Comprehensive review of resettlement sites vital: Medha Patkar

Calling for a review of resettlement sites for the people affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam and of the irrigation project itself, Medha Patkar, leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) said, there were as many as 40,000 families still in the submergence area, waiting to be resettled.

“Initially, the [Narmada Water Disputes] Tribunal, which gave the award, estimated the number of families affected by the Sardar Sarovar at about 7,500. Now the government accepts there are 51,000 families. They also accept that out of these, around 40,000 and more are still in the submergence area,” Ms. Patkar told The Hindu. The NBA recently celebrated 25 years of struggle by organising meetings and rallies in Maharashtra and Gujarat.

Ms. Patkar said the rehabilitation process itself was plagued by many problems. “The resettlement of 11,000 families [of the 51,000], was done only by Gujarat. A comprehensive review of resettlement sites is essential. In Maharashtra for example, lands were allotted four years ago, but the titles have not been given.”

While the Andolan compelled the government to give more compensation, the lack of political will in execution had deprived people of their dues. “People are not satisfied, because the government's intentions are not good. They had stated on affidavit before the Supreme Court that land would be given in return for land. They now want to change that in Madhya Pradesh. The MP government, unlike its counterpart in Maharashtra, is not open to dialogue,” she pointed out.

Perseverance of villagers

Ms. Patkar lauded the grit and perseverance of villagers who took on a big dam like Sardar Sarovar. “Crocodiles have eaten up many of our young boys, aged 13 and 15 years. Still people have the determination. Today, Pinjaribai [resident of Gujarat] is almost alone in her village. Tigers have started to come there. But she is so courageous. She says I have the land right, I will get the land.

“After the Sardar Sarovar, the space for and strength of jan andolans (people's movements) have increased. They are taking a clear and radical stand on development projects,” Ms. Patkar said.

In the absence of clarity on the correct benefits and damage caused by the project in the initial stages, the estimated level of submergence had resulted with the increase in the height of the dam, which stood at 122 metres in height today. “At 90 metres only it should have submerged [some areas], but that has [not been the case]. Big villages which were going to be submerged in 1993, have not sunk,” Ms. Patkar said.

The 2000 Supreme Court decision allowing the dam to go above 90 metres was seen as a setback for the Andolan. Ms. Patkar questioned the “legal regime” of the day which violated the Directive Principles of State Policy.

On the other hand, withdrawal of the World Bank and the debate fuelled on big dams were seen to be the achievements of the movement. The bank stopped its funding to the project in 1993. “But, it is instrumental in pushing for big dams. So we still can't say that we have challenged international financial institutions,” Ms. Patkar said.

In the last 25 years, Ms. Patkar has expanded the scope of her activism to include land and displacement issues. Calling for a repeal of the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, Ms. Patkar said, “once the principle of eminent domain of the State [which permits land acquisition for national development projects] becomes the basis for the total development planning then, people's consent is not necessary. Instead of repealing the Act, the government is amending it to give more cash compensation on every issue. Additional cash. Extra cash. It is also redefining public purpose to include private purpose projects. If that goes ahead, it could cause huge displacement which is already a severe law and order problem.”

  • Strength of ‘jan andolans' has increased
  • “Repeal the Land Acquisition Act, 1894”