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  • Satya Shodhak
    A committee for long-forgotten truths
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    August, 2001: Patiently climbing the Satpura hills under a blazing May sun, the gentleman had every right to be annoyed for having to cover for his incompetent learned colleagues of the Judiciary. It was like summoning a brain surgeon to diagnose a cold, a pilot to steer a tricycle, vernier calipers to measure mountains. However you look at it, Justice Daud and his Satya shodhak (truth-seeking or fact-finding) Samiti were called in at a very very late stage, to hear very primary facts. What the villagers in Manibeli told them under the shade of a canopy made of leaves, extending from the jeevanshala, was hardly so subtle or obscure as to require the services of a Truth Committee. Their bountiful natural resources and strong social fabric in their home villages, the unlivable conditions in the resettlement sites, the callous treatment by government officials, repression and violence by the police, formed part of a chronicle witnessed by and told to many over the years. It ought to have been heard and acknowledged long ago by the Supreme Court itself, or at least by the Court-appointed Grievance Redressal Authorities in 1999 and 2000.

    Tribal women of Domkhedi cultivate bajra in their fields with waters just 5m below the satyagraha hut

    But the Honourable Court is deaf to anything but English, and the Grievance Redressal Authorities are blind to anything not in print. When Bija Jugalya Vasave of Chimalkhedi said, "I had gone to ascertain whether my name existed in the electoral roll. It said that I had died two years ago," Justice Daud laughed out loud and dictated, "This is the state of the official records." It was at that point, and not before, that the notorious defects of official records entered into the Official Knowledge as far as R&R for Sardar Sarovar Project oustees was concerned. The villagers told Justice Daud before he left, "We felt good talking to you.".

    Some consolation. As the tribal song goes, the dam builders just go on damming, damming, damming.

    Earlier Justice Daud had a tour of the dam from one of the Sardar Sarovar engineers, Mr. Gajjar. With glee he showed off his prize toy. These are the canals, these are the turbines, this is where we will generate 200 megawatts ... as soon as we can complete the construction! Off we all whizzed in the caravan over and under, around and through the dam site. "The water," he explained, "as we say in our technical language, has x, y, and z mobility." Hands flailing, and whole body bopping up and down, he illustrated the fabulous mobility of the water through the canals: "z is the vertical, x is the horizontal, and y is ... y is .... y is the other one." Not to be outdone, Mr. More, Maharashtra Chief Engineer and Joint Secretary, Irrigation pipied in, "assuming the world has three dimensions." The judge listened through the whole show-and-tell, right up to the display of large metal parts of the whole grand shebang, also to be used "as soon as we can complete the construction." "If I may make a comment," said the judge, "you seem to have taken the acquiescence of the people for granted. This must have been a huge capital expenditure!" Tsk, tsk.

    "We like to think of these canals as our Sabarmati," gushed Mr. Gajjar. Both can have a flow of 25,000 cusecs." There the similarity ends. Civilizations have grown along the Sabarmati, whereas communities are broken by dams and canals. While all may freely go to the banks of Sabarmati, those living along a canal, whose land is now under it, have no right even to touch the waters. Mr. Gajjar's words of consolation: "legally people do not have the right, but really, how can anyone stop them?" The oh-so innocent engineer went on to express his surprise that only 1 meter depth of flow was required to supply drinking water. But "such is human nature," he conceded, "that once this demand is fulfilled, there will be demand for more."

    The temporary water pumping facility sends water to cities like Vadodara, Ahmedabad, Rajkot, and Bhavnagar, while advertisement of the same has reached newspapers and magazines around the world. It cost Rs. 35 crores to set up, plus recurring costs for the 80 diesel engines, plus advertising (Chicago Tribune ain't cheap) plus supply costs borne by each city. The Ajva Reservoir, Gajjar announced proudly, is already full. Mr. More cooed admiringly, "Ajva reservoir is full. That is very nice."

    The Ajva reservoir supplies Vadodara. What about Kutch and Saurashtra? Check back next year, promises the ad. Assuming the world has three dimensions.

    Fast forward two months later, the glossy advertising campaign continues. Flouting the objections of the R&R subgroup of the Narmada Control Authority, Government of Gujarat wrestled permission for the construction of 3 m. humps atop the 90 m. dam wall approval by appealing to Attorney General Soli Sorabjee. The Government advertisement publishes statistics on the construction of the concrete works: dam wall, canals, pumps and pipes. Rehabilitation? "In full swing." No numbers are given.

    The fact-finding committee or "Committee to assist in the Rehabilitation" headed by Justice Daud (Retired), after hearing the tribal people in their original villages as well as visiting proposed and existing resettlement sites found that resettlement and rehabilitation was incomplete even up to the present height of Sardar Sarovar (90m dam wall plus 3 m humps, with water already flowing over this 93 m. structure as of today). Not only is the government unprepared to provide for all the oustees at the present height, they have not provided suitable agricultural land, irrigation facilities or civic amenities at the sites where previously ousted people have moved. Furthermore, government records on the Project Affected Families are so ridden with errors that a census needs to be taken of the affected villages.

    Three Government Secretaries attach a note claiming the opposite, as if the Committee's work was some kind of a hallucination. Their solution to the problem of land unavailability is that tribals "encroaching" forest land "must be removed and the land must be allotted to SSPPAFs." With this despotic step, the Secretaries, a la Supreme Court Majority Judgment, wax sanguine about the "very fertile agricultural land" at resettlement colonies and the "not congenial" features of the tribal villages. Displacement, it seems, is just what the doctor ordered.

    So what is the glitch? The Secretaries claim that the government officers are bullied by the activists "gherao them when they visit the sites and try to compel them to write letter mentioning that the Government does not have enough land for rehabilitation of PAPs." Another problem that they mention is that the posts responsible for rehabilitation are vacant and must be filled.

    Watch "I Will Report Honestly," a 13 minute video clip of tribal villagers discussing land availability with government officers. There, the Deputy Collector of Nandurbar District tells the people seated before him that there is no land and that no one should move until the matter is resolved. Surely the gun-toting police at his side were not subjugated by unarmed villagers? The day after telling the truth before the people, Deputy Collector Vasave was transferred. The story is similar in other districts. Collector after collector has resigned or been transferred because the Government of Maharashtra has not come clean on its rehabilitation of Sardar Sarovar Project Affected People. Tribals of neighbouring Madhya Pradesh face the same problems noted by the Daud Committee in Maharashtra. Chief Minsiter Digvijay Singh declared that Madhya Pradesh did not have adequate land for rehabilitation and proposed lower heights for Sardar Sarovar, but this was never considered by the Supreme Court. Tribal villagers of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra are determined to face the waters and challenge the unjust and inhuman submergence of Sardar Sarovar. In daily Satyagraha, they work their fields with waters at just a few metres distance, cultivating bajra and dal which may drown before it comes to harvest.

    These crops, combined with the harvest of the forest and the river, provide enough nutrition for the tribal families for the entire year. In a nation plagued with growing pockets of undernourishment and even starvation at the same time as undistributed grains rot in storage facilites, the destruction of the self-sufficient communities of the Narmada Valley signals the determination of the policy makers to keep it that way.

    L.S. Aravinda
    August 2001