The Muddied Politics around Narmada

Joe Athialy

Joe is an activist/researcher and has been associated with NBA movement for a long time. He can be reached at

With Narendra Modi clearing the decks for the completion of Sardar Sarovar (Narmada) Dam within a month of donning the cap of Prime Ministership, the murky politics played around the dams on Narmada has come a full circle.

It all started when the first Home Minister of independent India Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who hailed from Gujarat, dreamt of harnessing Narmada waters for the benefit of Gujarat. His dream got support from Prime Minister Nehru who was in a hurry to build ‘temples of modern India’ starting with Bhakra Nangal dam in Punjab.

Between 1956, when the Central Water and Power Commission proposed a 160 feet dam, and 1979 when the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) Award was declared with a 455 feet dam, the plans and proposals underwent a sea change witnessing hostility, at times, between the states of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

Sanjay Sangvai in his book ‘The River and Life’ notes that in 1965 when the A.N.Khosla Commission proposed a dam of over 500 feet near Navagam in Bharuch district of Gujarat, the then Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh Govind Narayan Singh “objected to the unprecedented submergence and unequivocally contested the claims of Gujarat on the Narmada waters. He made it clear that Narmada primarily belongs to Madhya Pradesh and that Gujarat had been claiming more than its due share in the allocation of Narmada waters”.

In 1967, the M.P. State Legislature unanimously passed a non-official resolution which said “Madhya Pradesh is not prepared to sacrifice an inch of its irrigation interests in the Narmada basin and no settlement of the so-called Narmada Water Dispute should be attempted in that position”.

The Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal which was constituted by Union Government in November 1969 and took nearly a decade to come out with its Award, started its proceedings late and met infrequently. Sangvai notes, “Its members did not visit the submergence zone, did not consider the displacement of tribals due to the dams proposed, nor did they consider the environmental and ecological aspects of the river valley. It did not determine the quantity of water available in the Narmada, but accepted as given the agreement between Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh regarding water availability”.

From the mid-1970s, Madhya Pradesh, especially the Nimad region, witnessed large-scale protests. Representations from Nimad to Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and later Morarji Desai did not yield any results. Quoting two stalwarts of Nimad agitation, Ambaram Mukati and Shobharam Kaka, Sangvai writes, “The politically tactful and strong lobby pressed the decision on the Narmada Valley”.

The height of political expediency can be gauged by the fact that when the foundation stone was laid by Prime Minister Nehru in 1961, the plan was to build a 160 feet dam. It underwent several changes and finally had a plan in place on its height and share of benefits only in 1979 when the Tribunal declared its Award.

The NWDT found that a dam height of 436 feet was adequate for fully meeting the irrigation needs of Gujarat and Rajasthan, a non-riparian state made party to the dispute by Gujarat for political reasons. NWDT further raised it to 453 feet for compensating the power lost to Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. To ’round off’ the figure, the Tribunal further raised height by 2 feet, totalling up to 455 feet, without any rationale, thereby causing additional submergence which is equivalent to the live storage of the proposed Omkareshwar dam in Madhya Pradesh.

What followed was an unprecedented spiral of protests in Madhya Pradesh, led by both Congress and Janata party (later BJP). Political heavyweights like Arjun Singh, Shankar Dayal Sharma (who later became the President of India), Motilal Vora and others courted arrest. The ruling Janata Party Chief Minister V.K. Sakhlecha declared the Government’s opposition to the Award in the Assembly. “However, the agitation soon dissipated due to changes in the political equations of those days and the bickering among the political parties,” Sangvai notes.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) did not clear the project until 1987 since the Environmental Impact Assessment was not complete and there were no detailed plans for rehabilitation, catchment area treatment, compensatory afforestation and command area development. However, in 1985, two years before the MoEF accorded clearance, the World Bank approved a loan of $ 450 million. When the Rajiv Gandhi Government refused to clear the project owing to lack of studies and plans, political pressure was mounted on Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi.Sangvai notes, “The Secretary to the MoEF, T.N.Seshan, found that a number of important studies regarding the dams where not completed and that consequently these dams (Sardar Sarovar and upstream Indira Sagar) where not ready for approval. These recommendations alarmed that Gujarat government and bureaucrats in the Union Water Resources Ministry. The Ministry (MoWR) came up with a note ‘Urgency of Decision”, which called for these projects to be ‘sanctioned conditionally’, ‘since a large amount had already been spent and both the projects where to provide large benefits’ “. Gujarat government warned of agitation in case of no clearance. The World Bank lending was used to put further pressure on the government, since the Bank lending was considered the epitome of clearances to any project.

When MoEF finally cleared the project in June 1987, it laid down conditions that were to be completed before December 1989. They were: resettlement and rehabilitation, catchment area treatment, command area treatment, flora and fauna, carrying capacity, compensatory afforestation, seismicity, and health impacts. The cruel irony was that the displacement started in early 1980s, whereas the construction work on the dam started in 1985, and it picked up by 1989. These studies were still awaited.

State Governments

In the mid-1970s, Chimanbhai Patel, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat was forced out of power by the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He made the Narmada project an issue for his political survival and was successful to link the dam to the Gujarati pride. While Narendra Modi views NGOs as adversaries, few decades back his predecessor Chimanbhai Patel used NGOs to push this project ahead. ARCH-Vahini, a Gujarat-based NGO, who were initially against large dams, was persuaded to support the project and help the government in rehabilitating the affected communities. While the rehabilitation is still a far cry, with the aid of NGOs the government was successful in displacing thousands of families in Gujarat and was also successful in pitching them against the people’s movement in the valley, Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA).

There were no space for dialogue with the Gujarat government. The government used all possible means to quell the people’s movement. There was constant intimidation of activists and people who protested by the police and administration. Both the Congress and BJP members together attacked the NBA office in Vadodara and burned all valuable files in March 1994.

In 2000, when the Supreme Court allowed partial construction on the dam, while adjudicating the Narmada case, Modi celebrated as if the permission was to complete the dam. The then Home Minister L.K.Advani, carried away by the pomp of the ceremony infamously said, “1998 will be remembered for Pokharan nuclear blasts, 1999 for the Kargil conflict with Pakistan and now 2000 for the Narmada verdict”.

In early 90s, the then Congress Chief Minister of Maharashtra Sharad Pawar was brutal against the people who protested the illegal submergence in the tribal areas of Maharashtra. He put up police camps in every village with large contingent of police to intimidate the people. Police dragged the people out of their houses who refused to leave and protested against the demolition of their houses. Lathi charge, illegal arrests, detention, clamping false cases etc were all common those days. In 1993, when the people were protesting against a survey in Akrani villages, police opened firing on them and one tribal boy was killed. Few days later when people protested against this killing at the district headquarters of Dhule, they were brutally lathi-charged in which “at least 150 people” were injured.

The Manohar Joshi-led Shiv Sena-BJP Government in mid 90’s initiated a dialogue with NBA. But the agitation against Enron project in Ratnagiri district, which was critical of the bonhomie between Enron Corporation and ruling Shiv Sena-BJP combine, where Medha Patkar and others were at the forefront, influenced the fate of that dialogue on Narmada. Years later, another Congress Chief Minister Vilas Rao Deshmukh was open for dialogue with NBA, but by that time Maharashtra lost almost everything for a project from which it anyways got too little.

Succeeding BJP’s Sundar Lal Patwa in Madhya Pradesh, who people in Nimad remember as one who unleashed mounted police on them when they were protesting, Congress’ Digvijay Singh was more open for dialogue and collaborative process. During his decade-long tenure, he engaged with NBA in multiple ways, even constituting a joint committee to review the Narmada Valley Development Plan. Then Chief Secretary Sharad Chandra Beher played a key role in facilitating this dialogue. While a lot of other people’s movements in Madhya Pradesh did not get the same space and openness for dialogue, NBA engaged with the government constructively re-looking at the project, while the protests continued against illegal submergence.

His successor Shivraj Singh Chauhan, the present Chief Minister, however, chose not to engage with the people in any dialogue.

Union Government

A process of protest and dialogue with the VP Singh government resulted in the government agreeing to review the project in 1990. The bureaucrats at Ministry of Water Resources and politiciansfrom Gujarat stifled that process. The government went into a crisis soon after and the decision was buried.

The engagement with the short-lived Chandrashekar government was futile. A delegation which met Prime Minister Chandrashekar remembers that while people were presenting their case he was inattentive and at one point of time to show his disinterest he started browsing the pages of a telephone directory!

In June 1993 when Narasimha Rao government was in power, people were protesting against the illegal submergence in Manibeli, a tribal village in Maharashtra. Police unleashed repression, forcibly evicted people and people and activists were arrested repeatedly. An indefinite fast by Medha Patkar and Devarambhai, a senior activist, demanding a total review of the project, started in Mumbai. On the 18th day the fast was called off, with the Union Government agreeing to review all aspects of the project in a meeting where Justice Krishna Iyer and Gandhian Thakurdas Bang were the observers from NBA side, while Ramaswamy Iyer was the observer from the Government side. Making a U-turn later that night, the government refused to sign the document accepting the demand of review. NBA went on to declare Jal Samarpan and just a day before the scheduled Jal Samarpan, on August 5 Union Government finally announced a review panel. VC Shukla, the Water Resources Minister in the Narasimha Rao government, tried his level best not to concede to the demands of NBA.

Maneka Gandhi, the Social Justice and Empowerment Minister in Vajpayee government, kept a channel of communication and dialogue open with NBA. But with a BJP government in Gujarat, nothing much could have been done by her.

While a dialogue was open with Manmohan Singh government, it didn’t result in anything substantial. Narmada Control Authority under the chairmanship of the Secretary Ministry of Water Resources continued to file false claims on the number of people rehabilitated. Such reports came handy for Narendra Modi to permit construction of dam to its full height within a month of him taking reigns in Delhi.

It would probably be one of the greatest ironies of history that in 1979 when the Tribunal declared its award and it was forced upon the states against their wishes, Morarji Desai, from Gujarat, was the Prime Minister. In 2014, when the construction is permitted to go to its full height, while over 2.5 lakh people are yet to be rehabilitated, Narendra Modi, from Gujarat, is the Prime Minister.

It was the political expediency which determined the fate of Narmada projects in the past over five decades rather than any scientific or human considerations. When it came to the height of the dam or the location or share of benefits or schedule of construction, only politics played a role. That the Narmada basin is on a seismological fault line or the quantum of water in the river is less than what it was imagined or that the number of people who will be displaced will be far more than the states can ever rehabilitate,never bothered the decision-makers.

As the saying goes ‘the more things change, the more they remain the same.’ We have seen it once again in the case of Narmada.

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