Damnation: As Modi Inaugurates the Sardar Sarovar Dam, Villagers Await Rehabilitation Amid Rising Waters

By Harsha Vadlamani | 17 September 2017

In mid August, in Kakrana village in Madhya Pradesh’s Alirajpur district, local revenue officials directed its residents to demolish their own homes. Failing this, the officials told the locals, they would bring in JCB machines to tear everything down. Kirta Bhaila, a 38-year-old man who owns a small grocery shop, said the officials warned the residents of his quarter: “Nothing will be left of your belongings and the goods in your kirana store if we bring in the machines.”

The residents were being evicted as the quarter—comprising about 17 households—fell within the submergence zone of the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, on the Narmada river. Like his neighbours, Bhaila demolished his house within a week of the revenue officials’ visit—but he did not demolish the grocery shop and a small room that had been built behind it. The other residents moved out of the area, to either seek refuge at their relatives’ homes in other parts of the village, or build temporary shelters that would not be submerged. But Bhaila and his wife Jili stayed put and stayed in the room behind the grocery shop. On 12 September, when I visited the area, it was surrounded by chest-high water. Bhaila’s room stood on elevated ground and was safe from the rising water at the time. “It does scare me,” Bhaila told me. “The water level rises by over one foot every day.”

Today, on the day of his 67th birth anniversary, the prime minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadia in Gujarat’s Narmada district, 56 years after its foundation was laid by Jawaharlal Nehru. The Sardar Sarovar is the largest dam in the Narmada Valley Project—a multipurpose river development plan that includes the construction of several dams across the river and its tributaries. The dam, whose height has been raised to nearly 139 metres from the initially planned 80 metres, is now the world’s second-largest concrete gravity dam by volume.

The Narmada endeavour is also arguably India’s most controversial development project. Over the years, several groups, most notably the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) led by the activist Medha Patkar, have challenged the construction of the dam on various grounds, particularly the environmental, economic, social and cultural damage caused due to its construction. In 1996, on a petition by the NBA, the Supreme Court issued a stay order on the dam’s construction due to environmental and rehabilitation concerns surrounding it. The construction resumed four years later, but the Supreme Court directed that the dam’s height could be raised in steps only after the people affected by the project had been resettled or rehabilitated.

The Sardar Sarovar project was declared completed on 17 June. That day, the Narmada Control Authority—an intergovernmental body responsible for implementing the directions and decisions pertaining to the Narmada project—granted the Gujarat government permission to close all gates of the dam. This led to an increase in water levels in the villages upstream of the river, extending from Gujarat, across Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh states.

In August this year, Sanjeev Kumar Balyan, the union minister of state for water resources at the time, stated in Lok Sabha that the rehabilitation and resettlement for all families affected by the dam —a total of 32,684 households in India, of which 23,614 are in Madhya Pradesh, in the government’s estimation—had been completed. But activists and displaced persons, many of whom launched protests after the June announcement, contest these figures. According to Patkar, NBA’s estimates indicate that there were at least 40,000 households in Madhya Pradesh alone affected by the project, 90 percent of which have not been fully resettled or rehabilitated, and continue to live in villages that will soon be submerged under water.

In the first two weeks of September, I travelled through the affected areas in the Barwani, Dhar, Khargone and Alirajpur districts of Madhya Pradesh. My conversations with its residents appeared to echo Patkar’s findings—most people I met, like Bhaila and Jili, were left helpless after the closing of the dam’s gates, wondering about their next course of action. Many seemed ready to leave their ancestral homes and lands, but were still waiting for their compensation and land for resettlement, while others complained of their names being struck off the list of eligible beneficiaries.

The resettlement and rehabilitation policy of the Madhya Pradesh government mandates that all affected villagers be offered monetary compensation as well as alternative parcels of land. However, only a few residents said they had received both. Bhaila told me that he had received only Rs 85,000 of the Rs 5.8 lakh that he was supposed to receive as compensation, and that he had not been allotted any land on which he could build a new house. “I will continue living here till I receive full compensation, but if the officials pressurise me too much, I may have to leave,” he said.

Those occupied as farmers and fishers said they were allotted plots in rehabilitation sites that left them without a source of living, as they were far from their fields or the river. Budhan Singh Vaskale, a 65-year-old farmer from Pichhodi in Barwani, told me he had left his land fallow because he was worried that it could be submerged any time. Vaskale added that he was offered alternative farmland in Gutal village in Gujarat’s Vadodara district, but he said he was unsure about moving to Gutal, because the area is prone to flooding.

Halting farming has affected daily-wage workers as well. Suresh Phulware, a 30-year-old Dalit daily-wage labourer from Ekkalware village in Dhar, told me that he had not gotten any work in the last three months. “A major amount of farm land is lying vacant now,” he said.

The fishermen who had access to the river have begun to face new difficulties. “We now manage to catch only two or three species against the seven-odd we caught earlier,” Radheshyam Varma, a 49-year-old resident of Chikhalda village in Dhar, told me. “We need bigger nets to reach the depths that some of these species now inhabit.”

In Dhar, I also visited Nisarpur, a village adjacent to Uri Baghri—a tributary of the Narmada. Adivasi communities from the neighbouring tribal hills would often travel to Nisarpur to go to its weekly market. At the market, I met Suresh Pradhan, a 45-year-old cloth merchant. He told me he was not too worried about the threat of flooding waters entering his store. “We are used to floods,” he said. “The last time the shop was flooded in 2013, I could move all my stock to higher ground in three hours.” Pradhan paused. “This time it will be different,” he added. “The waters won’t go back like before.”

A bridge connected crossed the village to the tribal settlements in the neighbouring hills. On 12 September, I visited Nisarpur for the second time while returning from Kakrana. There were several people standing on the bridge and observing the rising waters. A passer-by told me that water was being released from the Omkareshwar dam upstream, but an activist told me over the phone that this was false. Nevertheless, I asked Pradhan to alert me in case of any flooding that night. The next morning, I was relieved—he had not called me. Two days after I left the village, I came across several photographs uploaded to Facebook by NBA activists and local journalists. The Nisarpur bridge, the images showed, was submerged under water. On 15 September, I spoke to Pradhan over the phone. He told me his shop might get flooded soon, and that he would set up a new shop on higher ground. “But the Adivasis will not be coming in their jeeps to the market again,” he added.

Harsha Vadlamani is an independent photojournalist whose current work focuses on agrarian crises, the environment and issues of development and displacement across India. His work can be seen on http://sriharsha.in.

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