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HindustanTimes Thu,02 Oct 2014

Damned lives on the Narmada

Namita Kohli, in Madhya Pradesh , Hindustan Times   June 29, 2014
First Published: 13:09 IST(29/6/2014) | Last Updated: 15:00 IST(29/6/2014)

In the face of a crisis, comfort can be found in baffling explanations. Dinesh Mandloi, a resident of the town of Khalghat finds comfort in the authorities’ reassurance that when the doob (floods) submerges his neighbour from across the road, Mandloi’s life won’t be disrupted. Rajesh Sobharam of Amlaali village in Badwani district is comfortable because at least he had enough savings to buy a small shop after the waters of the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat (SSD) submerged his fields, and subsequently, the patch of land that he received as compensation was usurped by corrupt officials of the Sardar Sarovar Nigam. Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, finds comfort in his belief that the Narmada Control Authority’s recent decision to raise the height of the SSD from 121 metres to 138 metres is being taken after complete rehabilitation.

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However, in the district of Badwani, Devram Kanhera, an activist with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), is a bit hard to comfort. “What rehabilitation? Villagers are still living where they aren’t supposed to,” he says, as we cross the one-km long bridge (below)  that connects Badwani to the district of Dhar, where several villages will drown after the height of the dam is raised. Kanhera says it’s hard to feel comfortable, especially when the memories of the 2013 floods are still fresh. Last year,  the one km long bridge was completely submerged when waters from the dam overflowed during the monsoons. “Can you imagine what will happen when the height is increased?”

 The discomfort of Devram — who has been working with the Medha Patkar-led Narmada Bachao Andolan for 25 years now — and other locals is around the 245 villages that will drown as a result of the increase in height, and the fact that in 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that no further increase in height would be undertaken unless rehabilitation was complete.

But that has still to happen: take the village of Chota Barda that was inundated by 2013’s floods. Here, according to NBA, there are 65 families who haven’t even been put on the compensation list. One such family is that of Shirish Yadav, 49, who says that “the minister who tweets” — the CM tweeted about the decision and the completion of rehabilitation recently — doesn’t even know that people from Yadav’s village never moved to the rehabilitation sites; neither have families such as his heard of any compensation for them.

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HT’s visit to the districts of Badwani and Dhar reveals that the chief minister isn’t entirely off the mark: there’s comfort in the large swathes of land dotted with rehabilitation sites; in the official figure of 11,000 displaced families who have received land in compensation, and 25,000-35,000 families who have received compensation for their drowning homes. But the comfort seems misplaced when one visits these rehabilitation sites — some of which were constructed in 2001 — that are deserted. The haunted structures at the Sondul resettlement site built in 2001, for instance, still bear the signboards of what was to be a school, a seed storage area, and a community centre. Activists say people never moved in for several reasons — for some, the compensation for building houses was too little, others say they had no options for work in those places. Then, the problem of the absence of amenities such as drinking water at these sites proved to be a strong deterrent. 

The list of those who face the prospect of losing their homes and land is long. But it is families such as that of Samoti Bai of Chota Barda village — landless, and dependant on the river for livelihood — that are hit the hardest. Samoti Bai and her two sons live on the river bank and catch fish for a living. Samoti, who is in her 60s, says the family received a little over a lakh rupees as compensation for their house, and a plot of land about three years ago. “It must take more than that to build a house, isn’t it?” says Samoti, when I ask her why did she not build her house on the plot at the resttlement site. Once the dam reaches its full height, there’s little hope for Samoti and her family’s house. “But there’s nothing at the punarniwas (resettlement site); so we would rather live here,” she says. What about the compensation then? “Oh, we spent it already for our daily needs.”

In Chota Barda, and other villages in the Nimad region, several families have received land and a compensation for their homes. But activists like Kanhera say that land and homes have been grossly undervalued, and that rehabilitation work has also been marred by massive corruption. In the village of Nisarpur in Dhar district, Dhurji Patedar says that compensation has ranged from Rs. 7,000 to Rs. 36 lakhs. Many have made profits out of the impending tragedy, he says, especially those who ‘invested’ in flood-affected areas such as Nisarpur by buying land for cheap, and later claimed a good compensation.

Dhurji, however, couldn’t get on the list because he questioned the basis on whichthe cost of his home was being calculated: “Here, anyone who asks an uncomfortable question is put down on the lists as a “bandh virodhi” (against the dam). Is it too much to demand that atleast we be treated fairly, since we are being displaced anyway?”


Reaping the benefits
With the decision to raise the height of the Narmada dam to 138.68 metres by installing 17 metre-high gates, the Gujarat government is hoping to change the fortunes of 15 drought-prone districts in the state and to provide drinking water to 9,000 villages. According to the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, Madhya Pradesh gets 67 per cent of the water flow from the dam, while Gujarat gets 33 per cent.

After the installation of the gates, supporters of the dam in Gujarat argue the reservoir storage area will go up from 1.27 million acre feet to 4.75 million acre feet and reap benefits. This 33 per cent share, and the consequent benefits has meant that there is great support for the dam in the state — despite the massive human costs involved for 193 villages in Madhya Pradesh, 33 in Maharashtra, and 19 in Gujarat itself. But reaping the benefits is a task fraught with severe challenges, as even the supporters of the dam in the state will accept.

Only 30 per cent of the canals needed to channelise the waters of the dam are complete; the 75,000 km canal network that will irrigate 1.8 million hectares of land across the drought-prone regions of north Gujarat and Saurashtra-Kutch is still not in place, and the delay has already cost the state government Rs. 45,000 crore, which is more than the cost of the project itself. “The real benefits to

Gujarat farmers will come only after the entire canal network is in place,” says Dr Vidhyut Joshi, a noted social scientist who was involved in the project. Only 21% of the distributaries and 30% of minor canals are complete, says a retired bureaucrat, who has worked on the project. The human costs, aside, others such as Suhas Paranjape, senior fellow with the Pune-based Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management, who have long been arguing against the dam, underscore the point that even at the current height, Gujarat can easily optimise the 33 per cent water that it has been awarded. “If they diverted the water and stored it locally, they can easily achieve optimum irrigation levels,” he says. The misconception about the need to increase the height to utilise the water is, in itself, a flawed argument, he says.

Moreover, once the gates are installed, the height of the dam would have to be raised to its full, as opposed to an incremental increase in height that would have saved a large area of the Narmada valley from submerging. As supporters of the Narmada Bachao Andolan have argued, the dam takes up 80 per cent of the state’s budget but has proportionately less area under its command — only 1.6 per cent of the cultivable land in Kutch, 9 per cent of the cultivable land in Saurashtra, and 20 per cent of the cultivable land in north Gujarat. This further weakens the argument that the dam will benefit the state.


With inputs from Mahesh Langa in Gujarat


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