The Sardar Sarovar Project on the river Narmada has displaced over 70,000 people for the ‘greater good’ of providing water and electricity to huge swathes of the population. But these grand promises are belied by the condition of the children suffering from waterborne diseases on the banks of the dammed river.
Ma Rewa tharo paani nirmal
Khal khal behto jaaye re
Ma Rewa (Mother Narmada) your pristine water,
Flows away gurgling
In the beginning was a river with clear blue waters. The Narmada, or Ma Rewa as this river is locally known, is the fifth longest river in the Indian subcontinent spanning 1312 kilometres. It is the lifeline of the state of Madhya Pradesh where 87% of the river’s catchment area lies. In 1979, 30 major, 135 medium, and 3000 small dams were planned on the river. Of these, the largest is the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Gujarat. With a height of 163 meters, this dam has displaced close to 70,000 people, 56% of whom are adivasis (indigenous people). In response to the massive displacement without consultation or proper rehabilitation, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (Save Narmada Struggle) consisting of environmental activists and the displaced people came into being in the 1980s. However, their appeal to stop the increase in height was turned down by Supreme Court. In a judgement in 2000 the apex judiciary declared that the benefits of the dam outweighed the environmental and human costs:
The project has the potential to feed as many as 20 million people, provide domestic and industrial water for about 30 million, employ about 1 million, and provide valuable peak electric power in an area with high unmet power demand
Today in one small tribal hamlet bordering the river, there is an acute shortage of drinking water. “There’s only one handpump in this whole area and it has been broken for the past 8-10 months. Every time it is repaired it only remains functional for 10 to 15 days and then breaks down again. We use the river water here,” says Shakharam a teacher at the local Kharya Bhadal Jeevanshala school. There are seventy children in the Jeevanshala, a residential school for marginalised tribal children. Along with 15 families in the village of Holi Faliya, they are all suffering due to lack of clean water. Gendalal, an elderly resident of the village remembers a time when the river water was clear and reflected the blue of the skies. “After the dam was complete due to stagnation all sorts of dirt and muck settled in the water. Now the water is green and you can see tiny worms in it.” The villagers have complained to the local officials repeatedly but to no avail.
“After the dam was complete due to stagnation all sorts of dirt and muck settled in the water. Now the water is green and you can see tiny worms in it.”Children and adults in Holi Faliya are suffering from skin rashes and diarrhoea. This is not surprising given that 80% of India’s surface water is contaminated by sewage. Over 100,000 people die annually from water-borne diseases and over 140,000 children die annually from diarrhoea in the country. Groundwater remains the only recourse in the hamlet with their only source of clear water--the river--being contaminated because of the dam. The dam is supposed to supply drinking water in Gujarat. But what about those affected by the dam up a river in other states? Holi Faliya’s woes demonstrate the huge human and environmental costs of large dams, that the Supreme Court saw fit to dismiss so casually in its judgement.
Jeevanshalas were set up by the Narmada Bachao Andolan in collaboration with local communities. The movement realised there were no government schools for the children in the tribal areas around the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh. Schools did exist on paper. But due to corruption, the money allocated for infrastructure and teachers didn’t materialise into actual functioning schools for the children. Jeevanshalas were set up across indigenous communities affected by the dam. This was a community effort with help of activists without any help from the government although, under the Right To Education Act (2009), children are entitled to free and compulsory education until the age of fourteen. But now even drinking water, a fundamental human right, is being denied them. How far can the government go in denying these marginalised people their fundamental rights?
National Rural Drinking Water Program has ensured a swift growth in the availability of drinking water. pic.twitter.com/YDhkUQmHua— Narendra Modi (@narendramcdi) June 9, 2016
The people of Holi Faliya have already approached the head of the panchayat (local government) to no avail. Under the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, the government aimed to provide piped water to at least 50% rural households by 2017. To achieve this, in 2016, Rs 819.77 crores were released of which almost Rs 47 crores were allocated for Madhya Pradesh. Even the Prime Minister has tweeted about the success of the programme:
Let us demand accountability from the government. If you want to help the people of Holi Faliya, ask Narottam Mishra, Minister of Water Resource Department, Madhya Pradesh why in this village of Badwani district people still have to go without clean water @drnarottammisra.
A river barrage project over Ganga in West Bengal has slowly destroyed the lives of those living in low-lying areas of the project.
Chetan Salve, a community correspondent with Video Volunteers, led the decades-long efforts towards relief to those displaced by Narmada valley projects.