Sardar Sarovar Dam

The Final Challenge

Rahul Banerjee

Possibly the greatest saga of anarchist people’s struggles against the power of the capitalist state in independent India has now reached a critical stage. The Supreme Court in a judgment delivered on February 7th 2017 had ordered that the gates of the Sardar Sarovar Dam (SSP) on the River Narmada in Gujarat would be finally closed on July 31st 2017 thus impounding water in the dam upto the full reservoir level. The gates had been installed but could not be closed because there were a few families in Madhya Pradesh who had not been rehabilitated properly and they had filed a complaint in the Supreme Court for redress. This was because in the original judgment of the Supreme Court in 2000, on the petition by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) against the construction of the dam, there was a rider that the construction of the dam could take place only if those affected by it were compensated in accordance with the provisions of the Narmada Water DisputesTribunal (NWPT) Award.

This award most importantly stipulated that the project affected farmers whose land was to be submerged were to be provided with a minimum of two hectares of irrigated land and other facilities in a place of their choice. Since this was a contentious issue the construction of the dam proceeded slowly as and when the affected people were rehabilitated to their satisfaction and the NBA did its best to bring to the notice of the Supreme Court from time to time any violation of its orders by the Governments of India, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The final push for the installation of the gates of the dam was given by the Bharatiya Janata Party led National Democratic Alliance Government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as one of its first decisions after coming to power at the centre in 2014. Even so about 700 families remained in Madhya Pradesh who had not taken any compensation whatsoever because suitable land had not been provided to them and there were another 1500 families who had taken some compensation but had issues with what they had got. The Supreme Court finally disposed of the case by ordering that the 700 families who had not got any compensation whatsoever would be given Rs 60 lakh while those who had taken some compensation would be given Rs 15 lakh less what they had already received. All these payments would have to be made by July 31st 2017 and the gates closed after that.

While this was a fairly good bonanza for those who had not taken any compensation or land, thousands of landless families of agricultural labourers or those engaged in other non-farm occupations were left high and dry. The Gujarat Government consequently welcomed the order as it said that the total compensation burden would be only about Rs 600 croe or so and the benefits would be much more. That is even though the overall benefit to cost analysis of the dam, as it stands today, is negative but a lot of benefits are not accruing because the gates cannot be closed and that is a sore point with the Gujarat Government which has already spent many thousands of crores on the project.

The NBA, which had used the legal channel to bolster its mass struggle since 1995, and had quite doggedly stalemated the dam, brought up the issue of the lack of fair compensation for the 18000 or so families who are yet to be rehabilitated but who are not farmers. The NBA has been mobilising people in the valley and outside across India and the world ever since the recent judgment of the Supreme Court on the issue of lack of justice for the vast number of non-farmer families. Another rally for the valley, possibly the last one of many such rallies held earlier throughout the over three decades of struggle, began from June 5th 2017, which incidentally has world environment day, to mobilise opinion against the threats being issued by the Madnya Pradesh Government to the people in the valley to vacate their lands and habitations before July 31st 2017 and the possibility of huge police force being deployed to carry out these threats.

That the struggle has sustained for such a long time has been due to the tireless and brave efforts of a number of people under the leadership of Medha Patkar. One such stalwart who has been with the NBA almost from its inception is Devram Kanera.

Devrambhai is now in his sixties and suffering from many ailments but that has not in any way reduced his vigour in fighting the dam. He has given up everything and lived for the struggle. He is an affected farmer who is going to lose his land and long back he gave up farming to become a full time activist living a life of struggle and hardships. He still tries to break through police barriers during protests much more vigorously than activists many years younger to him. One by one many of his fellow activists have accepted compensation and given up the struggle but not Devrambhai.

The long struggle over three decades began initially as a demand for proper rehabilitation in accordance with the NWDT award but it soon became clear to the NBA that the SSP was both financially and environmentally unsustainable and had been foisted on the people on the basis of a faulty cost benefit analysis that inflated benefits and underestimated costs. Thus, the struggle soon became one to stop the dam altogether. Due to the petition in the Supreme Court in 1995, the work on the dam was indeed stayed for five years before the Supreme Court allowed its construction again on the condition that proper rehabilitation of the project affected people was done. As a result over the years most of the people affected by the project who were farmers were rehabilitated with alternative land and other facilities or were given monetary compensation so that the rehabilitation process for this dam, even if still deficient, is without doubt the best for a large dam in this country. In the process of struggle, the NBA was able to mobilise people from outside the valley in India and abroad and raise awareness about sustainable people centred development globally to become an iconic mass environmental movement of global proportions even if still being rooted in the Narmada valley.

However, given the power of the state, the situation has now become very critical. The Supreme Court has washed its hands off the case and is not likely to entertain any further petitions. If there are some people who have not been paid the compensation ordered by it then at the most the court will ensure that they do get the compensation but it will not stop the closing of the gates of the dam and so full submergence will in all probability take place soon. So the landless labourers and people of other non-farm occupations will have no option but to move out without fair compensation. Thus, a mass struggle that has achieved much for the people in the Narmada valley and for the country as a whole by questioning destructive modern development and unsustainable water resource management, is now faced with a final challenge.

Vol. 49, No.51, Jun 25 - Jul 1, 2017