Water levels rising at an alarming speed, hundreds of villages permanently submerged, livelihoods lost even as the prime minister calls the rise of the water, at such a high human cost, “historic”. An indefinite hunger fast continues for the sixth day
Water levels are dangerously rising in the Narmada valley. And a feisty band of protesters stick it out, protesting, in the face of danger of rising waters and disease. Day before yesterday, on Wednesday, August 28, when water levels rose to an unprecedented 134 metres, the most appalling was the reaction of the prime minister, who called this alarming development as “historic”. Modi issued an invitation to people to visit the statue of unity. The dam authorities have said that this was the highest water level after the height of the dam was raised to 138 metres in 2017.
“The government has brought in beggars to some sites and claims that people have been resettled, while people are forced to stay in small islands as water fills up. Since the water is stagnant, it has become dirty. If one stays for some time in the water, it starts to itch. There is no groundwater and people are using this dirty water even to drink. There is no electricity and one has to travel by boats if one can get hold of one,” NAPM activist Bilal Khan told SabrangIndia.
Leading activist, Medha Patkar and ten other affected persons are sitting on an indefinite strike supported by thousands of villagers and have appealed for global solidarity.
Anticipating submergence of as many as two lakh people, the thirty year old resistance movement in the region, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has started a “Global Solidarity Petition to Narmada” and its longest veteran leader and former member of the World Commission on Dams, Medha Patkar along with women leaders from the region have entered the sixth day of their indefinite hunger strike. They have called upon the government of India and Gujarat to “immediately halt this colossal calamity of wiping away two lakh people, as if they were 'dispensable insects’”.
Rohit Singh, an activist from the region said, “Medha Tai’s heath is deteriorating but she won’t break her strike. Waters have already impacted villages. 400 villages in Nisarpur, 50 villages in Chikalda and 100 villages in Rajghat have already submerged in water. As many as 60 -70 villages have been impacted. If the water level rises to 138 metres all the villages will get submerged.” Rohit also added that the livelihood of the people in the region has been completely disrupted and small shops have closed.
As many as 192 villages in Madhya Pradesh, 33 in Maharashtra and 19 in Gujarat fall under the submergence zone.
This year, the Narmada Control Authority decided to fill its reservoir to its full capacity reportedly to “test the water pressure on the dam.” As per its predictions, the water level was supposed to reach 134 metres by August 3, and 138.6 metres by October 8. However, the water has already reached the 134 metres mark.
Earlier, activists from the long standing Narmada movement had predicted that if the water level keeps increasing at this alarming speed, as many as 32,000 families stand at the risk of facing a “water calamity”.
How did we reach here?
Reportedly, the managing director of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL), Rajiv Gupta said earlier that it was “essential to test the dam at Full Reservoir Level (FRL)” as this had not been done since the gates were installed in 2017.” He had also said that the state government will adhere to the norms laid down in the dam safety manual while filling the dam to FRL in the next 50 days.” Notably, in his own words dam hasn’t been “tested at FRL because of deficient rainfall in earlier years.” However, past experience suggests that authorities are usually ill prepared to handle any disasters which may come in the way, especially a flood like situation.
Moreover, activists have also alleged that any reports that people have been evacuated or sent to safe places, are “complete and utter lies.” They have said that since the time strike started, no government officials have come and met the people at the dam site and that there has been a complete apathy and callous indifference from the government’s side.
Past experiences with dams and floods
An analytical report published by the environmental magazine Down To Earth in 2015 had pointed out that one problem faced by dam operators is that “filling the reservoir early in the monsoon may result in excess discharge and floods later on”. In 2015, in the case of Hirakud dam on the river Mahanadi, a large quantum release from its reservoir displaced as many as two million people in 20 of state’s 30 districts.
The report had also highlighted activists’ concerns that the operators sitting in hot spot are often slow in reacting to information on inflow of water and rainfall in the catchment. It also noted the “typical” response by authorities, “there was a sudden influx of water due to incessant rains in the catchment; there is no way to avert these disasters”.
A disregard for foretold destruction
Despite all past experiences and a strong demand from the people to keep the water level at 122 metres, the authorities, with the support of the Central government, have gone ahead and are letting the water level rise at a speed that is certain to impact the lakhs of people settled here along with their cattle and livelihood.
The dam impacts three states namely Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. Activists allege that because of the apathy of Gujarat government, even the MP and Maharashtra governments are not doing anything. Recently, the Chief of Secretary of Madhya Pradesh had written to the Narmada Control Authority (NCA), in which they predicted that a total of 6,000 families from 76 villages are residing in the submergence area. Up to 8,500 applications, of which up to 2,952 are for farmlands and other entitlements for compensation of Rs. 60 lakhs, as directed by the Apex Court are still pending, as per the letter.
However, the NBA estimates that there are as many as 32,000 families or even more which are awaiting entitlements including alternative land/ compensation for land acquired from Adivasis and farmers, house plots, a range of amenities at the resettlement sites, rehabilitation grants and livelihoods especially for the multitudes of Dalits and landless workers, fisher people, potters, boats people, small traders and artisans.
The people’s movement also alleges that a massive scam of more than Rs. 1000 crores in the rehabilitation process is “being ignored to shield the mighty and powerful while the people on the ground bear the brunt of it!”A high level judicial commission had indicted the government for grave violations earlier.
“It is indeed a cruel and unjustifiable irony that despite a robust legal framework that exists with the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal Award, 1979 and the multiple judgements of the Supreme Court, especially that of 2000 & 2005 to ensure complete rehabilitation of the residents of the submergence area before impoundment of reservoir, even the minimal rehabilitation that has happened so far has been only after protracted and relentless struggle”, the activists lament.
The MP government wrote to the Centre to reconsider the decision of filling up the dam to its full capacity. However, the activists allege, the Union Government, prompted by Gujarat appears to be unrelenting and keen on permanently inundating the valley within a few weeks.
The land that stands the risk of submergence is located within the fifth schedule area, and is constitutionally protected and the President of India is under a mandate to safeguard it.
Meanwhile, the PM has termed the news as “thrilling” and said, “Sharing some breathtaking view, with the hope that you will go visit the iconic place and see the ‘Statue of Unity’”.
The global solidarity petition can be signed here:
Key demands in the petition are:
a) Direct the Narmada Control Authority to maintain the water level in the SSP reservoir at 122 metres.
b) Halt the hasty decision to close the dam gates until complete, lawful and fair rehabilitation of all the 32,000 families is ensured.
c) Provide interim relief to the thousands of families already affected by the inundation.
d) Constitute an independent high-powered committee to assess the scale and status of compliance on rehabilitation and environmental measures, before proceeding further with the dam work, in terms of the judgement of the Apex Court of Oct, 2000.