Narmada review: Break or breakthrough?

Narmada review: Break or breakthrough? The Union government has made yet another feeble attempt at a dialogue with opponents of the Rs 13,000-crore Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). Union water resources minister V C Shukla was forced to heed the demands of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) for a comprehensive review of the project after its leader Medha Patkar went on a hunger strike and it launched a media blitz highlighting "human rights violations" by project authorities, the police and the four state governments involved in the project.

Patkar's fast was prompted by the Maharashtra government's crackdown on anti-dam protestors that began May 29 at Manibeli, a village in Dhule district that would have been the first to be submerged this monsoon by the now 61-metre-high dam. When anti-dam protestors under the banner of the Manibeli Satyagraha and Samparpan Dal said they would drown with the village, the government prohibited outsiders from entering Manibeli and banned gatherings there. Simultaneously, 800 police were deployed in the village "to maintain law and order".

When police and some labourers tried to demolish a hut that would have been the first to go under water, they were stopped by activists and villagers (See box). The hut "had to be dismantled and shifted," said Anoop Kumar, additional collector (rehabilitation) of Dhule. The hut was demolished amid protests on June 3 and 12 activists were arrested.

A day earlier, Patkar started her fast in Bombay to "protest police atrocities" in Manibeli. Bombay was chosen for its greater visibility and for easier access to her and NBA activists. On June 4, Narmadai, NBA's headquarters in the Manibeli, was demolished, giving Patkar and her supporters additional reason to continue the fast and step up the media campaign.
Demands accepted Patkar called off her fast after 15 days -- only when Shukla made a written offer for talks and agreed to some of NBA's demands -- inclusion of three or four independent experts in the talks and a comprehensive review of the project. Two other conditions -- specifying which organisations would implement decisions taken at the talks and the stoppage of work -- were complied with later. The Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL), the organisation constructing the dam, was named the decision-implementing agency. But Shukla did not make commitments about stopping the work, something NBA is not worried about for the moment because construction is halted during the monsoon anyway.

The ministry of water resources has an open mind to the talks, fixed for June 29. Explains a senior ministry official connected with SSP, "We had earlier offered to discuss issues related to rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) as well as the environment, but Patkar wanted a much broader agenda."

However, the talks aren't likely to resolve the issue. A major problem for Shukla will be to get the four state governments involved in the project -- Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh -- to agree to a review.Explains Arun Kumar Singh of Other Media, a group that supports NBA, "The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) award, under whose formula the water from SSP will be shared, cannot be reviewed till 2025 unless all four states agree to do so."

Gujarat chief minister Chimanbhai Patel announced June 23 in Gandhinagar he would boycott the talks because neither the state nor the Union government is authorised to review the project or reduce the height of the dam. For Patel, the SSP is a question of political survival. In fact, support for the SSP is so strong in Gujarat that there have been demonstrations for more water. The state also has an attractive R&R deal.

Nonetheless, NBA intends to pressure the government through the media and the courts to review the project.

Simultaneously with the developments in Bombay and Manibeli, the Human Rights Campaign on Narmada (HRCN), was launched in the Capital. Headed by Manoranjan Mohanty, political science professor at Delhi University, HRCN consists of 40 organisations, including the People's Union for Civil Liberties, the People's Union for Democratic Rights, the People's Rights Organisation, Citizens for Democracy, Other Media and Delhi Forum.

After the withdrawal of World Bank funding for the project in March *** (Down To Earth, April 30, 1993), the main plank of protest being used by both NBA and HRCN is the violation of human rights in R&R. Previous campaigns centred around environmental issues as well, but they have not been raised to the same extent this time.

The issues include loss of 140 plant species as well as forest land and increased seismicity in the region. The command area could get affected by waterlogging and soil salinisation.

Himangshu Takkar of Parivartan, a Baroda-based group supporting NBA, says the violation of court orders on rehabilitation by the Gujarat government and SSNNL was one of the reasons for forming HRCN.

The Supreme Court in 1990 and the Gujarat High Court in 1993 stated rehabilitation must be completed at least six months before submergence, something the authorities have disregarded. Ignoring rules and court orders, SSNNL is going all out to evict villages that will be submerged during the monsoon.

HRCN sent a series of observer teams to Manibeli to "monitor events and any violations of human rights," said Mohanty. C S Kalra, executive member of the People's Rights Organisation and Mohanty visited Manibeli May 27-29 and they and subsequent teams reported human rights abuses.

NBA activists optimistic
Says NBA activist Rahul Ram, "While aware that the struggle will face greater repression by the Gujarat government, we have faith in the Indian Constitution and the ability of the Indian people to influence the government. We are hopeful the Indian state will respond favourably to our demand for a review of the project and a halt to all construction."

There is no contradiction in terms between NBA's earlier drive for stopping the dam and the current human-rights campaign. "Observers have said," says New Delhi-based NBA supporter Ashish Kothari, "agitating on human rights and other related issues will detract NBA's original objective of stopping the dam altogether."

But NBA advocate Girish Patel feels the two go together. "The fact that improper rehabilitation is a vio- lationof the basic right to self-deter- mination implies that work on the dam must stop pending proper reha- bilitation," he says.

Waning support
Whatever the outcome of the talks, there are doubts whether NBA can keep its support for long against government pressure. Support for NBA's campaign is decidedly mixed, as a tour of the 12 villages in Maharashtra that will be partially or totally sub- merged during the monsoon shows.

Certain pockets, notably Manibeli and Chimalkhedi villages, are all for staying put. In Chimalkhedi, villagers are building houses in the submergence area and have even stockpiled wood .'for future construction". Says Dhuvia Mogia, "I will not shift even if the waters inundate my house, because Medha behn has said so."

Others like Mavishya Damijya, who saw three resettlement colonies, have also decided against shifting. Says Damijya,