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Archival photo of a boat rally in protest against the Sardar Sarovar dam

Narmada Bachao Andolan

Spotlight: The Narmada valley’s unfolding social and ecological disaster


Its 25 years since the Narmada Bachao Andolan started mobilising resistance against the destruction of life and livelihood in the Narmada valley. Today, with more than two lakh people who’ve not been resettled threatened with submergence, that resistance is being revived. A closer look at the history and politics of big dams on the Narmada river.

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#RallyForTheValley, Reach Narmada Valley on July 30th for #NarmadaSatyagrah

Chronicle of a tragedy foretold

Ashish Kothari, The Hindu

Normally it feels nice to be able to say, “I told you so”. Not this time. As news came in from Gujarat on the crisis of freshwater shortage and salinity ingress faced by farmers and industries around Bharuch city, at the mouth of the once-mighty Narmada river, I thought back to three decades ago. As students and young members of Kalpavriksh and the Hindu College Nature Club, we had begun a 50-day trip up the river, starting at Bharuch. It was the trip of a lifetime, learning about an incredible river valley, trying to fathom the implications of big dams to be built on it.

Over the next few years, we wrote about the likely consequences of these dams, including the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), subsequently the locus of one of the world’s most well-known ‘development versus environment’ controversies. One of the concerns we’d expressed was about drastic downstream impacts, and about lakhs of people who would be affected not even being counted as ‘project-affected’.

From a river to a trickle

Three decades later, these people are trying to make themselves heard. In mid-June, several newspapers reported that the river has become a trickle, shrinking to a width of 400 m instead of 1.5 km near Bharuch. The Arabian Sea’s waters had entered up to 40 km inside, leading to serious salinity of drinking and irrigation water. In 1988, we had written: “The reduced water flow at the mouth of the river could also lead to ingress of saltwater, with potential disastrous effects not only on natural ecosystems but also on fisherfolk and other people whose livelihood is dependent on these ecosystems”.

Ahmed Patel, a Rajya Sabha member from Gujarat, and Bharatsinh Parmar, BJP State general secretary, have both expressed serious concern to Chief Minister Anandiben Patel. Industries in the area are also badly affected, with many having to halve their production. Over 10,000 fisher families are likely to be affected, but have little voice. Several groups including the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) have been raising the issue of downstream impacts, but have been ignored. In its 35th Annual Report (2014-15), the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) admits that “an integrated plan for Environmental Management in downstream areas would be formulated after completion of the remaining studies”. Impacts are already being felt, and still the authorities are to make a mitigation plan!

This attempt at trying to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted is characteristic of all aspects of the SSP. Its builders undertook several irreversible actions like cutting of forests in the submergence zone in the early 1980s before obtaining the environmental clearance (which is mandatory before commencing work). We recorded this in the mid-1980s, when we wrote about the expected submergence of tens of thousands of forests upstream with serious loss of wildlife and the livelihood security of forest-dependent communities, waterlogging and salinisation over a huge part of the proposed command area (especially Kachchh), siltation of the reservoir, and others. Subsequently the Wildlife Institute of India pointed to the threats that canals would pose to rare wildlife in Kachchh.

The 1987 clearances (under the Environment Protection Act and the Forest Conservation Act) themselves were problematic, given before even the essential studies were available to determine if the dam should be cleared at all. Instead, the Central government (Ministry of Environment and Forests) allowed work to be started under the condition that studies on ecological impacts and peoples’ displacement, and action plans for minimising or mitigating such impacts, be prepared by late 1987 (for some impacts) or 1989 (for others). It was stipulated that these steps would go pari passu (at the same pace as) construction works, else the latter could be halted. But though none of these studies and action plans was ready within the stipulated time, no stoppage was ordered. In a note in 1989, the MoEF even stated that “implementation of requisite safeguards and action plans pari with the construction… would obviously not be possible… the approval granted must be deemed to have lapsed… project authorities be directed to… seek renewal of environmental and forestry clearances beyond December 1989.”

Violations and action

In 2010, a committee appointed by the Central government to look into environmental aspects headed by IFS officer Devendra Pandey, in its second interim report, noted multiple violations. For instance, “the impoundment of reservoir is more than 80 per cent where as the total catchment area treatment (CAT) work carried out by three concerned States is reported to be 45 per cent… The project authorities… have grossly violated the conditions of clearance on CAT.” Or, on the issue of impacts on wildlife: “A Master Plan… which should have been ready well before the commencement of project activities, has not been prepared till now.” And further, on command area development which is crucial to help avoid problems like waterlogging and salinisation: “All the three States have violated the stipulations and not complied on Environment Action Plans.” The committee recommended that no further work be done till conditions were met. Soon after that, the committee was wound up before it could even give its final report. And then, since 2010, not a single meeting of the environment subgroup of the NCA has been held.

The SSP is a huge ecological and social disaster. One reason it has carried on regardless is that it is being built in Gujarat which has most of the irrigation benefits, but many negative impacts (including most displacement of people, two lakhs of whom are still to be guaranteed adequate rehabilitation) are in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Now that a huge number of people in Gujarat itself are victims, will the travails of victims in other States have some resonance? Hopefully at least the demand not to close the gates, till there is compliance with environmental and rehabilitation conditions, will be stronger. And that what has happened with the SSP can be a chronicle foretold for future such projects, discouraging them from ever being built.

Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh, Pune.

JOIN THE PROTEST
#RallyForTheValley, Reach Narmada Valley on July 30th for #NarmadaSatyagrah

RELATED
Narmada Project Affected Adivasis On Hunger Strike
National Alliance of People’s Movements, Countercurrents.org
Hundreds of adivasis affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project have begun their Dharna (sit in) and relay fast from the 15th of July. They have been demanding full and fair rehabilitation which they haven’t yet got despite being displaced in the late 1980’s and 1990’s.These adivasis who sustained their livelihood on the land, forests and water (as well as fish)were forced to leave their access tothese natural resources and shift to the resettlement sites; where they have found it difficult to fit into the cash driven market economy. While the R&R policy no doubt offered 5 acres land to each oustee family, including the major sons of the landholder; irrigation and the canal network were not provided in most of these lands with little or no priority to these affected adivasis. (UPDATE: 1000 Sardar Sarovar Project Affected Being Re-Evicted By Gujarat Government: Agitation By PAFs Entered 6th Day)

The Dance of the Displaced: What Progress Looks Like in the Narmada Valley
Ananyaa Gaur & Anit Gupta, The Wire
The Modi administration decided to raise the height of the dam by 17 meters and to construct gates that shut off the flow of water completely. The administration made its decision within 20 days of taking office, without attempting to understand the ground reality or hear activists’ complaints. Lakhs more will lose their homes as a result of this decision. And yet officials claim they are 100% satisfied when it comes to the rehabilitation of the displaced. Over two decades ago, the dam was condemned after an independent evaluation by an unlikely opponent of ‘development-at-all-costs’. Just last month, the administration’s position on the matter was confirmed when the Chief Justice asked NBA activists: “How can it be Narmada Bachao Andolan? It is now ousted Bachao Andolan.” With his words, the fate of the Holi revellers was sealed. The message was clear: go practice your centuries-old tribal customs elsewhere. Development has arrived on your doorstep, so move over. Like it or not, this is progress.

The Muddied Politics around Narmada (2014 article)
Joe Athialy, India Resists
The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) did not clear the project until 1987 since the Environmental Impact Assessment was not complete and there were no detailed plans for rehabilitation, catchment area treatment, compensatory afforestation and command area development. However, in 1985, two years before the MoEF accorded clearance, the World Bank approved a loan of $ 450 million. When the Rajiv Gandhi Government refused to clear the project owing to lack of studies and plans, political pressure was mounted on Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.

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