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Tuesday 7 December 1999
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Tug-of-war over the Narmada lifeline continues

By Bharat Desai

AHMEDABAD : It is the same saga of politics over Narmada waters which saw the pro-dam lobby in Gujarat split along party lines as the kar seva for releasing water from the Sardar Sarovar Project into the irrigation tunnel was performed on Saturday.

The mission accomplished, and having been described as a 'flop show' by the establishment in Gujarat, the organisers of the event are still at a loss to explain why the state government offered such stiff resistance to the token display of solidarity by farmers from other states to the project which Gujarat considers to be its 'lifeline'.

Even as the organisers exulted at the success of the programme in the face of government hostility, the state BJP described the kar seva led by the Narmada Jan Andolan leader Sharad Joshi as a flop and stated that attempts to divide the people of Gujarat on the issue had 'failed' . "I am still at a loss to understand why the government opposed something which was in its support," said Congress veteran Sanat Mehta, who was at the forefront of the kar seva.

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that the government saw from the very beginning that the programme , though dubbed as apolitical by the organisers, was being controlled by Congress leaders from Vadodara, including Mehta, Urmilaben Patel and Satyajit Gaekwad. And in a state where Narmada evokes high-strung emotions, the ruling BJP was reminded of the whole-hearted support that it had given to late Chimanbhai Patel in 1991 only to watch from the sidelines as the issue was virtually hijacked by the then chief minister.

Says Mehta, "The Congress as an organisation was never involved with the kar seva, in fact the Congress has never used the Narmada project as a political plank." The only exception, of course, being when Chimanbhai Patel joined the Congress lock-stock-and-Janata Dal.

Another Congress leader, however, disclosed that with Sharad Pawar extending support to the kar seva, even the main Congress leaders, with the exception of Urmilaben, did not join the programme. "This was more an attempt by rebel Congressmen like Satyajit and Sanat to gain publicity," he pointed out.

The attempt to politicise the SSP is not new, the latest attempt having come from the Keshubhai Patel government last January when the Supreme Court allowed the raising of the dam height by 5 meters. Banners proclaiming Keshubhai Patel as 'Saccha Sardar' -Sardar being the sobriquet normally reserved for late Vallabhbhai Patel - came up on the streets of Ahmedabad. This was, in fact, one step ahead of late Chimanbhai's attempts to project himself as 'Chhote Sardar'!

It's the same politics over Narmada which saw Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee addressing an election meeting in Ahmedabad recently where he called for a Cauvery-like initiative to solve the tangle and then moving on to Bhopal for an election rally where he promised the city water from Narmada.

The state BJP and the government machinery have been quick to dismiss the fall-out of the kar seva which, Sanat Mehta says, brought support for Gujarat for the first time from other states. "The government wants to keep this whole issue in a shell and limit it to Gujarat at a time when the opponents of the project are trying to internationalise the propaganda". It was strange, he felt, that the government had not been using the Irrigation By-pass Tunnel (IBPT) when it was well within its right to do so.

Noted Gandhian Chunibhai Vaidya, who heads a pro-dam NGO, said the government's stand had caused a set-back to the interests of Gujarat but has also provided to the opponents of the dam "a cause to rejoice and celebrate". He said this was the first time that people from outside Gujarat had come to support the dam and it was baffling that the government had chosen to crush the movement.

The main anti-dam group, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which watched the issue from the sidelines with amusement, reacted by saying that the kar seva just proved the point that water can go into the canal without taking the dam to its full height. Andolan spokesperson Nandini Oza said, "The kar seva looked like a political affair, in fact an affair of the breakaway Congress."

The Economic Times


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