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Mainstream, VOL LV No 33 New Delhi August 5, 2017

An Appeal from Narmada for Justice

Saturday 5 August 2017, by Bharat Dogra

Once again the situation in the villages around the Narmada river has become so serious as to demand the attention of all people who are committed to justice. In fact this time the situation is more serious than ever before as with the rise in the dam height and the closing of gates many more people are now threatened by submergence than before.

Medha Patkar, the leading social activist of the country and founder member of the Narmada Bachao Aandolan (NBA), is at the time of writing this in the sixth day of her indefinite fast for justice for the evictees of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and related issues. She said recently that the completion of the Sardar Sarovar dam to 139 metres height will raise the water level by 55 feet while with the 122 metre high dam in 2013 itself water had gushed into villages and caused submergence of hundreds of houses. She added that the dam will affect 244 villages and one township due to its reservoir spread over 40,000 hectares in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat reaching up to as long as 214 km.

Now in this scenario the leading concern of all people who value justice and compassion, and this includes people within the government, should be that in this emerging very serious situation all problems of evictees should be resolved to their satisfaction as early as possible so that any further suffering can be avoided and any situation involving any high risk can be entirely avoided.

However, the government authorities have their own understanding and interpretation of the precise legal situation, while the suffering people and activists have their own interpretation of the legal situation. These may clash. The government officials have been trained to get legal sanction for any move they make particularly in such highly contested situations.

On the other hand, the affected people and activists of the NBA are also on a very firm ground as they have several and strong legal records stating that the proper rehabilitation of all evictees has to be ensured before submergence. They also have very good documentation and records to show that particularly in Madhya Pradesh (where by far the largest displacement by this project involving over forty thousand households or over two hundred thousand people is involved) the overwhelming majority of people have not received rehabilitation as per the original written and recorded commitments.

The situation with respect to rehabilitation of people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project is far from ideal even in Maharashtra and Gujarat. There are many problems there also but in Madhya Pradesh there has been a very shocking going back on the original commitments. What is more, even the implementation of the rehabilitation was marred by huge levels of corruption and it has been widely talked about that masive corruption relating to rehabilitation was exposed in the Jha Commission report even though its entire findings were not revealed publicly.

In this situation clearly the need is for first meeting the justice-based needs of satisfactory rehabilitation of the displaced people. This is also the demand of the NBA that there should be no use of force for eviction and there should be no submergence till satisfactory rehabilitation is ensured. This demand is entirely in conformity with the original commitments on the basis of which the project progressed initially. Whatever steps the government takes should be in conformity with the principle of satisfactory rehabilitation first, eviction later.

This is the only justice-based approach in the given circumstances. It is by now widely recognised that displaced people generally face a lot of difficulties and distress, sometimes even traumatic conditions, and there is a great need not only for satisfactory rehabilitation but in addition also for providing them emotional support. This should be the guiding principle for any government which values justice.

The Narmada issue is well known throughout the world. Many concerned people all over the world will be keenly watching whether these long-suffering displaced people get justice at last or not.

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62