An Open Letter from Medha Patkar (written in 1994)


Dear Friends,

You may have already heard and or read about the eight year old struggle against Sardar Sarovar Project, the Gigantic dam under construction on the river Narmada. The dam, located in the state of Gujarat, Western India, is being challenged, not only by the tribal and peasant communities in the Narmada valley, who are to be deprived of land, forest, river mother Narmada but also hundreds of people's organizations of the poor and downtradden, with growing numbers of scientists, professionals, and common people. This challenge and opposition to the dam is not an emotional appeal of urban individual environmentalists or conservationaists, nor is it a move intending to oppose each and every development activity. It is a result of a three year long study of the project - its costs and benefits, its implications for the drought problem of Gujarat (Kutch, Saurashtra, and North Gujarat regions) as also the decision making process at the roof. It was only after a long dialogue with the government officials, technocrats, and politicians on the one hand and the World Bank consultants, mission members (who were their party to the project) on the other, that we decided to oppose the project against all the giant forces and vested interests.

As individuals and groups concerned about India, its development policies and reality, its citizens and their struggles, we would like to brief you about our findings and conclussions related to Sardar Sarovar Project. This was certainly long due and yet has become much more necessary today, since you too are being drawn into it, through propoganda or appeal for funding by the project authorities and pro-dam politicians.

The first and the foremost is that Sardar Sarovar claims to but cannot solve the water crisis of Gujarat. The project is planned, they claim to irrigate 14 percent of Gujarat's cultivatable land and to supply drinking water to 8215 villages and 135 towns and cities in Gujarat. It is pertinent to note here that the claimed SSP command area includes only 9.24 percent cultivable land of Saurashtra and 1.5 percent cultivable land of Kutch. In any case, 86 percent of Gujarat's land will, therefore, be out of its benefitted area (command area) which include the most draught-affected districts and talukas (administrative blocks) in Gujarat such as Jamnagar, Junagadh, Amrali in Saurashtra and 98.5 percent cultivable land of Kutch. These regions therefore will require an alternative plan-project other than SSP anyway. There are such projects - small, short term, decentralized, based on available land and water resources in each region not only for the 86 percent but also the 14 percent to be benefitted from SSP - but those are neglected and shelved without a political will and funds as both are reserved for and flowing into just one central plan, that of Sardar Sarovar. You may know that more than 80 percent of the irrigation budget of Gujarat is being used for SSP. How would this solve the drought problem which is so severe when only a small part of Saurashtra and Kutch is planned to get the water and when the water cannot even reach the parts of Saurashtra and Kutch till the year 2020 (Saurashtra) and 2025 (Kutch) even as per the reports of the Gov't of India and the World Bank?

But the most tragic realization of ours is that even their claimed irrigation and drinking water benefits can't be accrued. Drinking water is an aspect - they have begun publicising much more during the last two to three years than before since the other benefits have been exposed to be unfounded. And yet, you may be shocked to know (but that's the truth, accepted by the highest authorities every now and then) that not one paisa is allocated for water supply (lifting pipeline etc.) in Sardar Sarovar Project. This clearly indicates the Governemnt's priority for drinking water benefits which are left to the mostly bankrupt Gram-Panchyats and Municipal councils as well as for corporations to implement. The fact is that drinking water, as was stated in the Gujarat's proposal to the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT) was never a priority or planned benefit for the rural Gujarat. Only the Municipal areas were to recieve some water along with industries therein (the combined magnitude being about one ninth of Gujarat's share from SSP, not even clearly divided into two sub-categories). The number of villages said to be recieving drinking water is swollen merely on political grounds, including all villages, in Kutch and Saurashtra, without any basis, neither any change in allocation of water nor finances.

All this is not only tragic, but cheating of the drought - affected people of Gujarat, as the Kutchis unitedly, in a mass-rally organized in June, 1993, and in an advertisement published in the name of a newly formed but mass-based organization (Kutch Jalsankat Nivaran Samiti), unhesitatingly announced. They further came to realize slowly but steadily that the promises used to estimate the benefits, themselves are false and wrong. The water available in Narmada is not 28 Million Acre Feet - 28 MAF (as presumed for designing the project) : Narmada Sagar, the storage dam in the upstream, is not being built simultaneously with SSP and can't be , reducing SSP - benefits by 25 to 30 percent and the presumption of 60 percent water efficiency and volumetric control of water in the initial reaches are over optimistic assumptions, all this indicates the overestimation of benefits, demanding realistic amendment- review as we call it.

Review of Sardar Sarovar - all its aspects, social and environemntal impacts, economic and financial viability and the real solutions to drought problems in Gujarat or alternatives to SSP -is on. The Central Government, through its memorandum of August 5, 1993, has appointed an independent group before whom both the Andolan and the Government of India have presented their case. Gujarat and Rajasthan have especially boycotted the process with a view that it is a violation of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award.

This indeed is untrue, to say, the least. The review with it's report not being mandatory is not a direct action towards modification of the project. Nor is the Tribunal Award so sacrosanct that it cannot be changed. As any serious issue realised, raised in the case of other projects, those have already resulted in change or rejection of the similar tribunal's decision as in the case of Boghghat dam on Godavari. The Government's decision to avoid review, when they did participate in the Independent review, when appointed by the World Bank earlier, is with a fear that report would go against them and any committment to keep people of Gujarat in the dark about the real issues and success of agitation in getting the decision-makers accross the table. But, the Review is still on - as an achievement of Andolan and the report will be ready in January 1994 and made public in February, 1994. (The report has yet to be made public as of today, May 11, 1994).

In this context, you will be curious to know about the social and environmental impact and compensation plans. The facts are simple. Studies and plans on these have fallen much behind the progress on construction. The impact on the downstream, uprooting 10,000 (at least) fishworker's families; the impact on the soils in the command area and the situation in the catchment and the treatment needed, seismological studies and also, the scale of total displacement and rehabilitation with the required magnitude of land and monetary resources is yet to be fully and fairly assessed. This is evident from the minutes of every meeting of any sub-group of or the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) itself, right till the latest of December 7 th, 1993. On December 7th , the environmental sub-group refused to grant permission to close the construction sluices of the dam (at river-bed land, 18mts above M.S.L.) and asked the authorities to stop further construction of the dam on the ground that the environmental and social impact studies and planning has fallen behind the progress on construction and 'Pari-Passu' condition in the clearance of the project is violated.

It will be most instructive to quote here what the person who signed the conditional clearancy letter by the environment, ministry has to say about the status of studies today. In a symposium in Delhi in December 1993, Dr. S. Naudgel, had said, "Notwithstanding the assurances given by the authorities to no less than the Prime-Minister of the Country to submit all requisite environmental action plans by the end of 1989, a commitment later stipulated in the conditional clearance granted in July 1987 studies and surveys are still going on for their formulation in 1993".

The human issue of displacement, however, has gained tremendous importance as the impact is unprecedented. Not less than 10 lakhs of people- tribals in the Satpuda and Vindyas in the catchment, farmers on the prime agricultural land of Madhya Pradesh to be submerged with the best yielding horticulture and agriculture, the 1,70,000 landholders to be affected by the canals, others by project colonies, sanctuaries, national parks, afforestation, power houses, etc. project related works are neither surveyed nor is their rehabilitation with land or alternate source of livelihood planned for.

A few thousand tribal families, almost all from Gujarat, were compelled to shift but the majority of them are not fully rehabilitated, even after 14 years since they entered the process. Our experience and dialogue during the first three years before we began opposing the dam and displacement, has led us to conclude the impossibility of rehabilitation what we have seen subsequently has only strengthened our views. The thousands of families are organized and determined not to leave their lands, forest, river, their socio- cultural milieu.

And the Government that didn't heed to the warning by the Morse committee, the independent Review Commission sent by the World Bank, that the project cannot progress, unless pushed through by unacceptable means, is doing just the same. Since 1990-1991, increasingly brutal force is being used. Three Adivasi women were raped, calling was many a times resorted to, false legal cases were filed against us....and even firing was not spared. The most unprecedented and shocking repression came in recently. On November 19, 1993, firing of 47 rounds against the tribal men-women-children opposing the survey imposed through 500 strong police force killing one tribal boy of 15 years followed by the brutal caning on the most peaceful marchers on the 22nd, leaving more than 200 injured, 124 of whom were bleeding and 25 with fractures.

And still, the project is on! Although it has lost much of its credibility amongst not just the people in the valley but of Kutch, Saurashtra and even most sensible people and people's organizations in India and when the financial position of the Sardar Sarovar Corporation, Government of Gujarat and the party states is such that 25,000 crores - the final project cost - can in no way be met and the project would be left incomplete as are other more than 180 big dams, the politics is proving to be a bit more powerful to stop it! But the people's movement has also brought forth the issues, exposed the falsity and conveyed the truth not just about Sardar Sarovar but of alternative development policies and plans. Land and water can be much better used with just and right priorities and without so much destruction and displacement, if used in a decentralized way. It can be, it's proved, much cheaper and faster too.

The politicians - bureaucrats - contractors, however, are now trying to sell the project, borrow the money, earn the credibility through unimaginable ways and means - costliest advertisements, highest interest ratebonds and what not! You are their target too!

May we, therefore, appeal to you to look into the project and the related issues, the people's struggle and the official claims much more carefully and factually than you might have tried to, till now. This is a very, very critical phase that the project and the struggle are passing through.

If you give your consent and/or money for the Sardar Sarovar Project, the injustice and falsehood will prevail, the drought - affected will remain thirsty and the valley will almost die. If you don't, you will, through very many acts of support and solidarity, save the valley. Gujarat, the people to be otherwise worst affected by the mirage; and this country too from the faulty, nonsustainable, unjust ways of natural resource management and development.

With regards and hopes of receiving response at the earliest.

Medha Patkar

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