Narendra Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which is the world’s second largest dam on his 67th birthday, on September 17, 2017. He claimed that no other project in the world had faced so many obstacles and that the initiative had overcome numerous hurdles to finally be made. Present at Dabhoi, Gujarat, he dedicated the dam – which he called an “engineering miracle” – to the nation. The dam is supposed to provide power and water to 9,000 villages to the states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra.
At the same time, miles away in a village in Madhya Pradesh, thousands carried out a ‘Jal Satyagraha’ – a protest sitting barefoot in water. The reason for this protest? They believed that the water from the dam will displace 40,000 families because their homes will be submerged. The protesters are led by activist and Narmada Bachao Andolan founder Medha Patkar. The protest had begun on Friday on the banks of Narmada at Chota Barda village in Dhar, about 300 km from Bhopal. The water level has been rising there constantly and has already submerged Nisarpur and Rajghat.
The highest embankment on a river in the country is built on the Narmada river and is expected to change the fortunes of Gujarat. However, since the foundation stone of this project was laid in 1961 by Jawaharlal Nehru, it has wrapped up in myriad controversies.
In September 1988, many environmentalists, social workers and scientists sent a memorandum to then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi asking him to reconsider environmental clearance granted to the project. Activists have since been demanding that the filling of water in the dam be stopped and the games opened so that the water level reduces.
Patkar, who had visited the areas expected to be submerged by the river project in 1985, submitted her critique of the project, saying that the people who were to be displaced had not been rehabilitated or informed properly about the issues. She also demanded that the water filling be stopped till rehabilitation is undertaken and compensation paid to the families, which however has not happened despite a Supreme Court order. She also took her case to the World Bank, which stoped funding the project in 1994. Modi himself has talked about the opposition to the construction of the dam from the World Bank. When the financial institution stopped giving money to the project, the temples of Gujarat donated money to it.
Narmada Bachao Andolan had approached the apex court over the environmental issues posed by the dam and received a stay in 1996, although eventually in 2000, work was allowed to resume with some restrictions in October 2000. When her efforts failed, she led the NBA and undertook several fasts for weeks along with Baba Amte, another veteran activist.
Modi is right when he says that the project has progressed despite problems. In 2000, the SC allowed the government to increase the height of the dam to 90-metres, which kept increasing till it reached its current and final height of 138.68 metres.
The dam thus holds in its stead both expectations of development as well as the fear of displacement and the lack of compensation for the people of India. It also sits high as a symbol of the failure of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. While Patkar’s Jal Satyagraha movement carries on, so does some iota of rehabilitation and compensation, albeit slowly.