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The Final Countdown
(Akshaya Mukul)

Narmada Bachao Andolan versus Narmada Valley Project. Small people vs big dams. Citizens vs the state. Village and forest vs city and industry. Third World vs the World Bank.

Civilisation vs development. Medha Patkar vs politicians. Arundhati Roy vs bureaucrats. A 14-year struggle which grew

to encompass all these dimensions reaches its culmination on July 22, when the Supreme Court might deliver its final verdict in the Sardar Sarovar Project case filed by the NBA five years ago.

The court’s interim order of February 18 allowed the Narmada Control Authority to increase the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam from 80 metres to 85 metres, and ordered the Gujarat government to complete the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) of the villages that will be submerged. It also asked the PD Desai Committee to report by April on the actual position relating to R&R in Gujarat. Desai’s report is with the court.

In March, the Madhya Pradesh government petitioned the Supreme Court to appoint a new tribunal to re-hear the Sardar Sarovar case and to reduce the dam height from the proposed 110 metres to 80 metres.

Its reasons: Water availability is now less than the one on which the planning was based, and rehabilitation of so many people impossible.

The court clubbed the NBA and MP petitions into one case in May, asked all parties to respond to the Desai report, and fixed July 22 as the date of hearing. The Centre and Gujarat government’s plea that the MP petition be dismissed will also be heard on that day. With the court allowing an increase in height, the NBA’s earlier ‘no big dam’ position has become meaningless, and the focus has instead shifted to R&R.

NBA activists, however, maintain that in the July hearing, they will raise other issues like taking a fresh look at the SSP, alleged submission of false affidavits by Gujarat regarding the rehabilitation process, and denial of choice to oustees from MP and Maharashtra who are supposed to be rehabilitated in Gujarat.

But Vinod Babbar, commissioner (rehabilitation) of the Sardar Sarovar Punarvasvat Agency, insists that “we have made all arrangements for rehabilitating those who will be affected once the height touches 90 metres.”

Pointing to writer Arundhati Roy’s celebrated essay on the subject, Babbar says, “The NBA knows it is on a sticky wicket, so it has launched a media campaign.” Roy, however, believes the Narmada issue isn’t just a judicial matter.

“The heart of the matter remains: the power to take the river from one and give it to another... The SSP is just one of 30 major dams being planned on the Narmada. Serial dams, like serial killers, will wipe out a set of civilisation.”

Roy has planned a Rally for the Valley from July 29, and participants will travel on foot and boat to Jalsindhi, the first village likely to be submerged this monsoon.

But the Supreme Court might have delivered its verdict by then, bringing to an end a judicial battle marred by inordinate delays, which have contributed largely to cost overruns.

This will underline the ultimate irony of modernity: the fate of a popular movement which began in remote villages will be decided thousands of miles away in Delhi.


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