Narendra Modi has been true to his word: from chief minister of six crore Gujaratis, he has leapfrogged and become the prime minister of six crore Gujaratis. Whatever he does in his following years in office, he has already taken that one momentous decision that will potentially redefine the Centre-state relationship forever. Gujarat will now have the improved 138-metre Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the Narmada. It will have water for its parched earth and for its insatiable industries. It will divert water from the great perennial river into storage tanks in far-off Rajkot, Jamnagar and Kutch. What nature couldn’t give, Namo has given.
Madhya Pradesh will, meanwhile, have 2.5 lakh displaced known officially as PAPs (project affected persons), 20,882 acres of submerged fertile, riverine, arable land, several villages, towns and habitations lost forever and irreparable environmental damage. Its cities like Jabalpur and Hoshangabad will be prone to earthquakes. Its people will receive compensation but no land in exchange. Forty-five thousand farming families will have to perforce let go of the only occupation that had been theirs for centuries. And all in exchange for 877 MW of power.
While urban India debates the rail fare hike and sugar prices, Delhi University admissions and ironically the monsoons, the one decision that will have the most far-reaching effect on our social and political lives has either not been understood or simply brushed under. The Nehruvian model of “temples of modern India” is decried for another reason, but embraced for the very reason of its existence as the acknowledged source of all life. Now, the deserts of Gujarat will be greened, but did it have to be at the expense of another state? Why could it not become a reality for four decades when both states had different parties ruling them? Will the BJP be able to explain to its constituents in Madhya Pradesh why the bargain is a mint? Will Shivraj Singh Chouhan as chief minister, Uma Bharti as Union water resources minister and Thavarchand Gehlot as Union social justice minister ever be able to explain the circumstances of this decision?
Above all, is there a crying need to increase the height of the dam? To appreciate the very existence of the SSP and the boon and bane it brings with it, one must take a relook at the project, the Narmada Valley, the intention of the Centre and other political issues related to it.
According to the website of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam, it is the second largest concrete gravity dam after America’s Grand Coulee. It also has the third largest discharge capacity in the world, with a catchment capacity of 586 million cubic feet. On 12 June, a meeting of the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) chaired by the prime minister gave clearance to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam located at Kevadiya in Gujarat, by 17 metres from 121.92 to 138.38 metres. The matter had been on the backburner for several years. Now, 30 radial gates will be installed on the dam at the cost of 270 crore by 2017. It will increase the storage capacity by 9 million cubic feet. Right after the prime minister gave his nod to the project, Gujarat Chief Minister Anandiben Patel tweeted, congratulating the prime minister on behalf of the people of Gujarat — “Achhe din aa gaye”. Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Chouhan tweeted “Kisanon ke saath beinsaafi nahi hone di jayegi (the interests of the farmers will be protected).” Could it be clearer?
Thus, before we go on to discuss the “bure din” of Madhya Pradesh, it is necessary to understand how Gujarat is going to benefit from the project. Seventy-five percent area of Gujarat that falls within the Narmada radius has been declared potentially drought-affected. With an increase in the height of the dam, the state will receive more water from the Narmada and will no longer be in the category of drought-affected areas. Gujarat also stands to gain the most in irrigation. With the Narmada dam, 18.45 lakh hectares of land in 3,112 villages falling under 73 tehsils of 15 districts in Gujarat will receive water for irrigation. The dam will also safeguard 210 villages of Bharuch from the danger of floods while water from it will change the face of Saurashtra. One-hundred- and-fifteen minor dams and water bodies of Saurashtra will receive water from the dam. The water scarcity problem of Saurashtra, which receives below average rainfall, will also be resolved. One-hundred-and-fifty-one cities and 9,633 villages (53 percent of 18,144 villages of the state) will have drinking water. Gujarat will also receive 16 percent of 1,450 MW power generated by the dam. In short, it is a win-win scenario for Gujarat.
Little surprise then that Gujarat has been preparing for this day for the past five years. Its one major canal network is ready to fetch water to its towns. It has already prioritised drinking water projects by floating a pipeline project worth 5,000 crore, which will take water from Kevadia to storage tanks in Rajkot. Its steel and chemical industries will receive almost 20 percent of the stored water at the SSP, which is against the tenets of the project itself which bars its use for any purpose other than drinking and irrigation. The limping steel industries have already received major orders. For instance, Essar Steel at Hazira will supply 1.2 lakh metric tonnes of 12-metre diameter pipelines for the project. The project to link the SSP to Rajkot will be finished in one year’s time from iron ore mined from Chhattisgarh.
As stated above, in this Faustian exchange, Madhya Pradesh will get 877 MW of power. True that the state is struggling with a power deficit and needs additional supply of electricity. But drought-affected areas, dearth of irrigation water and lack of drinking water are also existing realities in the state. The project has completely ignored drought-affected areas of the state. One-hundred-and-ninety-three villages, including Dharampuri of Dhar district, are on the verge of submergence.
According to a census conducted in 2001, 51,000 families in all three states were declared affected, which shot up to 63,000 in 2011 with 45,000 families from Madhya Pradesh alone. They mostly included BPL families of tribals, small farmers, shopkeepers, fishermen, and others.
Madhya Pradesh PCC president Arun Yadav says that the displaced have not been rehabilitated. Rehabilitation has come to a standstill because of an investigation into corruption cases. Families of the submergence area are struggling for livelihood after whatever initial amounts they had received have been used up. Yadav makes another allegation that the decision to increase the height of the dam is a violation of the orders of Supreme Court and Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT). He points out that in their respective orders, they have clearly directed to begin construction after rehabilitation. According to Yadav, a judgment passed by the Narmada Control Authority in December 1979 states that Madhya Pradesh will have 29 big, 135 medium and 3,000 small irrigation projects by 2024. If the state is unable to use its share of Narmada water within the set period, it will be denied its right over the river. However, the state government is not serious about the Narmada irrigation projects. Till now, only 10 major projects have been completed, two are underway, while work is yet to begin on as many as 17 projects.
In comparison, Gujarat has only 19 villages and 9,000 hectares of land falling in the submergence area. In Maharashtra, a comparatively minor stakeholder in the project, 9,500 hectares of forest land and 22 villages will be affected. Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activists, who have been resisting the projects for long, allege that only 30 families have received land for rehabilitation, while the process of giving land to the rest of the 3,000 families has hit a brick wall because of corruption. They showed fake registries in order to illegally seize land from its rightful owners. NBA activists allege that government officials tied up with brokers and forged thousands of registries. To probe the matter of fake registries, the Madhya Pradesh High Court set up the Justice SS Jha Commission in 2008. The investigation is under process. The commission’s investigation is centred upon matters of fake registries, i.e., families yet to get land, houses plot allotments and reallotment, corruption in disbursal of livelihood grants to landless, manipulations in eligibility-lists, quality versus expenses in construction work at resettlement and rehabilitation sites. The commission is expected to submit its report by October.
Former Madhya Pradesh irrigation minister and an acknowledged expert on Narmada, Ramchandra Singh Deo, 78, says that all the projects on the Narmada river, including Sardar Sarovar, are based upon doubtful figures. Projects in the Narmada Valley started with data collected by the British using the old method. The method used rainwater to gauge water availability in rivers. According to data collected by the British government, Narmada had 27 million acre feet (MAF) water. However, data collected later based upon the new method of river gauging station reveals that the river has only 23.7 MAF water. It means the very foundation of the project is based on incorrect figures. The Madhya Pradesh government questioned the availability of water in Narmada several times, but no one paid heed. The second important point is that the whole of Narmada basin is earthquake-prone. Construction of huge dams has increased the danger manifold. The frequency of shock-waves hitting areas surrounding Bargi dam near Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh has also shot up. The town has already had a major earthquake in 1997. Singh Deo says that although Sardar Sarovar is an earthquake-resistant dam, the intensity of the quakes can have far-reaching effect. All the major dam projects underway in the Narmada Valley have a lifespan of only 100-250 years after which period they become a nuisance. No one seems to worry about the age of big dams.
The controversy is not new
The official announcement for construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam was made in 1960 when the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid its foundation stone. The project has since become a hornet’s nest raking up controversy every now and then. Initially, the project remained in the pipeline because the three states involved (Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra) could not build consensus on water sharing. The matter was handed over to the NWDT in 1979 where a consensus was finally reached. In the 1990s, the World Bank decided to give a loan for the project, but people from the submergence area started protesting against the venture. In 1991-94, the World Bank set up a high-level committee for the first time to review the project. The committee found that the environmental damage caused by the project will be irreparable. So, the World Bank backed out. NBA activists filed a PIL in the Supreme Court demanding stoppage of construction. In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that construction of the dam should be limited till the point where rehabilitation has taken place. NBA, protesting against the project, has been alleging that it ignored the environmental damage caused and rehabilitation of the displaced has not been achieved. With a decision to increase the dam’s height further, the hornet’s nest has been stirred up yet again. Locals from areas like Dhar, Badwani, Nimad and the hills of Jhabua in Madhya Pradesh have come out on the roads to protest in large numbers.
The dam of politics
The SSP has several political repercussions. While Modi and his Gujarat are bound to profit from the project, the three BJP bigwigs of Madhya Pradesh, Chouhan, Uma Bharti and Thavarchand Gehlot, have their political careers at stake. Chouhan has largely avoided commenting upon the issue for fear of upsetting the PMO. When the decision to increase the dam’s height was taken, he was away in South Africa looking for investors to promote various new developmental projects in his state. He instantly tweeted, welcoming Modi’s move. He also tweeted that his state would get power at no cost. But the moment he landed in Bhopal and realised the public mood, his tone changed before the media. He told television channels that no injustice will be done to the displaced and the Supreme Court’s directives will be followed. He forgot his tweet that said “The displaced have already been compensated in 2008. No other region is going to be immediately submerged now.” Chouhan seems to have failed to understand that a contradictory stand on such a sensitive issue is going to be the biggest stumbling block in his political career.
Uma Bharti, Union minister for water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, is second in line to bear the brunt. A native of Madhya Pradesh, she must be aware of the status of rehabilitation in her state. Despite this, she gave a statement that a sanction to increase the dam’s height has been given keeping in mind the displaced people and the social justice ministry is satisfied with the steps taken for them. Uma’s approval of the decision to increase the dam’s height as water resources minister is going to hurt her political aspirations. Supporting a project that is going to benefit Madhya Pradesh in no way will give her critics a reason to pounce at her. Since the entire story is being scripted with reference to the social justice ministry, it is certainly not in favour of Thavarchand Gehlot, who is currently holding the portfolio and is a Rajya Sabha member from Madhya Pradesh. Gehlot is expected to have witnessed the plight of the displaced people at close quarters. But his department has become the scapegoat to advocate for the increase in the height of the dam. Such a scenario renders him equally guilty. In the coming days, the three of them will pay a heavy political price for supporting the cause.
Win-win situation for Modi
Modi has a threefold advantage with the increase in the dam’s height. First, he has proved how unconditionally supportive he is of his state. While he was the CM, he kept demanding an increase in the height of the dam. In 2006, he even went on a fast for 51 hours at Kevadia. His decision has increased his popularity in Gujarat. Both the Congress and the BJP in Gujarat have openly welcomed the decision. He has also tried to bring Maharashtra and Rajasthan into the loop as Maharashtra faces Assembly polls later this year. The project is going to benefit Maharashtra too as 27 percent of 1,450 MW power generated by the dam will be supplied to the state. Thirty-seven-thousand-and-five-hundred hectares in the hilly areas of Maharashtra will get water for irrigation. The dam will quench the thirst of 4.58 million people of Rajasthan too. An increase in the height of the dam will release water to Rajasthan with more pressure, which will boost irrigation of over two lakh hectares arid land of Barmer and Jalore. Besides, three cities of Rajasthan and 1,336 villages will have access to drinking water. This has helped Modi emerge as a hero in these three states.
According to Sardar Sarovar Narmada Dam Corporation Ltd managing director JN Singh, “The moment permission was granted for the installation of radial gates at the dam, CM Anandiben Patel performed puja at the dam site and flagged off massive work. After monsoon, work will gain momentum.”
The allegations of NBA
NBA leader Medha Patkar tells TEHELKA, “The Sardar Sarovar Project has completely overlooked the rights of the displaced people. Why are the state and the Central government in such a hurry to increase the height of the dam? It is beyond comprehension. In the past 30 years, not even 30 percent of canal projects have been completed. Gujarat’s Kutch and Saurashtra will have no immediate irrigation gain with the increase in the dam’s height.” Patkar further adds, “It should be noted that the farmers are unwilling to hand over their land to the Gujarat government. Where will the government then make canals? The Supreme Court has clearly ruled that work can continue only till the point where rehabilitation has happened. But rehabilitation has not been carried out in any of the affected states. Therefore, the decision to increase the dam’s height is a clear violation of the Supreme Court order.”
In 2012, the Planning Commission had estimated the cost of the project at Rs 70,000 crore. Patkar claims that Rs 63,000 crore has already been spent and it is going to amount to Rs 90,000 crore. “We have even written to PM Modi relating facts about the project to him,” she says. “It is a matter of life and death for lakhs of people. The government is answerable. The moment the gates are installed, back water level will increase. As a result, the places marked under submergence area, will be flooded. The situation will worsen in the rainy season.”
Digvijaya Singh’s stance
Former Madhya Pradesh CM Digvijaya Singh, who cleverly held off Gujarat’s ambitions during his 10-year reign in the 1990s, says, “The decision to increase the height of the dam is shocking. It is clearly against the wishes and past orders of the Supreme Court, which stipulated that rehabilitation should be given priority. Another thing is that the social justice ministry is responsible for monitoring the rehabilitation process. It must release a statement explaining how far rehabilitation has happened. The question is not merely of compensation for the displaced. They should be given land in exchange of land. If the government does not have enough land to give to the displaced people, they must be given additional money to purchase land elsewhere.”