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Mainstream, VOL 60 No 39-42 September 17 - October 8, 2022 - Bumper issue

The Narmada Sardar Sarovar Project: The truth about the dam(ned) delay | S.G.Vombatkere

Friday 16 September 2022, by S G Vombatkere

Addressing the September 23, 2022, National Conference of Environment Ministers, PM Modi said:“Urban Naxals and anti-development elements having political backing had stalled the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam by running a campaign that the project will harm the environment. Huge amount of money was wasted because of this delay. Now, when the dam is complete, you can very well judge how dubious their claims were”, and further,“These urban Naxals are still active. I urge you to make sure that projects aimed at bringing ease of doing business or ease of life do not get unnecessarily stalled in the name of the environment. We must have a balanced approach to counter the conspiracy of such people”. [Emphasis supplied]

It would be well to examine our respected PM’s words, beginning with understanding the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). The Sardar Sarovar dam was a part of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) among the 3,000 small, 135 medium and 30 major dam-and-canal projects planned for construction along the 1,312-km long Narmada valley, starting in the 1980s. It was the last major dam to be constructed.

Nobody denies that SSP was delayed, but to blame delay on “urban naxals and anti-development elements” is not merely wrong and unfair, but reflects regrettable ignorance of ground realities. A busy prime minister cannot be expected to know many details, but his staff failing to brief him adequately and correctly may indicate a conspiracy of vested interests spanning previous decades, across predecessor governments and prime ministers, as the following shows.

The Narmada valley projects

The projects, which include two mega-dams, Narmada Sagar and Sardar Sarovar, were supposed to irrigate 2-million hectares, feed 20-million people, provide drinking water for 30-million people, employ 1-million people, and generate electricity for agriculture and industry. Failure to conduct due diligence on whether and to what extent these aims were achieved after completion of the projects, may be attributed to political embarrassment of successive state and central governments for having fallen far short of unrealistic cost-benefit goals. [1]

In the planning stages, state and central governments were silent regarding the fact that the projects would inundate 37,000-hectares of forest and agricultural land, and affect the lives and livelihoods of lakhs of forest-dwelling and farming Adivasis and other rural families. There was also silence, that the projects would submerge ancient Hindu temples and towns having religious and cultural significance for not only the people of the Narmada valley, but also the rest of India.

The State and Central governments were keen to obtain loans from the World Bank and push through large projects, regardless of even basic considerations of feasibility. For example, the economic feasibility of dam projects is primarily based on a correct estimation of the total annual flow. The Narmada’s total annual flow as estimated by the Bradford Morse Committee was 17% lower than the project-design flow, which meant that the designed benefits could not be achieved and the cost-benefit calculations were wrong or had been falsified. Indeed, based on the 1992 Bradford Morse Committee report regarding rehabilitation, environmental impacts and the general economic viability of the projects, World Bank withdrew its $450-million involvement from the Narmada projects in 1993.

Thus, the (unsubstantiated) benefits of the projects were in the distant future for one section of people, at the immediate cost of suffering and loss due to social disruption and displacement for land acquisition, of a different section of project-affected people. As is well known, legal, extra-legal and illegal financial benefits immediately flowed to the construction industry, and the administrator-engineer-contractor-politician nexus.

Of the three States involved, maximum submergence and population displacement was in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, which bore the brunt of problems. That Gujarat was the principal beneficiary of the Narmada projects, is evidenced by Government of Gujarat raising funds through issuing Sardar Sarovar Bonds in 1993, to fill the $450-million financial gap caused by World Bank’s withdrawal.

Beginning in the 1980s, the project affected families (PAFs) began to realise the impact of the 3,000-plus projects. They began to question the social, financial and technical bases of the projects, and the viability of the whole scheme and of individual projects. Due to the “deafness” of unfeeling and callous governments and elected representatives, the PAFs were obliged to organise themselves, demonstrate on the ground, and also approach District Courts, High Courts and the Supreme Court of India, of which more later. Corporate-owned print and electronic mainstream media give little coverage to such movements and struggles, but were quick to dub resistance to the projects as “anti-development”.

Later, as proof that PAF’s reasoned arguments, concerns and peaceful demonstrations were reasonable and valid, government established a Grievance Redressal Authority (GRA).

The social costs of human displacement, and the environmental and ecological costs of loss of wildlife and forests, were not a part of the crude and certainly manipulated cost-benefit calculations, used to justify the projects.

The lakhs of people who would pay the costs of development by losing their lands and livelihoods because of dam-canal construction projects, were to be compensated according to law. However, the 1894-vintage Land Acquisition law extant at that time, entitled only people who possess land or “pucca” built property, for compensation. Such people are a numerical minority among the huge numbers of forest-dwellers and landless rural farming and artisanal agricultural communities.

Thus the majority of project affected families (PAFs) are the victims of such development, because they receive no compensation. They mostly end up in urban slums, having been subjected to the “Three Ds of Development”, namely, Displacement, Dispossession, and Destitution. [2] When PM Modi spoke of “ease of life”, perhaps three generations of such people were not in his field of vision, although they should have been within his span of governance.

Even for the minority of compensation-entitled PAFs, receiving compensation presented difficulties. To list only the more serious issues, they are: (1) Producing documents to prove property ownership, (2) Getting their names listed for compensation, requiring paying bribes to officials, (3) Compensation for major children of PAFs, and (4) The quantum of compensation being grossly inadequate for rehabilitation.

There were serious errors in the topographic contour surveys of submergence areas, conducted by governments, to calculate the extent of forest and agricultural land, and identify the villages and towns which would be submerged. Consequently, enumeration of people living in submergence areas was inaccurate. Indeed, as dams were constructed and submergence proceeded, some villages marked for submergence were dry, and some not due for submergence were under water.

The consequent administrative chaos and human suffering of PAFs was never reported in mainstream national media, and the social ill-effects on the children of Narmada-mayya remained neglected. That may be because the project-affected families (PAFs) were predominantly Adivasi and rural, and they do not figure in “ease of life” even today, 75-years after Independence. Acquiring land in Adivasi areas without the prior informed consent of Gram Sabhas is in violation of the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act — a mere irritant for successive callous State and Central governments. Besides, administrative inefficiency and callousness needed covering up, to prevent negative political fallout at election time.

PM Modi’s use of the word “conspiracy” is correct. However, it applies to vested interests in successive state and central governments starting in the 1980s. This is borne out in following paragraphs.

PAFs succeeded in presenting facts of endemic mismanagement and corruption in the resettlement and rehabilitaton (R&R) process before the Madhya Pradesh High Court. In 2008, the Court appointed a Commission under retired Justice S.S.Jha, to investigate the complainst and report its findings. Accordingly, the Jha Commission brought out its Report, exposing many cases of fake registries that provide compensation to people not entitled to it, while omitting genuine PAFs. The Report exposed monumental, systemic corruption amounting to around Rs.1,500 crore, which was obviously at the cost of R&R of PAFs.

The PAFs demanded that the Jha Commission Report of January 2016 be placed in the public domain, to expose the corruption and criminality that have derailed the R&R process and denied them rightful compensation granted by the Supreme Court, and violated their constitutional right to life. However, to protect corrupt officials, the Madhya Pradesh government prevented the Jha Commission Report from being placed in the public domain. The Report remains undisclosed even today — thus,“ease of business” for the administrator-engineer-contractor-politician nexus continues.

When the Supreme Court ordered equivalent land-for-land rehabilitation of the PAFs, the State and Central governments stated in open Court that there was no land available for the purpose. But governments found enough land to create “land banks” for industrial use, and grant agricultural land for special economic zones — proof of corporate influence in governance, at the cost of ordinary people.

In Madhya Pradesh, the police and the administration forced evacuation of Adivasi villages in the submergence zone, by sealing their handpumps, demolishing homes with bulldozers and clear-felling the land. All this illustrates the state’s attitude towards people’s problems. Notwithstanding such gross injustices, police violence on peaceful demonstrators, and the failure by all three pillars of the Constitution to address development-induced “involuntary” displacement, the PAFs have maintained non-violence as a strategic imperative.

The ease of name-calling and the Sardar Sarovar Project

Reverting to the SSP, the full finished height of the dam was to be 138.68-m. Police had forcibly driven PAFs out of their villages and homes without R&R compensation at every stage, even in the early stages of dam construction.

When Supreme Court had given clearance to raise SSP dam to 121-m based on government’s Action Taken Report of R&R, a few PAFs decided to stage a peaceful protest fast in early 2006, at the Office of the Ministry of Water Resources, New Delhi. They claimed that the ATR was false. This resulted in PM Dr.Manmohan Singh ordering a Group of Ministers led by Minister for Water Resources (then Prof. Saifuddin Soz) and appropriately including the Minister for Social Justice, to visit the Narmada valley to ascertain the veracity of the PAFs’ objections regarding the ATR. After the visit, Prof. Saifuddin Soz was convinced and honest enough to report that the rehabilitation was incomplete and “mostly on paper”, and the clearance to raise the SSP dam height to 121-m was premature. Unsurprisingly, the construction work continued without R&R — the ease of doing business had trumped social justice, even in those times.

Supreme Court had ordered that construction to raise the dam height in stages, was to be done only after full R&R of submergence-affected PAFs upto the 122-m level, was completed. Further, each “lift” of construction from 122-m to 138.68-m was to be started only after full R&R of PAFs affected by the previous lift.

Nobody pretends that providing R&R is easy, and governments naturally need time to complete R&R at every stage. PAFs who were not provided R&R, repeatedly approached the Supreme Court, which took due cognisance of their complaints that the ATRs concerning R&R filed by state governments were incorrect. The consequent delays in the SSP construction work is undeniable, as is the cost escalation of the work.

Due to the administrator-engineer-contractor-politician nexus continuing the work without R&R, PAFs were forced to repeatedly petition Courts of Law. The Courts in turn caused delay by calling for due process by governments, while handling population displacement caused by its projects.

If the reader has read thus far, he/she will not require knowledge of rocket science to understand that the primary cause of delay in execution of the Narmada projects — especially including SSP — was the administrator-engineer-contractor-politician nexus. It is also not difficult to understand that it is the same nexus, which is deeply involved with elections and electioneering, that is attempting to shift the blame for delay on entitled PAFs, who committed the “crime” of peacefully demanding and partially succeeding in getting their rightful compensation for displacement.

Of the lakhs of property-less, hence un-entitled, displaced (largely Adivasi) Project-affected Families, there is no need for further comment, because politicians over the decades up to the present, have had no need of them, except for getting their votes through sweet-talk, promises, blandishments and providing freebies.

If there is one commonality between successive state and central governments and legislatures over decades, it is their ignorance of constitutional values and contempt for social justice.

Finally, the reader might like to consider whether pinning the blame for the delay and cost of the SSP — poorly planned and executed at huge social and environmental cost — on “urban naxals” and “anti-development elements”, is for immediate political benefit in a poll-bound state.

(Author: Maj Gen S.G.Vombatkere, VSM (Retd) writes on development and strategic issues. Email:sg9kere[at]live.com )


[1S.G.Vombatkere; “Relentless Crusade”; The Hindu FRONTLINE; August 3, 2016.

[2S.G.Vombatkere; “The Three Ds of Development”; Paper presented at Seminar on “The New Piracy: Rehabilitation of Natural Disaster-Affected & Development-Affected Communities in South Asia”; November 20-21, 2009, conducted by Vivekananda Institute of Leadership Development, Mysore, & University of Iowa.

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