Badwani: Every time it rains in the Nimad plains of Narmada basin, the terror of an impending doom stirs in the heart of every Narmada Jal – Jangal – Jameen satyagrahi sitting on an indefinite demonstration since the 29th of July of this year in Rajghat of district Badwani in Madhya Pradesh.
It is the third consecutive year since the Narmada Bachao Andolan satyagrahis are protesting against a 2014 decision straight from the Prime Minster’s office that completely overlooked relief and rehabilitation of the people affected by India’s largest and most expensive dam project. This decision was to further raise the height of Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat from 122 meters to 139 meters. A 2001 Supreme Court order had explicitly barred any increase in the height of the dam until all villages that would submerge due to the dam were rehabilitated in safer areas.
The unilateral decision received no sanction of court or ordinary citizens and caused fresh anxiety in the thickly populated areas of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra where thousands of villages and numerous towns are protesting for the last 31 years against the Sardar Sarovar project that would completely submerge their homes and fertile agricultural lands. The Supreme Court had sternly instructed the state to carry out all rehabilitation and compensatory measures according to guidelines Narmada Waters Disputes Tribunal without showing any negligence.
The status of rehabilitation on ground, especially in the vulnerable low-lying areas still remains an enigma for most villagers who are underprepared to deal with the complex bureaucratic machinery. Take the example of village Pichhodi in the Badwani district where according Devram Kanera of NBA only 62 out of 800 families are rehabilitated in the Sirsana settlement site.
The old village of Pichhodi continues to exist precariously without rehabilitation. Same is the situation of the fisherfolk settlement of Khalghat which was devastated in the 2013 floods that many say was a direct result of the dam. People of Khalghat were offered paltry compensations and no rehabilitation. Under the thrashing rains villagers silently see the rising levels of the river. So far the government has not addressed them in any way other than by a letter sent to the NBA from the Water Resource Ministry in reference to the PMO. The letter justifies the decision to increase the dam height by claiming that rehabilitation count is “zero balance”. NBA has outrightly rejected the letter as “incorrect”, “distorted” and “false”.
Kadam Bhai, a physically challenged Dalit of village Ekalvara has lost out his land plot due to corruption in the rehabilitation process. Dinesh Dawar of the same village has stopped receiving compensation after two installments. Raja Ram living in village Pichhodi with his wife and children has never found his name on the Project Affected Families (PAF) list even though his father and brother do feature in the list. The whole submergence area is fraught with such cases.
Activists of NBA have fought tooth and nail to expose such scams which according to them are further ratified by the Jha Commission report which investigated irregularity in rehabilitation processes for last 7 years after being appointed by the High Court of Madhya Pradesh. According to NBA, instead of making the report public, the government of Madhya Pradesh has kept it entangled in a political tussle and the PM’s letter completely ignores it while claiming “zero balance”.
For most families, land is the only asset they have. Many others don’t even have that. According to the rehabilitation policy, landless agricultural labours were assured alternative occupational rehabilitation. The government interpreted it differently and just doled out a measly “occupational package” instead of any material aid.
Meanwhile the construction of gates in the Sardar Sarovar dam is continuing unabated. Any hasty move without prior rehabilitation is bound to affect river levels. Thousands of farmers, fisherfolk and adivasis are living under a constant threat. Deprieved of any sympathetic hearing, they are assembling at the satyagrah site in Rajghat, Badwani to demand justice. Rajghat was one of the places where Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes were offered to the river. Like 244 more villages and the town of Dharampuri, Rajghat is also protesting against this forced jal samadhi (sacrifice by water).
Rishit Neogi is a people’s movement researcher, activist and writer.