That sinking feeling of the dammed


Why would people stand in neck-deep water for 12 days? What protest can be tinged with so much desperation? Baba Umar reports

Watery ordeal Villagers take part in a Jal Satyagraha to protest the filling up of the Omkareshwar Dam
Watery ordeal Villagers take part in a Jal Satyagraha to protest the filling up of the Omkareshwar Dam
Photo Courtesy: Narmada Bachao Andolan

SCORES OF slogan-chanting human heads jut out of the water, the water level already close to their jaws. Some complain of terrible itching, while others have reddish blisters on their bodies. Their family members and neighbours stay clustered on the ghats in solidarity. This is the scene at Ghoghalgaon village in Madhya Pradesh’s Khandwa district, where villagers are defying a further surge in the water level that has already submerged their cotton fields and huts.

Since 25 August, 50 villagers have been holding a Jal Satyagraha against the move to fill the Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar Dams, which have flooded their villages. Villagers say they won’t come out of the water until the government halts filling the dams and rehabilitates them.

“Seven acres of my farmland have been submerged. The government never rehabilitated my family. The local MLA came today and laughed at the protesting villagers,” says Saku Bai, 48, who has been in the water in protest. Along with Bai, 49 protesters have been coming out of the water only to eat and answer nature’s call.

Sole asylum A protester with blistered feet
Sole asylum A protester with blistered feet

The protest started when the state government and the Narmada Hydroelectric Development Corporation (NHDC) decided to raise the water level at the Omkareshwar Dam from 189 m to 193 m and the Indira Sagar Dam from 260 m to 262 m, violating the status quo as directed by the Madhya Pradesh High Court and the Supreme Court. Nearly 250 villages have been affected by the Indira Sagar Dam and 30 by the Omakreshwar Dam and not a single family has been given land as per rehabilitation and resettlement rules, say villagers.

On 4 September, the water level reached 190.5 m at Ghoghalgaon village, where the Omkareshwar Dam is being filled, while the water level at the Indira Sagar Dam has reached 261 m in Mohinya village.

Rakesh Kirole, 55, whose cotton and soyabean fields have been submerged, says the SC had ordered the government in May 2011 to allot alternative land to the displaced with a minimum of 2 hectares. “One year has passed since the judgment, but the state government has not allotted land to more than 2,500 families,” he claims.

“What other options do we have other than protesting?” he says. “My feet have developed blisters and I have been vomiting but I won’t stop protesting.”

Although the current protest is the first of its kind in these areas, farmers had undertaken similar protests elsewhere. In September 2006, people undertook a Jal Satyagraha for eight days in Karnapora and Junapani villages, which has been submerged by the Indira Sagar Dam. In June 2007, villagers of Gunjari stood submerged in water for nine days in protest.

“In both these projects, thousands of houses still have to be acquired and in the Indira Sagar project, backwater survey has also not yet been done in 38 villages,” says NBA activist Chittaroopa Palit, who is also taking part in the Jal Satyagraha.

“The displaced people have already received compensation,” says BJP MLA Lokendra Singh Tomar. But the problem is with the rehabilitation. After the SC order, the government had tried to offer alternative land but the displaced refused to accept them. The NBA is instigating them.”

The land offered to us is already encroached upon or is uncultivable. We want cultivable land, retorts an angry villager.

Even as the State Human Rights Commission passed an interim order on 31 August directing the state government to ensure the safety of those affected, the government hasn’t halted the submergence.

Despite repeated attempts, TEHELKA couldn’t reach Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan or NHDC chief KM Singh. However, Khandwa Collector Neeraj Dubey says the water level at Omkareshwar Dam has been stopped at 190.5 m.

“The issue of rehabilitating these villagers has been taken up with the government,” he says. “The NBA members and protesters might soon meet the chief minister in this regard. The oustees who were earlier compensated will need to first give back the compensation as per court orders so that land could be allotted to them.”

The NBA says the oustees are ready to return the compensation, but the state should first stop filling water in the dam.

Baba Umar is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
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