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Dam lies

It started as just another VIP visit. With platoons of security guards, fleets of flashing cars and bowing bureaucrats in tow, three Ministers of the Indian Government were sent by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to assess whether villagers submerged by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) – a huge dam on the Narmada river – had been resettled properly.

So the Ministers made their way from the capital, New Delhi, to Madhya Pradesh in central India, one of the three states affected by the project. The first stop: the red-carpet welcome by Madhya Pradesh’s chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan. He assured them that all project-affected families (PAFs) would be rehabilitated by 30 June 2006. On that optimistic note, Saifuddin Soz (Minister of Water Resources), Meira Kumar (Minister of Social Justice and Empowerment) and Prithviraj Chavan (from the Prime Minister’s office) set out to visit the submerging villages.

What they experienced shocked them. Their conversations with people at resettlement sites provoked them to write an honest, scathing report exposing the State Government’s lies. Their report – written confidentially – has just been published in The Hindu newspaper.

The Sardar Sarovar project will have 30 big dams, 135 medium dams and 3,000 small dams. The cost is high – the Government list contains 51,445 families that will be displaced by the project, while its critics estimate that, once completed, the dams will have displaced 700,000 people. While the Supreme Court had ordered that displaced families must be compensated with land, the Madhya Pradesh Government had little land to give. To some, the Government had offered barren land. The Ministerial team met only two families who had accepted, while 405 had refused.

To others, the Government was pushing cash compensation. But the money isn’t enough to buy even two acres (0.8 hectares) let alone the five to which they are entitled. In addition, the Ministers were shocked to learn that for every 100,000 rupee ($2,232) of cash compensation given, the Government was deducting 90,000 rupees as income tax. ‘A bribe of 20,000 rupees had to be paid for the receipt of every cheque given,’ reported the Ministers.

Dharmapur – the largest resettlement site, touted as a success story – turned out to be the worst example of Government inaction, reported the Ministers. ‘It was not possible for anyone to live there as no infrastructure had been built... not a single plot of land has been occupied by any PAF... [even though] in official papers it has been indicated that the PAFs have been settled.’

But this damning report – together with its central recommendation that the dam height should not be raised any further until resettlement is complete – has failed to halt the rising waters. The Narmada Control Authority has decided to raise the dam height from 110.76 to 121.92 metres. This will drown the homes of another 8,987 families. Throughout April, two displaced people, Jamsing Nargave and Bhagwatibai Jatpuria, and their leader Medha Patkar from the Narmada Bachao Andolan – a group fighting for the rights of displaced – undertook a 20-day hunger strike in Delhi in protest. In a bizarre twist, they were sent to hospital during the fast and then arrested for attempting suicide. The charges completely mis-state their plight – it is the Government that threatens their survival by drowning entire villages.

A longer version of this article can be found on the NI website – Read more about Narmada at: ; ; ; and

New Internationalist issue 390 magazine cover This article is from the June 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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