Narmada Dam: Reflect on the travails of those displaced with sensitivity Published on: 21 Oct, 2022


Publishing, Literature, Editing

The Narmada River Projects: Swaminathan Aiyar presents a one-sided view of Raghav Chandra. At the outset, I wish to make it clear that I support infrastructure projects – irrespective of their size. I also do not defend the actions of Medha Patkar or any others who opposed the Narmada River projects. It is only the exuberant manner in which Swaminathan Aiyar has enumerated the advantages of the projects (Sunday Times of 11th and 4th September 2022) – without any understanding of the mammoth administrative complexities involved, nor any empathy for those who were displaced, nor for their gargantuan social issues – that has provoked this piece. Such naivete, coming from a senior journalist like Aiyar, is indeed shocking. Swaminathan Aiyar and Neeraj Kaushal’s research is selective — akin to surveying those who fought wars and got injured, interviewing them thirty years later, and concluding that they are now very happy because they have been awarded with medals, have risen in societal stature, utilized their compensation well and gained from various job opportunities that government offered them. I wish they had begun their study, not with the beneficiaries in prosperous Gujarat but with those displaced in Madhya Pradesh, without whose sacrifice, the Gujarat leg of the project would not have seen the light of day. As the District Collector of Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, in the eventful period Jan 1988- August 1990, I was responsible for and undertook the largest volume of acquisition in any single district in history. This was the land acquisition for the hundred villages of the Indira Sagar dam, the first, the largest and most critical project on the Narmada, in Punasa (while also initiating land acquisition work for the next project, the Omkareshwar dam), both in my district, without which the Gujarat Sardar Sarovar could not have come up. It was because of the Narmada dam in Punasa that an entire Tahsil called Harsud got submerged – Wikipedia’s obituarial mention says: ‘Harsud, was a town and municipality in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. Although the town was more than 700 years old, it was submerged under the waters of the Indira Sagar dam in 2004.’ At that time, villagers from the ‘doob kshetra’ whose land was going to be acquired were faced with unimaginable uncertainty. On the one hand, we were pushing to expedite the acquisition proceedings, on the other, activists were beginning to raise their voices to protest against the dam and to assure them that they would not need to shift. As a result, nobody made investments in their lands and the agricultural output was abysmally low. Every now and then the activists would stage a dharna. This was also the time that Harsha Mander, as Collector of neighbouring Khargone, wrote a letter to the government at the highest level, which appeared in the local newspapers, protesting against big dams. The biggest dilemma before me was the subject of rates of compensation for the land being acquired. There had been a total market failure as this project had been on the anvil since the turn of the century and so there were no land sales (shunya bikri chhant patra) in most villages, precluding us from discovering the true market value of the land that was being acquired, which was supposed to be based on past sales in that same village. You could also not highlight the potential or prospects of the land as it was really going to be submerged and therefore rendered of no value. We could have got away with paying as little as a few hundred rupees per acre under the compulsory acquisition proceedings which had been advised by the State Government. But, it would have been too cruel on the villagers. And yet, there were no guidelines to permit any latitude in the methodology for awarding compensation. At this point, I went to Shri RS Khanna the then Additional Chief Secretary Narmada Valley and apprised him of the terrible human calamity on our hands — if we raised the compensation on our own we would be violating rules. We desperately needed government backing. The ACS asked for a formal proposal and said he would discuss at the highest level. We proposed that for villages where there were no benchmarks of past sales, we should be allowed to consider the Revenue Inspector or Kanungo level circle (comprising of about 20-30 villages) sales for benchmarking even if such sales were few in number. The Government issued an order supporting that. This helped to raise per acre rates from an abysmal, say 500 Rs an acre to say about 15000 Rs an acre. At this stage we also proposed a first draft of what was to later evolve into a relief and rehabilitation policy that included land for those displaced. Apart from the acquisition of 100 complete villages, we had to also contend with the relocation of the 300 km long railway line between Khirkiya and Talwadiya, all in Khandwa district, a large part of which was going to be submerged. So, a new alignment was needed. This was another time bound task involving huge human dislocation. Later, in autumn 1989, we had what was hyped as the ‘Woodstock of Environment’ in Harsud. Environmentalists from all over the world descended to this conference to protest displacement of the villagers, particularly tribals. All policemen for the conference, at my instance, were kept in plain clothes (Usha Rai of TOI reported the minimal presence of cops!) and all government vehicles were kept out of range of the conference. About 30,000 villagers came. Every known activist and environmental sympathizer attended, including Medha Patkar, Sundarlal Bahuguna, VC Shukla, Menaka Gandhi, Shabana Azmi, Shivram Karanth and Baba Amte (he was carried to the dais on a stretcher, perhaps for greater impact!). About 150 foreign and Indian print and tv journalists covered the event, including from New York Times, Reuters, National Geographic, Time, Mark Tully of BBC. Thanks to our interventions, and our constant paternalistic interaction with the villagers, we had already defused the mass sentiment and so the activists’ exhortations rang hollow. Even later, at no point did we allow any activist to impede the momentum of our work. In conclusion, even though the activists were disruptive, even obstructive, their overall presence helped to create a climate wherein better relief could be given to displaced villagers. Aiyar’s inferences are extremely lopsided and misleading. This was indeed an epochal displacement and even devastation. Gujarat has reaped systemic advantage – this deserves appreciation and applause. Yet, it should be taken on record that Gujarat would not have been what it is, had it not been for our pathbreaking work on land acquisition for the Narmada Sagar and Omkareshwar dams in Khandwa district of MP – had we not neutralized the activists without arresting or hurting them, and had MP not borne the brunt of this colossal displacement. Instead of making it appear that all was hunky dory, one should reflect on the past, not try and allow the end to justify the means or to underplay the psychological and other damage to huge swathes of humanity. Never in the history of India has so much been owed by so many to those who were displaced.


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