Time running out in Manibeli

Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

AFTER struggling for eight long years against the massive Narmada dam, the people of the valley are still caught between the devil and the deep blue sea -- in this case, the threat of submergence on one hand, and a repressive government machinery on the other. The doughty anti-Narmada crusader, Medha Patkar, has withdrawn her fast because the government has promised to review the dam project. But the government has made such promises many times before, the first time being during the regime of Prime Minister V P Singh when eminent social worker Baba Amte had staged a dharna in Delhi. Not much importance, therefore, can be attached to this latest promise from the government, which may simply remain a last ditch effort to dissuade Patkar out of her fast-unto-death.

The struggle carried forth under the banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has pitchforked the plight of those facing imminent displacement to centrestage. Indeed, the less-than-satisfactory record of the three state governments involved -- Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra -- with respect to resettlement and rehabilitation has served to justify NBA's concern for human rights. To cite an example, Maharashtra's minister for relief, Shivajirao Deshmukh, had given an assurance that submergence of villages would be stayed until relief and rehabilitation measures were completed to the oustees' satisfaction. But the police cordon around Manibeli suggests that assurance is close to being violated.

With the monsoon fast sweeping up the country and the heavy construction activity going on in the Sardar Sarovar Project, the submergence of Manibeli and other villages along the shores of the Narmada is almost definite. The governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra could argue that they have had to adopt strong-arm tactics in and around the border of Manibeli village to ensure that lives will not be lost. But they are turning a blind eye to the Gujarat High Court stay order of April 1993, which forbade forcible evictions and removal of inhabitants before complete rehabilitation arrangements were carried out in accordance with the terms laid down by the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal Award.

The tribunal had laid down that the villages facing displacement had to be informed about their eviction at least 18 months before and rehabilitated 12 months prior to the likely submergence. As things stand, there can be little doubt that the tribal households threatened by the Narmada dam have been at the receiving end of extremely arbitrary official treatment.

It would be wrong for the state governments concerned to conclude that India's decision to do without World Bank Aid for the project automatically absolves them from accountability within the country. There have been too many instances of official efforts to drown protests against projects, which run roughshod over tribal rights.

The agitators have now threatened to drown themselves in the rising waters. Irrespective of whether this samarpan actually takes place or not, the government needs to respond with a sense of sincerity. A constructive dialogue is the least the government can do to save itself from further embarrassment. This is the moment for the government to think through a humane policy for project-displaced people -- whose numbers will only grow over the years. Why should one group of people suffer to bring economic benefits to another group?

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