At a glittering ceremony held in March this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh presented the Gold and Silver National Awards to the 1000 MW Indira Sagar Hydroelectric Project of the Narmada Hydroelectric Development Corporation (NHDC) for early completion of some of the units of the hydropower project. The NDHC, a joint venture of the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) and the Government of Madhya Pradesh, was set up in 2000 to undertake the construction of the Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar (520 MW) projects on the Narmada river. Even as the NHDC congratulates itself on 'creating history' with the completion of the two dams in record time, the people of the Narmada valley are loath to join these celebrations.

Why? Consider what happened as the two new projects unfolded.

On 28 June, water levels in the Narmada river in Khargone and Badwani districts fell suddenly and sharply, as the waters were held back in the reservoirs of the Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar. Vast sections of the river bed went dry, and at places the river itself became a trickle. As the waters dried up, hundreds of thousands of fish died. Numerous motor-pumps dot the riverbank as farmers living within 5-10 kms on both the sides of the river draw water from it for irrigating their fields. This patch bordering the river is one of the richest agricultural areas in the two districts. As the waters of the river went down, these farmers were literally left high and dry. They rushed in to shift their motors and pumps closer to the river. Towns near the river too mostly depend on it for their water supply, and were also worried.

Then, without warning, waters were released from the Omkareshwar dam, just as they had been held back, without any notice. On the night of 30 June 2007, as most people slept, the waters rose rapidly. Over two thousand motor pump sets that the farmers had with great effort moved to lower levels just two days back, submerged under several feet of water. Nets strung by fisher people in the river broke or were dragged away by the rising waters. Boats lying on the dry river banks were swept away. In a matter of few hours, the farmers and fisherpeople were faced with losses of lakhs of rupees.

Welcome to the new world of river management - where regulation makes the river unpredictable and erratic - and what are blandly called 'downstream impacts' of large dams.

Downstream impacts

For years, the people in the Narmada valley have been fighting against the 30 large dams in the Narmada basin. One of the most serious impacts of these dams has been submergence of agricultural lands and displacement of people. Apart from agriculture, the river provides a rich diversity of resources and myriad forms of livelihood. Fishing is one of the most important occupations for thousands of people in the valley. In several places, the sand brought in continuously by the river from upstream gets deposited on the river bed. This is painstakingly brought out from the river, collected and sold. This sand 'mining' as it is called provides employment to large number of people. Cultivation of the river bank - with watermelons grown on the sandy part closer to the river and other vegetables where the fertile silt is deposited is also an important source of earning for the people.

What is significant is that these activities provide livelihood to mostly landless families. Unfortunately, these and several other occupations are being affected by the dams, and yet, there is no policy to compensate and rehabilitate these families. The tragedy is that often, these families are being affected by the dams being built many miles upstream.

The first large dam to be built on the main Narmada river was the Bargi dam, near Jabalpur, in the upper reaches of the river. This reservoir was filled in 1990. As power generation began at Bargi, the pattern of the water releases became unpredictable, and unseasonal. People in the lower reaches would cultivate the river bed with melons and other vegetable in the summer when large parts of the bed were exposed. In the early 1990s, they found sudden, unseasonal rush of waters in the river flooding and washing away their carefully cultivated crops. This was the water released from the Bargi dam. In a few years, many people gave up this cultivation.

When the issue of motor-pumps submerging and loss of boats and nets was raised in a recent case in the M.P. High Court, the Government of Madhya Pradesh stated in their affidavits that "no liability can be fastened upon the district administration to work out any compensation".

 •  The Narmada struggle
 •  A moral breach in the dam

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Madhya Pradesh government pushed the pace of construction on the gigantic Indira Sagar - India's largest manmade reservoir on completion - and the Omkareshwar dams. They were completed in 'record time', part of the reason being that little attention was paid to the resettlement and rehabilitation of the displaced people - who were literally pushed out. The oustees launched an intense struggle under the banner of Narmada Bachao Andolan, resulting in the M.P. High Court restricting the level to which these dams could be filled. This remains the position today. However, the projects started generating electricity. The first unit of Indira Sagar started generating power in January 2004, and the last one was commissioned in March 2005. The first unit of Omkareshwar was commissioned in July 2007.

With this, the flow of the river water was altered dramatically. The water was sometimes held back behind the dam - and the river flow would drop downstream. When water was released for generation of power, the river level would rise rapidly. In both the cases, there is no warning or notice to the people, and there is little time for them to react. Events like those of June 2007 described above have become a regular phenomenon, only the intensity being different.

Fishing has been badly affected, not only due to unpredictable water releases causing the damage to nets and sweeping away of boats, but because changes in the flow regime have had a big impact on the fish themselves due to the disturbance of their natural ecosystem. Fisherpeople tell about how the quantity of fish available in the river has gone down sharply. One of the most serious impacts comes when the reservoir is filled. A few years back, when the Indira Sagar reservoir was partly filled, the riverbed downstream went almost dry, and entire fish populations were wiped out. It took more than two years for the fish population to recover from this 'ecological shock'.

Sand mining has also been affected. For one, the sand that was being brought in by the river is now getting trapped by the Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar reservoirs. The change in the water level also makes it difficult to carry out the mining. There have been cases when a person had laboriously collected the sand from the river bed, carried it in a boat and piled it on the banks, to await a truck that would transport it. And then, a sudden release of water from upstream sweeps it away. Unpredictability is the big problem.

But releases will remain unpredictable, as they are governed by the requirement of electricity - and the NHDC is hardly to be bothered by the needs of the fisherpeople or the ordinary residents of the valley.

The most horrific instance of this came on 7 April 2005. This was the Bhutadi Amavasya, (new moon day) when a popular traditional fair is held every year at Dharaji, in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh, a village just downstream of the Indira Sagar. As thousands of pilgrims were taking a holy dip in the river, the dam released water for power generation. Water levels rose rapidly, sharply at Dharaji, and at least 62 people drowned in the flash flood that was created. Unofficial figures place the deaths at over 500. No responsibility was fixed and no one was held accountable.

Meanwhile, the NHDC declared a net profit of Rs. 106.10 crores on sales of 335.98 crores in 2005-06 from Indira Sagar only, and it paid itself a dividend of Rs.21.22 crores of which Rs.10.4 crores has been given to the Government of Madhya Pradesh. Wouldn't the first right on these profits be of those who have lost their lands, homes, livelihoods to the projects? Unfortunately, they do not figure even in the thinking of NHDC.

Cumulative impacts

The construction of Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar dams has aggravated mani-fold the situation created by Bargi. Indeed, the cumulative impact of many dams in a basin is more than the sum of the impacts of the individual dams. Yet, in the Narmada valley and indeed in the rest of the country, there is hardly any attempt at assessing the cumulative impacts of many dams coming up in a river basin or area. When the environmental impact assessment for even an individual dam is among the most shoddily done part of the project preparation, it may be too much to hope for cumulative impact assessments. But it has become imperative as in India, in river after river, large number of dams are being built or in the pipeline. For example, Narmada has 30 major dams built or ongoing or in the pipeline. The Teesta basin in Sikkim has 21, the Subansiri basin in Arunachal 22, Sutlej basin in Himachal 28. Numerous dams already exist on the Krishna, Godavari, and Cauvery and more are being planned.

The impacts of so many dams in the basin - existing and planned, on each other, and on the people living is the basin is just not being looked at, and the consequences are likely to be disastrous.

An issue of accountability

A more over-arching issue here is of accountability. Who is accountable for all these impacts of the dams? In case of submergence of agricultural land at least there is some discussion over compensation and who will bear the responsibility. For other impacts, there is no assessment, no compensation and no accountability. When the issue of motor-pumps submerging and loss of boats and nets was raised in a recent case in the M.P. High Court, the Government of Madhya Pradesh stated in their affidavits that "no liability can be fastened upon the district administration to work out any compensation", but promised only sympathetic consideration. This too happened only as the issue was raised as a part of a major mass action by the NBA.

The World Bank has in the last few years forced far-reaching structural changes in the water sector in many states. As a part of these changes, it is proposing the creation of Water Regulatory Authorities in the states. The first one has already been set up in Maharashtra. True to the World Bank's priorities, the Regulator is looking only at financial issues like setting tariffs to ensure full cost recovery. But one must ask, is it not more important to regulate the operation of the large dams already built to ensure that they do not further devastate people's lives, even to the extent of actually killing them? Is it not necessary to fix responsibility and ensure accountability?

It is shocking that 62 people are drowned by the power releases from a dam and we can't say who was responsible. It is shameful that decisions about dams' water storages and releases are being made without given any consideration for the lives and livelihoods of hundreds of thousand of people in the basin. The events in the Narmada Valley once again highlight the need to recognise and assess these impacts of large dams as a part of the project evaluation exercise. Further, as the debate about the viability and desirability of new dams continues, they underline the urgency of bringing existing dams under regulation to control the destruction of the lives of people in the river valleys taking place day after day.