907 km from parliament

In the past two months, India has revisited its most contested dam, the Sardar Sarovar Project. While people affected by it in Madhya Pradesh remain stranded, Gujarat has more water than its canals can distribute. An analysis by padmaparna ghosh and s v suresh babu

Published: Monday 15 May 2006

907 km from parliament

SubmergenceHere is a social drama with the most complex of plots. The dramatis personae of the Sardar Sarovar Project (ssp): four state governments with a multiplicity of departments; threea Union ministries with ministers, bureaucrats and technocrats; a tribunal of three retired high court judges that gave an 'award' in 1979; the most long-standing anti-dam movement; the Supreme Court; now, the prime minister's office.

In the drama's three-decade history, logic has been defied with absolute uniformity. ssp affects millions -- with displacement and the promise of water -- but has been approached with epic non-seriousness. The latest act unfolded on March 8, 2006, when the Narmada Control Authority (nca) approved an increase in the dam's height from the existing 110.64 m to 121.92 m. This was at a meeting called by the government of Gujarat, the state that gains the most from the dam. Two days later, Union water minister Saifuddin Soz issued a statement. He called the decision premature, voicing fears over relief and rehabilitation (r&r) in Madhya Pradesh (mp), where lots of people would be displaced by the rising backwater. Maharashtra, too, is in the firing line.

Down to EarthThe Narmada Bachao Andolan (nba) went into overdrive. Its pre-eminent leader, Medha Patkar, went on a fast, after protests proved ineffective. Moral pressure on the government increased. So, on April 6, prime minister Manmohan Singh sent three ministers to mp to assess the state of rehabilitation. Their report of April 9 was a scathing iteration of what is commonly known but seldom acknowledged within government -- the people to be displaced by the backwater have actually not been resettled.

Soz convened a meeting of the Review Committee of the Narmada Control Authority (rcnca) on April 15. He chairs this committee, which includes the Union minister of environment and forests and the chief ministers of mp, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. The meeting couldn't reach a decision because the vote was split along party lines. The two Union ministers and the Congress chief minister of Maharashtra voted against nca's clearance. The chief ministers of the three remaining states -- ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) -- voted in favour of raising the dam height. The committee left the decision to the prime minister.

In the meantime, nba had moved the Supreme Court to stay construction on raising the height. On April 17, the court heard the petition, asked the four state governments to respond and deferred the matter to May 1. It has made it clear that construction will stop if rehabilitation isn't completed. Both opponents and proponents of ssp claimed victory.

The Union government iterated its desire to complete the dam and rehabilitate the displaced. It offered to form a committee to look into r&r in mp, which the court accepted. On April 24, the prime minister announced the three-member committee. Headed by former comptroller and auditor general V K Shunglu, it includes Jayaprakash Narayan of the ngo Loksatta in Hyderabad and G K Chadha, former vice-chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University. Its tenure is three months.

On April 21, in an unrelated development, the sc issued a notice to the Gujarat government in response to a petition by Kutch Jal Sankat Nivaran Samiti, an ngo. It wants Gujarat's Kachchh region to get its share of Narmada's waters.

The problem: a labyrinthine bureaucracy, and uncrunched numbers. T he secretary to the Union ministry of water resources chairs nca. It includes three secretaries from Union ministries (power; environment and forests; social justice and empowerment) and the chief secretaries of mp, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. In case of a dispute, the matter is referred to rcnca. In dire cases, the Union water minister can stay decisions of rcnca -- but only if approached by one of the state governments or Union ministries.

Every time the dam height is to be increased, clearance must come from two sub-groups of nca: the r&r sub-group, chaired by the secretary to Union ministry of social justice and empowerment; and the environment sub-group, chaired by the secretary to the Union ministry of environment and forests (moef). The r&r sub-group's decision is based on action taken reports filed by the three states where land gets submerged: mp, Maharashtra and Gujarat. But the reports don't go straight to the sub-group. They have to be verified by the grievance redressal authorities (gras) formed in each state in accordance with orders from the Supreme Court. These are headed by retired judges of the Supreme Court or a high court. Because the responsibilities of the rehabilitation sub-group and the three gras have not been defined, nobody has credible figures on the number of people affected by submergence.

Down to Earth The history of affected people goes back to 1969, with the creation of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (nwdt). This was to settle conflicts among states on issues like sharing water and electricity, the cost of rehabilitation, and the dam's final height (see box: Fuzzy logic). The tribunal gave its 'award' in 1979. It estimated project-affected families in mp at 6,147 in 158 villages; 456 families in 27 villages of Maharashtra. Gujarat was to rehabilitate villages in the irrigation command of the dam. For families unwilling to undergo migration, Gujarat was to pay mp and Maharashtra the cost, charges and expenses for establishment of the rehabilitated villages. Recognising that Gujarat would benefit the most from the dam and suffer the least displacement, the state was to pay the entire cost of rehabilitation in mp and Maharashtra. The issue, though, is not the money. It is the land to buy with that money.

Each family, the tribunal said, that would lose more than 25 per cent of its land would be allotted as much irrigable land as it would lose -- subject to the ceiling in the respective states, but not less than two hectares (ha). In the next 25 years, the number of people likely to be displaced has increased; so has the cost. But land has not. Off the record, officials complain the biggest mistake was to offer land for land. Social activists say the tribunal's award was an example in humane treatment of those who pay the price of development.

What award?
The Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld the tribunal's award as the basis of dispute settlement. In 2000, it lifted a six-year stay on dam construction. The majority judgment of the three-judge bench ruled: "There is no reason now to assume that these authorities will not function properly. In our opinion, the court should have no role to play."

In 2005, after hearing a case filed by dam-affected tribals, the apex court decided that each major son of each displaced family should be considered a separate family, and be entitled to at least two ha. It also settled the entitlements of those whose land might get temporarily submerged -- either by a flood or displacement in the future, when the height of the dam was raised to the maximum permitted. The court insisted no distinction should be made between the temporarily and permanently displaced. This increased the number of affected families sharply. This also meant mp's estimates of the number of affected families were significantly lower than what fitted the court's category.

The court said no submergence should occur without every affected person being rehabilitated. The tribunal's award had also emphasised that, "In no event shall any areas in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra be submerged...unless... arrangements are made for the rehabilitation of oustees." The court also ruled that irrigated land be allotted to each affected family at least an year before submergence, and full resettlement be completed at least six months before submergence.

But the award and the judgments did not wash. If mp were to rehabilitate the 24,421 families estimated to be displaced if the height of the dam was increased to 121.92 m, it would have to allocate 50,000 ha. All mp has at present is about 5,000 ha, in small parcels spread over eight districts.

Land-for-land rehabilitation was not feasible, but none of the states have had the gumption to say so in court. In 2000, the three states submitted to court full details of land for rehabilitation. mp claimed it had enough land, though not in large allotments. It claimed to have resettled most of the families, with only 3,818 families remaining. So, mp theoretically needed only 8,000 ha. This, too, wouldn't be required, it assumed, as most families would prefer to resettle in Gujarat.

The state also earmarked 12,218 ha by reducing grazing land ceiling in each village from 5 per cent of the total village to 2 per cent. mp's gra didn't buy this, saying grazing land wasn't suitable for rehabilitation as it is would create social tension between the rehabilitated and villagers inhabiting that area. But two years later, mp launched a scheme to distribute grazing land recovered to landless dalit s. The state continued claiming it had enough irrigable land.

Therefore, it never bothered to buy private land for disbursal. Uday Verma, vice-chairperson of the Narmada Valley Development Authority (nvda, the state's implementing arm), says, "If we try to buy private land now, prices will go up and it will be very expensive."

Only recently has the state begun to admit, reluctantly, that it does not have enough irrigable land. In 2002, mp had proposed to nca that the land-for-land provision must be amended. In May 2003, it told its gra it didn't have sufficient cultivable land. Its answer was special rehabilitation package (srp) -- cash for land, so that families could buy land. Maharashtra also started offering cash for land. In 2004-05, mp came up with another variation: at least four ha of non-irrigated land, instead of two.

Money for land
nca cleared srp in 2005, a move that was widely called the most blatant violation of the tribunal award. nvda has fixed the cash-for-land price at Rs 2,78,000 per ha. Half of the amount is to be given to the family before the registration of the land it wants to buy, with the remaining being paid after the land is transferred. mp says 3,879 families have accepted srp till date, and are satisfied.

As a visit to the villages shows, this is not necessarily true. In Pichodi village, Sukhlal Mona got half the money. But he hasn't been able to buy land. So he is still in the village. About 400 families are still there, though government records show all have been rehabilitated. Complaints of corruption and hassles in money disbursal are common.

Is it too expensive for the villagers to buy private land? Verma doesn't think so: "The compensation amount that we are offering is sufficient to buy cultivable land in the state. The calculation is based on the market value of irrigated area in Sakalda, part of the command area." Another senior official says compensation being paid is about Rs 1,00,000 per ha, enough to buy land. There are other figures also, and each official claims it is sufficient to buy land. The land and pricing issue gets more complicated when the number of affected families is calculated.

Down to Earth Bad arithmetic
The tribunal's 1979 award had estimated the number of project-affected families in mp at 6,147 in 158 villages and 456 families in 27 villages of Maharashtra. Now, the number stands at 24,421 just in mp -- and this was before the 2005 court order, when the temporarily displaced hadn't been included.

The inconsistencies in these numbers ought to have been settled by the gras. But in mp it is crippled by the absence of resources to ascertain claims. In the interim report of June 30, 2000, G G Sohani, the retired judge in charge, complained that lack of infrastructure prevented him from carrying out his duties even when maximum displacement was in mp. He said he had to inspect 591 parcels of land -- he managed 14.

In the village of Pichodi, Sohani isn't a popular name. "What will gra do? Nothing. Even when we complain against improper rehabilitation, Sohani asks us to go complain to the nvda and wait. He says we should approach gra only if nothing happens for two months. It is impossible for a poor farmer to make innumerable trips to Bhopal and Indore," says Sitaram Awasia of Pichodi. As of now, there are about 5,000 pending applications with gra.

Technocrats involved with the project have a completely different take: that dam construction and rehabilitation should not be linked. They say even if there are deficiencies in rehabilitation, these can be dealt with later when the submergence happens. They insist on the benefits of water reaching millions in Gujarat, and consider the displacement of a 'few thousand' a sacrifice worth making. The reality of this claim lies in Gujarat.

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