On 28 July, a news story filed by The Indian Express correspondent reported inflow of 651.29 cubic metres (23000 cubic feet) water per second at the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river. Four days later, on 2 August, a press release from PTI filed from Ahmedabad flashed the news of the controversial dam overflowing. Per second inflow of water at the dam was 3308.40 cubic metres (1.16 lakh cubic feet) and outflow through the sluice gates downstream was 1324.60 cubic metres (0.46 lakh cubic feet). Overflow was registered at 122.50 cubic metres (0.04 lakh cubic feet) per second.
Behind these apparently obscure numbers is the real story. This summer, following the clearance from Narmada Control Authority to raise the height of the dam from 110.64 to 121.92 metres, Gujarat had raised the height of the dam to 119 metres before the onset of the monsoon and had to stop the construction work when monsoon rains arrived. The water level at the dam had touched 119.11 meter mark, as indicated by a flood control room official. And as predicted, by the end of July, submergence had already started with increased inflow of water.
So there was a natural curiosity as to how effectively and optimally did Gujarat utilise the fresh impoundment water in the reservoir?
A correspondent with Gujarati language newspaper Sandesh reported that "the gate of Main Narmada Canal is just 0.5 metre open and the water flowing down the main canal is merely 580 cusecs (i.e. cubic feet per second)." A glance at Gujarati newspapers suggested that Narmada Main Canal was carrying such a meager amount of water thanks to breaches at several places. This situation led to the sudden build up of water at dam site since while the inflow of water into reservoir went up, following intense rains in the catchment area in Maharashtra, the volumes of waters flowing into main canal was very meager. (Breaches in the Narmada canal have occurred routinely during past couple of monsoons due to failure to provide for adequate drainage structures. See: Rivers and Plans run Off Course, Sep. 2005)
The controversial dam has generated much debate and the summer of this year witnessed hundreds of oustees affected by the dam camping at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi. And since the first week of August, the dam started overflowing leading to wide spread submergence in the river valley. The incessant rainfall in the catchment area of the dam, coupled with meager amount of water being allowed to flow into main canal led to a rather unusual event, where we witnessed the dam overflow even as upstream dams on the Narmada river had not recorded downstream releases. In the past years, the water level at Sardar Sarovar Dam site rose only after the release of water from upstream Tawa, Bargi and Indira sagar Dam. (Such downstream releases from upstream Tawa and Indira Sagar Dam started from August 15.)
On 4 August, water level at the dam site had reached a high of 127.4 metres.
The local people were planning to launch a satyagraha at three different villages slated to drown under dam waters starting during 5-7 August. But the sudden rise in the water levels at dam site led to drowning of houses from Dhankhedi, Bhadal and Danel villages in Maharashtra. Hamlets in other eight villages were just on the brink of submergence. Two jeevanshalas (boarding schools for adivasi students studying in 1st to 4th standard) in Danel and Bhadal village got submerged. But this did not dampen their spirits, more than 3000 adivasis and farmers marched to Badwani, M.P., a district headquarter that has been base of Narmada Bachao Andolan for last two decades, braving incessant rains. After taking out a rally at Badwani they gathered at Rajghat on the banks of Narmada river to launch a satyagraha with a resolve to fight the injustice. They were joined by the supporters and fraternal organizations from various states including Gujarat, Tamilnadu, Kerala, U.P., West Bengal, Delhi and other states.
But even as they moved to another adivasi village, Bhitada in Alirajpur tehsil of Jhabua district in M.P., they were in for a very grave situation with Narmada waters constantly rising. More than 120 children studying at Jeevanshala in Danel got stranded and had to face rising waters, until a barge from Maharashtra came around not to rescue them but to arrest them. When the police arrested them and took them to the dam site, they took out a march against the displacement and the dam in Gujarat. They all were brought to Akkalkua later.
By the afternoon of 7 August 7 (at 1 pm), water level at the dam site had risen up to 127.35 metres. At Rajghat, the waters were overflowing the bridge connecting Nisarpur and Badwani towns. Even as this figure was reported, news agencies quoted Bharuch District Administrator suggesting that the water level at dam site may rise up to 129 metres by that time. The activists who returned from Bhitada and Chimalkhedi villages on 9 August described the situation in the submergence villages as horrifying. Noorjibhai Padvi of village Danel told visitors, "the huge mountains that took us hours to climb are all gone under water. It's an awesome, horrifying face of the river that till the dam came was so friendly to us. It is this government that has robbed us of our friendly river and in turn given us this swollen reservoir that has unleashed large-scale devastation." The hills the villagers referred to are part of Vindhya range.
Additionally, all roads leading towards the valley were blocked due to the heavy downpour. Apart from the cutting off the mountain routes, the waters had blocked the entry from Dhadgaon, from Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat to the villages affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam.
In the rehabilitation sites in Gujarat also, most of the fields of resettlement villages were inundated, destroying crops. In many sites such as Karnet, Thuvavi, etc., water entered the houses. In Maharashtra, waters entered in houses in Vadchhil and Javda and one 'nullah' burst, destroying the houses and sown fields. Keshav Vasave from Maharashtra pointed out that not only the Madhya Pradesh government, but Maharashtra government too failed to provide any decent and legal resettlement to the tribal oustees in the state. "There are no basic services like drinking water, fodder, fuel, cultivable land, protection from rains in these places. We are cheated and live the life of destitutes."
The situation in the Narmada valley remains severely grave. In the absence of proper planning, what we have witnessed is that all the states are committed to thwart the debate and raise the dam height. And with ad hoc administration, they have created devastation in upstream submergence villages as well as downstream villages. Any further increase in the height has to be questioned, since not only have the state governments failed to rehabilitate affected people, they have also wreaked havoc with lives of people upstream and downstream.
Earlier, Supreme Court judges used a report of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Shunglu-committee, which does not present the ground level truth. They posted the next hearing in the ongoing case to September. Also, administration and news agencies in Gujarat have been issuing statements regarding situation downstream of the Sardar Sarovar dam, which is equally severe with 8.5 metres overflow registered at the dam site. Several villages and a large part of Bharuch town (downstream) got inundated with floodwaters.
To add insult to injury, the NVDA in Madhya Pradesh issued a press briefing that only spoke on affected people accepting the disbursal of cash compensation and passed it off as if they were getting rehabilitated with alternate land. The Pioneer reported this on 6 August. But that the cash compensation was illegal and that the NVDA was maintaining silence on the situation of adivasi villages affected by submergence, went unreported.
With a very high inflow at another dam Ukai on the river Tapti the city of Surat in south Gujarat was also severely affected by floods. Prime Minister Singh did undertake an aerial survey of Surat and south Gujarat. But he chose not to fly over the submerged Narmada valley, look at the large expanse of villages drowning under waters and then try to find on returning, what the Rehabilitation Oversight Group commented on the probability of submergence. Neither did the rising waters also ask the affected people before submerging their lands and homes. But making an oblique reference to the fate of the Narmada Dam oustees at his Independence Day speech, Singh said: "When I see large development projects coming up, while one rejoices at the progress that is being made, one worries for those who are displaced, for those who have lost their land and livelihood."
This will not do. The decisions that have imposed submergence on affected people without properly rehabilitating them must be reversed.