Rally against the Sardar Sarovar Dam!

Monday, October 23, 2000; 10-11 am
Indian Consulate, 540 Arugella Blvd. (near Geary), San Francisco

MEMORANDUM on Supreme Court of India Verdict of 18th October, 2000 clearing the SSP dam construction.

Submitted to the Consul General of India, San Francisco, California, USA by the Friends of the River Narmada (FORN) and the International Rivers Network (IRN)

October 23, 2000

Despite six long years of deliberations, the Supreme Court of India's verdict of October 18th, 2000 allowing a resumption of construction on the Sardar Sarovar dam is blatantly irrational and a terrible blow to our faith in the Indian judiciary.

The Supreme Court has not only ignored the opinions and aspirations of the people of the Narmada Valley - the majority of them adivasis and dalits - but also the mass of evidence showing that the claimed benefits of the Sardar Sarovar Project have been greatly exaggerated, its costs systematically played down, and that better alternatives are available.

In his minority judgment, Justice Bharucha has pointed out that the basic environmental impact studies required under Indian law which were supposed to have been completed by 1987, are still to be carried out. Conditional environmental clearance was given to the project in June 1987. As has been rightly pointed out by Justice Bharucha, the conditions of this clearance have been violated and no comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the project has been done. For these reasons he has given the opinion that further construction on the dam should be halted until a new clearance is given based on the completion of a comprehensive environmental impact assessment of the project.

The Court has allowed the dam to be raised immediately by five metres to 90 meters on the basis of a clearance given by the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) in early 1999. This is despite the admission of the Madhya Pradesh (MP) government that it has not been able to provide agricultural land to 156 families (a number which is in fact a gross underestimate) whose land would be flooded if the dam reaches 90m. The court notes that in six villages in MP which would be affected at 90m, even land acquisition awards have not been passed. This means that construction up to 90m would violate the Narmada Tribunal Award which mandates that an affected family should be resettled a full year before their land is submerged. By ordering the NCA to ensure that further construction of the dam is in compliance with the Tribunal Award, and at the same time overlooking the fact that the current construction is in violation of the Award, the court has contradicted itself.

We are shocked and saddened to read from the majority judgment on the SSP project - "The experience does not show that the construction of a large dam is not cost effective or leads to ecological or environmental degradation, on the contrary there has been ecological upgradation with the construction of large dams". The two justices of the majority judgement also stated that "the petitioner/lawyer has not been able to point out a single instance where the construction of a dam on the whole had an adverse environmental impact" and that "in most cases of involuntary displacement the oustees have in fact been left better off after their displacement". These statements are pure fictions and are contradicted by a huge body of evidence from biologists, ecologists, economists, water resource experts and social scientists, as well as the direct experiences of tens of millions of people.

Judges are entitled to have their opinion on these matters. But, as the eminent NBA lawyer, Mr.Prashant Bhushan, comments in an article in The Hindustan Times, Oct 21, 2000, "what is disturbing is when such personal views are delivered as judgments of a court...A judge is expected to decide issues on the basis of evidence before him and not on the basis of his or her personal biases. In this case these pronouncements have been made in a case where the viability or desirability of large dams was not an issue and where the court has repeatedly told the petitioners that they must not make any submissions on the issue. Equally distressing is the fact that such pronouncements have been made without any evidence of these facts before the judges."

Mr. Bhushan, highlights that: "Recently the World Bank has sponsored an international commission to review the performance of large dams. This World Commission on Dams (WCD) has representatives from all stakeholders including the dam industry. The recently released India study commissioned by the WCD presents a dismal picture. The study concludes that major and medium irrigation projects are largely unviable. On hydro-power the report concludes that 'given the high capital cost, long term gestation period, and the environmental and social costs, hydro-power is not the preferred option for power generation compared to other options.' "

Mr Bhushan contrasts these conclusions of the WCD India Study with the sweeping statement of the judges: "The cost of generation of electricity in hydel-projects is significantly less" (no evidence is presented for this statement, it is purely the unfounded opinion of the justices). The WCD India Study estimates that 56 million persons of whom 62% are from the scheduled tribes and castes have been involuntarily displaced due to large dams and over 5 million hectares of land have been submerged. Large dams have consumed Rs.1,56,000 crores which represents more that two-thirds of India's water resources expenditure over the last 50 years, while contributing less than 10% of the increase in agricultural production since independence. The WCD report also says that the electricity and irrigation benefits routinely bypass the affected and poor communities and are consumed by landed farmers, urban consumers and well-to-do people. "The distribution of most of the costs and benefits of large dams seem to accentuate social-economic inequities".

Despite all the relevant data and documentation, that the Supreme Court should have issued such a short-sighted judgment is not becoming of the stature and legal acumen expected of the learned judges.

The Friends of the River Narmada (FORN) - an international coalition of organizations and individuals, primarily of Indian descent, involved in awareness and solidarity campaigns along with the NBA - and in concert with the California-based International Rivers Network (IRN) - salute the spirit of the people of the Narmada valley and stand in solidarity with them in their continued valiant, non-violent struggle in the days ahead.

We demand that the Supreme Court review its judgment and call upon the President of India to intervene decisively to protect the rights of the adivasis of the Narmada Valley.

We are confident that the people now being victimized by the court and the governments for no fault of theirs will in the foreseeable future experience real victory in terms of regaining their lost freedom, dignity and self-reliance.