In 1990, in the village of Kathotiya where 162 villages in Jabalpur, Mandla and Seoni districts of Madhya Pradesh were submerged by the Bargi Dam, which is also on the Narmada, about 114,000 people were displaced. According to records, the government informed only 70,000 people from 101 villages that they would be displaced. However, when the reservoir filled up, even sites identified to relocate displaced families were submerged.

A word of caution from the villagers of Kathotiya to the ones in the Narmada Valley resisting the Sardar Sarovar Dam rang, “Do not trust the promises of the authorities.”

The people of Narmada Valley commenced a collective hunger strike on the 27th of July in continuum to the 27 years of long mass struggle to defend livelihood, life and environment. The strike came in response to the failed attempts of arranging a meeting with the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.

On 7th of August, the 12th day of the fast, a heavy police force was deployed to arrest Narmado Bachao Andolan activist, Medha Patkar and 11 others who were fasting for seeking proper rehabilitation of the nearly 40,000 families whose homes and lands will be submerged once the water in the Sardar Sarovar Dam is allowed to rise to its full height of 138.68 metres.

Medha was heard saying in an audio clip which was uploaded on social media, “This is not how you reply to a non-violent struggle … Under the rule of Modi and Shivraj, there was no dialogue with us … just gimmickry of figures and use of force.” The Centre allegedly made no attempts to have dialogue with the activists and only repeatedly asked them to end their fast, without providing any concrete reasons to do the same. After 12 days of hunger strike, the police resorted to unleash lathi charge on the peaceful protesters.

Yesterday, Patkar was discharged from the Bombay Hospital by the Indore Police, after Habeas Corpus application was filed in the court. The administration had cited that she was hospitalised given her failing health, but contrary to their report, some suggest that she was in fact being denied access to her people and was under complete arrest. Only after mounting pressure was one colleague given limited access to her.

After being discharged from the hospital, still continuing the fast, she was on her way to see the 9 others who continued to fast from Dhar District Hospital, when her vehicle was apparently intercepted by nearly 35 police vehicles and charges for violence were pressed for the events on 7th evening. The police refused to file any FIR from the side of the protesters and instead filed an FIR naming 35 people and another 2500 unknown persons.

On 18 October 2000, despite permitting the dam project both in October 2000 and March 2005, the Supreme Court ordered a land-for-land compensation to the dam-affected people, and the completion of the resettlement and rehabilitation process at least six months before any increase of the dam height. In addition to not respecting the orders of the Supreme Court, the history of the dam construction is full of mass corruption scandals, human rights abuses, and startling ecological impacts.

After the February 2017 decision of the Supreme Court that proposed cash compensation to the dam-affected people, rather than compensation in land – a decision made against the will of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) anti-dam movement participants – the Madhya Pradesh government sent a notification on the 25th of May ordering 18,386 families to vacate their dwellings by the 31st of July at the risk of forcible eviction. It was only when activist and politician, Prashant Bhushan and soil scientist, Sanjai Parikh were later able to convince the court that the rehabilitation was far from complete that the Apex Court withdrew its directive. The matter was later to be taken up again by the Supreme Court on August 8.

In addition to not respecting orders of the SC, the history of the dam construction is full of mass corruption, human rights abuses, and ecological impacts.

The Sardar Sarovar Project which was initially pushed in the name of the drought affected in Gujarat has been severely demystified by the people on ground to whom it is obvious that it was in fact, a project to further the interests of corporates. After conducting an independent review report to assess the project, the World Bank too ceased its support for the dam. Nevertheless, despite the Bank’s withdrawal, the Government of India continued with the construction of the dam by its own means.

History has proven that behind the miseries of the people on ground, transnational corporations such as Coca-Cola have made more use of the water and energy produced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam. Till 2004, the state government had made a provision to allocate 90 MLD of Narmada water for Sanand as and when required. The Coca-Cola plant in Sanand is allotted more than 3 million litres of water a day from the dam.

The question that needs to be posed here is that whose development is this and for whom does it serve? There has been a normalisation of violence accompanied by and perpetuated in the name of development, which makes it difficult to counter the illusory modernisation discourse. When the gates of the dam are opened, increased water levels at peak flood periods will affect around 40,000 families, most of whom are excluded from the cash compensation scheme.

At the outset, the government is ‘appearing’ to be taking measures to ensure relief to people however, upon closer examination, one can see that instead of providing for civic amenities and creating a situation conducive to shifting of the displaced people to the sites, the state is focusing on erecting temporary structures, the tin sheds, spending crores of rupees where there is no permanent facility for either drinking water or water availability for building houses.

This is suspected to be a deliberate strategy to force people to move to pitiable living conditions while leaving others to die of drowning. For example, the rehabilitation site offered to Chikhalda village, where Medhatai is fasting, has inadequate basic infrastructure like roads, drainage etc. The government is offering 4-month temporary shelters (tin sheds) to the evicted. What was shocking in this rehabilitation site was that it only has provision for 260 temporary shelters whereas the government surveyed 688 families in the Chikhalda village. However, the villagers were not ready to take up such undignified accommodation.

The government has also been running food camps with contractors to feed 20,000 people at each camp, at the cost of 66 rupees per person per day. This has led to several middlemen coming in the picture and has opened floodgates of a series of scams and scandals at ground zero to flow. In 2007, cases of fake property registration had also emerged. The valley is rife with corruption at various levels, which has only led to the marginalised, especially the Dalits and Adivasis, being further pushed to the fringes.

When the dam is opened, water levels at peak flood periods will affect 40,000 families, most of whom are excluded from cash compensation scheme.

On the ecological front, the promises for reforestation have not been realized. The submergence area faced massive floods, salinization of ground water, and destruction of top soil due to a sea-ingress of up to 40 km in downstream Gujarat, which also destroyed several industries. This year when the Narmada Waters reached Saurashtra, it is not a coincidence that the heavy rains (about 22 inchs in 2 to 3 days) led to the flooding of dams which were to be filled with Narmada leading to some overflow. The army had to be called and at least 5000 people had to be evacuated first in Gujarat even before the forced evictions in the Narmada Valley.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan’s press release states, “This has happened once every few years and raises a question regarding whether Gujarat can or cannot have decentralized water management, and avoid such a huge destruction? Madhya Pradesh too would accept that it doesn’t require any more power since its own power projects, such as the Bargi Power Plant closed & kept idle as closed. Why can’t then both the states, not having any urgency take a decision to defer impoundment until the Relief & Rehabilitation is complete?

When the news of the 62 year old Medha Patkar’s arrest spread, a reserve army of trolls was also seen spreading propaganda by tweeting about how development indeed has reached the grassroots. Thus trying to paint a false narrative of a progress over the scars of struggling masses. Her supporters insist that only when all the protesters are released will a decision on continuing indefinite fast will be undertaken after collective discussions. Meanwhile, the message from the ground was loud and clear, “We will continue to fight this until justice is done to the 40,000 families in the Narmada Valley.”

Featured Image Credit: Counterview 

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