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The Hindu on : Renewed momentum on the Narmada

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, July 21, 1999

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Renewed momentum on the Narmada

THE CONTRADICTION BETWEEN democracy and development has once again reached a high point with the activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) embarking on a silent fast since July 4 at Domkhedi village in Maharashtra. Further plans to step up their campaign with a mass rally through the Narmada river valley in the last week of this month assume particular significance in the context of the next hearing of the NBA petition in the Supreme Court. After work on the dam was stayed in 1995, the court, by an interim order last February, directed the Government of Gujarat to increase the height from 80.5 to 85 metres on the assurance of an amicable resettlement and rehabilitation (R & R) of the affected population. The implication of that order is a further displacement of hundreds of tribal families and the submergence of thousands of acres of land in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh.

Meanwhile, the one-man Grievance Redressal Authority of Mr. Justice P. D. Desai set up by the Government of Gujarat to oversee the R & R activities has not made its report of April 17 public. A supplementary report in May is said to have indicated the preparedness of the authorities of the valley to resettle the people affected by submergence. But the complete silence of the report on the over 1,000 health and sanitation-related complaints from the resettled oustees is only bound to increase the air of suspicion that already surrounds the conduct of the relief operations. While the Maharashtra Government has repeatedly emphasised that it has no land to resettle people who will be affected this monsoon, it was not until long ago that the Madhya Pradesh Government had been calling for the constitution of a new tribunal to reopen the entire gamut of issues.

More than 40,000 families who may or may not benefit from the dams are likely to be displaced by the construction of 30 large dams, 135 medium size dams and 3,000 small projects in the Narmada valley. Of these, 33,000 families will be displaced in Madhya Pradesh alone. The Sardar Sarovar Project will be the biggest and only dam in Gujarat; the rest will be built in Madhya Pradesh, which has to cope with the largest ever displacement of people, mostly villagers and tribals.

However, it is not as though everything is lost for the humanitarian campaign of the NBA since the five-metre increase allowed in the Supreme Court's directive falls well below both the 110-metre level required to realise the benefits of power and irrigation and the 132.68 metres agreed upon by the Chief Ministers of the four riparian States in 1996. The reasons for the court's evident go-slow on the dam are hardly surprising, considering the not-so-welcome prospect of displacement for thousands of families and loss of their means of livelihood and no concrete commitment on resettlement and rehabilitation on the part of the State Governments. Inevitably, therefore, the focus of the hearing of the case later this month will be on these aspects of the controversy rather than on the other contentious issues concerning the merits and viability of the large dam concept or even those of self-determination and participatory decision-making. In any case, it is the immediate humanitarian dimensions that must currently engage the NBA, which has effectively placed the development debate on the public agenda.

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