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The Hindu on : A river that stirs passions

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, August 08, 1999

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A river that stirs passions

The Narmada dam issue is back in focus, with the people whose land will be submerged launching a `do or die' struggle. KALPANA SHARMA writes on the heightened passions.

THE LAST fortnight saw once again heightened passions on the future of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) on the Narmada river. On one side are the people living in the Valley whose lands will be submerged by the reservoir. They have launched a ``do or die'' struggle and are threatening to drown themselves in the river if their appeals for justice go unheeded.

On the other is mounting pro-dam hysteria in Gujarat, main beneficiary of the SSP. Once again, no critic of the dam is allowed to be heard in a State that is part of a democratic India which guarantees freedom of speech. Ms. Arundhati Roy, award- winning writer who has successfully drawn attention to the condition of the people displaced by the dam, had copies of her essay on the Narmada controversy burned in Ahmedabad by pro-dam activists belonging to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and the Congress (I). An invitation to her by a Rotary Club to deliver a speech was hastily withdrawn. And the Gujarat Government moved an interlocutory application in the Supreme Court asking why Ms. Roy should not be sued for contempt for some of the remarks in her essay. Furthermore, the ``Rally for the Valley'' led by Ms. Roy was not permitted to even transit through Gujarat on its way to Jalsindhi, on the banks of the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh.

In the midst of all this, the Supreme Court has once again begun hearings on the four-year-old writ petition filed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which is arguing that the SSP will irrevocably harm the lives and livelihood of thousands of families living in the Narmada Valley and that the States concerned have failed in their commitment to adequately resettle the oustees.

Ironically, the case, which was the NBA's last resort of getting justice for the affected people, has now put it in a bind. Its dilemma touches on several important issues. Should people not protest when the court is looking into their problem? Are they not permitted to discuss the merits of a case if it is being argued in court? Are they not permitted to remind the public, and the court, of the real situation on the ground?

The court would argue that it has access to both the official view and that of the dissenters. All Governments involved, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, have filed affidavits on the measures they have taken to resettle the affected families. The NBA has also placed material showing that many of these claims are fraudulent. It has submitted a videotape which shows the residential Collector of Nandurbar acknowledging that there is not enough land to resettle the project affected families. Yet, the Maharashtra Government has stated in its affidavit that it has more than adequate land.

What the NBA probably fears is that even as the court is considering this conflicting evidence, it might permit further construction on the dam up to 90 metres, up from the present 85 metres. This will lead to more areas being permanently submerged, leaving the displaced with no option but to accept whatever is offered, however unsatisfactory. As long as construction was stayed during the pendency of the case, the oustees were able to return to their lands after rains and grow at least one crop.

That option has already been ruled out for several thousand families whose lands will be permanently submerged after this monsoon but who have yet to be adequately resettled.

It is against this background that Ms. Medha Patkar of the NBA and her supporters have decided to throw caution to the winds and once again launch a mass-based agitation against the dam.

Judges have already expressed concern at Ms. Roy's comments and at Ms. Patkar and the NBA's actions. Indeed, as far back as November 5, 1998, the court issued an order directing the parties to the litigation not to comment by any means on the merits of the litigation ``save at their own risk of being punished for contempt of court.''

In the light of the Gujarat Government's application, the court appointed Mr. K. V. Venugopal, president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, amicus curiae. He has said, ``the entire exercise undertaken by Ms. Patkar and others, in attacking the order of the Supreme Court and committing contempt of court, is that it will result in shaking the confidence of the public in the administration of justice''. He has recommended that perhaps the court first issue a warning and, if this is not heeded, remove the NBA from the list of petitioners. The court has not yet given its decision.

Whatever the court finally decides, Ms. Patkar must have taken into account, when she launched this round of the anti-dam agitation, the risk of inviting contempt proceedings.

She is probably counting on the largescale support the NBA has received since she launched a satyagraha at Domkhedi in Maharashtra and Jalsindhi in Madhya Pradesh on June 20. Letters from Mr. Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer, Admiral L. Ramdas and some leading intellectuals from Kerala, Dr. K. N. Raj, Mr. O. V. Vijayan, Mr. Aiyyapa Panikker, Ms. Sugathakumari, Mr. K. V. Surendranath and Mr. Laurie Baker, have been sent to the President, Mr. K. R. Narayanan, appealing to him to stop further construction on the dam until all the issues raised by the NBA are adequately addressed.

In his usual eloquent style, Mr. Justice Iyer writes: ``I know that dams are necessary for increased production and generation of power. But against kulaks and tycoons, the lives of the small people do matter in Gandhi country and Buddha land.''

Whether the President can, or will, intervene is not clear. With elections round the corner, there is no governmental authority which can intervene at this stage. Thus the key to the future of the dam and of the thousands of people that it will displace lies in the hands of the Supreme Court.

It has before it not just the original petition filed by the NBA but also a new suit moved by the Madhya Pradesh Government asking for the formation of a new Narmada Waters Dispute Tribunal in the light of fresh data on flows in the river. Thus the final episode in the Narmada drama is still some way off.

Section  : Opinion
Previous : Battle royal in A.P.
Next     : Rally for the Valley

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