EPW    Editorial March 6-12 and 13-19, 1999 

Narmada: Missed Opportunity

BY allowing the resumption of work on the Sardar Sarovar project, all that the Supreme Court has achieved is show its disinclination to play a pioneering role in setting precedents for facilitating the real involvement of people in development issues. The ruling, it may be recalled, was on a public interest litigation filed in 1955 by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which is spearheading the protest movement of people who will be dispossessed by the project. Construction work was suspended at the site w hen the hearings began. The court has now permitted the height of the dam to be raised from 80.3 metres to 85 metres. It has, however, constituted a grievance redressal committeeunder retired Supreme Court justice P D Desai to submit, before April 9, a r eport on the status of rehabilitation of the oustees resettled so far.

The ruling appears to have resolved neither the immediate nor the fundamental issues that had been raised. Given that the Narmada project has been the subject of so many commissions and enquiries, it will be too optimistic to hope that the new committee w ill be able to arrive at any firm conclusions within the six weeks it has been given. More specifically, it has been asked to go over the same ground covered by another committee that the apex court itself had set up after restructuring an existing commit tee which had been constituted by the centre in 1993. The committee is known to have pointed to several serious difficulties in satisfactorily rehabilitating the displaced, but the court has chosen to keep its report under wraps instead of offering it for public scrutiny. Many of these problems have repeatedly come up before the court in the course of the last four years. The Madhya Pradesh government in its affidavit has pointed out that the sites for resettlement offered by the Gujarat government to tho se who would be displaced if the height of the dam was raised to 85 metres are not suitable ones. Interestingly, the Narmada Disputes Tribunal mandates that the oustees should be identified a full year before the submergence is due to occur. This has not been done for those who will be displaced this monsoon if the height of the dam is raised to 85 metres. The court appears to have been keen to dispose of the case rather than achieve any significant progress on the Narmada issue. As the court was no doub t aware, the Narmada project authorities acknowledge that the dam would become useful in terms of provision of irrigation water and generation of electricity only when it is over 110 metres high. In sum, the permission to raise the height of the dam to 85 metres is really a gesture in favour of the project. The court has also taken a stand on the issue of rehabilitation, stating somewhat facilely that displacement and resettlement are inevitable consequences.

In focusing on the immediate problems of the dispossessed, the fundamental issues that critics of the current development model have been raising with respect to large dam projects have failed to be addressed. Had the hearings of the World Commission on L arge Dams been allowed to take place, it may have yielded a platform for wide-ranging public debate on some of these issues. The Supreme Court could have created such an opportunity by declaring that the Narmada issue can only be decided by a well-organis ed public enquiry. There is a precedent for such a course the Supreme Court had ordered a public enquiry on whether the pharmaceutical product EP forte should be banned. This is in fact the manner in which public projects are decided upon in many countr ies, such as the UK. It is unfortunate that instead of exploring these vital long-term possibilities, a short-term view has been taken of what is after all one of the most significant issues of our times.

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