Everyone loves an overflowing dam

Even as the government raced to fill up the reservoir of the Sardar Sarovar Dam by September 15 (one-and-a-half months ahead of the schedule as provided in Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award and NCA’s recent meetings), the enormity of the human crisis that will unfold is lost to most

By Himanshu Upadhyaya
Published: Tuesday 24 September 2019

Seventeen years ago, one afternoon in July, two friends in their twenties left the district town of Barwani to check the water level beneath a bridge on the river Narmada in western Madhya Pradesh.

They hoped to be able to do some quick math in their mind on what the rising water level would mean for downstream villages such as Jalsindhi and Domkhedi. Only four months earlier, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) had given approval to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam from 90 metres (m) to 95m on May 14, 2002.

When they returned to Barwani, they communicated the urgency and rushed to Jalsindhi. They had no idea what submergence looked like but had a sense of how it was different from the monsoon floods.

A spell of good rains in August that year made the Sardar Sarovar Dam overflow. Powered by gravity, Narmada waters began to flow into the main canal and within days, could reach the Sabarmati riverbed in Ahmedabad. The Gujarati language media was on an overdrive, with the visuals of an overflowing large dam claiming front-page space.

Today, as I write this, the Sardar Sarovar Dam is overflowing (137.08m on the morning of September 12) and I find that the Gujarati media fraternity — with a very few exceptions — have been dishing out mesmerising visuals of an overflowing dam on daily basis since August 9, when the water level touched the 129.65m mark.

Every day, when I read the news, I get to know how much is the inflow and outflow of the waters in the dam, what is the water level behind the dam wall and how many gates are open, creating that ‘breathtaking view’. There is an studied silence on what happens to villages in the submergence zone where people have waited for a glimpse of the government’s resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) package for decades.

While 17m-high steel radial gates were installed in the year 2017 and the dam was dedicated to the nation on the birthday of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on September 17, during the 2017 and 2018 monsoons, the highest water level in the Narmada dam stood at 130.75m and 129m respectively.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) asserts that around 30,000 families, whose farms and houses are going under water, haven’t been rehabilitated so far.

Throughout the month of July this year, the Madhya Pradesh government had made feeble protests and urged Gujarat to rethink its demand for filling the reservoir up to Full Reservoir Level, or FRL (138.68m).

While Madhya Pradesh raised the concern that 6,000 project-affected families had still not been rehabilitated, the estimates by the NBA point to the enormity of the human crisis that the submergence will unfold if the reservoir would be filled up to FRL by October 31 according to the timeline drawn by NCA in 2017.

While the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) Award had mentioned the filling period of Sardar Sarovar as ‘July to October’, and the filling schedule that the NCA had planned in 2017 underlined that the FRL shall be attained on October 31 (and hence by implication not before that date), the Gujarat government showed unduly haste in filling the reservoir one-and-a-half months ahead of the schedule.

On August 7 this year, as the water level behind the Sardar Sarovar Dam touched the 127.98m mark and the Rajghat bridge in Barwani submerged under water, affected people sensed that they would face a submergence which might be more destructive than what they had witnessed during the previous two years.

On August 7, 2018, the water level in the dam was at 111.30m. The NBA started an indefinite agitation, urging the Gujarat government to open the floodgates and not fill the reservoir further.

Adding insult to injury, even as people’s lives were shattering due to the rising waters behind the dam wall, on the morning of August 28, an honourable man tweeted the following message while posting a few photographs of the ‘breathtaking view’ of the Sardar Sarovar Dam:

“News that will make you thrilled! Happy to share that the water levels at the Sardar Sarovar Dam have reached a historic 134.00 m. Sharing pictures of the breathtaking view, with the hope that you will go visit this iconic place and see the ‘Statue of Unity’.”

This endorsement of the violation of the binding clauses of NWDT (1979) on R&R had come close on the heels of another arrogant recommendation from a few experts of Central Water Commission, who had visited the dam site between August 20 and 22, “to assess the safety of the dam and based on that made a recommendation for the proposed accelerated filling of the reservoir”.

Filled to the brim

Let’s revisit that 1979 moment when the NWDT passed its final order and wished that:

“In no event shall any areas in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh be submerged under the Sardar Sarovar unless all payment of compensation, expenses and costs is made for acquisition of land and properties and arrangements are made for the rehabilitation of the oustees therefrom in accordance with these directions and intimated to the oustees”.

Contrast this unambiguous statement in the NWDT Award with what the Finance Minister of India had told the oustees of Pong Dam in the year 1961. His words smack of arrogance, of the destructive power of submergence and brutal violence that gets hidden behind the ‘breathtaking view’ of an overflowing dam. He said:

“We will request you to move from your houses after the dam comes up. If you move it would be good. Otherwise we shall release (sic) the water and drown you all.”

Why does everyone love an overflowing dam? Probably, the mesmerising and breathtaking view of a towering dam wall, with the great waterfall-like flowing waters from the dam gates gives one a sense of attainment that a dam is full, thirsts can be quenched.

An overflowing dam conveys a sense that there has been a bountiful monsoon and the kindness of the rain gods would bless us all. However, as Gujarat authorities send helicopters to shoot the video of the brimming Sardar Sarovar Dam, let us ask what is happening in the submergence villages.

Let us ask: How the lives and livelihoods of affected people are getting wrecked by the submergence without rehabilitation. Let us ask: why is it that a dam is full but the promises and hopes remained unfulfilled for people in the submergence villages who stare at the promises to rebuild their lives through rehabilitation.

Let us ask: Why is it that this ‘planned in departure from past’ large dam drowns farmlands in the submergence zone and command area simultaneously, because a farmer from Kutch, Pankaj Shah tweeted a video of water from Kutch branch canal entering his farmland on September 5, with the following message:

“@vijayrupanibjp our fields flooded because of false planning in narmada branch canal Kutch. Please help us. Whom to complain. Collector Kutch has not responded since 6th July 2019”.

(Himanshu Upadhyaya is a faculty member at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru)  

(Views expressed are the author's own and don't necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth)  

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