Almost exactly 57 years ago, on 7 April 1961, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid the foundation stone for what came to be known as one of the most controversial dams in India, the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada. This project has been a lightning rod for criticism because of two issues involved. The first is that of giving a fair deal to the 45,000 families displaced by the project. The second one relates to the nature of development that these projects bring in their wake.

A recent paper by Swaminathan Aiyar and Neeraj Kaushal, Are Resettled Oustees from the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project Better off Today than their Former Neighbors who were not Ousted?, challenges the conventional wisdom that the people displaced by Sardar Sarovar project have done badly because of the loss of livelihoods. Their paper compares the situation of the adivasis of Gujarat ousted by the project with their former neighbours whose habitations were spared.

Aiyar and Kaushal arrive at three important conclusions.

First, that resettled villagers were unambiguously better off in terms of the ownership of consumer durables and other assets. For example, 31% of families from semi-evacuated villages owned bicycles versus 65% of families in the resettled villages. The similar numbers for mobile phones was 59% and 88%, and of two wheelers was 31% and 61%. Oustees also fared well in access to schools and hospitals, electricity and drinking water. About 96% of them had bank accounts compared with 74% families in semi-submerged villages. They were mostly land owners engaged in self-cultivation (83% of resettled families) as compared to 65% of families in semi-submerged areas owned land.

Second, they argue that Gujarat has performed well as compared to Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in terms of implementing rehabilitation packages that have substantially improved the living standard of ousted families in material terms.

Third, their study claims to refute the arguments of Morse Commission report published in 1992 that the ethos and lifestyles of tribals would be destroyed upon shifting to mainstream villages. Their survey documents that tribals have prospered in terms of development and modernization.

This study could lead to a fresh round of debate on not just the impact of the Sardar Sarovar project, but big dams in general. First, it is absolutely plausible for a few families to prosper while the rest face the wrath of displacement. Though their sample size consists of 401 families, it is limited only to Gujarat. This leaves out the representation of around 40,000 families in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Each adult male among the ousted families in Gujarat was promised five acres of land by the government, regardless of their earlier holdings, whereas their former neighbours were not entitled to any such benefits. This could be the factor behind oustees’ involvement in self-cultivation whereas their former neighbours remained agricultural/marginal workers.

Due to reasons unrelated to the benefit spillovers from the Sardar Sarovar project, when Gujarat witnessed improved groundwater levels 2000 onwards (roughly coincides with the period when rehabilitation of those included in the sample by this study was completed), agriculture in Gujarat grew at 9% every year for the entire decade. It is no rocket science that such a boom in agriculture was bound to make oustees better off in comparison to their former neighbours.

Second, besides reading the numbers wrong, such a stance is also prone to misreading the definitions of development and modernization. Owning of more bicycles by those rehabilitated may be simply because they are less useful in hilly and forest areas. Similarly, considering mobile phone ownership as the epitome of modernity is a faulty proposition in itself. Propounding such claims reflects how hegemonic the idea of development and modernity have become in Indian society.

Third, is the paucity of such research studies tracing down those displaced and their conditions after rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) packages. However, with around 40,000 families yet to be rehabilitated, such studies would certainly fail to gauge the distress. Madhya Pradesh alone has 192 out of total 245 villages that face submergence and are yet to be completely rehabilitated. The rehabilitation process has been rampant with corruption scandals and human rights violations. For instance, besides being shabbily rehabilitated, the land offered to families in Madhya Pradesh as compensation turned out to be arid in most cases. Fresh independent reviews are imperative for their cost benefit analyses.

Whether such large development projects should be pursued has its own nuances. To say that all the dams constructed in India since independence have only led to flooding of villages and eviction would be akin to unseeing the truth. The Sardar Sarovar project, for example, aims to address provide flood protection to about 30,000 hectares of area prone to temper floods. The installed hydropower capacity of 1,450MW would generate about 100 units of electricity every year. In most cases, those who are at the stake of losing their lands and homes for dam projects are farmers who do understand the need of water and electricity for agriculture.

Should their dissent against being the victims of development be taken as an opposition to development? That would be another mistake. Big irrigation projects aren’t the hard knocks, badly conceived ones are. In Gujarat, the Sardar Sarovar project only irrigates a little more area than was required to construct it. Its distribution system has been a failure. Out of 17.92 lakh hectares of land to have been irrigated, only two lakh hectares have benefited. It needs to be reimagined in today’s context and a distribution system created that brings water to every home and field.