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Drowned And Out

By Medha Patkar

04 August, 2004
The Hindustan Times

Harsud is no more. This 700-year-old town, now besieged by the Narmada Sagar Project (NSP), was where in September 1989, 35,000 people raised the slogan, "We want development, not destruction!" They had warned the nation of the massive human and environmental devastation that projects such
as the large dams on the Narmada held in store. Now at the very site of that popular uprising for human and sane development, one can witness the most tragic scenes of broken homes, fleeing families and an ancient town turned prematurely to ruins.

If you move through the streets of Harsud today, heaps of rubble greet you with dust yet to settle. One can't believe that all this could happen within a fortnight, in violation of the law, human rights and a society's conscience. It's an illegal move, but more than that, a cruelly conceived conspiracy by the State to push the giant dam project ahead without concern for the people living there or what they would do after being displaced. People were made to dismantle their own houses, overseen by the rapid action forces marching inside the crowded township.

They were offered a meagre compensation for their houses: Rs 25,000 cash (ultimately found to be part of the compensation that was due anyway) and assurances that everything would be provided at the resettlement site, New Harsud. But the intimidation tactics worked, and the people didn't just vacate their houses, but also demolished them - many even paying labourers Rs 100 a day to do so.

Harsud is still bustling, full of labourers and their supervisors, some shopkeepers, and a handful of houses such as that of Surendra Khandelwal, one of the few who have refused to leave. Others such as Nanibai and other landless labourers' families in Ward No. 9 are left out of the project-affected list altogether. Meanwhile, at least 32 shopkeepers find no place in the rehabilitation policy. And they can't simply run away as there is nowhere to go.

There are hundreds of visitors, common people from all over coming to witness this destruction of a town. There are contractors and transporters, police and some remaining owners recovering their possessions and planning for the demolition. Yet, all this bustle can't hide the cries of women and children, old and young, many of whom are now on the streets. They catch people like myself or any politician who happens to pass by, showing their notices and asking for help. Many who have already shifted out come back everyday and stay for hours, despite knowing that they are already homeless, sleeping in the verandahs of their relatives' houses or in sheds.

The Narmada Sagar, one of the 30 major dams on the Narmada and one of the two gigantic dams, is supposed to submerge 254 villages. Of these, 176 have already been affected, and 29 more will be affected before the monsoon ends. It is a project that was approved by the ministry of environment
and forests (MOEF) and the Planning Commission, subject to the conditions of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA). The NWDTA, compliance with which is supposed to be monitored by the Narmada Control Authority (NCA), requires that rehabilitation of affected families be done
at least six months prior to submergence. All landowners losing 25 per cent or more of their landholding are promised replacement land.

And yet, the approximately 22,000 population of Harsud was 'asked' to leave without completing the land acquisition process. Many are yet to even get cash compensation. Complaints abound of names missing from the official lists, while major sons of property owners (to be considered as separate families) are not yet included. To top it all, the resettlement site is not even ready with the minimum of amenities. Meanwhile, the monitoring authorities are not in the picture, as the NCA has been purposely kept out of rehabilitation monitoring so as to give a free hand to the dam builders.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the Narmada Sagar project is the role played by the statutory company, Narmada Hydroelectric Development Corporation Ltd. (NHDC). With its unlimited power over construction, impact assessment and compensation, it has proved to be criminal and corrupt in all of these roles. The decision to raise the height of NSP to 245 metres a year ahead of schedule without resettling the affected people indicates the ruthlessness that accompanies such corporatisation of the State. While the NVDA has also always been callous, the NHDC is even more arrogant and abrasive.

So village after village goes under water, with families becoming bankrupt. With their rights to life and livelihood being thrown into the dustbin, they - many of them being Dalits and adivasis - stand as a testament to the bankruptcy of the law itself. Unfortunately, the judiciary has failed to stand up to protect these citizens. Thousands of families face the same fate of being declared Non-existent Resident Indians. They are being displaced by water and erased on paper.

All of this is justified in the name of power: huge targets for electricity supply based on consumption indicators dictated by western standards. Under this vision of energy-intensive technological development, equity and sustainability are hardly conceived of as a priority even by those who are sensitive to the social and environmental losses. In addition to the human toll, 40,000 hectares of forest with rare flora and fauna have been clear-felled for Narmada Sagar while about 20,000 hectares were cut for Sardar Sarovar. Compensatory afforestation is nothing but a joke here. Crores are spent on it and only corruption has thrived.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam is as disastrous as the Narmada Sagar. It is more known due to the 19 years of struggle. The people of Harsud and its hinterland have not been a part of the resistance undertaken by the people from Manibeli in Maharashtra to Nimad in MP. Yet, while this struggle has achieved many gains, the fight continues in the face of inadequate rehabilitation.

The Madhya Pradesh government, in particular, has most flagrantly dodged its legal responsibility to give land as an alternative source of livelihood to people displaced by the SSP. (Rehabilitation is also far from complete and adequate in Maharashtra and Gujarat.) Not one family has been allotted land in MP. If the government was serious about rehabilitation, it would have prepared a master plan with details of land to resettle as stipulated by NWDTA, project clearances, the Planning Commission and Supreme Court judgments. But, it has failed to do this.

While SSP rehabilitation may be a step up from what's happening in Harsud, this is little consolation. While some have been lured by (insufficient) cash payments, thousands of others have not. They assert their rights, not just to rehabilitation, but also to the very question of the project. If they had not done this over the course of the past two decades, they would have had the same fate as the families ousted from the Bargi and Tawa dams in the Narmada valley or Jaikwadi in Godavari. Because of their struggles, 11,000 SSP-affected families have been given sites with land and amenities. Yet, this can't be celebrated when there are over 40,000 others left to fend for themselves. They are still on the banks of the Narmada and they haven't yet demolished their houses.

Amidst this season of destruction, with the Sardar Sarovar and Narmada Sagar dams immiserating thousands of families, it is necessary that Indians stand up and respond to these injustices.






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