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BRP Bhaskar: A story of official callousness
August 08, 2017
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

The long-running struggle by poor villagers displaced by the multipurpose Narmada Valley project has entered a new phase with the arrest of renowned social activist Medha Patkar and a few others who have staked their lives to pressure the callous administration to fulfil the promise to rehabilitate them.

The project, under which 30 major dams, 135 medium ones and 3,000 small ones, were to be constructed on the 1312-kilometre-long river Narmada, was one of the largest of its kind. It was promoted as one that will irrigate two million hectares of farm land and provide drinking water to 30 million people, besides generating electricity to meet the needs of agriculture and industry.

The biggest of the dams, Sardar Sarovar, was to be in Gujarat, which was the project’s main beneficiary. Successive governments of that state exerted considerable pressure on the Centre for its implementation, arguing it was necessary to irrigate the parched lands of Kutch and Saurashtra regions.

The promoters of the project hid the fact that it would inundate 37,000 hectares of forest and agricultural land in Madhya Pradesh and deprive hundreds of thousands of people, most of them tribes living in the forests, of their homes and livelihood.

Medha Patkar visited the project area in MP in 1985 to gather material as a research scholar. Moved by the plight of the people threatened by the project, she gave up her PhD ambition and committed herself to their cause.

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Movement) which she founded has been spearheading the campaign for their rehabilitation since then.

During the last three decades the NBA mounted many mass agitations, and Medha Patkar undertook two indefinite fasts, one of which lasted 22 days, and fought a long court battle. They could not stop the project but they chalked up many victories not only for themselves but also for people elsewhere in the world who were under the shadow of mega dams.

Acting on Medha Patkar’s petition, the Supreme Court ordered that the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam must be raised in stages and that work on a new stage should be taken up only after rehabilitation of those affected by the previous stage was completed. It is another matter that the authorities circumvented this restriction by submitting false reports stating that the rehabilitation work had been completed.

In 1985 the World Bank agreed to provide $450 million towards the Narmada project’s originally estimated cost of $6 billion. After the NBA drew attention to the enormous social and human costs involved, it set up an independent committee, headed by former UN Development Programme chief Bradford Morse to review the project.

The committee said the project was flawed, resettlement of the affected people was not possible under the prevailing conditions and environmental impacts had not been adequately addressed.

Following this, the World Bank withdrew its offer of funds.

The NBA’s heroic resistance inspired groups in several countries to take a fresh look at big dam projects. This prompted the World Bank and the International Union for Conservation of Nature to set up the World Commission on Dams with a mandate to draw up comprehensive guidelines on dam building. Medha Patkar was a member of the committee.

Many of the fears voiced by critics when the mammoth project was taken up have proved to be true. The water flowing into Gujarat is used mostly in the southern regions, which already had the benefit of irrigation, and very little was reaching Saurashtra and Kutch.

Available data suggests that the benefits accruing from the project are not commensurate with the huge investment.

Recently the Centre permitted Gujarat to close the gates of the Sardar Sarovar dam. This will raise the water level in Madhya Pradesh and submerge the homes of an estimated 40,000 families in four districts of the state. The current agitation is to press for their rehabilitation.

Instead of approaching the issue from a humanitarian point of view, the state government let loose a reign of terror on the protestors. The police attacked and arrested school children who had come from different parts of the country to show their solidarity with the affected villagers.

Medha Patkar and her associates had decided to hold a rally at Rajghat where there was a Gandhi statue and a memorial to the Father of the Nation before beginning their indefinite fast on July 27. The police removed the statue and the memorial the previous night.

The Madhya Pradesh government’s representatives have met Medha Patkar in an effort to persuade her to end the fast. But they have not made any meaningful proposal regarding the rehabilitation of the affected villagers.

The state must realise that it is playing with the lives of people.

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