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Dam the controversy
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Thursday, October 19, 2000

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Dam the controversy

One of the most bitter and high-profile controversies the country has ever witnessed will hopefully come to an end with the Supreme Court having waved the green flag vis-a-vis the Sardar Sarovar project. While this may occasion a sense of vindication in some -- certainly this newspaper has always positioned itself in favour of the project -- the enormity of the task at hand demands a unified and immediate response from the nation, not crass displays of self-congratulation. Time is of the essence here since the project has been practically stalled since 1995, and every hour of delay pushes up costs dramatically. It should be with a sense of relief and utmost urgency that the nation now turns its attention to the crucial job of ensuring that the benefits of the Narmada Valley Project, of which the Sardar Sarovar dam comprises a part, reaches the people it is meant for, just as all the necessary measures for relief and rehabilitation are undertaken for the large numbers affected by the project.

Indeed, if the energy that Medha Patkar's Narmada Bachao Andolan put into stopping the project is now channelised into maximising its gains and minimising its negative impact, it would earn the nation's gratitude. The apex court's verdict, in response to writ petitions filed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan and others, was not a unanimous one. Yet, the prevailing view of the Court was that the construction of the dam should continue ``as per the award of the tribunal'', with the one rider that the ``cost economics of the project'' be kept in mind. Also, while it allowed the height of the dam to go up to 138 metres, it specified that every stage of construction from the 90 metre level can only proceed after obtaining proper sanction from the concerned authorities, both in terms of environmental impact and rehabilitation.

One of the most powerful arguments that those agitating against this project had raised was of shabby rehabilitation. It was this issue, more than any other, that had prompted the Morse Commission, set up by the World Bank in 1991 to review the project, to recommend the Bank pulling out of it. The higher the dam, the greater the numbers displaced and therefore the issue needs to be handled with greater sensitivity and meticulousness than the three governments of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh have displayed thus far. There is another issue that bears reiteration here and that concerns the sharing of the Narmada waters in Gujarat. Thus far, the Gujarat government has drawn on the emotional resonance of endemic drought in the state -- especially water scarcity in Saurashtra and Kutch -- to buttress its arguments in favour of the Sardar Sarovar dam. Now it should redeem its commitment by ensuring that the Narmada waters do reach these parched regions, instead of merely benefitting the prosperous farmingcommunities in southern Gujarat, who don't have to wrestle with the spectre of parched fields year after year. The struggle to secure this project has thrown up numerous issues that needed to be discussed in the public sphere. The insights that have emerged from this process should help the country handle future projects of this kind more effectively.

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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