Shunglu committee : familiar fait accompli
Both the Supreme Court and the Prime Minister recognised that rehabilitation for Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada river was incomplete, but neither was willing to fulfil their legal responsibility to actually stop construction. Instead, the the Shunglu Committee is now "independently" investigating rehabilitation and it appears compromised, worries
03 July 2006 -
Once again this year's monsoon rains will bring destruction instead of kharif to the people of the Narmada Valley. Yet again the government has raised the height of the Sardar Sarovar (SSP) dam without providing rehabilitation to those who will be displaced. Successive dharnas by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) in Delhi, including a three week fast by Medha Patkar and dam-affected villagers Jamsingh Nargave and Bhagwatibai Patidar, have failed to make the government listen.
In May, 48 dam-affected villages presented overwhelming evidence in their Supreme Court application that rehabilitation of all affected families at the impending 122m dam height is incomplete. Both the government-appointed Group of Ministers who visited the valley and the Madhya Pradesh government in its own petition to the court confirmed this assertion. Despite all this, the Supreme Court allowed construction on the SSP to continue. It is indisputable that this decision is a direct violation of the apex court's previous decisions and relevant law.
According to the Narmada Waters Dispute Tribunal Award (NWDTA) and the Supreme Court's own decisions of 2000 and 2005, rehabilitation of all Project Affected Families (PAFs) in all three affected states (Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra) must be totally completed six months before
each successive increase in the dam height. Anyone who cares can look this up in the original NWDTA decision and also the Supreme Court's 2000 and 2005 decisions. Construction on the dam thus cannot legally precede full rehabilitation of affected families.
The Shunglu Committee
Both the apex court and the Prime Minister recognised that rehabilitation was incomplete, but neither was willing to fulfil their legal responsibility to stop construction. Instead, the Prime Minister created, and the Supreme Court endorsed, an Oversight Group (known as the Shunglu Committee) to "independently" investigate the rehabilitation situation in the Narmada Valley. The Court indicated that it would be willing to stop construction if the committee finds rehabilitation to be incomplete.
First, this decision employs a very strange logic. The Shunglu Committee was supposed to report back to the Prime Minister about the rehabilitation status in the valley by 20 June (this has since been delayed). Based on this report, the Prime Minister is supposed to issue a recommendation within seven days to the Supreme Court, which is expected to make a decision by July 3. Even if the committee finds that rehabilitation is incomplete (which it will if it conducts its mission in good faith), by this time construction up to 122 m will be finished!
This means that regardless of the committee's findings, over 35,000 families in the Narmada Valley will see their homes, fields, and communities flooded before the vast majority of them are given their legally guaranteed rehabilitation. It must be stated again that this is entirely illegal according to the NWDTA and the Supreme Court's previous decisions.
Furthermore, as history shows, without the threat of stopping construction, the states have no incentive to actually provide the required rehabilitation to project affected families. Thus, lakhs of adivasis displaced at 110m, 100m, 90m and below are still languishing without alternative livelihoods to turn to, as any trip to the Narmada Valley will show.
Second, the survey of dam-affected villages that the Shunglu Committee has been conducting with the help of the National Sample Survey Organization (NSSO) is methodologically flawed in several ways. First, the instructions given to the committee by the Court only allow it to investigate whether those affected between the 110 and 122 metre dam heights have been rehabilitated. However, it is clear that lakhs of people below that height are still unrehabilitated due to past illegal height increases. Further, the committee is only allowed to verify the information presented in the state's rehabilitation reports and cannot look beyond them.
Even if the committee finds that rehabilitation is incomplete (which it will if it conducts its mission in good faith), by this time construction up to 122 m will be finished!
Thus the committee is not investigating the status of affected people who are not on the government's official lists. But one of the biggest problems with rehabilitation in the Narmada Valley is that thousands of people have been entirely left off the official PAF lists! Even as the committee is in the valley on its investigation, Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) officials are also there, resurveying and adding hundreds of more people to the lists daily. But none of these people will be shown in the committee's report. Gramsabhas have also conducted comprehensive sample surveys in four villages, which show many more people affected by submergence than are on the government's PAF lists.
But the Shunglu Committee refuses to take all these into consideration.
Third, the way the surveyors are asking questions guarantee that they will miss much of what's happening in the Narmada Valley. The surveyors are only asking people yes or no questions, and thus not allowing villages to provide open-ended answers that would shed light on the real rehabilitation realities that people are facing. For example, in one village an interviewee reported that he had not received compensation for his soon-to-be submerged house. Instead of noting this, the surveyor asked him if he had received a houseplot. The interviewee responded that he had on paper, but had not received compensation for his house and thus could not build a new one, and that moreover there were no civic amenities like electricity at the site. But the surveyor simply recorded that the person had received a houseplot! In another example, surveyors refused to listen to villagers who were trying to tell them that their land would become tapu (surrounded by water) because they did not have a column for that on their survey. Without open eyes and ears, how is the committee supposed to understand the actual situation in the valley?
Reports from many villages also indicate grave and inappropriate behaviour by government surveyors, which severely call into question their "independence" and impartialness. While surveyors are not supposed to be accompanied by government patwaris, NVDA officials have been seen with almost every team. Clearly this is inappropriate influence by an agency that has a vested interest in continued dam construction. Meanwhile, villagers not being directly surveyed and the people's representative organisation (the NBA) are not allowed to talk to surveyors. Even more disturbing, surveyors have been propagandising and even making speeches to villagers about the dam project. Some surveyors have encouraged villages to accept the meager (and illegal) cash compensation that the government of Madhya Pradesh is offering instead of demanding the land they are legally entitled to. In another village, one of the surveyors (who happened to be from Gujarat) actually gave a speech to PAFs about how the dam was in the national interest and that they should make a sacrifice for it. Another told them that they should move to Gujarat. Is this an impartial survey or propaganda for illegal government policies? The Shunglu Committee appears not to be an independent investigation, but a stalling tactic, allowing dam construction to proceed before full rehabilitation is completed.
The patent absurdity of all this would make the situation comic if it weren't so tragic. When the monsoon waters back up behind the 122m dam wall, many thousands of people will be flooded from their homes. Small adivasi villages and densely populated towns of Nimad will be submerged, along with their shops, markets, and temples. Farmers will lose their fields and crops, and since the concerned governments do not recognise many of them as affected, they will be shoved off without compensation or alternative land to turn to for their livelihood. Those who are identified as affected will be dumped in tin sheds with no cultivable land if they are lucky (even these tin shed homes have yet to be constructed in many of the rehabilitation sites). Others who are not officially counted could wind up in the slums of the nearest cities, as happened to many evictees of the upstream Bargi Dam. How many this will happen to is hard to predict as it depends on the size of the monsoon rains. But it's a lot more people than all three state governments are recognising, and is certainly measured in lakhs.
Given the sheer number of oustees and the gaping holes in the governments' rehabilitation plans, it is impossible that this could be corrected before the August-September submergence, even if the governments were making an effort. The Group of Ministers team sent to the Narmada Valley by the Prime Minister reported that rehabilitation in Madhya Pradesh at the 122m dam height would take at least another year.
The government must take several steps immediately. First, the problems with the Shunglu committee's investigation must be acknowledged. Whatever the committee's conclusions, it is already clear that their survey will provide only a very partial and incomplete picture of the rehabilitation situation in the Narmada Valley. The committee's final report should take into consideration the information and critiques brought to light by the gramsabhas and the NBA.
Two, with the impending monsoon rains, the government must act on war-footing to provide rehabilitation to those who will be displaced.
The glaring injustice and illegality of this must also serve as a lesson for next year, when the government will again try to push the dam height to 140 metres. But the law is clear. No further height increase should be allowed until it is shown that every family in the submergence area has received its full, legally-guaranteed rehabilitation. So far, the Supreme Court, the Prime Minister, and the three respective state governments have all failed to live up to their responsibility to enforce the law and protect the rights of people in the Narmada Valley.
Mike Levien is a Ph D Student in Sociology at the University of California-Berkeley. He can be reached at mlevien @ berkeley.edu. He has recently been travelling in the dam-affected villages and rehabilitation sites of the Narmada Valley, where he has spoken with dam-affected people. He previously spent a year in 2003-2004 writing about the Sardar Sarovar Project and Narmada Bachao Andolan.