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The Dam and the Post-truth

The Sardar Sarovar dam exemplifies unjust and unsustainable development.

In the age of post-truth and alternate facts, perhaps one should not be surprised with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s statements as he inaugurated the multipurpose Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat on his 67th birthday on 17 September. Virtually dismissing the complex and controversial history of the dam project that has stretched over three decades, Modi claimed, “I decided that with or without the World Bank, we would go ahead with the project.” The facts are rather different. He also claimed that donations from “the temples of Gujarat” came in to help finance the project after the World Bank pulled out of its funding commitment. Once again, he was stretching the truth.

The Sardar Sarovar dam, one of the 30 large, 135 medium and 3,000 small dams that are being built on the Narmada river, was not financed by temples. It was paid for by government funds after the World Bank, which had extended a loan of $300 million, pulled out before releasing its final tranche in 1993. It is the reason behind the World Bank’s decision, and the people’s struggle against it that are a part of the narrative on the history of this project. And it is this history that we must remember without embellishment to draw from it the crucial lessons India needs to heed as it goes ahead. That Modi chose to dismiss this as “a massive disinformation campaign” against the project only goes to show how, irrespective of the party in power, the message of responsible, equitable and sustainable development has yet to find a mark.

The World Bank’s decision to pull out followed an independent review of the project that it had instituted. The review concluded that the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) and the environmental aspects of the project were “not being handled in accordance with the Bank’s policies.” This left the bank with no option but to pull out. The review’s assessment also reflected the concerns of those opposing the project led by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) campaign voicing the concerns of the displaced. In fact, similar concerns were raised in several projects around the world leading to serious rethinking on large dams and the setting up of the World Commission on Dams in 1998. Since then, the funding for such projects has tapered off as the high social and environmental disruption caused by the very size of these undertakings is now recognised.

It is useful to remember that even as Jawaharlal Nehru, who had called dams the “temples” of modern India, laid the foundation stone for the Sardar Sarovar project in 1961, he had begun to voice some scepticism about the obsession with “gigantism.” That was a time when one assumed that the bigger the project, the larger the investment, the greater the benefits. Yet, even as construction of the Sardar Sarovar finally got underway in 1987, this thinking was being challenged. The first, tentative questions about social and environmental costs were beginning to be raised. In the course of the three decades it has taken for the mammoth 138.68 metre high Sardar Sarovar dam to be constructed, these issues have gained greater legitimacy. Cost–benefit is no more just a question of number crunching; it now requires a discussion on costs to people, and the environment.

Modi also wants people to believe that the project, despite numerous hiccups, was completed because of him. Although it is true that he converted the Sardar Sarovar project into an issue of Gujarati pride when he was Gujarat’s chief minister, and conversely every critic was berated for being anti-Gujarati, the fact remains that this project went through because successive governments at the centre also subscribed to the concept of “big is beautiful.” Despite years of agitation by the NBA, and numerous challenges in the Supreme Court on inadequate R&R, the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) finally gave the go-ahead to the completion of the dam within months of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning the general elections in 2014. Up until then, the height of the dam was 121.92 metre. Even at that height, thousands of families were agitated about the lack of adequate R&R. Despite this, why the NCA cleared construction up to the current 138.68 metre level, a decision that academics, water experts and activists termed “hasty, unwise and disastrous” in an open letter, remains a mystery unless Modi is suggesting that he prompted it.

Reams have been written on the Sardar Sarovar and other dams on the Narmada river. Studies have recorded the inadequate resettlement policies in all the states—Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. In Madhya Pradesh, which faces the largest displacement, the number of families affected continues to be disputed. Madhya Pradesh went against the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA) that laid down a mandatory “land for land” policy for the displaced by offering cash compensation to oustees. As a result, even today there are thousands of unhappy families fighting for fair resettlement before their lands get submerged. While exaggerated claims are being made about the benefits of the project, much of the infrastructure, such as irrigation canals, remains to be built. And the costs of further displacement by this have yet to be assessed. This “miracle of engineering,” as Modi terms it, has come at a heavy price, paid by people who have lost their lands and livelihood, and got none of the benefits. After all this, for Modi to thank the Adivasis displaced by the dam for their “sacrifice” must surely count as a master stroke of insensitivity.

Updated On : 28th Sep, 2017

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