Not even a fig-leaf of legality
The dam site on the Maan River swarms with workers. Among them are local tribals, women and children. Because of drought and need, they are working for a pittance on the monolith that will impound the river. They are like the condemned, building their own gibbet. For the dam will flood their lands and homes. It is growing by one foot a day, in a breakneck effort to complete it by this year’s monsoon.
The work on the dam is in total violation of Madhya Pradesh’s laws and policies. Yet it goes on. Two years ago, after a lengthy Andolan sit-in and fast – dharna – in Bhopal, a government order stopped work at Maan until resettlement on a ‘land for land’ basis was complete. A Committee was constituted to plan and carry out the resettlement programme for the 17 adivasi villages to be submerged. Not only is resettlement not complete. It has not even begun.
Things were quiet after the dharna of May 1999. Too quiet. The Rehabilitation Committee never even met. In October 2000 work on the dam re-started. It is no coincidence that the Supreme Court verdict on the Sardar Sarovar also came in October. Funds for Maan come from the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development. Impunity is the name of the game.
A mass protest rally was held in January, and a government order compelled the work to stop. But in early February, Chief Minister Digvijay Singh over-ruled it. Thus the Chief Minister ordered the violation of his own state laws and policies. Worse, police were sent to threaten the villagers and force them to quit their homes. The case for their eviction is that they already accepted cash compensation years ago. But that distribution was an abuse of their rights since the policy is ‘land for land’. It was never even explained properly what the money was for.
Most people in the valley say they are not going to leave. Altogether 993 adivasi families will lose either their houses, or fields, or both in the coming monsoon. But nonetheless they have ploughed their land – this is river-basin land, rich and fertile – and made ready for the planting season. Neem and tamarind trees stand tall, while fruit trees below are waiting for the rains. The parched countryside is laid out ready for its usual burst into bloom. The farmers’ work is an act of faith which leaves you marvelling. Until you remember that they have no choice. What else can they do?
They might make the dam-building stop.
Alok Agarwal from the Andolan is here at the village Khedi-Balwadi. A yatra – march – through the villages is about to begin. Meetings will discuss what dam-busting action to take next. A week ago, villagers and activists stormed the offices of the National Bank of Agriculture in Bhopal. Its officials agreed to withhold the next tranche of money for the dam until rehabilitation was complete. But will they? While the marchers gather, Alok and I talk.
‘After the capture of Maheshwar dam site in 1998, the government Task Force also reviewed other Narmada Valley dams. Here at Maan, it was found that 54 per cent of the proposed command area was already irrigated and much of the rest is not irrigable – too hilly.’ The Andolan has done a full analysis and found that the total extra land the dam will bring under irrigation is 4,000 hectares, about a quarter of the proposed command area. This area could almost certainly be irrigated using other methods: storage tanks, lift irrigation from the river or from wells. Instead, 5,000-6,000 people and nearly 1,000 hectares of rich, already irrigated soils will be inundated at a cost to the public purse of Rs.108 crores ($23.5 million). You shake your head in disbelief.
‘The 1999 dharna in Bhopal achieved many things,’ Alok continues. ‘Not just rehabilitation for Maan but promises to look at alternatives to the dams at Goi and Veda and review the Narmada Sagar. All these are being rescinded since the Supreme Court judgement. Now they can do what they like – we won’t take them to court.’ The Rehabilitation Committee for Maan met for the first time in February and the meeting was a farce. ‘The only thing they will do for those to be submerged is provide a camp for four months and pay them half-day labourer wages. That is it! This is in total violation of their rehabilitation policy. When we pointed this out they said too bad, they will simply change it. But the existing policy is a condition of Union Government environmental clearance.’ The state authorities don’t seem to care.
At Maan, sadly, the Supreme Court decision is not paving the way for a new era of open debate about democracy and development alternatives. Here, it is being used to close down discussion and as a license to oppress – exclude, even ethnically cleanse? – tribal peoples. The Andolan has been wounded and the authorities are trying to inflict a coup de grâce. ‘We have limited resources, we cannot reach everywhere,’ says Alok.
The yatra begins. The marchers set off with banners and flags. They sing slogans: ‘The Maan dam is a waste, so kick out this waste from here! The Maan dam, what will it do? It will destroy our lives and our living!’ We follow behind in a jeep, sand and dust whirling and the sound of their slogans drifting plaintively back on the wind.
At the first meeting the villagers of Retiyaon agree that the only thing to do is to invade the dam site. As usual, the women are the most resolute. ‘We are not frightened to face the police,’ they tell me. ‘We have not committed any crime so why should we fear them? It is they who will be afraid!’ Some are very seasoned. They have been to Delhi, to protest against the Supreme Court decision, even from this remote corner of Narmada. When the meeting is over, marchers set off to the next village with reinforcements. Again banners and slogans: ‘We will fight and we will win!’
On 21 March, just before dawn, several hundred villagers invade the Maan dam site. Activists from the Andolan are there – Chittaroopa Palit from Mandleshwar, Urmila Patidar from Pathrad and others from up and down the Valley. Also journalist Dilip D’Souza whom I met in Mumbai. He described the scene: ‘Our procession fairly raced through fields, men, women and kids chattering and laughing and waving flags. A large stone and earthen wall, a concrete spillway, and we were there. Without a pause, slogans still ringing in the morning air, our procession swarmed up two bamboo ramps. Within 15 minutes, flags and banners were up all around the dam. To much cheering, a young man climbed up a crane, taking care to avoid a large beehive halfway up, and unfurled a large blue flag on top. No work would be done on the dam today – it had been “captured”.’
Joy was short-lived. By the end of the day the police had moved in. Over 210 protestors, including 52 children, were taken away and thrown into jail in the district headquarters of Dhar. The activists – absurdly – were charged with atrocities against adivasis! Will wonders never cease?
When the prisoners were still there five days later, a rally was held in Dhar to demand their release. Negotiations then took place between Alok Agarwal and the District Collector and the Superintendent of Police. They agreed that within ten days a meeting would be held to examine the project-affected families’ rehabilitation situation on a case-by-case basis.
Was this done? No. A meeting was held, but no people’s representatives were invited and the temporary camps decision was repeated. With a refinement. The camps should be set up ‘humanely’.
After the rally most prisoners were released. Not Chittaroopa Palit or Urmila Patidar, held by the authorities for 15 days. A string of eminent people – author Arundhati Roy, ex-Commissioner of Scheduled Cases and Tribes BD Sharma, socialist leader Surendra Mohan, theatre activist Shamisul Islam and many others – went to Dhar and to Maan to see the situation for themselves. A stream of letters demanded that the authorities stop dam construction until rehabilitation has been done and the laws of the land obeyed.
Do they stop? Do they ever.
Help us keep this site free for all
New Internationalist is a lifeline for activists, campaigners and readers who value independent journalism. Please support us with a small recurring donation so we can keep it free to read online.