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The Indian Express: Top Stories
Tuesday, June 26, 2001

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At 90 metres, Narmada dam not yet over the hump

Rehabilitation of dam oustees takes a backseat as NBA and MP govt wage a war of words with Gujarat

Yogesh Vajpayee & Darshan Desai

Bhopal/Gandhinagar, June 25:
IT IS not even a year, and the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) has come full circle. On October 18 last year, after a stalemate of six years, the Supreme Court had lifted the stay on SSP construction and opened the floodgates for much rejoicing in Gujarat. Seven months down the line, scales are out, the talk is back to metres, and the only thing rising is temperatures in Madhya Pradesh and Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).

This time, the dam of protests burst after Gujarat government built three-metre humps over the spillway blocks of the SSP, whose height stands now at 90 m. Under the SC ruling, any increase in dam height beyond 90 m has to be cleared by the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) after ensuring that the people whose lands would be inundated as a result had been properly rehabilitated.

While Gujarat insists that the humps will not change the submergence feature of the dam, MP and the NBA contest this. Brought closer by the issue, both are now talking of how this will add to the woes of dam oustees. The NBA has threatened a fresh agitation from July 5 and also plans to move a contempt application saying the Gujarat move violates the SC order.

MP too is knocking on SC doors. Having failed to block the Gujarat move at the Sardar Sarovar Construction Advisory Committee and the Narmada Control Authority in May this year, it is now insisting that its 1999 suit in the SC for creation of a new Narmada tribunal be heard.

The Vice-Chairman of the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA), Ravindra Sharma, says: ‘‘The humps were constructed in the past — in 1995 and again in 1999. Each time, it caused inundation of villages.’’ The NVDA expects that this time, there would be additional pondage in over a dozen MP villages during the monsoon and that the tribal village of Dubkheda would be permanently inundated.

An MP official adds: ‘‘The rub is that they announced the decision in May, leaving us little time to arrange for resettlement and rehabilitation. This is a blatant violation of the Naramada Tribunal Award and the SC’s decision that the rehabilitation and resettlement of Project Affected Families (PAFs) should be completed six months before the dam height reaches a stage threatening their submergence.’’

MP has now put together a contingency plan — temporary sheds are coming up in Alirahput tehsil of Jhabua, high-strength motor boats are being posted to evacuate people in case of an emergency and a control room has been set up to monitor the situation. But, as the MP official admits, ‘‘At best, it will be a makeshift arrangement.’’

Meanwhile, the dam is inching along at a snail’s pace. It has gone up by just 2 metres — to 90 metres — since the SC clearance and not an inch since January. If work continues at this rate, the dam won’t be raised to its full height of 138.68 m till 2005.

The reason for this is the tardy rehabilitation. As per the SC orders, the NCA is to clear any 5-m increase in the dam’s height after approval from the rehabilitation & resettlement sub-group and the environment sub-group. Their nod for an increase above 90 m is awaited since January. Both states, of course, blame each other for this.

Gujarat is supposed to shoulder the principal burden of rehabilitation — 460 families have to be resettled at this stage — though MP villages would be the worst affected. In all, 193 villages in MP, 33 in Maharashtra and 19 in Gujarat are likely to be affected.

An MP official claims: ‘‘Gujarat was supposed to settle all the PAFs from MP and Maharashtra wiling to come there so that the benefits from the SSP were shared by the people dislocated. But they are not doing it.’’ An action plan worked out in 1993 provided that of the 33,014 PAFs, 14,124 be resettled in Gujarat. The latter was supposed to develop 82 rehabilitation sites, but has so far developed only 39. An MP official also claims that their demand that the PAFs from MP be resettled as a village unit is being ignored.

Gujarat says the ‘‘ground reality’’ is different. In January and March, the state government claims to have issued notices to oustees in MP, inviting them to resettle in Gujarat and giving them time to inspect the land being provided to them. While Bhupendrasinh Chudasama, the chairman of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Limited, says the process of showing them the land is on, he insists the rehabilitation to raise the dam height to 95 m would be over by month end.

Chudasama also believes that MP would complete its part of the rehabilitation by October, so that by year end, the dam height could be raised to 95 m. While this alone is a tall order, he adds: ‘‘By year end, 1,456 oustee-families, to be affected at the height of 100 m, will have been resettled.’’

By all accounts, this is a very optimistic picture. Even if the rehabilitation is completed in time, the two sub-groups and then the NCA will need to certify this. The earliest the construction could begin is in October, to be completed in December. Then there would be the 100-m hurdle to cross and rehabilitation (this time of 996 families) to be undertaken.

The NBA is already claiming that there is not enough land to rehabilitate all the families, quoting Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, who is on record stating that the plight of the project-affected cannot be fully mitigated. ‘‘This is why we are against raising the dam height unnecessarily because it won’t lead to any additional irrigation benefits to Gujarat. We have even offered to compensate Gujarat for any loss from our share of power and want the entire issue to be resettled by another tribunal,’’ he says.

The issue of the humps has again brought the NBA and Digvijay on the same side of the fence — one wants the dam scrapped, the other revised. Earlier, the CM had rolled out the red carpet for NBA backer and author Arundhati Roy’s famous ‘Rally for the Valley’. NBA leaders, however, deny an unholy alliance.

‘‘We are against all big dams,’’ says one Andolan leader. ‘‘Though we have common points on the SSP, we are against the MP government on other river valley projects in the state. And we are equally unhappy with MP’s rehabilitation and resettlement packages.’’

But across the border in Gujarat, the dispute seems a total waste. The rains have been kind, and the SSP dam is overflowing with water for the first time this season. But all that the drought-prone Saurashtra, Kutch and north Gujarat regions can do is gaze at the water falling in cascades.

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