On his 67th birthday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. Having a length of 1.2 kms and a depth of 163 metres, the project is reported to be one of the largest dams in the world and will be shared among three states – Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
While addressing a rally in Gujarat, PM Modi said that the project was built after many ‘hurdles’ as people tried to ‘conspire to stop’ its construction through a ‘massive misinformation campaign’.
Fifty-six years since the inception of the Sardar Sarovar Dam, we look back at the struggle of the common man to save himself from submergence in the waters of Narmada River.
5 April 1961: Foundation stone laid by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru
After carrying out a study on the usage of the Narmada water that flowed through the states of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat and into the Arabian Sea, a small dam was constructed on Narmada, inaugurated by the first Prime Minister of India on 5 April 1961.
A report was prepared in this regard to decide the means of distributing the water among the two states and Maharashtra. Since then, the Sardar Sarovar Dam has been mired with controversies; the main issue being large scale interstate displacement.
Gujarat intended to raise the height of the dam to maximum storage benefits at the cost submergence (and in turn, displacement) of thousands along the banks of the river in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
As disputes continued and negotiations bore no fruits, the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) was formed in 1969 to decide the fate of the project on the issue of sharing of water of the interstate Narmada and its valley.
1979: Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal allocates water and power to four states
After 10 years of deliberation, the NWDT allocated the share of water and hydropower of the dam to four states, including Rajasthan to meet the requirements of its drought-prone districts.
Accordingly, out of the 35 billion cubic metres of water available for consumption from the dam, Madhya Pradesh would receive 65%, Gujarat 32% and Rajasthan and Maharashtra would be eligible for the remaining 3%.
Furthermore, 30 big dams were proposed along the Narmada, including the Sardar Sarovar Project; 135 medium sized dams and 3,000 small dams.
1985: Narmada Bachao Andolan
As work on the project began, it gained the attention of many social activists and environmentalists.
In 1985, Medha Patkar who was then studying for her PhD, visited the project site with her colleagues and found that the dam failed to meet the required environmental and social standards as meted out by the Ministry of Environment and Forest.
The ones likely to be affected were not informed or consulted. By this time, the World Bank had agreed to finance the project.
Several studies proved that the officials had overlooked post project problems and those displaced were given compensation only for the immediate standing crop and not for displacement and rehabilitation.
Ms Patkar quit her PhD to focus on the project, thereafter organising a 36-day solidarity march from Madhya Pradesh to the Sardar Sarovar Dam site.
Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) brought together thousands – activists, environmentalists and school and college-going students. Because of Ms Patkar’s efforts, the World Bank was forced to set up the Morse Commission in 1991 to study the environmental cost and human displacement. It concluded that the Indian government had made inadequate assessments.
In 1993, the government cancelled the $450 million loan by the financing agency.
2000: Supreme Court gives nod for the project
In September 2000, the Supreme Court of India gave green light for the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, debunking the environmental apprehensions raised by the NBA petition. The court observed that the benefits of the dam outweighed the costs to the environment and people displaced.
“The verdict is anti-people and against the spirit of the Constitution,” Ms Patkar had said.
However, the court had also placed the condition that those displaced by the increase in height of 5 metres will be satisfactorily rehabilitated and this should be repeated for every 5 metres of increase in height.
In several other verdicts, the SC approved further increment of the dam’s height.
February 2017: SC directs MP govt to give Rs 60 lakh to each family affected by the Narmada Dam
The Supreme Court on February 8 directed payment of final compensation to all the families affected by the Narmada project, thus bringing decades of litigation to an end.
A three-judge bench headed by former Chief Justice JS Khehar ordered payment of Rs 60 lakh each to the affected families. The bench also directed payment of Rs 15 lakh each to the 1,358 families who had received partial compensation. “They need to be further compensated so as to alleviate their hardship and enable them to purchase alternative land. However, the amount already received by them shall be deducted from this money”, the Bench said.
It ordered the governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra to complete rehabilitation in three months.
Ms Patkar welcomed the verdict saying that it strengthened the NBA’s movement.
June 2017: Centre gives nod to closing the gates to the dam
Around 40,000 families in Madhya Pradesh revived their protest against the central and state governments to oppose the failure of rehabilitation due to the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on Narmada River.
Ms Patkar and several Narmada oustees participated in a mass fast at Jantar Mantar on August 3 to protest against the government’s decision to close the gates to the dam in Gujarat which would increase the water level in the dam’s catchment area and submerge 40,000 families.
Several activists and environmentalists from across the World wrote to the Prime Minister, requesting him to reassess the decision which would adversely impact thousands.
Veteran American social and political activist, Noam Chomsky, wrote, “I, on behalf of the people of Narmada valley, now appeal to you for immediate attention and intervention to save the people threatened by submergence.”
Rehabilitation: The Ground Reality
According to the NBA, 40,000 families in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani, Alirajpur, Khargone and Dhar districts faced displacement following the centre’s nod for the closing of the Sardar Sarovar Dam’s gates in neighbouring Gujarat.
Environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman said the court orders on rehabilitation of dam oustees and its instructions to not evict the people until the rehabilitation was completed was clearly being violated in the case of the Sardar Sarovar project.
Narmada Valley Development Authority said that the state governments have made arrangements for temporary shelter homes for the people who are still staying out in the catchment area of the dam. However, activists claim that the government shelter homes for the affected people were tin shed that lacked even basic amenities.
17 September 2017: PM Modi inaugurates the Sardar Sarovar Dam
Yesterday, on the occasion of his birthday, PM Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, calling it a ‘gift’ to the people of India.
The dam was dedicated to Gujarat months before the state Assembly elections.
“We wish to convey that our struggle will continue. Prime Minister may want to close the chapter, but it is not, since the people of Narmada Valley have not received their full entitlement and not all is lost,” the NBA said in a press release following the inauguration of the dam.
The NBA could not halt the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam but they remain unmoved in their movement to rehabilitate the thousands affected.
As Ms Patkar believes, “India is a country with large-scale displacement – both in rural nature-based communities and urban poor communities. It is necessary to understand why the state and all pillars of democracy cannot just evict 100-year-old communities with mere cash packages. They need to get an alternative source of livelihood. This is a mandate under Article 21 of our Constitution. Our movement is for this cause and whatever happens to the Narmada oustees will have an impact on people all over the country.”