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Saturday, October 16, 1999

Storm clouds gather over Narmada

NANDINI OZA  
VADODARA, OCT 15: Storm clouds are gathering again over the Narmada. The symbolic kar seva planned near the Sardar Sarovar dam site from November 15 by more than one lakh pro-dam activists to symbolically kick off the digging of an irrigation tunnel is fast threatening to become the new flashpoint in Gujarat-MP relations.

Consider the controversies that have already erupted over the kar seva plans, though kisan leader Sharad Joshi, representing organisations like the Gujarat Khedut Samaj, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh and Setu, is supposed to meet Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel -- the Gujarat government is supposed to be backing him and other leaders "covertly" - to finalise the plans only on October 27.

For one, what will be the legal status of the kar sevaks? "The matter is subjudice", says Additional Chief Secretary of Madhya Pradesh Ravindra Sharma. "There are two petitions pending before the Supreme Court," says S C Behar, personal adviser to MP Chief Minister Digvijay Singh,and the Narmada Bachao Andolan, too, maintain that the matter is subjudice.

They were referring to the MP government petition seeking a new tribunal and a 19-ft reduction in the dam height. The NBA, too, has filed a petition seeking a total review of and a complete halt to the dam construction.

However, Gujarat's Narmada Minister Jaynarayan Vyas, while admitting the matter was sub-judice, claims that this only concerns the height of the dam.

Former chairman of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited Sanat Mehta, one of the key organisers of the kar seva, insists that the matter cannot be subjudice since the court is only looking after resettlement and rehabilitation.

So, if the court has no jurisdiction in the matter, why was the irrigation tunnel - a suggestion the Centre and the Central Water Commission came up with to redirect the excess water that drains off into the sea during monsoons to Gujarat villages - not constructed so long? Vyas says it is because MP had told the Narmada ControlAuthority the tunnel could be built only if the dam height was lowered, a statement backed by Behar.

This indicates why the Gujarat government is giving only tacit approval to the kar seva programme. Several senior MP officials maintain this move will "set Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh on a confrontation course". Another adds, "It will generate ill-will between the two States."

The MP government's opposition to the tunnel is explained by the fact that its power generation will be adversely affected if the excess water is drained off instead of activating the riverbed powerhouse turbines. If the height is not reduced and the tunnel is built, however, it maintains that fertile land will go under water.

Vyas, while expressing optimism that the kar seva will not force the issue, maintains that the "matter will have to be sorted out at some time". However, he is not willing to offer any guarantees on the kar sevaks' personal safety. "The organisers' intentions seems to be good," is all theminister would say.

Mehta, quoting Joshi speaking at an Ahmedabad press conference, says they are ready to face the legal consequences. "After all, Medha Patkar's dharna was also a violation of the law," he says. "The programme will pressure the Gujarat government and the Centre to build the bypass tunnel within a year."

Copyright © 1999 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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