Published: September 3, 2014 12:30 IST |

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The Modi government’s permission to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam by installing radial gates on it is met with stiff opposition from the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which threatens to launch another phase of its struggle. By LYLA BAVADAM

IT came as no surprise when one of Narendra Modi’s first acts as Prime Minister was to aggressively pursue the plan for further construction on the Sardar Sarovar dam. The Narmada and its 30 big dams, the Sardar Sarovar in particular, have for long been a matter of prestige for the government. Within two weeks of Modi being sworn in as Prime Minister, it was announced that three metal radial gates, rising to a height of about 17 metres, would be installed on top of the dam. The gates will take the dam’s height to 138.68 metres, from the current 121.92 metres.

Installing the gates will take about three years and cost about Rs.342 crore. The time and the money, according to the Gujarat government, will be well spent because of the benefits. The government claims that the gates are essential for proper usage of the dam’s water. The reality is quite different, according to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which has worked relentlessly for the rights of those displaced by the mega project.

The announcement about fixing the gates has only served to highlight Gujarat’s failure to implement some crucial aspects related to the Sardar Sarovar project.

At the top of the list of failures is the poor state of rehabilitation of those who lost their lands to the project. According to the NBA, the latest increase in the overall height of the dam will affect an estimated 2.5 lakh people in varying degrees. This covers 245 villages in the Narmada valley that encompasses Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) and the Supreme Court have ruled that people affected by the Narmada projects have to be rehabilitated six months before the submergence of their homes and fields.

According to the rehabilitation package, each of the displaced families are entitled to two hectares of land. Male members of a family who are over 18 are also eligible to get these two hectares in their own right. The submergence area of the Sardar Sarovar extends into Madhya Pradesh and most of the oustees are from that State. In fact, additional submergence from increasing the height will affect villages in Madhya Pradesh more than the other States. But, the State has yet not complied with the rulings and has been tardy in carrying out even this rudimentary rehabilitation package.

The reason, according to successive Madhya Pradesh Chief Ministers, is that there is no land in the State to be offered to the displaced. According to the NBA, “Thousands of families, mostly Adivasis and small farmers, are yet to be given land in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. While hundreds have not accepted cash compensation till date, and are entitled to land, thousands who have been disbursed half or full instalments of cash compensation have been duped by a nexus of agents and officials….” Given this situation of incomplete rehabilitation, it is inexplicable how the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) gave permission for the dam’s height to be increased.

The hype and reality

Another promise that was hyped up but not fulfilled is the distribution of water from the Narmada. Gujarat says that at the present height of 121.92 metres, irrigation can be provided only to 2.5 lakh hectares but, once the gates are installed, 9 lakh hectares can be irrigated. What the government has glossed over is the fact that poor irrigation has more to do with a bad water distribution system than the lack of gates.

On paper, there is an intricate canal distribution network. The ground reality is that apart from the Narmada main canal, the smaller branch canals are in varying stages of incompletion or are affected by poor construction, which leads to water seepage. The situation is so appalling that even the State government has been forced to acknowledge it. The official estimate is that against the required 2,585 kilometres of branch canals, the government has completed construction of 2,322.15 km; and it has completed only 3,103 km of sub-branch canals (against the required 5,112 km) and 8,979 km of minor canals (against the planned 18,413 km).

The canals would have taken the water as far as Kutch and Saurashtra. Why are they incomplete? This is an unanswered question but, more seriously, the government is trying to cover up its inefficiency by saying that water has not reached these parched regions because the height of the dam is inadequate. This is an untruth. The current height of the dam is adequate to take water to these distant places. What is lacking is the ability to distribute it well via canals.

When the dam was being built, the NWDT had worked out that the Narmada had 28 MAF (million acre feet) of water. This was divided among the four beneficiary States of the Narmada dams: Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. Gujarat’s share was 9 MAF, with the understanding that if there was water in excess of the calculated 28 MAF, the State could use it. Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People has pointed out that Gujarat is yet to fully utilise its share of 9 MAF. Thus, lack of water is not an issue and the height of the dam definitely cannot be blamed for Gujarat’s water problems. It is the poor distribution infrastructure that has to be addressed.

Lack of transparency

Reacting to the permission to install the gates, Medha Patkar of the NBA said it was done undemocratically since there was no public discussion. Her reaction highlights the third issue that has been plaguing the Narmada projects: a lack of transparency in decision-making. Medha Patkar’s accusation is substantiated by a Supreme Court order of 2000 that spells out the procedure for decision-making in the Narmada valley projects. Essentially, the Environment and Rehabilitation Sub-Groups of the NCA have to approve every stage of construction. Naturally, this means that the Sub-Groups’ mandates have to first be fulfilled. But this procedure does not seem to have been followed.

In a letter written to Modi on June 12, 2014, Medha Patkar and others say: “Neither the R&R [Resettlement and Rehabilitation] Sub-Group nor the Environment Sub-Group can grant clearance to raise the dam in the present situation, since the Supreme Court’s Judgement of 2000 clearly mandates that permission shall be given pari passu, only after ensuring full and lawful compliance on all measures. In M.P. and Maharashtra, hundreds of orders of the Grievance Redressal Authority are pending for compliance and hundreds of applications are also pending to be heard. Your government is bound to comply with the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award, R&R Policies, Judgments of the Supreme Court, Action plans and GRA [Grievance Redressal Authority] orders. The GRAs have not yet given their clearance and NCA’s decision without the same would be illegal.”

The letter also points out the “gross violations” that the expert committees appointed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) have found. These violations relate to catchment area treatment, compensatory afforestation, health impacts, seismic risks and downstream impacts.

Ultimatum to the government

Furthermore, a judicial commission is looking into a possible case of corruption involving about Rs.1,000 crore in Madhya Pradesh. “Huge corruption implies huge rehabilitation work pending,” concludes Medha Patkar. The announcement regarding the gates, she says, has started “a new phase in the struggle”.

Medha Patkar has once again mobilised people in the Narmada valley and given an ultimatum to the Modi government to retract the decision to install the gates by October 10 or face an intensified struggle by the people in the valley.

The opponents of the Sardar Sarovar project have always maintained that the dam’s political impact exceeds its practical value. With his decision on installation of gates on the dam, Modi has proved that he is just one more in the line of politicians for whom the Narmada has been a political lifeline and not, as they have liked to project, a lifeline for the people of Gujarat.