Sardar Sarovar Dam: A Spectre of Displacement and Human Rights Violation

Fourteen persons from two villages in Maharashtra were rehabilitated years after they were displaced by the dam; over 100 families in the state are still waiting.

“We did not know that Sardar Sarovar is a big dam. Over the years, the water level kept rising and by 1994, our homes and fields started to get submerged” says Vanka, an elderly man whose home was destroyed in the name of India’s largest development project. 23 years later, the family got ownership rights over the land promised to them under the project’s rehabilitation scheme.

Vanka’s family is amongst the 4,300 families who were displaced from 33 villages in Maharashtra, predominantly from Nandurbar district.

Overall, the controversial project has displaced at least 3,00,000 persons; many others have been affected by the adverse ecological implications of the construction.

The project saw resistance from an early stage, and the Supreme Court even stayed the work between 1995-2000. When it gave the project a green signal, it did so on the condition of simultaneous rehabilitation. At that time, the estimate for the number of displaced persons was 70,000, a gross miscalculation. The beneficiary to affected person ratio was estimated to be 100:1, a figure that seemed fair enough for the state to devalue the lives of those on the wrong side of the ratio. Not incidentally, most of the affected families are from Adivasi communities and economically weaker sections of society.

The ambitious project also gave India what is perhaps its biggest people’s movement -- the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), a movement which has resisted the government’s encroachment into their land and their lives and has also demanded proper, sustainable rehabilitation for those displaced. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the dam, NBA leader Medha Patkar said that “unless the rehabilitation issues are addressed, the dam cannot be said to be complete”, signalling that the movement carries forward its fight.

According to the NBA, 4,135 families have been resettled in Maharashtra, so far. That leaves out 165 families who have not been given any kind of compensation yet. According to the Sardar Sarovar Punarvasat Agency, the Maharashtra government entitles displaced landowners to two hectares of agricultural land and a house plot; for landless agricultural labourers, it is one hectare of agricultural land and a house plot.

The NBA also found that in many places in Maharashtra, the government was resettling affected families on Adivasi lands, leading to a second round of displacement without compensation, and a violation of rights for those communities. Moreover, in many cases the land on which families are being resettled and rehabilitated, is either unsuitable for habitation or devoid of crucial public facilities like healthcare, education and connectivity.

Chetan Salve, a key member of the NBA and a Video Volunteers Community Correspondent, has been telling the stories of those worst affected in Nandurbar, Maharashtra. He has reported on the scale of displacement, the lack of rehabilitation, life after rehabilitation, and on the resultant environmental degradation in the area. Most recently, his reportage and activism helped rehabilitate 14 people from two villages.

“It is difficult to see our land get submerged but we are happy now. I have cultivated cotton on the one hectare of land that I own and things will be fine if the yield is good,” says Vijay Bhau.

Chetan produced a video on the issue and shared it on a support and resource group on Whatsapp-- the Sardar Sarovar Project Right to Rehab. District authorities like the Collector and the Sub-Collector are all part of the group, helping citizens and activists take pertinent issues to government officials. The group also comprises journalists and activists from the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The affected community also visited the District Collector with applications and the Andolan got together to stage as protest in the district.

It took Chetan and the communities in Dhankhedi and Shivag Khed villages a year and two years, respectively, to get rights over the land they had been rehabilitated in. They have not been compensated for the years they spent living with uncertainty and insecurity, and the government is yet to rehabilitate over a 100 families in Maharashtra alone.

Inaugurating the dam, PM Modi said that it was the Indian people’s determination that helped build the dam despite resistance from environmentalists and activists and the withdrawal of support by the World Bank. Praising the ‘engineering marvel’ in this manner, while ignoring the cost at which it was creating is reflective of the government’s attitude towards the affected communities and towards the Narmada Bachao Andolan. The government had even invoked the National Security Act to threaten protestors in 2017.

As of now, many are yet to be compensated completely and some villages are still at the risk of submergence. But the seemingly smaller victories like the ones in Nandurbar bear testimony that the people’s movement is not going to be trampled upon.

Video by Community Correspondent Chetan Salve

Article by Alankrita Anand, a member of the VV Editorial Team


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