Jal Satyagraha by Narmada oustees
Posted September 30, 2012on:
As the displaced persons of the Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar projects started Jal Satyagraha in the backwaters of river Narmada in Khandwa district, the BJP government of Madhya Pradesh bombarded the media with official releases claiming how all the affected families had been excellently rehabilitated. It was even insinuated that there were only a handful of protestors and the hints of foreign money playing a role in the anti-government agitation were also broadly dropped.
By the government’s own admission, 50,921 families have been affected by the two projects, 44,631 families by the Indira Sagar dam and 6290 families by the Omkareshwar project. The government claimed that it had spent around Rs 1600 crore on their rehabilitation and other necessities. A total of 46 rehabilitation centres have been developed and each family has been allotted sizeable developed plots and those opting for cash instead of plots have been given the cash. The government announced that it would deal sternly with the handful of protestors who were trying to misguide the displaced persons. The full water levels in the dams would not affect them adversely, the government claimed.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), which was spearheading the Jal Satyagraha (agitation by standing in the water) of the oustees, called off the 17-day old agitation on September 10 after the government agreed to lower the water level in the Omkareshwar reservoir from 190.5 metres to 189 metres and to abandon its plan to take the water level to 193 metres. It also announced that it would comply with the May 11, 2011 judgement of the Supreme Court requiring allotment of a minimum of 2 hectares of land to each displaced cultivator family.
Ironically, the BJP itself (when it was in opposition) had described the raising of the height of Indira Sagar dam on Narmada river without proper rehabilitation of the affected people as a “criminal act”. Three senior party leaders who had visited the site had demanded registration of criminal cases against those responsible for raising the height of the dam without first complying with the norms of resettlement and rehabilitation and also institution of a judicial inquiry to determine if the directions for raising the height without resettlement were given from above.
The foundation stone of the Indira Sagar project was laid by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 but the construction of the main dam had started in 1992. The families (NBA says the number is more than the officially admitted), gradually deprived of their lands, homes and means of livelihood, have since been struggling for survival with the annual spectre of submergence if the reservoirs are filled to the capacity.
It is an unequal fight. The largely illiterate people led by a band of educated and selfless persons had been fighting against the most corrupt pillars of corruption, the ruling politicians (whichever is the party) and bureaucrats. It is a moot point if the politicians and bureaucrats in the Congress government of Digvijay Singh made more money or those in the present BJP government of Shivraj Singh Chauhan out of the misery of these poor people. The courts have occasionally been coming to the aid of the displaced families in spite of blatantly false claims made by those in the government to mislead the judiciary.
In February 2008, a division bench of Chief Justice A K Patnaik and Ajit Singh of the Madhya Pradesh High Court ruled that every farmer, encroacher and adult son of farmer of the oustees of the Omkareshwar dam should be provided agricultural land for land with a minimum allotment of 5 acres of irrigated land, as per the R&R (rehabilitation and resettlement) policy. The High Court also directed that every adult son of such cultivator must also be allotted such land, even if he is not a titleholder. Citing the judgments of the Supreme Court in the first and second Narmada Bachao Andolan cases, and in the N D Jayal Tehri dam case, the High Court stated that it is a fundamental right of the oustees under Article 21 of the Constitution to be made better-off after displacement. The High Court held that the oustees may be made better-off by various means, whether by the allotment of land, or employment, or other schemes. The bench held that it is the constitutional obligation of the State government to provide R&R entitlements to the oustees including the allotment of land.
The directives of the High Court, the Supreme Court and the Grievances Redress Authority (GRA) notwithstanding, the oustees are forced to live in misery and uncertainty by the corrupt governments. The present chief minister, who was calling the Jal Satyagraha as an attempt by a handful of misguided people to mislead the project-affected families, eventually announced that the water level of the dam would be reduced to 189 metres and that land for land would be given to all the people affected by the Omkareshwar dam.
Now the amount of around Rs 1600 crore that the government claims it has spent on providing an excellent resettlement of the oustees! Perhaps a high-level inquiry is needed to look into where this money has gone.