The multitudes dispossessed by the ‘Gujarat model’

Extractive projects like Sardar Sarovar have hit many people.

Updated - September 19, 2019 03:23 pm IST

Published - September 19, 2019 12:05 am IST

Sardar Sarovar dam oustees stage a protest, led by Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar, on the 69th birthday of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by blocking the Kasravad bridge across the Narmada on September 17, 2019. 
 Photo: Special Arrangement

Sardar Sarovar dam oustees stage a protest, led by Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar, on the 69th birthday of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, by blocking the Kasravad bridge across the Narmada on September 17, 2019. Photo: Special Arrangement

The Gujarat government has filled up the Sardar Sarovar this year, flooding the Narmada. In Madhya Pradesh alone, reportedly, more than 28,000 families still live in the submergence zone. They have not been given due rehabilitation or compensation. However, despite opposition by many groups, the Gujarat and Union governments are going ahead with this forced mass displacement of communities. Disturbing videos are circulating. In one, a woman is seen refusing to leave her home, even as it is flooded to waist level. In another, two childhood friends are seen consoling each other as they watch the only place they’ve called ‘home’ go under water. There are thousands of such scenes along the Narmada. Crops grown over the season have been destroyed and around 13,500 hectares of forests are being drowned by this developmental mayhem.

Ingress of sea water

Beyond Sardar Sarovar, the once mighty Narmada is now a seasonal drain that carries sewage and industrial effluents. At the mouth of the river in Gujarat, because of lower freshwater pressure on account of the dam, the sea water has ingressed several km inland, rendering vast fertile lands saline. With some 10,000 hectares of agricultural land having been destroyed, the farmers of the area are devastated. Just in Bharuch, a fishing community of around 30,000 has lost its livelihood. The estuary’s once-thriving population of the coveted Hilsa fish is in danger due to the ingress. In response, the Gujarat government has built a barrage which, paradoxically will only end up destroying the breeding grounds of the Hilsa.

When the dream of the Sardar Sarovar was sold to the people of Gujarat, these features of the dam were not mentioned. Even today, when proponents continue to defend the project after all that has happened, they fail to report these ‘gifts’ of the dam.

But how was such a disaster allowed to unfold? For years, industrial lobbies constantly pushed politicians to build the dam despite activists raising important questions about it. The politicians found it opportune to go along with the industrialists’ agenda.

The Sardar Sarovar was promised as a new lease of life for farmers across Gujarat. Even the Supreme Court, in allowing the project to go ahead in a 2000 verdict, relied pivotally on the argument that there was no other way to provide water to the dry areas of Gujarat. Farmers as far as Kutch were promised Narmada waters. They are still waiting as the canals leading to their agricultural lands have not been built as yet. Instead, the situation has worsened. As Gujarat neglected its own water resources and the changing climate, farmers, fishermen and herders have begun leaving, signalling the beginnings of a climate refugee crisis.

The primary beneficiaries

Today, it is clear that the primary beneficiaries of the dam were the industrialists of Gujarat. Tata’s plant in Sanand, shifted from West Bengal after farmers there protested illegal land grab, draws a generous amount of Narmada’s water; as does Coca-Cola, which was thwarted from expanding in Plachimada, Kerala, and Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, due to protests. Meanwhile, Gujarat’s own river, Sabarmati, now draws water from the Narmada to fill it.

The plight of the farmers of Dholera, who were once promised Narmada water and were successfully mobilised against anti-dam protests, brings out the cruel irony of the State’s policies. The soil of the area has turned saline, thanks to Gujarat’s neglect of its local water bodies. To add insult to injury, the State government now wants to build a ‘Special Investment Region’ there and has asked farmers to vacate the land. Any protest is being beaten into the earth. Such are the perverse ‘achievements’ of those relentless in their advocacy of the dam. The riches of Gujarat — shown as a model to the rest of the country — are the result of such violent extraction, exploitation and destruction that benefit a few while victimising many.

As we near Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary, let’s recall these words of warning from him: “God forbid that India should ever take to industrialisation after the manner of the West. The economic imperialism of a single tiny island kingdom [Britain] is today keeping the world in chains. If an entire nation of 300 million took to similar economic exploitation, it would strip the world bare like locusts.”

We are now looking at 1,300-1,700 million people wanting to live like Britain. The ultimate outcome is a foregone conclusion.

Aryaman Jain is an Environmental Engineer; Aseem Shrivastava teaches Ecosophy at Ashoka University

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