Narmada victims take watery justice with a pinch of salt


Medha by Shailendra P (23)

The legal maxim “Justice delayed is justice denied” aptly describes the compensation announced by the Supreme Court after 38 years for the oustees of the Sardar Sarovar Project on River Narmada in Madhya Pradesh. The legal maxim has been used to mean that if legal redress does not come on time it effectively means the same as having no redress at all.

The Supreme Court has now given its nod for the distribution of compensation of 60 lakh each to each of the family of the oustees of the Sardar Sarovar Project on river Narmada in Madhya Pradesh. The Supreme Court has issued directions to redress the grievances of 681 displaced families. The apex court has also withdrawn its proposal to set up a three-member panel of former Supreme Court judges to look into the compensation and rehabilitation issues related to these outstees. A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India (CJI) JS Khehar has ordered compensation of 60 lakh per family that owned two hectares of land.

“You have been struggling for compensation for 38 years. We are going to give it to you in one shot,” the CJI told Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patekar. The condition is that these families will have to give an undertaking that they will vacate the land within a month, failing which the authorities will have the right to forcibly evict them. The bench, also comprising justices NV Ramana and DY Chandrachud, has observed that monetary compensation was considered as the proposed land compensation was not feasible due to non-availability of a land bank.

The bench has observed that if families that had taken the money had some dispute, they could raise the demand for 15 lakh, which would be given after deducting the money already paid to them. The apex court has asked the Gujarat government to give the money to Madhya Pradesh for further distribution through the grievance redressal authority headed by a retired High Court judge. The order was confined to Madhya Pradesh, as the highest number of oustees were from that State. As far as Maharashtra and Gujarat were concerned, the apex court said relief and rehabilitation work had to be completed within three months. With this after decades of litigation, all civil and criminal cases related to the Narmada dam project have come to an end.

Marred by rows

Aimed at creating a better irrigation network and power generation, the project took off in 1979. However, it was marred by controversy after activists took to streets and litigation resulted in inordinate delay and multi-fold cost escalation. Now the three-judge Bench headed by Chief Justice JS Khehar ordered payment of 60 lakh each to 681 affected families in MP who had not received any compensation against acquisition of their land. It also ordered payment of 15 lakh each to 1,358 families who had already received both installments, saying: “They need to be further compensated so as to alleviate their hardship and enable them purchase alternative land. However, the amount already received by them shall be deducted from this money.”

The government will deposit the money to Narmada Valley Development Authority which in turn will give it to Grievance Redressal Authority for onward distribution to the affected families, the Bench said. These payments have to be made within two months on the condition that the affected families submit and undertake to vacate their land acquired for the project by July 31. The court said it was up to the state government to use force in order to get the land vacated if the families didn’t leave on their own by July 31. The Bench clarified that all civil and criminal cases, including those emerging from Jha Commission report on rehabilitation of families hit by Sardar Sarovar Dam Project, shall come to an end. It directed the governments of Maharashtra and Gujarat to complete rehabilitation in three months.

Contentious issue

An oustee is a displaced person irrespective of the project which affected him or her. This is what the Supreme Court has sought to establish in its ire towards the Madhya Pradesh government earlier for giving 11,000 as interim help to families displaced by construction of minor dams as against 50,000 given to those who lost their homes to major dam projects. The bench of Justices Khehar, NV Ramana and DY Chandrachud said: “You are treating them like animals. You have to give proper compensation to them,” ordering the immediate payment of 50,000 to each family.

The issue of compensation and rehabilitation of persons displaced by dams has been a long and contentious one in India. It is no one’s case that development projects to meet water and electricity need to be held up on this issue, but successive state and central governments have gone about this in a mindless and often cruel manner. In the first place, people who are affected are rarely taken into confidence; rather the sites are decided and then they are informed about the fact that they will have to leave their lands.

The argument in favour of such displacement is that people are offered land in exchange elsewhere and monetary compensation. But that is to look at it clinically. In the Narmada dam case, fought valiantly by civil society groups on behalf of the oustees, many people did not want to leave their ancestral homes and their places of worship. The land in exchange is often arid land that offers them no livelihood. The compensation packages are either inadequate or do not even reach the oustees.

Many oustees have lived out a generation in displacement as they shuttle from legal pillar to post in order to get even the small compensation once offered. The courts have repeated intervened in the disputes surrounding the Hirakud dam, the Narmada dam and the Pong dam to name a few but such are the delays in the judicial system that little moves even once a decade.

The fact that those affected, in the MP case, are mostly tribals, means that their access to affordable legal help is limited. This has not always worked out well for the State either with legal tussles leading to cost increases and huge delays in project implementation. The issue of displacement, which was once for huge development projects, has spread to other forms of construction from ports to airports to shopping malls leading to people having to leave their lands. There have been few cases in which the oustees have got a fair deal despite the best efforts of civil society agencies and the law. In fact, the World Bank, which was the chief donor agency in the Sardar Sarovar project, was so overwhelmed by the transgressions and lapses in the project that it withdrew. The number of displaced keep going up. The Madhya Pradesh incident shows how strongly the judiciary has weighed in on the side of the displaced yet justice had many of them, some for up to over half a century. The present case points to that lacuna as justice has come after almost four decades.