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Narmada: Where Terror
And Hope Collide

By Angana Chatterji

23 April, 2005
Asian Age

At least 65 people died in Dharaji village, near Bhopal, and many remain missing from flash floods as waters were released on April 7 from the Indira Sagar mega-dam on the Narmada river.

Through Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Gujarat, 30 large, 135 medium, and 3,000 small dams are being built by the state, asphyxiating 1,312 kilometres of the Narmada into a series of lakes, devastating the lives and livelihood of 20 million people. Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) is the other massive dam on the Narmada, costing about $10 billion, almost half the irrigation budget in postcolonial India. The 133-mile-long reservoir will drown 91,000 acres of land, the canal network will damage 200,000 acres. The reservoir will displace 200,000 people, affect another 200,000. More than 1 million lives will be destroyed, 56 per cent of whom are adivasis. Peasants and adivasis disproportionately suffer the injustice of damming the Narmada. 15.4 million adivasis live in Madhya Pradesh alone, from over 40 tribes. Adivasis are 8.2 per cent of India’s population, and more than 40 per cent of the nation’s displaced.

Relief and rehabilitation have failed the multiple constituencies in need. The ministry of environment and forests gave provisional environmental clearance to the SSP in 1987 as construction began. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA) in 1979 had mandated the rehabilitation of all impacted families at least one year prior to submergence, directing land-for-land resettlement for land owning families that stand to lose 25+ per cent of their property. The government of Madhya Pradesh ratified its rehabilitation policy in November 1987. Premised on the NWDTA, this policy failed to ensure land compensation for all landless persons, or the eligibility and assured access of all cultivators, including landless workers, to housing and cultivable agricultural land, or the opportunity for all oustees to find re-employment in their traditional vocations post-resettlement. It failed to include married women as co-title holders to new land, single women, married women staying in their natal villages, divorcees, widows, the elderly and disabled, deserted persons, families living on what the state defines as forest and/or revenue encroachments, sex workers, and other marginalised genders and groups.

The dam has proceeded, often at gunpoint, without voluntary consent or ethical rehabilitation. The Supreme Court of India, petitioned by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in 1995, restricted the SSP to 80.3 metres. Since 1999, the court has sanctioned successive increases in dam height against its own injunctions that resettlement be completed in all respects at least six months in advance of any likely submergence. The dam towers at 110.64 metres today, as resettlement and rehabilitation remain incomplete at 85 metres. In spite of this, the environment subgroup of the monitoring agency, Narmada Control Authority (NCA), has given permission to raise the height of the SSP to 121.92 metres in 2005, while the resettlement and rehabilitation subgroup is yet to decide. As the dam rises, the reservoir swells to submerge more and more villages. The people, without reparations, are exiled to neglect.

Madhya Pradesh houses the largest numbers of SSP affected, while Maharashtra and Gujarat are also yet to rehabilitate their displaced. Adequate land for rehabilitation has not been identified or purchased in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra or Gujarat. Cash compensation is being given in violation of the NWDTA. In Madhya Pradesh, the state has refused to buy private land. Many have written to the grievance redressal authority, asking to replace the uncultivable or insufficient land allotted to oustees, as records are falsified and evidence manipulated. The Madhya Pradesh government notes that the total number of affected families in the state has increased from 33,000 to 40,000. Over 10,000 families live in the submergence zone impacted below 110.64 metres. In August 2004, the Madhya Pradesh government listed 12,681 families as affected between 110 and 121 metres while the Andolan places the number at 20,000. Few have been rehabilitated since, and thousands have lost homes, fields, livelihoods. With the exception of some petitioners in the below-mentioned case, no family not wanting to relocate to Gujarat has been given cultivable land in Madhya Pradesh. The state forcibly displaces people to Gujarat. Their histories do not reverberate there, the ghosts of their ancestors do not walk those lands. In Gujarat, Narendra Modi, the fascistic architect of the Gujarat genocide of 2002, continues to rule, championing maldevelopment foisted on skin and bone of adivasis and peasants. What opportunities for justice there? For cultural survival?

The Supreme Court of India, on March 15, 2005, offered a historic judgement in the case of NBA versus the Union of India and others (Civil Writ Jurisdiction, Petition No. 328 of 2002). Justices Sabharwal, Balakrishnan, and Sinha delivered a ruling on applications filed by project affected persons from Picchodi village, Badwani district, and Jalsindhi, Jhabua district, in Madhya Pradesh, affected at 95 and 100 metres, within the petition filed by the NBA. The judgement stated that every displaced family losing 25+ per cent of their lands be entitled to irrigated land and allotted a house/plot free of cost; that the affected be resettled as a village unit per the NWDTA. Further, the court adjudicated that families have been resettled in Gujarat without consent, in violation of their rights. Importantly, the court stipulated that submergence must occur pari passu with settlement and rehabilitation, and determined that oustees be provided basic civic amenities and benefits as specified in the Award. The court refuted the distinction between permanently and temporarily affected persons made by the Madhya Pradesh government to de-emphasise displacement and state responsibilities to impacted peoples. The court ordered that adult sons be allocated two hectares of land, rendering eligible thousands previously denied resettlement, while attesting to the patriarchal structure of the law.

The same justices had acknowledged the serious deficiencies in rehabilitation and directed the Madhya Pradesh government to comply with the NWDTA in April 2004. Yet the court refused to halt the construction of the SSP de facto supporting illegal submergence and its concomitant displacement. Through the March 2005 ruling, the Supreme Court has confirmed its earlier decisions of 2000 and 2002, affirmative of the NWDTA, noting that an increase in dam height will further displacement, and that construction may proceed only after every affected person is rehabilitated. The NCA has expressed support for this decree. Will action follow intentionality?

In dam-flooded Narmada Valley, across cultures, castes/tribes, classes and genders, reality is Kafkaesque. In December 2004 and February 2005 respectively, two farmers in Madhya Pradesh committed suicide. In an organised fraud involving state officials, in January 2005, Rs 17 lakhs were drained from the Sardar Sarovar Punarvashat Agency. In April, in Gujarat, four houses in the Tauvavi resettlement burned from faulty electrical wires. Kantibhai Rumal, from Savli, demanded rehabilitation, stating in a letter to Narendra Modi that his family would otherwise commit suicide, and was incarcerated.

In the amnesia of nation-building, development remakes worlds through violent dreams of progress. The Andolan’s dissent safeguards conscience in an increasingly authoritarian state, aided by the brutality of its hegemonic institutions. State apparatuses in Maharashtra, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, successive Central governments, in the construction of dams have committed indefensible human rights abuses on the affected people of the Narmada Valley. Party politics (BJP, Congress), and its attendant nationalism, determines the structure of violence perpetrated on the disenfranchised. The dynamics of nation building include the assimilation of some differences, the annihilation of others, as homogenisation of populations mobilises human beings as resources for state productivity. India as a biopolitical state functions to regulate and police lives in manufacturing "normal," docile, producing, and consuming subjects, where governance necessitates cycles of violence.

The monsoons approach, as people await the raging waters where terror and hope collide.

Angana Chatterji is associate professor of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the California Institute of Integral Studies.











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