Like a river that twists and turns across a landscape, the controversy over the Narmada dam case has also seen its fair share of convolutions, the latest one being the Narmada Control Authority’s (NCA’s) clearance to Gujarat for raising the height of the Narmada dam to the full reservoir level of 138.72 metres from the present 121.92 metres.
The NCA took the decision at an “emergency meeting” of the ministries concerned and the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan. The idea of damming the Narmada is old: It was discussed as far back as the late 19th century during the British Raj.
In 1901, the first Irrigation Commission of India, mentioned a barrage near Bharuch. After Independence, the project was initiated by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the 1950s but opposition from campaigners led to long legal battles and delays.
The dam finally started generating power in 2007. The full contours of the Narmada Valley Development Plan appeared in the late 1980s: An ambitious plan that envisages the building of 30 big dams, 135 medium dams and 3,000 small dams on the Narmada and its tributaries.
One of the key criticisms that the project faced was that of displacement of thousands of marginalised communities. For example, in Kheda district of Gujarat — where people from Kakrana village in Madhya Pradesh are resettled after the Sardar Sarovar dam — resettlers are yet to get irrigated land as well as compensation even after 22 years of their relocation.
Activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan claim that more than 40,000 families living in several districts of Madhya Pradesh would come under submergence with the latest increase in the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.
They added that the NCA clearance to the Gujarat government is against the decision of the Supreme Court, which said until and unless the rehabilitation of oustees is done, the height of the dam should not be increased.
When it comes to development projects, proper rehabilitation has always been India’s Achilles heel. So it is not surprising that project areas, which are usually populated by the poorest of the poor, have become hotspots of protests. The water resources minister has promised proper rehabilitation but as they say the proof of the pudding is in the eating.
For starters, the government should look into pending cases and ensure that the same mistakes are not made in the new cases. The key, of course, will be to stick to the rehabilitation laws in letter and spirit and ensure that those who stand to lose their home and hearth are given their due on time because relocation is not only about moving to a new place but also re-starting their lives from scratch.