The Narmada Valley Project
The Narmada River springs from a holy pool amidst Hindu temples on the Amarkantak plateau in the forested Shahdol district of Madhya Pradesh, and then winds westward along a 1,300-kilometer course to drain into the Arabian Sea. The Narmada is one of the most sacred rivers in India. The Narmada basin drains an area of 98,796 and is home to 21 million people and nearly 80 percent live in villages. About a quarter of the basin is covered in moist and dry deciduous forests and about 60 percent of it has black soils composed of silty clay with low permeability. The Narmada river valley project was proposed in 1946 but the final planning and work on it commenced only after the Narmada Water Disputes tribunal passed the final orders in 1978. This was established in 1969 under India's Interstate disputes act of 1956 to resolve the dispute on river water sharing among the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujrat and Maharastra. The tribunal also laid down conditions regarding resettlement and rehabilitation of people to be displaced by the submergence- the 'oustees'. The project when completed would rank as the largest irrigation project ever planned and implemented as a single unit anywhere in the world. By the year 2040, the project proposes to complete 31 major dams (11 on Narmada and 20 on its tributaries), 135 medium dams and 3000 minor dams. Out of the 31 major dams, the controversial ones are the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) in Gujrat and the Narmada (Indira) Sagar Project (NSP) in Madhya Pradesh. The NSP is years behind SSP in construction and is one of the biggest artificial reservoir in India. The SSP is intended to bring drinking water to Kutch and other draught ridden regions in Gujrat. The dam will impound water in a 455-foot high reservoir, which eventually would submerge 37,000 hectares of land in the three states. It will also divert 9.5 million acres feet (MAF) of water into a canal and irrigation system. The aggregate length of the distribution network will be 75,000 kilometers and will require 150,000 hectares of land, which is four times as the land submerged by the reservoir. Narmada is plagued by many problems like funding setbacks, faulty construction, inadequate EIA's.

Although international aid for Narmada valley project came from many sources, the most controversial was the World Bank assistance, which was to account for 15 percent of SSP. In 1985 the bank lent the three State Governments the funds to finance both the dams and the canals. The financing represented international approval of the project and international satisfaction. But as the events unfolded, it came to symbolize as the most embarrassing and criticized project of the World Bank and was one of the first in history to be terminated. It also provided the impetus for the traditionally secretive bank to open its procedures to the public, reconsider and rewrite its guidelines on funding and resettlement policy and practice. The bank finally announced withdrawal in March 1993. without funds, work on the canal system came to an halt. Available resources were made available to raise the dam wall. During the 1993 monsoon, with the dam wall 44 meters high, the lands of hundreds of villagers, and homes of 40 families were washed. 

The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) established specific conditions regarding the resettlement and rehabilitation of the people that would be displaced by the creation of the Sardar Sarovar dam. The language of the tribunal award clearly states that all 'Project Affected Families' would be re-established as communities with access to water, education, and health (Clause 1V(1)) on a 'land-for-land basis'. Clause IV (6) states that 'in no event shall any areas in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra be submerged under the Sardar Sarovar Project unless all payments of compensation and costs is made for acquisition of land and arrangements are made for rehabilitation.' This clause has served as the centerpiece for litigation by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). 

The NBA focused its writ petition in the Supreme Court on the rehabilitation of the affected people. It presented a comprehensive review of the project and re- quested that no further submergence or displacement takes place. On 5 June 1995 the Supreme Court granted a stay, citing the questionable rehabilitation process. Construction was suspended at a height of 81.5 meters. 

After four years of investigations and mounds of further litigation, the Supreme Court surprised many by issuing an interim order on 18 February 1999, which permitted the resumption of construction on the dam up to a height of 85 meters. One of the major reasons the court allowed work to resume was based on an affidavit provided by the states of Maharashtra and Gujarat that all oustees had been fully rehabilitated and indicating that arrangements had been made for those to be displaced by the increase of 3.5 metres in dam height. Overall, the court disregarded a great deal of the information prepared by the NBA. Instead, it used the government data as the basis for the deliberations. Although the court did allow work to continue, it also recognized a three member 'Grievance Redressal Authority', an independent committee appointed by Gujarat, which was to investigate two issues: 

(a) whether the rehabilitation of the resettled oustees had been completed in a satisfactory manner, in accordance with the NWDT award and other government policies;
(b) whether the preparations to resettle individuals who would be displaced if the height were to be raised to 90 meters were adequate.
This committee was to report on the state of the displaced in mid-April when the court would entertain the motion of raising the height of the dam to 90 metres.

Although the court did state in its decision that all those displaced by the increase to 85 meters needed to be adequately rehabilitated, what type of signal does the decision give to those displaced who now face the sudden and immediate threat of submergence. In this interim decision the court restricted itself to considering only issues of 'relief and rehabilitation.' Interestingly, the NBA argued strongly that the entire project ought to remain suspended until a full re-examination has been conducted. The NBA brought up environmental issues, cost-benefit issues, and constitutional and equity issues surrounding the displacement process itself. Is this narrowing of the issues problematic? Why? Do you believe the court erred in accepting the notion of displacement of individuals as long as they are rehabilitated? Can a community ever be 'rehabilitated'? 

Not surprisingly, the court's 18 February 1999 decision to allow construction to resume touched off a flurry of activity within dam opposition groups. A series of marches, protests, and claims of government fraud ensued. Many opposition groups, with the NBA leading the cause, challenged the assertions that government officials made in court concerning land availability and the status of those currently displaced by the SSP. In order to fully expose the incorrect government claims, the NBA and a host of other concerned groups representing oustees, women, dalits, tribals, farmers and other downtrodden people, organized marches and sit-ins throughout India, aimed particularly at dam sites and government buildings. Their purpose was to force the government to admit its untruths concerning the availability of land for the displaced. Several such protests were carried out between March and September 1999. However, the most significant of these rallies, entitled the 'Manav Adhikar Yatra " or the Human Rights March, occurred in early April, 1999. This extensive march covered hundreds of kilometers and included thousands of participants. The march started in Badwani, Madhya Pradesh and wove through several dam-affected communities in the Narmada Valley, as well as numerous cities and towns before reaching New Delhi early April 8th. 

The campaigns conducted by citizen groups are having some positive outcomes. In March, 1999 the government of Maharashtra admitted that there was not land to sufficiently rehabilitate the families who would be submerged by the court sanctioned five meter rise in dam height. Remember that Maharashtra authorities had made earlier claims in the Supreme Court that there was land available for project-affected families. Authorities have admitted that the number of displaced families they had cited in the affidavit submitted to the court was based on numbers of a survey conducted in 1983-1984. This figure represented only one tenth of the actual number of displacers. 

Much of the recent controversy and litigation that has taken place is in response to the consideration of the court to allow building up to a height of 90 metres. However, recall the dam proponents admit that benefits will not accrue until the height of 110 metres (the final height planned is 138 metres). If completed as planned, opponents say that 320,000 people will be displaced by the SSP. Should the court be viewing the project in a more comprehensive manner considering the difficulties the government is having locating land for displacers at these lower dam levels.

The Narmada planning process seems to have been replete with false claims of benefits, even aside from the deeply flawed scheme for resettlement and rehabilitation. The governments involved continued to spend public money without environmental clearances, and presumably will do the same with future projects unless harsh penalties are imposed on them. Meanwhile, in the United States and France, large dams are being decommissioned as their high maintenance costs and damage to fisheries have become intolerable. Mega-dams may be a symbol of development in India, but they are beginning to seem an obsolete technology elsewhere in the world.