The Never-Ending Narmada Nightmare

Decades after the Narmada Bachao Andolan began, the struggle over evictions still continues

The Never-Ending Narmada Nightmare

With the central government’s new push to construct infrastructure projects and generating new sources of revenue by leveraging huge tracts of land owned by the Indian Railways and acquiring public land for projects like the Mumbai-Ahmedabad bullet train or huge private sector projects, the very paradigm of ‘development’ clashes with the livelihood of native communities.

The controversy over removing what are officially called ‘encroachments,’ even after they have existed for decades and sustained by official water and power connections in Haldwani is the latest instance of such a push.

The struggle for the resettlement and rehabilitation of thousands of families for the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam over the Narmada river has been continuing for three decades, making it the longest such struggle in the country. Even critics of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)—led by rights activist Medha Patkar —concede that only such a sustained agitation led to the rehabilitation of some ‘project-affected families.’ Jay Narayan Vyas, who had spearheaded the Gujarat government’s legal battle against the NBA in the Supreme Court, concedes that, “There is absolutely no doubt that such an enormous rehabilitation package, which is so far the best in the country, would not have come without Patkar’s agitation.” Vyas, who recently joined the Congress party, was the former head of the Narmada Development Project. The project lists Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan as the beneficiary states, with Gujarat getting the lion’s share of  water, to the tune of 9 million acre feet (MAF).

Nevertheless, several loopholes remain that prevent or delay the complete implementation of resettlement and rehabilitation policies, especially in Madhya Pradesh, where the state government, in 2008, tweaked the original ‘land for land’ rehabilitation package to grant cash, instead, in exchange for land. The government has also been facing corruption charges in the cash for land scheme. The Justice SS Jha Commission, instituted in the same year had brought such serious irregularities to light.

However, Vyas argues, “There have been no major complaints at all regarding the rehabilitation of project-affected families in Gujarat.” Vyas suggests a look at the 400 rehabilitation sites in Gujarat that ought to clarify that there were no major complaints. However, sources claim that there are complaints about being given uncultivable land and denied the amenities promised, such as schools, dispensaries and drinking water, to name a few. “There may be some issues in a project of such a scale but we must consider that the rehabilitation policy undertook to allot a minimum of 2 acres of land to each family, even to those owning less than that or those who were landless,” says Vyas.

The cost-benefit analysis of the dam after it has been raised to its full height remains debatable to this day. The Gujarat government has claimed, and continues to claim, that as many as 14,000 villages and 63 urban centres covered under the project have access to drinking water. Official sources, Vyas and Gujarat-based economist, Professor Hemant Shah have all confirmed the claim, pointed out that the stated goal of the entire Narmada project right since its inception was water for irrigation to the arid regions of Saurashtra, Kutch and North Gujarat, remains unmet.

Quoting official data, Professor Shah says, “The total agricultural land under irrigation in Gujarat is around 60 percent and only 35 percent water from this comes from the Narmada project. However, this is more about mismanagement of water and its diversion to industries at the cost of agriculture. You will also find that the canals at many places across the Narmada are broken because of poor construction.”

Sources claim that there are complaints about being given uncultivable land and denied the amenities promised such as schools, dispensaries and drinking water.

A senior official at the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam, pleading anonymity, told Outlook that with the Narmada dam waters not meeting the entire irrigation needs, the Gujarat government conceived the Saurashtra Narmada Avtaran Irrigation (SAUNI) scheme under which, according to the state government, the 3 million acre feet (MAF) water that overflows over the dam can be tapped through a pipeline project which aims at filling up several dams in all the three regions. Each region will get 1 MAF out of this corpus. However, the official claims, “The dam has overflowed only about four times in the last 10 to 12 years and so the purpose remains underserved.”

Tribal rights activist, Anand Mazgaonkar,  based out of Narmada district, adds, “One major issue that is still pending  is the status of thousands of people in six villages in Kevadiya (the place where the Statue of Unity is located), who were not considered as ‘project affected’ since their land was acquired to build housing colonies for the Narmada staff and guesthouses.” People in all these villages have refused to move until they are properly rehabilitated and compensated, Mazgaonkar adds. According to Patkar, “Another issue that has not been paid heed to at all is the thousands of families affected by the wide canal network of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada dam.”

As per the present status of rehabilitation, Patkar tells Outlook that 50,000 families have been resettled in the three states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and 20,000 have received land rights as land or cash. “But many of them, especially in Madhya Pradesh, are yet to be given official possession of land. Similar is the fate with the Rs 60 lakh which was to be given as cash instead of land, though the original rehabilitation policy clearly spoke of land for land as compensation.”

Patkar says that the 20,000 families including Adivasi, hill area and plain area families have received land, while the rest have been given cash as compensation, mainly in Madhya Pradesh. “Something more worrying is that the authorities have not included as many as 15,000 families whose houses have been acquired for the dam but following changing backwater levels of the dam, they are being denied rehabilitation and not being considered as project-affected people.”

(This appeared in the print edition as "No End in Sight")

(Views expressed are personal)

Darshan Desai is a veteran journalist and founder-editor of Development News Network, Gujarat