It’s a classic issue of ‘development versus environment’, which has gone complex over the years due to unrelenting locals, led by highly educated activists, adamant companies, delayed justice and pliable politicians. It took 17 days for the protesters—fifty-one villagers from Goghalgaon, who raged against raising the water level in the Omkareshwar dam, by standing in neck-deep water in Narmada river—to make the BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government to accept their demands—reduce water level of the dam to 189m and provide compensation for all those who lost land.
People from 250 villages in 10 districts of Madhya Pradesh had been protesting for over two decades against submergence of their land and houses. They had complained about incomplete and inadequate resettlement and rehabilitation in Omkareshwar, Indira Sagar and Maheshwar dam. The first two dams were jointly built by Narmada Hydro Development Corporation (NHDC) and state government, while Maheshwar is built by S. Kumars, a private company.
After a legal battle between Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and the government in the Supreme Court, the height of Omkarasehwar dam was raised to 193m from 189m, and Indira Sagar to 262m from 260m.
This year, with sufficient monsoon, the water level was raised, which led to sinking of additional 150 villages. The state granted compensation, and went ahead filling reservoir, expecting the villagers to leave. However, villagers did not vacate their houses as they were not properly rehabilitated.
They demanded to “implement the rehabilitation measures in the prescribed manner before letting the villages to submerge”. As the jal satyagrahis developed blisters on their feet (caused by standing continuously in water), the state agreed for talks.
Industry minister Kailash Vijayavargia told THE WEEK: “We are considerate to their demands and have full sympathy towards the displaced, but development and power requirement cannot be ignored.”
Former Union minister Arun Yadav participated in the jal satyagraha standing in the river along with other villagers, and said, “Not only did the state government violate human rights by increasing the water level, it has also defied the Supreme Court order—not to raise the water level until the displaced are rehabilitated.” After the water was released, he said that the struggle will continue.
Former chief minister Digvijaya Singh blamed the state government, and called it a complex issue. However, the plight of local people continues as “2,500 families are awaiting allotment agriculture land, while housing sites are yet to be alloted to 1,000 families”.
Fearing criticism especially from the Congress party, the chief minister took a humanist stand and agreed to the demands of then protestors. Soon after his cabinet meeting on Monday, he instructed the dam authorities to drop the water level to 189m.
He said, “We understand the problems and misery of people who are protesting, hence we agreed to bring down the water level of dam to 189m as an immediate relief, and will give land to them if they return the compensation money in next 90 days.”
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan said, “Though irrigation in 20,000 hectares of land and generation of 120MW electricity would get affected in this process, we are more concerned for human beings.” The power-deficit state needs to generate additional electricity to meet the growing demand and its electoral promise of providing uninterrupted power supply.
Meantime, another set of villagers in nearby Harda upstream of Narmada did similar satyagraha to recede water to 260m from 262m.
According to Alok Agarwal, an IITian and member of NBA, “Several orders passed by Grievance Redressal Authority last week have made it clear that rehabilitation of the oustees is still pending, and the grievance handling mechanism hearing are still going on. In such case, the water level should not be increased from 189m ”. Alok said, “It is rubbish to say that land is not available for oustees, in past few years state government has proposed 2.5 lakh hectares of land to business house and companies for “inviting investment”. On the contrary, it put forward the High Court and Supreme Court of unavailability of land—its double stand is exposed”.