The Narmada dam project or technically the Sardar Sarovar Project has again emerged as a human rights cause célèbre over the past month, with government coming down on protesters, in particular against Medha Patkar, leader of the rehabilitation and resettlement watchdog Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), on 7 August.
The discredit for it collectively rests at the doors of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance government, the BJP government in Madhya Pradesh, and the political imperative of the incumbent BJP government in Gujarat, which faces general elections to its assembly in end-2017. (Maharashtra and Rajasthan, the other beneficiaries of the project, currently have BJP governments.)
At another level, it is the latest salvo in an ongoing battle. Narendra Modi had as chief minister of Gujarat dramatically declared in April 2006 that India would have to choose between “Medha Patkar and megawatt".
Gujarat remains the greatest intended beneficiary of the Narmada project after Madhya Pradesh in terms of increased irrigation; and after Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in hydroelectricity. However, the bulk of the displaced along the Narmada river are in Madhya Pradesh, with the project’s ambit of 30 dams. The Sardar Sarovar dam (commonly referred to as the Narmada dam) in Gujarat near its border with Maharashtra is the biggest. Modi at the time was insistent that the height of this dam be raised to 121.92 metres.
Over the years, the dam’s height has been periodically raised after review by the apex Narmada Control Authority (NCA). That has accompanied much wrangling in the Supreme Court over the persistently vexed issue of shabby resettlement and rehabilitation, or R&R, of those continually displaced by every raising of the dam’s height, and their homes and livelihoods submerged even as that very submergence has been projected as providing greater benefits in irrigation and hydroelectricity.
Within weeks of Modi becoming Prime Minister, on 12 June 2014, NCA announced its approval for raising the Narmada dam’s height to 138.7 metres. Patkar and her colleagues, meanwhile, claimed that raising the height of the dam by nearly 17 metres would affect two hundred thousand people in Madhya Pradesh. Besides, they maintained the decision was taken without considering valid contrary opinion.
NBA, led by Patkar, has consistently led protests against the dam, first flagging the enormous potential dislocation of people—more than three hundred thousand—as far back as 1985. The steady upswell of protest, among other things, led to the World Bank pulling out of the project in 1993. NBA’s key plank has subsequently remained shabby and forceful R&R, in particular in Madhya Pradesh.
NBA has also consistently argued at the Supreme Court and various forums that the height of the dam should not be increased without those already displaced being adequately recompensed, relocated and rehabilitated. That issue is live. In February 2017, the Supreme Court proposed setting up a three-member committee to review compensation and R&R for the project-displaced in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat.
On 7 August, along with several colleagues, Patkar was forcibly removed by Madhya Pradesh police from their place of protest at Chikhalda in Dhar district, near the Narmada river.
It was Patkar’s 12th day of hunger strike to protest against incomplete and inadequate R&R for what her organization claims are 40,000 citizens in Madhya Pradesh. There was no dialogue beyond chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan tweeting a request for Patkar to end her fast and expressing concern about her health; and Patkar’s “handle" tweeting back, thanking him, but urging dialogue.
That remained the extent of exchange. “No offer was made for a dialogue," Hindustan Times quoted NBA leader Rahul Yadav as saying, after police packed Patkar off to a hospital in Indore.
There are several layers to the issue, besides that of economic and political considerations being bereft of human rights considerations.
More on the Narmada project’s back stories and nuances next week.
Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights, runs on Thursdays.