The jal satyagrahis were asking for nothing more than the implementation of the government’s Narmada dam project rehabilitation plan

On September 10 the Madhya Pradesh government belatedly accepted the demand of the jal satyagrahis at the Omkareshwar dam in Khandwa district. Villagers had immersed themselves in the water to demand the implementation of nothing other than the government’s own promises to the Narmada dam project oustees, which the Supreme Court ordered it to fulfil. They stood in water for two weeks; by the time the government accepted their demands, their skin had started to peel.

But the State government has refused to accept the demands of the Narmada dam oustees at another site, the Indra Sagar dam in Harda district. Here the jal satyagrahis were pulled out of the water and arrested.

What were their demands? That the water level must not be raised till the time all the villagers whose lands would be submerged were compensated satisfactorily. What needs to re-emphasised is that these oustees of the Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar dams were asking for nothing more than the implementation of the rehabilitation plan.

The Narmada Tribunal Award had clearly established the principle that alternative land should be provided to oustees, and that submergence of land would be permitted only months after rehabilitation has been completed.

Supreme Court stipulation

Confirming this in the context of these two dam projects, the Supreme Court had clearly stipulated that raising the level of water beyond a certain height would not be allowed unless satisfactory rehabilitation has been completed so that premature, disruptive and illegal submergence can be avoided.

In view of the obvious fact that alternative cultivable land had not been provided to most oustees, the submergence was illegal. Legally, the submergence could only have taken place six months after land-allotment and rehabilitation had been completed.

At Omkareshwar, the water level was being stepped up from 189 mts to 193 mts. The government has now agreed to bring it down again. At Indra Sagar, the government has decided to raise the level from 260 mts to 262 mts; there is no change in this decision yet.

The most rational thing would have been to simultaneously reach an agreement with both struggles at the time of the September 10 agreement. Inexplicably, the government has accepted the demand at one place but not at the other.

The Narmada Tribunal Award was a completely official exercise. The oustees hardly had any say in it. How can a democratic government go back on legal commitments, that too after creating structures that are displacing lakhs of people and have disrupted the entire ecology of a vast region?

All available indications therefore point to the fact that the most anti-democratic, and arbitrary tactics of dam-builders are about to be repeated once again: the world over, the tactic is to simply submerge the land arbitrarily so that once the land is submerged, the affected people will have no option but to leave.

Unfortunately for the dam authorities and the State government, a democracy is in place in India, and so is a people’s movement to fight for the rights of the oustees.

The situation now is that the people of Harda are planning to take the State government to court for contempt. The oustees of both projects are preparing to make their presentations before the Ministers’ Committee constituted by the Madhya Pradesh government for satisfactory rehabilitation.

It is still not too late to undo the great injustice done to these oustees of the Narmada projects, if the commitment of land for land based on the policy adopted by the Narmada Awards Tribunal is fully implemented, a policy that been reiterated by the High Court and the Supreme Court, and most recently by the Grievance Redressal Authority of Madhya Pradesh.

(The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.)

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