Those who were impatient with the Narmada Bachao Andolan's struggle must now re-examine their thinking in the light of the Second Interim Report of the Experts' Committee set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
The Second Interim Report of the Experts' Committee set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) of the Government of India to assess the planning and implementation of environmental safeguards with respect to the Sardar Sarovar (SSP) and Indira Sagar projects (ISP) on the Narmada River is a clear finding, by a government committee, of the egregious failure of the government machinery on virtually all the aspects studied.
The report covers the status of compliances on catchment area treatment (CAT), flora and fauna and carrying capacity upstream, command area development (CAD), compensatory afforestation and human health aspects in project impact areas. (The scope of the committee did not include the issues of displacement and rehabilitation or hydro-meteorological issues, which were dealt with by other groups.) The report is a severe indictment of the governments of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and of the bodies set up by these governments to implement the projects for the ‘integrated development' of the Narmada Valley. Peppered with phrases like ‘gross violation', ‘negligence', ‘highly unsatisfactory,' ‘inadequate,' ‘serious lapse' and ‘non compliance' it states in strong and unequivocal terms that with respect to virtually all of the aspects under consideration compliance is either highly inadequate or absent altogether (a partial exception being compensatory afforestation). Construction, on the other hand, has been proceeding apace: the ISP is complete and the SSP nearing completion. The report recommends that no further reservoir-filling be done at either SSP or ISP; that no further work be done on canal construction; and that even irrigation from the existing network be stopped forthwith until failures of compliance on the various environmental parameters have been fully remedied.
This is a major development. It must be seen against the backdrop of the protracted legal battle fought by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) against the various lapses, failures and deficiencies in these projects. In a climate where environmental and human rights issues are increasingly being sacrificed at the altar of ‘development,' the NBA has been persevering untiringly with its struggle for decades. Those who have tended to become impatient with that struggle must now re-examine their thinking in the light of the present report.
The legal history of the NBA's petitions is a long one. We need not go into the High Courts' or the Supreme Court's earlier pronouncements, some of which affirmed the fact of lapses and inadequacies several years ago. What needs to be noted is that even the majority verdict of the Supreme Court in 2000, which rejected the NBA's petition and allowed the project to proceed, and was widely perceived as indicating a shift in judicial thinking in favour of ‘development' and against public interest litigation on environmental and displacement aspects, did reaffirm the importance of those aspects. While directing the government to ensure the speedy completion of the projects under consideration and taking the view that the existing machinery for environmental protection and relief and rehabilitation (R&R) must be presumed to be working properly unless proved otherwise, the SC made an important mandatory stipulation for the continuance of work, namely, that further progress would be subject to checks at every stage (every increase of 5 m in dam height) on the status of these measures. Subsequent litigation over the years has related largely to the issue of compliance with this condition.
The first interim report of the Expert Committee, dealing with the issue of backwater effects, rejected the project authorities' contention that on recalculation the backwater level of SSP was going to be much lower than earlier stated. That contention had been used to assert that gates and other proposed structures could be proceeded with without concern over any additional submergence over that relating to the approved level of 121.7 metres. The report showed this to be untrue. Now the second interim report comes up with a strong finding of non-compliance on virtually all environmental aspects. This is a clear vindication of the NBA's assertions over the years.
It is a matter of grave concern for more than one reason. One, this is not a non-official committee or a committee of environmental activists, but a government committee consisting almost entirely of technocrats, retired forest officials and the like; two, its findings point to a fundamental and near total violation of significant aspects of the Supreme Court's judgment; and three, the severe environmental damage documented in its pages is largely irreversible.
Even assuming that ‘development' can be pursued without any concern for the environment, and that some argument can be found to defend the flouting of a Supreme Court judgment, there are several other concerns that should worry the votaries of ‘large infrastructural development at all costs.' Untreated catchments can shorten the life of projects through siltation, thus altering their cost-benefit ratios; they can also bring about increased run-off and washing-off of soil nutrients with adverse consequences for the productivity of irrigated land (as also for the aquatic and river-bank species and fisheries); dam operations in such unstable catchments can lead (and have led, in at least one incident already here) to flash floods with tragic consequences; and so on. These are hard, practical and often economic consequences that can be noted by all and not only by ‘environmentalists'. One hopes that Indian society as a whole — citizens and government alike — will take at least these concerns seriously.
In the meanwhile, the SC, possibly not having yet been seized of the second environmental committee's report, has said that work on canals can start subject to the approval of the MoEF of the CAD plans submitted for the Omkareshwar Hydroelectric Project (OHP) and the ISP. However, since the report is itself in pursuance of court directives, the MoEF can and should halt all further work on the project, bringing this anomaly to the court's attention.
Where do we go from here? We cannot say, but many will be watching keenly to see how the government responds to the recommendations of its committee. We must hope that the response will not be such as to make us doubt the seriousness of its professions of concern for the environment.