On 12 June 2014, the Gujarat Chief Minister announced that an emergency meeting of the Narmada Control Authority had granted clearance to raise the height of the Narmada dam from 121.92 metres to 138.69 metres. This decision – notwithstanding the excuses offered to downplay its implications – implies that the new regime at the Centre has willingly created a tsunami for hundreds of villages on both the banks of the Narmada in submergence zone.

While it is being claimed that the work to install the gates will take three years, it is added, almost in a whisper, that if the rehabilitation is found to be lagging even after that, then the Supreme Court may ask Gujarat to keep the gates in raised position.

These clauses must be probed since the 1979 Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award - Clause XI, sub clause V (3) (iii) - unambiguously points out that Gujarat is “required to intimate to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra the area coming under submergence at least 18 months in advance and ensure that rehabilitation is completed in all aspects six months prior to potential submergence.”

At a height between 121.92 metres and 138.69 metres, an additional 14000 Project Affected Families (PAFs) are slated to be displaced in Madhya Pradesh. While Madhya Pradesh has been claiming that it has developed 91 resettlement and rehabilitation sites with all civic amenities, many of these sites such as Sondul are glaring examples of how these remain uninhabited.

Drowned out in Narmada Valley. Pic: Manoj Saranathan (India Together files)

The present status of rehabilitation

In the wake of the recent decision, the Minister of Water Resources, Uma Bharti stated that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment had submitted satisfactory reports, but the status report that is available on the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) website is dated December 2012. The NCA is supposed to file such status reports on all aspects on a quarterly basis, but that is not being put in public domain.

Out of 32195 project affected families from Madhya Pradesh (who have opted to be resettled in Madhya Pradesh), 4566 are eligible to be rehabilitated with cultivable land. But the 2012 status report shows that a meagre 203 PAFs have been allotted government land, while the remaining 4363 PAFs were given a Special Rehabilitation Package, which is just a clever play of words to justify cash compensation, sans the guarantee of possession of alternative land by the ousted. Affected people have been seeking judicial intervention since such a Special Rehabilitation Package is a clear violation of the land for land rehabilitation principle.

The NCA status report also noted that only 2906 PAFs could purchase land (though this claim, too, has come under severe scrutiny), while 1457 PAFs had merely obtained the first installment of the Special Rehabilitation Package and were not able to purchase alternative land.

The most crucial and alarming detail in the report from the NCA was its underlining of the fact that 686 registries under the Special Rehabilitation Package were found to be fake and an inquiry on the same by the Justice Jha commission appointed by the Madhya Pradesh High Court was on.

Has that inquiry been concluded?  Has the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) been given a clean chit on this? The fact is that the final report of Justice Jha commission has still not seen the light of the day. On the other hand, the hasty decision by the NCA smacks of the intent to nullify whatever the inquiry commission may find.

Taking cognisance of this issue, the Jabalpur High Court admitted a petition by the NBA on 9 July and issued notices to NCA, NVDA and GoMP. The court has asked the parties to explain why the decision to raise the dam height should not be stopped till action is taken on the S S Jha Commission report investigating the large scale corruption in rehabilitation of dam affected families in Madhya Pradesh.

When history repeats itself

To understand the full implications and significance of the decision to raise dam height, one needs to go further back. The decision allowing installation of the 17-metre high gates reminds us of subversion of due process of the kind that we had witnessed on 8 March 2006, when NCA permitted the height to be raised from 110 metres to 121.92 metres. That decision had come as a rude shock, following which project affected people travelled to the national capital and slept on the footpath outside the water resource ministry in protest.

As they questioned the claims and asserted that the rehabilitation of thousands was not merely a matter of adjusting a few figures on papers of some reports, a team of three union ministers visited the submergence zone villages. They met affected farmers, potters, fisherfolk, boatmen and could no more quote from those official reports of the NCA which said that the number of project affected families still to be rehabilitated was zero.

Even as affected families went on protest, another CAG audit report that got tabled in the Gujarat assembly exposed how Gujarat had failed to use the water stored in the reservoir at a height of 110 metres efficiently. The CAG report showed in glaring detail how the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) had retracted from its original promise of providing a panacea for the drinking water woes of Saurashtra and Kutch through the dam, and was instead allocating more and more Narmada water to industries and cities.

In a year when the monsoon fails, hundreds of villages in Kutch reel under water scarcity and the state government is forced to supply tanker water to them Several news reports from Kutch, including this, highlight the fact. Such ground reports clearly reveal the truth of Modi’s pretentious speeches immediately after being anointed BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, in which he claimed that during his regime he took Narmada water to far off border posts!

In August 2006, even as uncertainty prevailed about whether those affected by the increase in height to 121.92 metres were rehabilitated with alternative land or not, the river swelled with the arrival of monsoon rains and submergence wiped out a few schools run by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in Maharashtra villages.

A few months later, in October 2006, a CAG audit report that got tabled in the Madhya Pradesh assembly indicted the NVDA over the scam in rehabilitation sites, showing how NVDA officials were acting not only in contempt of guidelines laid down by Supreme Court judgments but also in contempt of the Supreme Audit Institution.

Why wasn’t this audit report for the year ending 31 March, 2004 tabled in the assembly in the year 2005? Did the then Madhya Pradesh government put the report under a lid in order to hoodwink the Supreme Court judges and researchers? These questions remain moot, as yet another illegality and politically expedient decision-making process on Narmada dam plays itself out.

 Pic: Wikimedia

The environmental angle

On the issue of environmental non-compliance, the Ministry of Environment and Forests appeared serious during the few years of Jairam Ramesh’s stint when it constituted the Devendra Pandey committee. But then in a rude shock, the ministry took a U-turn even before the Pandey committee’s final investigative report on Sardar Sarovar Project was submitted.  Ramesh took a decision to constitute yet another committee.

On 1 April 2010, the environment sub group of the NCA granted permission to Gujarat to install gates. Even as the Resettlement and Rehabilitation sub-group clearly showed that the rehabilitation work was lagging and could take many more years, Jairam Ramesh sought to justify the decision, claiming that if rehabilitation was not complete, they would order dam authorities to keep the gates in raised position. 

The irony becomes even more pronounced when one realises that by the same logic as above, the environment minister had the potential to clear highway construction through a very sensitive ecological zone or a crucial tiger park, by adding that in case of non-compliance he would make sure that there was no vehicular movement on the roads! All throughout his campaign, Prime Minister Modi, too, echoed this lame duck assurance.

In the latest decision, it has been even more disheartening to see Uma Bharati speak in the future tense about the rehabilitation agenda. In a recent press note, the NBA claims that “Uma Bharati accepted and directed the officials of the Narmada Control Authority to look into the serious issues pointed out by NBA and review the decision in participatory manner”.

This was followed by another shocking revelation that the Minister for Social Justice and Empowerment, Shri Thavar Chand Gehlot was wrongly briefed by officials that the recent decision was in “compliance” with the Supreme Court judgment!

Will both these ministers and Shri Prakash Javadekar, Minister of Environment and Forests now show their independence and travel to the submergence villages and those uninhabited R & R sites in Madhya Pradesh? Also would they please tell us what measures they have put in place to make sure that an unjust submergence without proper rehabilitation of the kind we witnessed in August 2013, will not be repeated this monsoon?

What will a 138-metre dam achieve?

The Sardar Sarovar Project has received the highest funding under the ironically-worded Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Project right from 1996. As of March 2012, the central government had granted this controversial project Rs 5736.785 crore. However, only 30 per cent of the canal network has been completed to date, with the highest shortfall at the level of minor, sub-minor and field channel levels. Instead of the volumetric control systems originally planned, what we see today around Narmada canals are diesel engines illegally lifting waters from the Narmada.

Recently, Anandiben Patel, answering the question of an MLA on the floor of Gujarat assembly, accepted that over 66 percent of canal construction work is yet to get over.

However, as this article shows, the struggle over Narmada has now entered a crucial last mile, even though the canal network remains far away from reaching the last stage towards completion. That must shock us indeed, no matter how loudly some industry-friendly voices in TV studios and newsroom would like to shout down NBA activists by calling them Luddites.

In the early 1990s, when the project entered the vortex of controversy, Suhas Paranjpe and K J Joy had argued for a compromise formula, suggesting that if Gujarat practices protective irrigation – irrigating farmlands by using Narmada canal waters to augment local water sources – it could utilise 9 MAF water even with a 110 metre high dam.

However, today even as the dam stands at 122 metres, the water storage level is around 114 metres only, due to monsoon failure and consequent meagre inflow into the reservoir from upstream Narmada river basin. This forced dam authorities to stop power generation at River Bed Power House in the first week of June and as per the latest reports trickling in, dam authorities have reduced the water flow into main and branch canals to a great extent. It is being reported that Gujarat government has suspended Narmada water supply for irrigation altogether. News reports in The Times of India and Deccan Herald corroborate this.

With all these gross violations that have virtually killed the original plan on the Sardar Sarovar Project, how much has Gujarat irrigated so far? Till the year 2005-06, this dam was irrigating less than 57,530 hectares, even as it stood at the height of 110 metres, thereby displaying abysmally low irrigation efficiency.  

To quote the 2012 NCA status report, the figure on actual irrigation has never crossed the 2 lakh hectare mark, though with 9 Million Acre Feet water, the project was originally envisaged to irrigate 18 lakh hectares in Gujarat.

Moreover, in recent years Gujarat has showed an eagerness to increase the allocation of Narmada water to industries nearly fivefold, even as it fails to live up to irrigation and drinking water commitments. An earlier India Together article exposed how the SSNNL did that without an iota of public debate.

So what will Gujarat achieve by raising the dam height to 138 metres? More drinking water for parched throats? More irrigation water for parched farmlands? More electricity?

The answers to all these questions have quietly been flowing with the Narmada waters, perceptible only to those who would refuse to believe lies and canards spread by state propaganda and manufactured consent. The river awaits those who would wish to see for themselves the sort of lives that are lived by those on the other side of the gigantic dam wall.+

As SSNNL and the Gujarat govt urge people to spend kucch acche din to behold the overflowing Narmada dam yet again this monsoon, one may decide to not get carried away by the baritone of the icon of Indian cinema inviting them. May be it is time to recall another Bollywood of his movies from the 80s and shout along with the Narmada valley people, “Main azad hoon”.


1. NCA Status Report, December 2012

2. Setback to raise Narmada height?