Editor's Note: Fifty-six years after the foundation stone for the Sardar Sarovar dam on the River Narmada was laid the Gujarat government got permission from the Centre to shut its gates. While 30 gates of the dam have been closed, it will open the gates of misery for more than 100,000 people, whose houses and land are likely to get submerged. Down To Earth visited villages near the dam to find out their concerns.
Utter chaos reigns over at least 176 villages and Dharampuri town in Narmada Valley. Every day, revenue officials, accompanied by platoons of police and armed with a Supreme Court order, visit these places in and Dhar districts of Madhya Pradesh and ask the residents to vacate their houses, shops, farmland, pasture land and places of worship by July 31. “Some officials even threaten that they would unleash water from the Sardar Sarovar Dam on our villages if we do not relocate by the said date,” says Vijay Marola of Nasirpur village in Dhar.
Going by the latest affidavit submitted by the Madhya Pradesh government before the Supreme Court in 2016, Marola, his old parents, infant son, wife and two younger sisters are among the 110,000 people (21,808 families) whose houses and land are likely to get submerged once the 30-odd sluice gates on the dam are closed to raise water level in the reservoir from the present 121.92 metres (m) to 138.68 m. Though the dam height was increased to 138.68 m in 2014, the dam authorities have been limi ting the full reservoir level to 121.92 m to avoid submergence of the households that are yet to relocate.
On February 8, the apex court paved the way for the dam to operate at its full capacity and directed the Central and state governments to rehabilitate all project affected families by July 31.
The apex court said this while bringing down the curtain on the legal battle Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a movement against large dams across the river by project-affected people, had been fighting since 1994. NBA’s demand was to pay right- ful compensation to all those who were displaced in different phases as the dam height underwent a series of changes from the initial 69 m in the late 1980s but are yet to be rehabilitated. The rehabilitation guidelines set by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA) says a displaced family who has lost 25 per cent of the land to the project should be compensated with 2 hectares (ha) of land with irrigation facility. Of all the cases presented before it, the apex court has identified 681 families who were displaced but did not receive land in lieu of the property lost to the project, and said they would receive Rs 60 lakh each. Another 1,358 families, who were given false land allotment papers or were allotted degraded land, would receive Rs 15 lakh each. The court added that the number of people eligible for compensation could be higher.
The court order has brought relief to the 2,039 displaced families. However, those facing displacement to allow the dam to funtion at its full capacity say they have nowhere to go.
“In 2003, I was given Rs 40,000 and a plot on the floodplains of the Khooj rivulet (tributary of the Narmada) in compensation,” says Iqbal Reyaz from Dharampuri, who works as a daily-wage labourer. Five years ago, Reyaz decided to relocate to the rehabilitation colony, aptly named Dhara mpuri Basahat, literally Dharampuri rese ttled. He was the first one to build a house there. But it got submerged the very next year, during the floods of 2013. “No one compensated me for the loss of the new house, and I had to return to my old house,” Reyaz says. “I was a fool to go there. Since the colony is in the floodplains, no one from my town dares to shift there,” he adds.
Sunaki Bai, 55, was very much aware of the problems she was going to face at the rehabilitation colony, which has also been named after her village. Chikhalda Basahat is a desolate place, located on a rocky terra in and surrounded by abandoned govern ment buildings and thorny weed Prosopis juliflora. “I and my son were allotted two plots here in 2003. As his family expanded, he relocated to the new plot some four years ago. Then, I was reluctant to shift because the place did not have drinking water faci lity, electricity, roads or hospital. Moreover, none of my neighbours wanted to shift to this barren place,” Bai recalls. All the basic facilities still remain a pipe dream in Chikhalda Basahat. But Bai relocated last year after her son’s house was burgled, while the family was away to work as daily-wage labourers. What worries her most is that her grandchildren have discontinued their studies ever since they shifted to the new colony. The government school, built just five years ago, has caved in. The only other school at approachable distance is run privately and is 7 km from the colony.
Anil Ganapat, resident of Khaparkhera village who has been allotted a plot in the colony next to Chikhalda Basahat, cites another reason people from the Narmada Valley are unwilling to relocate. “There are more than 3,000 cows and buffaloes in my village and most of the 500 families people depend on them for a living. The govern ment has allotted us plots, but has not provided even a small patch of land for our cattle. How would we survive?” he says.
While the authorities responsible for resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) works do not have the answer for Ganapat’s question, they admit that most people are unwilling to relocate due to the lack of basic amenities. “We are developing roads and laying electricity cables at all the 88 loca tions (where the villages will be resettled). We are working at full speed,” says S R Yadav, director (R&R) of the Narmada Control Authority (NCA), responsible for implementing the orders of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal.
But going by the NWDTA guidelines, the authorities should also provide a primary school for every 100 families, a drinking water well for every 50 families, a seed store for every 500 families, before initiating the eviction process. Barely a month left to meet the apex court deadline, will they be able to comply with the NWDTA guidelines?
“We are just following the Supreme Court order which says project-affected villages be relocated before July 31,” Tejaswi Naik, district collector of Badwani told Down To Earth. When asked how the government plans to relocate unwilling families, Yadav says: “Let the deadline near. They will have no choice but relocate.”
On May 28, hundreds of residents faci ng displacement met Union Social Justice Minister Thawar Chand Gehlot who was on a visit to Badwani, and requested him to persuade the Centre to extend the deadline for relocation. Gehlot’s ministry oversees the rehabilitation work. But he refused to give any assurance.
People reduced to numbers
Adding to the frustration is the confusion propagated by the government from time to time. On May 25, the state government notified the state gazette, which has the revised list of households that face displace ment. According to the gazette, 18,346 families now face displacement. While this should bring relief to the 3,462 families, who have been excluded from the eviction list, they are more than worried.
One such family is that of Rameshwar Bhola Ji Patidar, a 52-year-old farmer from Nisarpur village in Dhar. They are among the 345 households in the village of 1,542 households that do not figure in the revised list of affected families. Patidar claims that he has wrongly been excluded from the revised list. “My immediate neighbour, who lives just 1.5 m from my house, is part of the list, whereas I am not. Will my house be spared if his house gets submerged? Even if the water does not enter my house, how will we lead our lives with water on our door- step? In that case, should I not be declared project-affected?” he asks.
Devram, leader of NBA from Khapar- khera, cites another problem that will arise because of the revised list. Even if the houses that have been left out in the revised list do not get submerged, they would resemble an island. Has the government thought about providing basic amenities to these people? Suresh Pradhan, who has also been excluded from the revised list, however believes in what a government official has told him: they will make bridges for all households to connect the mainland.
In Dharampuri, Kamlesh Thakur is relieved after he learns that he does not have to vacate his house and garment shop. “The government has assured that except 88 houses, rest of the 1,387 houses identi fied for displacement earlier are out of danger,” says Thakur. He is happy because there has been no communication from the government about the Rs 50,000 and a plot of 1,800 sq ft in nearby Devpura village that he had received in compensation. In fact, all the 1,299 families from Dharampuri, who do not figure in the revised list, have received between Rs 40,000 and Rs 70,000 in compensation.
So is this a mistake or a government dole? “It is a classic example of reducing the number of affected families to reduce the overall cost of the project and thus avoid any future litigations by project-affected families,” says Medha Patkar, who has been spearheading NBA since 1990. Or else, why would the government pay compensation to all these families, she says. NBA claims that all the 45,000 families in 192 villages and one town would be affected once the dam runs at its full capacity. Dayaram Nyas of Gandhi Bhawan Trust, Bhopal, says the government just does not know the exact number of project-affected people.
A Down To Earth analysis corroborates the views of Nyas. Before revising the number of project-affected families in the state gazette this year, the government in its 2003 affidavit submitted to the apex court had claimed that 192 villages and one town would be affected. At least 37,754 families would have to relocate. It changed the figures to 176 villages and 21,808 families in another affidavit filed 13 years later.
This flip-flop is due to a flawed calcu lation by the Central Water Commission (CWC) in 2008 while assessing the extent of “backwater” (increase in the water level upstream of the dam once the sluice gates are closed). The flaw was identified by an independent team of civil society in 2015. As per CWC estimates, backwater levels in case of full reservoir or extreme flooding (once in 100 years) would never go beyond 144.9 m in its upstream if the dam height is raised to 138.64 m. Based on the estimates, the government revised the number of affected families to 21,808 from 37,754. But the cil society team observed that flood levels at Kalghat, which is at the fag-end of the submergence area, reached 146.64 m in 2013 even when the dam height was 121.92 m. In 1994, when its height was 90 m, flood levels reached 148.80 m at Kalghat.
“Even an expert committee of the Union environment ministry had rejected the government’s backwater level calcula tions,” says Patkar.
But it appears that the government just does not want to make up its mind about the number of project-affected families. Barely 10 days before the state government notified the gazette, Renu Pant, director of the Narmada Valley Development Autho rity, told the press that 5,000 families from 112 villages are going to be affected once the dam functions at its full capacity.
Amid the chaos, the district admini strations have also instructed government staff like teachers, anganwadi workers, and ASHA workers not to attend any institutions in the villages notified for relocation.
This story was first published in the June 16-30, 2017 issue of Down To Earth magazine under the title 'Drowned in uncertainty'.