“Hamaari ladaai vikas se nahi, visthaapan se hai [Our fight is against displacement, not development],” Radhe Shyam Patidar of Pathrad village says, with a hint of aggression visible in the wrinkles around his ageing eyes. “We are only demanding proper rehabilitation for our village and we will not back down on that,” he says.
Interestingly, whether the Maheshwar dam project, India's first privately financed hydroelectric project, could qualify as a development project is itself a contested issue.
“We cannot even call it a development project since the cost of power generated will be very high, and it does not even have the required clearances at the present cost,” says Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Alok Agrawal.
Pathrad is one of the 61 villages of the western Nimaar region of Madhya Pradesh facing the threat of submergence due to the dam, being built by Shree Maheshwar Hydel Power Corporation Ltd. (SMHPCL). Expected to leave homeless around 40,000 people, the Maheshwar project is one of several large dams being built on the Narmada.
Planning for the project started in 1978 under the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA). In 1993, however, the project was awarded to S. Kumars, a textile magnate. In 1994, the project received a conditional environmental clearance from the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF).
In a letter written to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan last October, Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh expressed concern over the gross violation of the conditions of the environmental clearance by the private builder.
He wrote that while the construction of the dam was 80 per cent complete, the rehabilitation process was stuck at 3-5 per cent. He categorically stated that “the Ministry [MoEF] is deeply apprehensive that the private company SMHPCL will relinquish its responsibility, leaving the oustees in the lurch.”
Displacing the rehabilitated
A village with over 1,000 families and a population of well over 3,000, Pathrad represents an interesting case among the villages of the region in the sense that it is already a rehabilitated village.
It used to get flooded consistently due to its proximity to the Narmada. Subsequently, starting in 1963 till around 1980, people of the villages started settling in what is now known as new Pathrad.
Almost two decades of struggle against a powerful adversary has failed to cow the women and men of Pathrad down. They are also angry that development projects have been stopped by the implementing authorities which question the purpose of starting work in a village doomed to be submerged.
“Phir se gaon nahi ujadne denge, chahe Jal Samadhi leni pade [We won't abandon our village again even if we get submerged],” says Ramli, a fisherwoman, when asked what would she do once the dam was completed. According to the villagers, they have nowhere to go and nothing to lose.
The new Pathrad is a well-planned village having almost 100 per cent pucca houses with carefully carved out lanes separating them. The landholdings in the village, though small, are fully irrigated and extremely fertile, returning over three crops a year.
The villagers further contend that surveys conducted by the NVDA are faulty and incomplete as a comprehensive backwater survey is yet to be conducted even after repeated demands.
“Backwater survey is a very crucial component which has been totally overlooked in the case of Maheshwar,” says Mr. Agrawal. “Twenty-six rehabilitation sites of the Bargi dam were drowned after a rise in backwater levels. Further, 40 new villages have come under submergence after the backwater survey conducted in the Indira Sagar Project,” he says.
“We passed a resolution in our gram sabha on this past Women's Day to have a comprehensive backwater survey and to demand proper rehabilitation. We will have it circulated from the lower-level bureaucracy right up to Mr. Jairam Ramesh,” says Patidar.
Last month, the MoEF issued a show-cause notice to the SMHPCL asking the Corporation why the environmental clearance granted to the Maheshwar project should not be revoked and directions for the closure of the project not be issued.
In its reply dated March 9, the SMHPCL admitted that resettlement work is going on but incomplete in only 10 villages. This means, by the company's own admission, that no relief and rehabilitation work has been carried out in the other 51 villages.
According to information provided by the NBA, the company has violated almost all conditions of the provisional clearance granted to it by the MoEF, including rehabilitation of oustees, formation of a relief and rehabilitation plan, identification of agricultural land for compensation, establishment of two wildlife sanctuaries and other environmental safeguards. No response from the SMHPCL could be obtained as questions posed to the Public Relations Officer of the Corporation were not answered.