases where schools have also been shifted outside the existing settlements, forcing children to commute long distances, as most families have refused to shift to the so-called rehabilitation sites with no facilities,” said the report.

Lack of livelihoods
Over the years, as the Narmada project came under criticism for the large scale displacement of impoverished peasant and tribal communities, the Supreme Court laid down orders to “ensure that the livelihoods of the displaced workers and landless persons would be secured through alternative means of livelihood and assistance to purchase productive assets”. But the team found in village after village “that except for a few thousand rupees grant amount, no real livelihoods, no skill development, and employment opportunities have been provided as yet!”

The report concludes that the work on raising the height of the dam must be stopped till a proper assessment of the number of affected people affected is made and the families are rehabilitated before any submergence can take place.