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The Road to Harsud


Villages die by night. Quietly. Towns die by day, shrieking as they go.


Since Independence, Big Dams have displaced more than 35 million people in India alone. What is it about our understanding of nationhood that allows governments to crush their own people with such impunity? What is it about our understanding of ‘progress’ and ‘national interest’ that allows (applauds) the violation of people’s rights on a scale so vast that it takes on the texture of everyday life and is rendered virtually invisible?


But every now and then something happens to make the invisible visible, the incomprehensible comprehensible.


Harsud is that something. It is literature. Theatre. History.


Harsud is a 700-year-old town in Madhya Pradesh, slated to be submerged by the reservoir of the Narmada Sagar Dam (sometimes called the Indira Sagar). The same Harsud where in 1989, 30,000 activists
 
gathered from across India, held hands in a ring around the town, and vowed to collectively resist destruction masquerading as ‘Development’. Fifteen years on, while Harsud waits to drown, that dream endures on slender moorings.
 
The 92-metre-high Narmada Sagar (262 metres above mean sea level, which is the way dam heights are usually referred to) is the second-highest dam of the many large dams on the Narmada. The Sardar Sarovar in Gujarat is the highest. The reservoir of the Narmada Sagar is designed to be the largest in India. In order to irrigate 1,23,000 hectares of land, it will submerge 91,000 hectares! This includes 41,000 hectares of prime dry deciduous forest, 249 villages and the town of Harsud. According to the detailed project report, 30,000 hectares of the land in the Narmada Sagar command was already irrigated in 1982.


Odd math, wouldn’t you say? Those who have studied the Narmada Sagar Project—Ashish Kothari of Kalpvriksh, Claude Alvarez and Ramesh Billorey—have warned us for years that of all the high dams on the Narmada, the Narmada Sagar would be the most destructive. The Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, estimated that up to 40 per cent of the composite command areas of the Omkareshwar and Narmada Sagar could become severely waterlogged. In a note prepared in 1993 for the review committee, the Ministry of Environment and Forests estimated the value of the forest that would be submerged as Rs 33,923 crore. It went on to say that if this cost was included, it would make the project unviable. The Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, warned of the loss of a vast reservoir of biodiversity, wildlife and rare medicinal plants. Its 1994 impact assessment report to the ministry of environment said: “The compensation of the combined adversarial impacts of the Narmada Sagar Project and the Omkareshwar Project is neither possible nor is being suggested. These will have to be reckoned as the price for the perceived socio-economic benefit. “


As always, all the warnings were ignored.


Construction of the dam began in 1985. For the first few years, it proceeded slowly. It ran into trouble with finance and land acquisition. In 1999, after a fast by activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, work was suspended altogether.


On May 16, 2000, in keeping with the central government’s push to privatise the power sector and open it to global finance, the government of Madhya Pradesh signed an MoU with the Government of India to “affirm the joint commitment of the two parties to the reform of the power sector in Madhya Pradesh”. The ‘reforms’ involved “rationalising” power tariffs and slashing cross-subsidies that would (and did) inevitably lead to political unrest.


The same MoU promised central government support for the Narmada Sagar and Omkareshwar dams by setting up a joint venture with the National Hydro-Electric Power Corporation (NHPC). That contract was signed on the same day. May 16, 2000.


Both agreements will inevitably lead to the pauperisation and dispossession of people in the state.


The NHPC boasts that the Narmada Sagar will eventually take care of the “power needs” of the state. That’s not a claim that stands up to scrutiny.


The installed capacity of the Narmada Sagar Dam is 1,000 MW. Which means what it sounds like—that the power-generating machinery that has been installed is capable of producing 1,000 MW of electricity.


What is produced—firm power—depends on actually available water flows. (A fancy Ferrari may be capable of doing 300 kmph. But what would it do without fuel?) The detailed project report puts the actual firm power at 212 MW, coming down to 147 MW when the irrigation canals become operational.
 
According to the NHPC’s own publicity, the cost of power at the bus bar (factory gate) is Rs 4. 59 per unit. Which means at consumer point, it will cost about Rs 9. Who can afford that? It’s even more expensive than Enron’s electricity in Dabhol!


When (if) the project is fully built, the NHPC says it will generate an annual average of 1,950 million units of power. For the sake of argument, let’s accept that figure. Madhya Pradesh currently loses 44. 2 per cent of its electricity—12,000 million units a year—in transmission and distribution (T&D) losses. That’s the equivalent of SIX Narmada Sagars. If the MP government could work towards saving even half its current T&D losses, it could generate power equal to three Narmada Sagar projects, at a third of the cost, with none of the social and ecological devastation.


But instead, once again we have a Big Dam with questionable benefits and unquestionably cruel, unviable costs.
 
After the MoU for the Narmada Sagar was signed, the NHPC set to work with its customary callousness.


The dam wall began to go up at an alarming pace. At a press conference on March 9, 2004 (after the BJP won the assembly elections and Uma Bharati became chief minister of Madhya Pradesh), Yogendra Prasad, chairman and managing director of the NHPC, boasted that the project was 8 to 10 months ahead of schedule. He said that because of better management, the costs of the project would be substantially lower. Asked to comment on the objections being raised by the NBA about rehabilitation, he said the objections were irrelevant.


“Better management”, it now turns out, is a euphemism for cheating thousands of poor people.


Yogendra Prasad, Digvijay Singh and Uma Bharati are criminally culpable, and in any society in which the powerful are accountable, would find themselves in jail. The fact that the NHPC is a central government body makes the Union government culpable too. They have wilfully violated the terms of their own MoU, which legally binds them to comply with the principles of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA). The Award specifies that in no event can submergence precede rehabilitation. (Which is about as self-evident as saying child abuse is a crime). They have violated the government of Madhya Pradesh’s rehabilitation policy. They have violated the conditions of environmental and forest clearance. They have violated the terms of several international covenants that India has signed: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil, Economic and Political Rights and the International Labour Organisation Convention. The Supreme Court says that any international treaty signed by India becomes part of our domestic and municipal law. Not a single family has been resettled according to the NWDT Award or the Madhya Pradesh rehabilitation policy.


There is no excuse, no mitigating argument for the horror they have unleashed.


The road from Khandwa to Harsud is a toll road. A smooth, new private highway, littered with the carcasses of trucks, motorcycles and cars whose drivers were clearly unused to such luxury. On the outskirts of Harsud, you pass row upon row of cruel, corrugated tin sheds. Tin roofs, tin walls, tin doors, tin windows. As blindingly bright on the outside as they are blind dark inside. A sign says ‘Baad Raahat Kendra’ (flood relief centre). It’s largely empty except for the bulldozers, jeeps, government officers and police, who stroll around unhurried, full of the indolent arrogance that comes with power. The flood relief centre has been built where only a few weeks ago the government college stood.


And then, under the lowering, thundery sky, Harsud. . . like a scene out of a Marquez novel.


The first to greet us was an old buffalo, blind, green-eyed with cataract. Even before we entered the town we heard the announcement repeated over and over again on loudspeakers attached to a roving Matador van. “Please tether your cattle and livestock. Please do not allow them to roam free. The government will make arrangements to transport them. ” (Where to?) People with nowhere to go are leaving. They have loosed their livestock on to Harsud’s ruined streets. And the government doesn’t want drowning cattle on its hands.


Behind the blind buffalo, silhouetted against the sky, the bare bones of a broken town. A town turned inside out, its privacy ravaged, its innards exposed. Personal belongings, beds, cupboards, clothes, photographs, pots and pans lie on the street. In several houses, caged parakeets hang from broken beams. An infant swaddled in a sari-crib sways gently, fast asleep in a doorway in a free-standing wall. Leading from nowhere to nowhere. Live electric cables hang down like dangerous aerial roots. The insides of houses lie rudely exposed. It’s strange to see how a bleached, colourless town on the outside was vibrant on the inside, the walls every shade of turquoise, emerald, lavender, fuchsia.


Perched on the concrete frames of wrecked buildings, men, like flightless birds, are hammering, sawing, smoking, talking. If you didn’t know what was happening, you could be forgiven for thinking that Harsud was being built, not broken. That it had been hit by an earthquake and its citizens were rebuilding it. But then you notice that the old, grand trees, mahua, neem, peepul, jamun are all still standing. And outside every house you see the order in the chaos. The doorframes stacked together. Iron grills in a separate pile. Tin sheets in another. Broken bricks still flecked with coloured plaster piled up in a heap. Tin boards, shop signs, leaning against lampposts. Ambika Jewellers, Lovely Beauty Parlour, Shantiniketan Dharamshala, Blood and Urine Tested Here. On more than one house, there are insanely optimistic signs: “This house is for sale. ” Every house, every tree has a code number on it. Only the people are uncoded. The local cartoonist is exhibiting his work on a pile of stones. Every cartoon is about how the government cheated and deceived people. A group of spectators discusses the details of various ongoing rackets in town—from tenders for the tin sheets for the tin sheds, to the megaphones on the Matador, to the bribes being demanded from parents for School TCs (transfer certificates) to a non-existent school in a non-existent rehabilitation site. Parents are distraught and children are delighted because their school building has been torn down. Many children will lose a whole school year. The poorer ones will drop out.


The people of Harsud are razing their town to the ground. Themselves. The very young and the very old sit on heaps of broken brick.


The able-bodied are frenetically busy. They’re tearing apart their homes, their lives, their past, their stories. They’re carting the debris away in trucks and tractors and bullock carts. Harsud is hectic. Like a frontier town during the Gold Rush. The demise of a town is lucrative business. People have arrived from nearby towns. Trucks, tractors, dealers in scrap-iron, timber and old plastic throng the streets, beating down prices, driving hard bargains, mercilessly exploiting distress sales. Migrant workers camp in makeshift hovels on the edge of town. They are the poorest of the poor. They have come from Jhabua, and the villages around Omkareshwar, displaced by the other big dams on the Narmada, the Sardar Sarovar and the Omkareshwar.


The better off in Harsud hire them as labour. A severely malnutritioned demolition squad. And so the circle of relentless impoverishment closes in upon itself.


In the midst of the rubble, life goes on. Private things are now public. People are cooking, bathing, chatting (and yes, crying) in their wall-less homes. Iridescent orange jalebis and gritty pakoras are being deep-fried in stoves surrounded by mounds of debris. The barber has a broken mirror on a broken wall. (Perhaps the man he’s shaving has a broken heart. ) The man who is demolishing the mosque is trying to save the coloured glass. Two men are trying to remove the Shivling from a small shrine without chipping it. There is no method to the demolition. No safety precautions. Just a mad hammering. A house collapses on four labourers. When they are extricated, one of them is unconscious and has a steel rod sticking into his temple. But they’re only adivasis. They don’t matter. The show must go on.
 
There is an eerie, brittle numbness to the bustle. It masks the government’s ruthlessness and people’s despair. Everyone knows that nearby, in the Kalimachak tributary, the water has risen. The bridge on the road to Badkeshwar is already under water.


There are no proper estimates of how many villages will be submerged in the Narmada Sagar Reservoir, when (if) the monsoon comes to the Narmada Valley. The Narmada Control Authority website uses figures from the 1981 Census! In newspaper reports, government officials estimate it will submerge more than a hundred villages and Harsud town. Most estimates suggest that this year 30,000 families will be uprooted from their homes. Of these, 5,600 families (22,000 people) are from Harsud. Remember, these are 1981 figures.


When the reservoir of the first dam on the Narmada—the Bargi Dam—was filled in 1989, it submerged three times more land than government engineers said it would. Then, 101 villages were slated for submergence, but in the monsoon of 1989, when the sluice gates were finally closed and the reservoir was filled, 162 villages (including some of the government’s own resettlement sites) were submerged. There was no rehabilitation. Tens of thousands of people slid into destitution and abject poverty. Today, 15 years later, irrigation canals have still not been built. So the Bargi Dam irrigates less land than it submerged and only 6 per cent of the land that its planners claimed it would irrigate. All indicators suggest that the Narmada Sagar could be an even bigger disaster.


Farmers who usually pray for rain, now trapped between drought and drowning, have grown to dread the monsoon.


Oddly enough, after the 1989 rally, when the anti-dam movement was at its peak, the town of Harsud never became a major site of struggle. The people chose the option of conventional, mainstream politics, and divided themselves acrimoniously between the Congress and the BJP. Like most people, they believed that dams were not intrinsically bad, provided displaced people were resettled. So they didn’t oppose the Dam, hoping their political mentors would see that they received just compensation.


Villages in the submergence zone did try to organise resistance, but were brutally and easily suppressed. Time and again they appealed to the NBA (located further downstream, fighting against the Sardar Sarovar and Maheshwar dams) for help. The NBA, absurdly overstretched and under-resourced, did make sporadic interventions, but was not able to expand its zone of influence to the Narmada Sagar.


With no NBA to deal with, bolstered by the Supreme Court’s hostile judgements on the Sardar Sarovar and Tehri dams, the Madhya Pradesh government and its partner, the NHPC, have rampaged through the region with a callousness that would shock even a seasoned cynic.


The lie of rehabilitation has been punctured once and for all. Planners who peddle it do so for the most cruel, opportunistic reasons. It gives them cover. It sounds so reasonable.


In the absence of organised resistance, the media in Madhya Pradesh has done a magnificent job.


Local journalists have doggedly exposed the outrage for what it is. Editors have given the story the space it deserves. Sahara Samay has its OB van parked in Harsud. Newspapers and television channels carry horror stories every day. A normally anaesthetised, unblinking public has been roused to anger. Every day, groups of people arrive to see for themselves what is happening, and to express their solidarity. The state government and the NHPC remain unmoved. Perhaps a decision has been taken to exacerbate the tragedy and wait out the storm once and for all. Perhaps they’re gambling on the fickleness of public memory and the media’s need for a crisis turnover. But a crime of this proportion is not going to be forgotten so easily. If it goes unpunished, it cannot but damage India’s image as a benign destination for International Finance: thousands of people, evicted from their homes with nowhere to go. And it’s not war. It’s policy.


Can it really be that 30,000 families have nowhere to go? Can it really be that a whole town has nowhere to go? Ministers and government officials assure the press that a whole new township—New Harsud—has been built near Chhanera, 12 km away. On July 12, in his budget presentation, MP finance minister Shri Raghavji announced: “Rehabilitation of Harsud town which was pending for years has been completed in six months. “


Lies.


New Harsud is nothing but mile upon mile of stony, barren land in the middle of nowhere. A few hundred of the poorest families of Harsud have moved there and live under tarpaulin and tin sheets. (The rest have placed themselves at the mercy of relatives in nearby towns, or are using up their meagre compensation on rented accommodation. In and around Chhanera, rents have skyrocketed. ) In New Harsud, there’s no water, no sewage system, no shelter, no school, no hospital. Plots have been marked out like cells in a prison, with mud roads that criss-cross at right angles. They get water from a tanker. Sometimes they don’t. There are no toilets and there is not a tree or a bush in sight for them to piss or shit behind. When the wind rises, it takes the tin sheets with it. When it rains, the scorpions come out of the wet earth. Most important of all, there’s no work in New Harsud. No means of earning a livelihood.


People can’t leave their possessions in the open and go off in search of work. So the little money they have been paid, dwindles. Of course, cash compensation is only given to the Head of the Family, that is: to men. What a travesty for the thousands of women who are hit hardest by the violence of displacement.


In Chhanera, the booze shops are doing brisk business.


When media attention trails away, so will the water tankers. People will be left in a stony desert with no option but to flee. Again.


And this is what is being done to people from a town.


You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to imagine what is happening to the villages.


In circumstances such as these, how does a government get people to not just move, but to humiliate themselves by tearing apart their own lives? With their own hands? In Harsud so far, there has been no bulldozing, no police firing, no coercion. Only cold, brilliant strategy.


The people of Harsud have known for years that their town lay in the submergence zone of the Narmada Sagar Dam. Like all ‘oustees’ of all dams, they were promised compensation and rehabilitation. There was no sign of either. And now, while people’s lives are being devastated, Uma Bharati and Digvijay Singh accuse each other of criminal negligence. Let’s look at some basic facts.


In September 2003, just before the assembly elections, the Digvijay Singh government granted the NHPC permission to raise the dam wall to 245 metres. At 10 o’clock in the morning on November 18, 2003, the diversion tunnel was closed and water began to be impounded in the reservoir. Downstream, the river dried up, fish died and for days the riverbed was exposed. By mid-December, when Uma Bharati took over as the new CM, the height of the dam was already 238 metres. Eager to partake of some of the ‘credit’ for the Narmada Sagar, without bothering to check on how rehabilitation was progressing, she allowed the dam height to be increased from 238 to 245 metres. In January 2004, she congratulated the NHPC for its “achievements”. In April 2004, the NHPC began to instal the radial crest gates, which will take the dam to its full height of 262 metres. Four of the 20 gates are in place. The NHPC has announced that the project will be completed by December 2004.


The responsibility of surveying the submergence zone for the purposes of compensation and rehabilitation had been transferred to the NHPC. The responsibility for actual land acquisition and rehabilitation still rests with the government. The NHPC holds 51 per cent of the equity in the project. Between the two ‘interested parties’, they’re in a hurry to get the job done and keep the costs down. One major budget head is compensation.


The first, most deadly sleight of hand involves the definition of who counts as Project Affected. The absolute poorest, in the villages, are sloughed off at this stage. Essentially those who are landless—fisher people, boat people, sand quarriers, daily-wage workers and those who are considered ‘encroachers’ do not qualify as project-affected and are done away with. In some cases, whole villages have fallen prey to this process. For example, the 1982 detailed project report says that 255 villages will be submerged by the reservoir. Somewhere along the way, six of those villages were taken off the list and the number came down to 249. The Narmada Control Authority now says only 211 villages will be eligible for compensation. Some 38 villages have been designated as ‘encroachers’ and are not eligible for compensation.


The next lethal blow is when rates of compensation are fixed. The fortunate people who actually qualify as project-affected, asked, quite reasonably, to be compensated for their land according to the prevailing land prices in the villages in the command area of the dam. They received almost exactly half of that: Rs 40,000 an acre for unirrigated land, Rs 60,000 an acre for irrigated land. The market price for irrigated land is over Rs 1,00,000. As a result, farmers who had 10 acres of land will barely manage five. Small farmers with a couple of acres become landless labourers. Rich become poor. Poor become destitute. It’s called Better Management.


And it gets worse.


Patwaris and revenue inspectors descended on Harsud and the ‘notified’ villages like a terminator virus. They held thousands of people’s futures in their grasping fists.


Every single person we spoke to, every farmer, every labourer, every villager, every citizen of Harsud, rich and poor, man and woman, told the same story.


The technique they described is as diabolical as it is simple. Basically, the patwaris and RIs undervalued everything. Irrigated land was entered as unirrigated. Pucca houses were shown as kuccha. A five-acre farm became four acres. And so on. This was done indiscriminately, to rich and poor alike. People had the option of challenging the award in a civil court (and spending more on lawyers’ fees than the compensation they hoped to receive). The other option was to bribe the patwaris and revenue inspectors. The poor simply did not have the liquid cash to pay the going rate—”Hum feelgood nahin kar paaye. ” So they fell out of the basket. Those who managed to make the patwaris ‘feelgood’ managed to get even their cattle sheds entered as palatial homes and received handsome compensation (in lakhs) for them. Of course, much of this made its way back to the officials as more ‘feelgood’.


Even this unfair, absurd compensation that was promised has not been fully disbursed. So in the villages and in Harsud, thousands of people continued to cling to their homes.


On May 14, Uma Bharati announced a grant of a minimum of Rs 25,000 (or 10 per cent of the allotted compensation going up to a maximum of Rs 5 lakh) to people who demolished their houses and moved out of town before June 30. Still people did not move.


On June 8, two representatives of the Sangharsh Morcha filed a petition in the Jabalpur High Court asking that water not be impounded in the reservoir until proper compensation is paid and rehabilitation completed. Annexed to their petition were carefully compiled documents that clearly showed the extent of criminal malfeasance that took place in Harsud. The townspeople’s hopes were pinned on the court’s response. At the first hearing, government lawyers cautioned the judge that there was nothing anybody could do about the fact that the water was rising and the situation could turn dangerous. It cautioned the judge that if the court intervened, it could have a disaster on its hands.


The state government knew that if it could break Harsud, the despair and resignation would spread to the villages. To break Harsud once and for all, to ensure that people never came back even if the monsoon failed and the town was not fully submerged, meant demolishing the town physically. In order to create panic, they simulated a flood, by releasing water from the Bargi reservoir upstream. On June 23, the water in the Kalimachak tributary rose by a metre and a half. Still people did not move. On June 27, over 300 police and paramilitary forces staged a flag march through the terrified town. Companies of mounted police, the Rapid Action Force, the paramilitary and armed constabulary paraded through the streets.


On June 29, the high court issued a tepid, cautious interim order. Morale in Harsud sank. Still the deadline of June 30 passed without event. On the morning of July 1, loudspeakers mounted on vehicles criss-crossed the town announcing that the Rs 25,000 grant would only be given to those who demolished their homes that very night.


Harsud broke.


All night people smashed away at their own homes with crowbars, hammers, iron rods. . . . By morning it looked like a suburb of modern-day Baghdad.


The panic spread to the villages. Away from the gaze of the media, in place of the lure of Rs 25,000, the government resorted to good old-fashioned repression. In fact, repression in the villages had begun a while ago. In village after village—Amba Khaal, Bhawarli, Jetpur—people told us in precise, heartbreaking detail how they had been cheated by patwaris and RIs. Fearing what lay in store for them, many had sent their children and their stocks of grain away to relatives.


Families who had lived together for generations did not know when they would ever see each other again. A whole fragile economy had begun to unravel. People described how a posse of policemen would arrive in a village, dismantle hand pumps and cut electricity connections. Those who dared to resist were beaten. (This was the same technique the Digvijay Singh government used two years ago in the submergence zone of the Mann Dam. ) In each of the villages we visited, the schools had either been demolished or occupied by the police. In Amba Khaal, small children studied in the shade of a peepul tree while the police lay about in their classrooms.


As we travelled further inland towards the reservoir, the road got worse and eventually disappeared. At Malud, there was a boat tethered to the Police Assistance Booth overlooking a rocky outcrop. The policeman said he was waiting for the Flood. Beyond Malud, we passed ghost villages reduced to rubble. A boy with two goats told us about 20 monkeys that were marooned on a clump of trees surrounded by water. We passed Gannaur, the last village where a lone man was loading the last few bricks of his home on to a tractor. Beyond Gannaur, the land slopes down towards the edge of the reservoir.


As we approached the water, it began to rain. It was quiet except for the alarm calls of frightened lapwings. In my mind, the man loading his tractor in the distance was Noah building his ark, waiting for the Deluge. The sound of the water lapping against the shore was full of menace. The violence of what we had seen and heard robbed beautiful things of their beauty. A pair of dragonflies mated in the air. I caught myself wondering if it was rape. There was a line of froth that marked the level up to which the water had risen before it receded in the government-induced Bargi flood. There was a small child’s shoe in it.


On our way back we took another route.


We drove down a red gravel road built by the forest department and travelled deep into the forest. We arrived at a village that looked as though it had been evacuated some years ago. Broken houses had been reclaimed by trees and creepers. A herd of feral cows grazed in the ruins.


There was no one around to tell us the name of the village—this village that must have been loved and lived in. That must still be loved. And dreamt about.


As we turned to go, we saw a man walking towards us. His name was Baalak Ram. He was a Banjara. He told us the name of the village—Jamunia. It had been uprooted two years ago. My friend Chittaroopa from the NBA was visibly disturbed when she heard this. She remembered tractorloads of people from Jamunia who came to support NBA’s rallies against the Maheshwar Dam. And now they were gone. Swallowed by their own, more terrible dam.


Baalak Ram was a labourer who had been sent back by the land-owning Patels of Jamunia to try and round up their cows. But the cows wouldn’t go. “They pay me, but it’s not easy, the cattle have become wild. They refuse to go. They have grass and water here, the river and the forest close by. Why should they go?”


He told us how cows and dogs had returned to Jamunia from distant places. He seemed happy, alone in the forest with the almost-wild cows. We asked him if he ever felt lonely. “This


is my village,” he said, and then, after a moment, “only sometimes. . . when I think, where has everyone gone? Are they all dead?”


A tiny boy arrived. Dark. Glowing. He attached himself to Baalak Ram’s legs. He clutched a bunch of beautiful wildflowers. We asked him who they were for.


“Khabsurat the. ” They were beautiful. As though Beautiful was someone who had died recently.


At a meeting in Harsud, desperate people discussed the possibility of filing a Public Interest Litigation (pil) in the Supreme Court.


institution with the idea of Justice. Power, yes. Strategy, maybe. But Justice? Phrases from Justices A. S. Anand and B. N. Kirpal’s majority judgement on the Sardar Sarovar flashed through my mind:


“Public Interest Litigation should not be allowed to degenerate into becoming Publicity Interest Litigation or Private Inquisitiveness Litigation. “


“Though these villages comprise a significant population of tribals and people of weaker sections, but majority will not be a victim of displacement. Instead, they will gain from shifting. “


“The displacement of tribals and other persons would not per se result in the violation of their fundamental or other rights”.


Thus were the thousands displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam doomed to destitution.


I thought of how the same Justice B. N. Kirpal, one day before he retired as India’s Chief Justice, while he was the sitting judge on another, entirely unconnected case, ordered the Government of India to begin work on the River Linking Project! In an affidavit submitted in response, the central government said the project would take 43 years to complete and would cost Rs 5,60,000 crore. Justice Kirpal didn’t quibble about the cost, only asked that the project be completed in 10 years! And so, a project of Stalinist proportions, potentially more destructive than all of India’s dams put together, was given the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval. Justice Kirpal subsequently clarified that it was not an order—just a “suggestion”. Meanwhile, the government began to treat it like a Supreme Court order. How can the ecology of a whole subcontinent be irreversibly altered in such an arbitrary way? Who has the jurisdiction to do that? How can a country that calls itself a democracy function like this?


(Today Justice Kirpal heads the Indian Environmental Council of Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverage Pvt Ltd. Earlier this year, he publicly criticised a Kerala High Court order which refused to grant a stay on the Kerala government’s directive restraining Coke from mining groundwater in Plachimada. A contempt of court case has been filed against him. )


So. Should the people of Harsud approach the courts? It’s not an easy question to answer.


What should they ask for? What could they hope to achieve?


The concrete section of the Narmada Sagar Dam is 245 metres high. The radial crest gates take the dam wall up to its full height of 262. 13 metres. According to the Narmada Control Authority’s own figures—a huge part of the submergence will take place between 245 metres and 262 metres.


Can we look to the Courts to explore the possibility of blasting open the sluice-gates (as was done in the case of the Mann Dam), keeping them open until the rehabilitation process is complete according the NWDTA stipulations?


Can we look to the Courts to order the reopening of the diversion tunnel so that water is not impounded in the reservoir this monsoon?


Can we look to the Courts to arraign every politician, bureaucrat and NHPC official that has been involved in criminal malfeasance?


Can we look to the Courts to order the removal of the four existing gates (and stay the installation of the rest) until every displaced family has been rehabilitated?


Will the courts consider these options or will they give us more of the same? A pseudo-rap on the government’s knuckles for shoddy rehabilitation (Bad boy Fido! Naughty dog!) and a stamp of approval for project upon project that violates the fundamental rights of fellow human beings? What should we expect? The charade of yet another retired judge setting up yet another Grievance Redressal Authority to address the woes of yet another hundred thousand people?


If so, the question must be asked. Which institution in our wonderful democracy remains accountable to people and not to power? What are people supposed to do? Are they on their own now? Have they fallen through the grid?


We left Harsud at dusk. On the way we stopped at the Baad Raahat Kendra. There were very few people around, although a couple of families had moved into the tin sheds. One of the tin doors had a sticker that said Export Quality. It was hard to make out the man sitting on the floor in the dark. He said his name was Kallu Driver. I’m glad I met him. He was sitting on the floor. He had unstrapped his wooden leg. He used to be a driver, 15 years ago he lost his leg in an accident. He lived alone in Harsud. He had been given a cheque for Rs 25,000 in exchange for demolishing his mud hut. His pregnant daughter had come from her husband’s village to help him move. He had been to Chhanera three times to try and cash his cheque. He ran out of money for bus fare. The fourth time, he walked. The bank sent him away and asked him to come back after three days. He showed us how his wooden leg had chipped and splintered. He said every night officials threatened him and tried to make him move to New Harsud. They said that the Baad Raahat Kendra was for emergencies only. Kallu was incoherent with rage. “What will I do in that desert?” he said. “How will I live? There’s nothing there. ” A crowd gathered at the door. His anger fuelled theirs.


Kallu Driver does not need to read news reports or court affidavits or sly editorials (or fly-by-night PhDs pretending to be on the inside-track of people’s movements) to know which side he’s on. Each time anybody mentioned government officials, or Digvijay Singh or Uma Bharati, he cursed. He made no gender distinctions.


Maaderchod. He said. Motherfuckers.


He is not aware of feminist objections to derogatory references to women’s bodies.


The World Bank, however, disagrees with Kallu Driver. It has singled the NHPC out for high praise. In December 2003, a team of senior World Bank officers visited the Narmada Sagar Project. Among them, their South Asia Water and Rehabilitation experts. In its Draft Country Assistance Strategy (CAS 2004), the Bank said:


“While for many years the hydropower business had a poor reputation, some major actors (including the NHPC) have started to improve their environmental and social practices. “


Interestingly, this is the third time in six months that the Bank has singled the NHPC out for praise since January 2004. Why? Read the next sentence in the CAS:


“Given this. . . the Bank will work with the Government of India and its psus to seek possible new areas of support on a modest scale for hydropower development. “


Then again, on February 15, 2004, in a report that praises the NHPC for “completing projects like the Narmada Sagar within time and within budget”, the Economic Times quoted a World Bank official saying, “The NHPC is moving towards global corporate performance standards and is improving its financial performance. We have done due diligence on the corporation and are impressed by the performance. “


What makes the World Bank so very solicitous?


Power and Water ‘Reforms’ in developing countries are the 21st century’s version of the Great Game. All the usual suspects, beginning of course, with the World Bank, the big private banks and multinational corporations are cruising around, looking for sweetheart deals. But overt privatisation has run into bad weather. It has been widely discredited and is now looking for ways in which to reincarnate itself in a new avatar. From overt invasion to covert insurgency.


Over the last few years the reputation of Big Dams (both public and private) has been badly mauled. The World Bank was publicly humiliated and forced to withdraw from the Sardar Sarovar Project. But now, encouraged by the Supreme Court judgements on the Sardar Sarovar and Tehri Dams, it’s back on the block, and is looking for a backdoor entry into the industry. Who better to cosy up to than the biggest player in India’s hydropower industry—the NHPC? The NHPC which is eyeing a number of other dam projects (including the Maheshwar Dam) and aims to instal 32,000 MW of power over the next 13 years. That’s the equivalent of 32 Narmada Sagars.


The World Bank is by no means the only shark in the water. Here’s a list of international banks who have financed NHPC projects: ABN Amro, ANZ, Barclays, Emirates, Natwest, Standard Chartered, Sumitomo. And a list of bilateral export credit and financing agencies who support it: COFACE France, EDA & CIDA Canada, NEXI & JBIC Japan, the former ODA (now DFID), UK, and SIDA & AKN Sweden.


What’s a few human rights abuses among friends? We’re deep into the Great Game.


It is dark on the highway back to Khandwa. We pass truck upon truck carrying unmarked, illegal timber. Trucks carrying away the forest. Tractors carrying away the town. The night carrying away the dreams of hundreds of thousands of people.


I agree with Kallu Driver.


But I have a problem with derogatory references to women’s bodies.


 


 

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