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Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Narmada, development and dispossession

The issue of compensation has been conflated with merits of infrastructure projects

Medha Patkar was detained earlier this month when she tried to enter the water resources ministry with a group of activists to meet minister Uma Bharti without prior permission. They wanted to tell the minister that the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam across the Narmada river in Gujarat should be reduced. Even Patkar would not have perhaps guessed that she would be fighting the same battle 25 years after the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) started off.

The Narmada project has been a lightning rod for criticism from activists such as Patkar. There are two issues involved. The first is the rather practical issue of whether the families displaced by the project have been adequately compensated for the loss of livelihood. The second is the wider issue of whether such large development projects should be pursued. Patkar has been on stronger ground on the first issue rather than the second.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam is one of the largest in India. It has been constructed on the Narmada river, which starts near Amarkantak in Madhya Pradesh and flows westward for almost 1,000km to drain into the Arabian Sea. The original idea of the dam predates Indian independence; it is part of the Narmada Valley Development Project, which includes another 29 large dams, 135 medium dams and 3,000 small dams. The construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam started in 1987 before falling behind schedule during the whole of 1990s because of the legal logjam following protests from the NBA, but it resumed in 2000 on the order of the Supreme Court.

The plain fact is that Gujarat has benefited from the Narmada waters but the people who have gained are not the same as those who have been displaced. That is the crux of the compensation issue.

Large parts of the state such as Kutch desperately needed water to improve its agricultural productivity as well as boost industrial growth. A look at the agricultural data from Gujarat suggests that the Narmada project has served its purpose. Agriculture in Gujarat was traditionally a low-performing sector experiencing wide fluctuations and uncertainties, much like the rest of the country. Between 2000 and 2010, agricultural growth averaged 8.61%. In fact, between 2003 and 2010, it clocked close to 10% per annum—in stark contrast to the rest of the country, which never managed to cross 4%. “Development of irrigation, especially under the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) and also through augmentation of groundwater resources…seem to have helped mitigating uncertainty in farm production since the past decade," state Amrita Shah and Itishree Pattnaik, both faculty at the Gujarat Institute of Development Research, in Growth or Development: Which way is Gujarat going?

SSP also benefited Gujarat’s industrial development. The state government could speedily provide subsidized water to attract industries in regions such as Dahej and Bharuch. The first decade of the 21st century marked a decisive shift in the economic growth of Gujarat and it emerged as a role model for the rest of the country. The Narmada waters played a big role in this.

But there is a flip side too, which Patkar and an army of activists under the banner of NBA have not stopped stressing. Much of this growth has come without adequate compensation to the displaced people. They also detail the extent of damage to the environment and how benefits from SSP are not commensurate to the costs incurred. For instance, despite affecting 43,000 families, 40,000 of whom are yet to be rehabilitated adequately, Gujarat is still using just 19% of the available irrigation potential. Similarly drinking water supply is less than 33% of the potential.

The same trend holds for exploiting the power generation potential. While the official reports suggest that compensatory afforestation has been completed in over 42,000 acres, field reports suggest that 86% of the afforested area is highly degraded.

There are three key takeaways from the long standoff. One is the government’s poor record on compensating people whose private property was forcibly taken away in the name of development, even three decades after the event. Two, is the system’s inability to make full use of such development projects. Lastly, and perhaps as a result of the first two factors, is the illogically rigid stand that NBA and several such organizations have now come to take, conflating issues of fair compensation with the merits of an important development project.

Do large development projects help or harm citizens? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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