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Development or displacement?

The Indira Sagar Dam, crucial to the success of the Sardar Sarovar Project, is expected to be ready by 2005. Against this background, MEENA MENON examines the paradox of big dams and the unresolved issue of what is public purpose.

VIVEK BENDRE

FROM Harsud, the road turns into a ruined track leading to the Narmada, 22 km away. Before you reach Baldi, you see tree stumps dotting the landscape.

At Bandhaniya village, hundreds of logs cut from the surrounding forests are stacked up high. Broken down houses with gaping holes instead of windows and doors greet you at Baldi, four km before the river bank. It is among the 249 villages affected by the Indira Sagar dam near Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, and most of its residents, now scattered in different villages, are ruing the day they left.

From March to July 2003 alone, 8,000 families had to relocate and a compensation of Rs. 100 crore was paid. Till now, 54 villages have been displaced. Along with the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), the Indira Sagar and the Omkareshwar dams are a part of the 31 major dams planned along the Narmada.

It was at Harsud that on September 28, 1989, over 50,000 people had gathered for a rally against destructive development. Now, almost 14 years after that historic rally, Harsud faces submergence by the Indira Sagar dam by June 2004.

The initial opposition to the dam seems lukewarm now and the State Cabinet in January approved a plan to save Harsud by building a Rs. 250 crore wall of concrete or a guide bund around the town. But this has not found favour with the people.

The dam at Punasa , 70 km from Khandwa, is already a tourist attraction. The Indira Sagar has the largest submergence zone, and will create the biggest artificial reservoir in India.

Twelve km from the dam, on a hillock in Sarlia village, are the inhabitants of the forest village Dharikotla, the first to be displaced by the Indira Sagar project. Dhanna, who helped in the resettlement of the village, eleven years ago, is proud they have moved here. The government even relocated the Shiv mandir, he says. His son, Rajaram, is not so happy. "We have many problems here — water is still not always available and electricity is not steady. Many have moved out. Now people get more money as compensation," he says. Dinesh, a class ten student, says, "I am happy we moved otherwise we could never have gone to school."

While the rehabilitation policy clearly specifies land for land, the displaced people have been given cash. There seems to be little emphasis on community rehabilitation and people from one village have settled in different places. Jaipal Singh in Sonpur village estimates that people from his native village, Phulpiplia, have resettled in 68 different places. Basic amenities are a distant dream for many. At Manjadad village, people are already facing eviction for the second time, or jail.

At Sadiapani village, near Harsud, land was acquired for a diversionary railway line, as the existing one will be submerged. The 57-km diversion from Talwadiya to Khirkiya is almost complete now. Gopal, who lost one acre, was paid Rs. 40,000 but others in the village, who gave up six acres, are yet to be paid. People find it difficult to access their fields due to the railway line.

Nearby at Manjadad, people from 18 displaced villages are settled here, some on "encroached" land, or so the government claims. They have been served show cause notices to move, pay a fine of Rs. 1500 or even go to jail. Nayan Singh says, "In fact, officials asked me why I had made a pucca house, it would be cheaper for me to make a kachcha one as the loss would be less."

Cases of corruption and not being paid compensation are rife. Devibai said the bank officials in Khandwa were demanding Rs. 3,000 if she wanted to withdraw more money. "We have paid them Rs. 5,000 already," she says, outraged.

At Kala Phata near Khalwa, on 41.7 hectares of sprawling open land full of black rocks, people have been given 60 ft by 90 ft plots by the Government if they opted for it, instead of the cash compensation of Rs. 20,000 for their houses. The school and hospital are yet to be opened. People, some of them from Baldi village, had to agitate to demand electricity, and still lack basic amenities. The Government promised them a bazaar and ration cards but nothing has been delivered. Akhtar bi says, "The Government bulldozed us out of our homes. We feel it was better to have stayed there and drowned."

"Thank God we don't have Medha Patkar here," grins Ravindra Gupta, manager, resettlement and rehabilitation, Indira Sagar Project, National Hydroelectric Development Corporation (NHDC), at Khandwa. There was no demand for land and most of the displaced persons wanted cash," he explains. "Basic facilities can't come up instantly, it will take time, he remarks. He says, "I am not saying there are no problems but we have the machinery in place. For instance, there is a vigilance department that attends to allegations of corruption. The grievance redressal authority was also handling 3,000-4000 cases."

With a power generation capacity of 1000 MW, and a full reservoir level of 262 metres, the Rs. 6000 crore dam will submerge 40, 332 ha of forests, 44,345 ha of agricultural land (much more than Sardar Sarovar), and affect 30,739 families. And in turn, irrigate 1,23,000 hectares.

The Indira Sagar is crucial to realise the full effects of the Sardar Sarovar (SSP), Maheshwar and the Omkareshwar Projects. Without it, there would be a 28 per cent shortfall in firm power generation in SSP and also in the irrigation benefits, says Shripad Dharmadhikari, associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan.

The project has been dogged by lack of funds and initial opposition and it was only in May 1992, that real work started on the dam. On August 1, 2000, the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) and the Government of Madhya Pradesh formed a joint venture, the NHDC, with NHPC having a stake of 51 per cent, to complete the dam, expected to be ready by 2005.

For the displaced, the dam holds no promises. While stiff resistance continues against the Sardar Sarovar, Maheshwar and other dams, at Sarlia, people are proud to have moved as their children can now go to school.

At Sadiapani, a resident who works in a rice mill, gazes fondly at the railway line and says, "Never did I imagine that we would ever get a railway near our village." Then there is Ladkibai who weeps because she cannot see her beloved Narmada mai every day.

Others face eviction for the second time. In their differing views lies the paradox of big dams and the unresolved issue of what is public purpose — in which Ladkibai, or Pyar Mohammed, or you as a member of the nebulous public, have no say.

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