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The Hindu on : A life and death struggle

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, July 11, 1999

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A life and death struggle

THE MOST well-known face of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, Ms. Medha Patkar, has been on a silent hunger-strike since July 4 at Domkhedi village, Maharashtra, within the submergence zone of the Sardar Sarovar Project. She has been joined by nine others from villages expected to submerge in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Tomorrow (July 12), the NBA will announce its next course of action.

Ms. Patkar's silence has, however, been more than compensated for by the eloquence of a new convert to the cause for which she has been struggling for more than a decade. Ms Arundhati Roy, Booker Prize winning author, has surprised both her admirers and detractors with the energy and passion with which she has been touring the country, speaking to audiences about the ``political and ecological emergency''. Through her essay, ``For the Greater Common Good'', now published as a book, and in her speeches, Ms. Roy has been urging her audiences to go to the Narmada Valley and see for themselves the plight of the people whose land and homes will be submerged this monsoon.

Ms. Roy has injected a new life into the campaign, admit old NBA hands as their struggle enters a new and more crucial stage. For four years, since early 1995, when the NBA filed a case in the Supreme Court asking for a comprehensive review of all aspects of the project, and the subsequent stay granted on any further construction on the main structure of the dam, which stood at 80.5 metres, there has been a lull in the struggle. The issue being sub judice, the NBA's hands and mouths have been tied. It was not permitted to campaign or speak on the subject directly for fear of being hauled up for contempt.

Given that the court had ordered two committees to look into the details of the resettlement and rehabilitation of the project- affected families and that at least one of these reports (not made public) detailed the inadequacies of the steps taken by all the three State Governments concerned - Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh -, the NBA held out some hope that the final judgment would give the affected populations a reprieve. Instead, the court delivered an interim order on February 18 permitting the project authorities to raise the height of the dam immediately to 85 metres and the flanks to 88 metres.

At the same time, it agreed to the Gujarat Government's proposal of setting up a one-man Grievance Redressal Authority (GRA) chaired by Mr. Justice P. D. Desai, to assess the resettlement efforts and to inform the court whether the authorities were prepared to resettle more people once the dam height was raised to 90 metres.

Mr. Justice Desai handed over his first report to the court within a few weeks of his appointment on April 17. (Its contents have not been made public.) This was followed by a supplementary report in May. It appears that the judge has concluded that the project authorities were ready to resettle families affected by submergence. The report does not detail what action will be taken on over 1,000 grievances from the resettled oustees.

The supplementary report documents the health problems of the resettled families which include anaemia and heat strokes (most of them live in tin sheds which become ovens in summer). In one resettlement site, there were seven deaths reportedly due to inadequate nutrition. This would suggest that the resettlement sites are not adequately equipped with medical facilities and that the land given to the oustees cannot support them. Yet, these facts have apparently not affected the overall tone of Mr. Justice Desai's report.

Furthermore, it deals only with resettlement in Gujarat. No one has looked at the situation in Maharashtra where the Government has admitted that it does not have enough land to settle families who will be affected this monsoon. It remains to be seen how the court will resolve this issue when it takes up the matter on July 22.

But in the interim, the raised height of the dam will cause a much larger submergence this year than in the previous four years. It is estimated that 50 to 60 villages will be affected and at least 2500 families will lose their land in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. These are among the people who have been on a satyagraha at Domkhedi since June 20. They have pledged that they will not move from the banks of the river even if the waters rise. Support for the campaign is building up all over India. A Rally for the Valley has been planned for the end of July and it will bring many well-known supporters to the submergence zone.

In 1993, the people of Manibelli in Maharashtra resisted till the end as the waters of the river rose to engulf their village. The Government sent out its police to arrest anyone who refused to move. The drama of those days could be re-enacted later this month at Domkhedi and in Jalsindhi in Madhya Pradesh.

In 1993, the Centre ordered a review. This year, the Government at the Centre is a caretaker. It is also distracted by the developments in Kargil. Furthermore, in an election year, the Government is unlikely to take any steps that will affect its fortunes, particularly in Gujarat where its party is in power. These political realities and the fact of the case still being in court could result in a level of desperation not witnessed in the Narmada Valley for many years.


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