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Resolving the Narmada conflict

By Mihir Shah

FOLLOWING THE Supreme Court judgment on Narmada, there has been outrage at what is seen as a regressive verdict. The learned lordships have grossly overstated the case for big dams, ignoring a huge amount of relevant research and data. Even the strongest votaries of big dams admit that the history of resettlement of Project Affected Persons (PAPs) in India does not inspire confidence. Without an iota of evidence, however, the judges take a contrary view. Completely overlooking the Government's own statistics that 75 per cent of those displaced have not been properly rehabilitated in the last 50 years.

Because most responses have attacked the judgment, the impression is that the verdict completely ignores the concerns of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). Unfortunately, the NBA itself by aggressively attacking the Court has given credence to such a view. What needs to be highlighted is the remarkable fact that even a judgment so unreasonably favourable to big dams, is unable to ignore the concerns of the NBA.

I quote from the directions of the ``majority'' judgment: ``...further raising of the height will be only pari passu with the implementation of the relief and rehabilitation and on clearance by the Relief and Rehabilitation Sub-Group. The R&R Sub-Group will give clearance of further construction after consulting the Grievances Redressal Authorities (GRAs).''``The Environment Sub-Group will consider and give, at each stage of the construction of the dam, environment clearance before further construction beyond 90 metres can be undertaken.'' ``The reports of the GRAs and of Madhya Pradesh in particular, shows that there is considerable slackness in the work of identification of land, acquisition of suitable land and the consequent steps necessary to be taken to rehabilitate the project oustees.'' ``The NCA will within 4 weeks from today draw up an Action Plan in relation to further construction and the relief and rehabilitation work to be undertaken.'' ``The Review Committee shall meet at least once in three months so as to oversee the progress of construction of the dam and implementation of the R&R programmes.''

Never in the history of independent India has any development project been subject to the kind of continuous review proposed for Sardar Sarovar by the Supreme Court. Clearly the implementers of the project cannot be trusted for more than a height of five metres or even a period of three months! The Supreme Court has laid down that ``resettlement and rehabilitation has to be done at least six months in advance of submersion, complete in all respects''. This pari passu condition is most unlikely to be complied with. In his first recorded response to the Supreme Court verdict, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh said: ``One of the main clauses of the award of the Narmada Tribunal is that all project affected people should get land in lieu of land. The main problem is that we do not have any arable land to give to the oustees''.

This stark statement of the Government of Madhya Pradesh makes it impossible now for anyone to assert that rehabilitation of PAPs is possible in accordance with the law. The Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) must, therefore, be reconsidered on this ground, if not any other. The dam as presently designed is unimplementable. Does this mean, though, that the people of Gujarat are not entitled to Narmada water? With due respect to the NBA, the answer to the question is a simple ``no''. For one thing, the dam already stands at a height of over 250 feet. The challenge is to redesign the dam. The Supreme Court rules out the possibility of redesign by accepting the argument of ``non-reviewability'' of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal award. This makes no sense. All kinds of modifications have already been made and always have to be made in projects of this kind. It is 20 years since the Tribunal award and crucial parameters with a bearing on design such as water availability in the river, have changed in the intervening period.

So a redesign must be attempted. Especially because a technically-sound blueprint of such a redesign already exists. This alternative blueprint not only meets the urgent water requirements of the people of Gujarat, it also drastically reduces the burden of submergence for the PAPs, who mainly live in Madhya Pradesh. The redesign is particularly important in view of the fact that the present Sardar Sarovar is not meant to take irrigation water to most of the drought-prone areas of Saurashtra and Kutch. Their claim is only to drinking water. But do we need such a huge dam just for drinking water? No, there are ways of bringing this water here, which do not involve the building of such a destructive dam.

If, after the judgment, the project implementers take the view that they have no reason to compromise because it will be all smooth sailing from now on, they are gravely mistaken. There are real people being devastated by the dam. And today, thanks to the NBA, they have found a voice. They exist; they are not a fiction. The land required for legally resettling them, however, is a fiction; it does not exist. So it would be no surprise to see them moving the Supreme Court to hold it accountable to its own verdict, asking it to stop work on the dam which threatens their right to life.

At the same time the NBA must recognise that local water harvesting is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for overcoming drought in the excessively low rainfall areas of Saurashtra and Kutch. It must also affirm the right of the people of Gujarat to the water of the Narmada, especially those of its people who need it most, who are being excluded by the current Sardar Sarovar.

It is probably best to freeze the dam at its present height, at which the R&R of PAPs is already proving difficult. The NBA must now pay greater attention to ensuring that the rights of already displaced PAPs are not trampled over. It is no longer meaningful to say koi nahin hatega, baandh nahin banega (no one will move, the dam will not be built). The dam has been built, the PAPs are being illegally thrown out. Some one has to ensure this does not carry on. At the same time, a new water policy for Gujarat needs to be formulated that includes massive watershed development and micro-irrigation programmes, along with a redesigned Sardar Sarovar.

The fact is that we have never involved the people of this country in making policies that affect their lives. Movements such as the NBA are forcing Governments to advance in this direction. And there is a real urgency to these issues. We have all seen the terrible consequences for millions of working people of a Master Plan for Delhi that was devised and is sought to be implemented without the involvement of the people of the city. Even more dangerous is the move to amend the Land Acquisition Act, as also the Vth Schedule of the Constitution, to denotify tribal lands so that these can be transferred to non-tribals (read MNCs), all in the name of ``second (or is it third) generation reforms''.

It is now for some of those who can express concern for issues in a manner that brings people together to rise to the occasion. Who better than Baba Amte, the spearhead of the Knit India movement? Who better than the President of the Republic, as committed as any other Indian to the plight of the tribal people, to create the necessary political will, to move the warring parties on to a path of reconciliation?

The western liberal tradition of conflict resolution, based on the framework of rights, can only go some of the way. The history of humankind has witnessed other more ``needs and consensus'' based modes of decision making, such as those of tribal communities. May be we need to follow them to find a way out of the impasse, which remains where it was, even after the verdict of the Supreme Court.

(The writer is an activist working among the tribals of the Narmada Valley in Madhya Pradesh.)

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