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A triumph for Gujarat

India's National Magazine
From the publishers of THE HINDU

Vol. 16 :: No. 06 :: Mar. 13 - 26, 1999


A triumph for Gujarat

The Supreme Court passes an interim order enabling the Gujarat Government to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam; however, the State governments concerned are yet to arrive at a consensus on the resettlement of project-affected families.

in New Delhi

AT Kevadiya Colony, the site of the main dam of the multi-purpose Sardar Sarovar Project on the Narmada river in Gujarat, construction work resumed after a gap of four years on February 19 in the presence of Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel. The previous day the Supreme Court had through an interim order permitted the Gujarat Government to resume work on the main dam, which had been suspended since 1995 following a stay granted by the apex court on a petition filed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) on the issue of rehabilitation of the people who would be affected by the dam.

The apex court also granted permission to the Gujarat Government to raise the height of the dam from 80.30 metres to 85 metres. The court, however, reserved its directions until April 14 and asked the State Government and a three-member Grievance Redressal Authority headed by Justice P.D. Desai, a retired judge, to report to it before April 9 on the status of the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) work vis-a-vis the families that would be affected by an increase in the dam's height to 85 metres or above. The Madhya Pradesh Government, which wanted the height of the dam to be reduced from the 455 feet granted by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) to at least 436 feet in order to save some areas of that State from submergence, had joined in in the NBA's case.

Experts and anti-dam activists reacted to the apex court's interim order with dismay. They say that there was no need to have resumed construction work with such urgency, especially when the court had requested an independent Grievance Redressal Authority to survey the rehabilitation sites developed/readied by the Gujarat Government for project-affected families (PAFs) in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The survey is intended to find out whether resettlement measures, including the provision of civic amenities as mandated by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award, have been taken in order to accommodate families that are likely to be displaced if the height of the dam is increased to 90 metres. Besides, the apex court, which is not satisfied prima facie with the status of the R&R work undertaken by the Gujarat Government, has asked the latter to convince it in this regard. Experts are of the opinion that the court ought to have waited until the Gujarat Government convinced it of its efforts in this regard.

In any case, as per the claims made by the Gujarat Government and the Central Government, no benefits will accrue from the dam until it reaches a height of 110 metres. According to the NBA, since the Gujarat Government claims that it will take it only about 18 months to raise the height of the dam to 110 metres, the logical course for the project authorities would have been to complete the R&R measures first and then raise the dam's height.

Moreover, the apex court has not clarified how it will reverse its decision if the Grievance Redressal Authority expresses its dissatisfaction over the Government's resettlement efforts. Observers note that by letting the construction work resume, the court appears to have unwittingly sent a message to the Desai Committee about where its concerns lie.

The apex court's decision to allow the resumption of work appears to have stemmed from the Gujarat Government's plea - as represented by senior counsel Harish Salve - that the court send out a "clear message" to the anti-dam activists. The State Government maintained that it had suffered a notional loss of around Rs. 8 crores a day since construction activities were stopped. Besides, it said, international agencies refused to extend loans for the project, and families that had to be relocated and resettled declined to move from their homes while work on the dam remained suspended. Members of the NBA are of the opinion that the court could have considered the issue of displacement in its totality and asked for the master plan for resettlement from the States concerned.

THE Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award states that each village for displaced persons should house 500 families and lays emphasis on community rehabilitation. Critics of the Gujarat Government say that it has failed to ensure this. The Tribunal award also states that land must be made available to displaced people at least a year before the submergence of their villages and that R&R efforts should be completed six months before submergence. There have been numerous complaints regarding the R&R package offered by the Gujarat Government. The Government insisted that all those who would be affected by an increase in the dam's height to 85 metres had already been resettled or had been offered land in accordance with the award and hence may be deemed as having been resettled. However, it was found that in many cases offers of land were made in areas where land was not available; in several other cases, if land was available, it had already been rejected by the Madhya Pradesh Government. In some cases the land that was made available was found to be inadequate. For example, the people of Anjanwada needed 92 hectares of land for resettlement. Of the three sites that were offered to them, Chaklad had been rejected by the Madhya Pradesh Government because it was prone to waterlogging and the land was unfit for cultivation; in Pithore and Kavitha, enough land was not available. According to a survey carried out by the NBA, of the 2,761 project-affected families (PAFs) from Madhya Pradesh, which were resettled in 46 sites in Gujarat, 1,028 do not have titles to the land allotted to them, 708 have been given land that is unfit for cultivation, 296 have been given fragmented land, 97 are losing the land given to them since the land is situated near canals, 88 do not have any land and 68 have titles for land but do not have possession of land. Thirty-seven families headed by women have been given land despite the fact that they are not declared PAFs. Besides, a large percentage of PAFs face the problem of waterlogging in the land offered to them.

Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel (with hand raised) with officials at Kevadia Colony, the site of the main dam of the Sardar Sarovar Project, when work on the dam resumed on February 19 after a break of four years.

Although the NBA has welcomed the setting up of the Desai Committee, it points out that since the Committee has been set up by the Gujarat Government the rehabilitation of PAFs from Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh will not come under its ambit. Further, since the committee is meant to redress the grievances of only families that have already been resettled, crucial issues such as whether the land that is said to be available meets the norms set under the Tribunal's award will not be addressed, it says. The NBA has therefore called for the setting up of an independent machinery to look into these issues on the lines of the Centre's Five-Member Group (FMG) or the Morse Committee set up by the World Bank.

NBA members fear that if work on the dam is allowed to continue, the project authorities may displace people through "unacceptable means", which could include the use of force or the fear of submergence. The NBA criticised the Gujarat Government for insisting before the Supreme Court that displacement per se cannot be questioned and that only various aspects of resettlement can be looked into. Pointing out that displacement has never been through natural choice, the NBA asked why even the minimum of provisions made under the Land Acquisition Act were not followed.

FOR its part, the Madhya Pradesh Government warned that the profile of the dam will change when it touches a height of 82.5 metres. It said that an increase in the dam's height would virtually make the project a fait accompli and that the option to reduce the height will no longer be available. The Madhya Pradesh Government, which pleaded for a reduction in the dam's proposed height, has decided to file a suit in the Supreme Court seeking a review of the interim order. In fact, it has even decided to abandon plans to meet its power requirements through an increase in the dam's height.

The Madhya Pradesh Government has asked the Centre to appoint another tribunal to sort out its dispute with Gujarat. It maintains that the NWDT submitted its final report in 1979 and thus the project is essentially based on data available before 1979. It argues that since then the ground realities have undergone a sea change - that the level of displacement is much higher now and that changes have occurred in the hydrology and seismic parameters of the area. (The amount of water available for utilisation in the river is a key parameter in planning such a project.

The NWDT made its recommendations on the basis of an agreement reached between the States regarding the 75 per cent dependable flow of the river, which they agreed to place at 28 million acre feet (MAF). Since actual flow data were available for only 22 years at that time, the agreement was based to a certain extent on hind cast data. Today, however, the actual flow data for 46 years is available, which is adequate under Central Water Commission norms to assess the 75 per cent dependable flow of the river. According to this assessment, the 75 per cent dependable flow is actually around 22.5 MAF. This change in hydrology would change the size of Gujarat's share, as indeed the entire plan regarding water utilisation in the river basin. Thus, according to Madhya Pradesh, the height of the dam should be reduced to 384 ft in view of the lesser flow of water than what was assumed in 1979.)

The FMG, set up by the Central Government, reviewed all the aspects of the project and submitted its report in 1994. It urged the Government to examine quickly the issue and the inherent implications vis-a-vis the planned benefits and to decide the consequent steps that had to be taken. The Gujarat Government and the Centre, however, refused to accept the figures derived from the observed data and insisted that the NWDT's figures were valid, despite the fact that the NWDT had used hind cast data based on rainfall figures, which have been found to be unreliable. The FMG's recommendations were not heeded despite the fact that the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests had, in a note prepared by it prior to granting clearance for the project, acknowledged that the actual yield from the river would indeed be significantly less than what the NWDT had estimated in 1979.

Moreover, the NWDT assumed that rehabilitation would involve the use of large areas of forest land. According to it, land acquisition for R&R purposes were to be undertaken under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. However, with the enactment of the Forest Conservation of Act of 1980 and the Environmental Protection Act of 1986, the procedure to acquire forest land became complicated.

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh.

The Congress(I) Government of Madhya Pradesh, led by Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, filed a complaint with the Centre in March 1998 under Section (3) of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956, and demanded the constitution of a new tribunal. The issues raised by the Madhya Pradesh Government included a reduction in the availability of water from the river as per hydrological changes, an increase in the number of PAFs in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra (there were 6,147 PAFs in Madhya Pradesh and 456 in Maharashtra in 1979; these figures have now increased to 33,014 and 4,000 respectively), an increased awareness about environmental protection, paucity of funds, inadequate availability of cultivable land in Gujarat, and the unsatisfactory R&R efforts undertaken by Gujarat vis-a-vis PAFs from Madhya Pradesh. The petition claimed that of the 14,124 PAFs from Madhya Pradesh who had to be resettled in Gujarat, only 2,564 were shifted to Gujarat. It also claimed that while the total requirement of land for PAFs from Madhya Pradesh was 26,714 hectares, Gujarat had provided only 526 hectares.

The State governments concerned are still at loggerheads with each other over the acquisition of an adequate extent of cultivable land for PAFs. The Bharatiya Janata Party Government in Gujarat, for instance, is reluctant to alienate landowners on this count, for they constitute a powerful vote bank. It is widely claimed that only a minuscule portion of Gujarat's total cultivable land is needed to resettle the PAFs from Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.

At the core of the Narmada tangle is the refusal of the political class to try and convince the people of Gujarat of the need to sacrifice their surplus land for the sake of adequate water. For the moment, however, leaders of the main political parties of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, the BJP and the Congress(I), appear to have overcome their political affiliations across the States' borders in order to defend the perceived interests of their respective States.

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