The Sardar Sarovar Dam on the River Narmada – perhaps the most controversial dam project in the world – continues to create conflicts between the Indian government, the courts, and the hundreds of thousands of people affected by the dam. Last month, a six-member team comprising officials from two national political parties and independent experts conducted a fact-finding tour to understand the ground realities concerning the project. The main contention was whether the state governments had followed court orders and rehabilitated project-affected people before the dam reservoir inundated their land.
Construction on the Sardar Sarovar Dam started in the mid-1980s. The World Bank, which originally funded the project, was forced to pull out under public pressure in 1994. Since then, India’s Supreme Court has at several occasions ruled that dam construction may only continue after all affected people have been properly compensated and rehabilitated.
The height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam has been raised in several stages, increasing the backwater spread of the reservoir and flooding habitations in far-off villages during the monsoon season. Yet the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save the Narmada Movement) has documented that 45,000 dam-affected families – approximately 225,000 people – are yet to be rehabilitated. Many people have been displaced to resettlement sites but have not received new land, water or other entitlements. Others have not even been recognized as being affected because their land rights were never formalized.
While the exact number is disputed, in spite of this, in June 2014, the Narmada Control Authority gave final clearance to raise the height from 121.92m to 138.68m, an increase of roughly 17m. Earlier, in 1995, the Supreme Court of India halted the construction of the dam, but the project progressed steadily as the Court allowed the height of the dam, with certain conditions, to be raised on a number of occasions.
According to the Fact Finding Report June 2015, the reservoir is supposed to submerge 37,500 hectares of land, including more than 13,300 hectares of biodiversity-rich forest. The number of displaced families, states the report, has been “conservatively estimated at over 48,000 in the three states” (Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh). “But the total number of displaced families will be much higher, as the over 90,000 kms of canal network will require over 100,000 hectares of land”.
Government spokespersons and politicians have repeatedly maintained that resettlement and rehabilitation would be completed as per law. The recent report by the committee also states that the decision of the elected government last year is “…bound to massively increase the number of villages, settlements and families that are now threatened with submergence, either permanently or whenever the backwater levels go up during high flood flow in the Narmada River”.
This is not the first time an independent assessment of the ground realities have been undertaken. In 2008, a leading institute and think tank (Tata Institute of Social Sciences) had conducted a study that evidenced the project’s failure to meet its intended benefits and beneficiaries. Among other findings the study found that the state government had not followed the Supreme Court order on resettling and rehabilitating all project-affected people. Little has changed, if we go by the latest committee’s findings.
The six-member team visited Ghazipura, a settlement, which was inundated in the last two years during high flood levels. Many shops and their supplies were damaged, and several walls collapsed. In Ghazipura, the Central Water Commission set the backwater mark at 144.92 meters, meaning people living above this mark would be excluded from the project-affected list. But the committee members themselves viewed official markings of 146.64 meters in 2013, which was not even a high flood year. As an example, the people who live above this artificial backwater line are yet to receive their due compensation, in violation of the Supreme Court order. Many other family homes remain at risk each year.
The height increase of the Sardar Sarovar Dam – the current focal point of the Save the Narmada movement– will now impact additional families and their land. But how many more people will be affected – and thus how many more will need to be resettled and rehabilitated – remains the bone of contention. The project-affected people continue to campaign in the valley against the injustices meted out to them, calling for proper compensation before displacement, as ordered by the highest Court of the land.