The Sardar Sarovar Dam is one of the largest dams built on the Narmada river and its tributaries as a part of the Narmada Valley Project. While the foundation stone was laid in 1961 for a much smaller dam, after a 10-year process by the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal (NWDT), the present project – a much higher dam with 138.68 metres height, commenced in 1979 as a development scheme.
Since then, the inception of the dam has affected three regions – Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. It has threatened the richest known cultural and archaeological treasures, especially that in the Nimad region of Narmada valley. It is also known to submerge the oldest heritage of the world including temples, mosques, and sites with remnants of different ages.
The construction and commencement of any river project requires a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) before it is considered for clearance. The Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) started in 1979, but it was only in 1986 that the EIA was passed off as a preliminary statement of the impacts. The Sardar Sarovar Dam, the largest of 30 big dams in the Narmada valley, was given a legal conditional clearance in 1987, despite the lack of authentic and reliable data on eight of the ecological aspects, and fully neglecting the archaeological treasures of the Narmada valley.
In spite of the Environmental (Protection) Act enacted in 1986, the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) almost totally ignored the archaeological domain. It was only when Narmada Control Authority (NCA), an interstate body, established as per NWDT Award under MoEF, formed an environment subgroup for the periodical assessment of the environment protection and measure for compensation of losses.
It was due to sheer political expediency that the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) was given the task of surveying and safeguarding the rich archaeological sites in the region. In 1988, a planned investigation of 167 of the 254 villages in MP to be affected by the project was undertaken by S.B. Ota on behalf of the Pre-history branch of the ASI, Nagpur.
The team discovered the abundance of microlithic sites of the Palaeolithic period, mounds belonging to pre-historic, early historic and historic periods containing rich cultural artefacts including beads, pottery, coins, tools, dwelling sites, monuments, iron smelters and forts. Such findings stressed the need for an intensive survey to document all the important sites which would be submerged by the dam.
The team highlighted tremendous potential for pre-historic research and thus called for long-term excavations and relocation of several temples and loose sculptures to established museums. Based on their findings, the reports mentioned the urgent need for salvage operations of the structures above the grounds as well as the pre-historic mounds and underground sites, which would otherwise be submerged and lost to the world forever!
Likewise, an intensive investigation was carried out partly by the team of ASI under the leadership of S.B. Ota in 1994, that once again confirmed the importance of this region. Not less than 50 pre-historic mounds were identified in 84 villages, of which 15 were recommended for excavation, while at least 10 temple sites, 23 sculptures and four iron smelting sites were identified for investigation.
By 1994-95, the State Department of Archaeology and Museums, Bhopal, was to have completed the task of excavation and relocation and was allotted ₹5 crores by the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) for salvage work pertaining to archaeological sites which would come under submergence. As of May 1988, the salvage work was not even started, let alone completed.
This highlights not only the sheer incompetence on the part of the government and the controlling bodies who failed to play their part efficiently through these years but also deliberate neglect of archaeological preservation to avoid any barrier to the Sardar Sarovar Dam. And this is at the cost of rich archaeological treasure depicting the history of many hundred years of civilization.
What is even more shocking is that despite the research by eminent archaeologists such as S.B. Ota, H.D. Sankalia, G.L. Badam and others, who have repeatedly stressed the archaeological importance of the region, the minutes of the meeting as well as annual report of NCA 2015-16 states that “None of the monuments are of national importance in the Sardar Sarovar Project”.
In fact, the ASI team had concluded that “every mound counts” in the Narmada region. However, there was (and continues to be), however, an unprecedented conspiracy to push the project ahead. The incomplete investigation and excavation by ASI were suddenly stopped and derailed with the withdrawal of funds for the same. And yet, the work was handed over to the state government without necessary competence that resorted to mere deskwork.
The three big temples, namely, Koteshwar temple in Madhya Pradesh, Shoolpaneshwar temple in Maharashtra, and Hafeshwar temple in Gujarat were visited and considered to be of archaeological importance as said by the Tribunal (NWDT). They were also said to have been relocated. However, the ground reality witnessed by the generations of old inhabitants of the valley showcase that new temples were built in nearby villages replacing the old Shoolpaneshwar and Hafeshwar temple.
Koteshwar temple complex, a tirth (pilgrimage) spot attracting thousands of pilgrims every year, still remains to be relocated while only one temple, out of the many, at the lowest height on the river bank, was relocated at a place about 17 kilometres away, and others were left to be submerged along with numerous dharamshalas and ghats, both old and new. Not only that, many houses and farms in Koteshwar have not been rehabilitated till date.
Other than these three temples, no complete survey was conducted by the Tribunal, and many old places of worship of archaeological importance remain to be relocated. For example, the 12 out of 46 temples and other religious sites in Nisarpur including Bhilat Baba Mandir, Devi Mandir, Surpal Baba Mandir, Shiv Mandir and so on, and 15 out of 37 temples in Chikalda including Bhuwaneshwar Mandir, Sheetal Mata Mandir, Moti Mata Mandir, and so on, were surveyed and acquired for relocation, ignoring the rest – and thereby hurting the religious sentiments of the people living in the area.
Additionally, mosques and Jain temples were not even considered of any archaeological importance and were never listed in the official records, let alone be surveyed or relocated till recently. There are 373 religious places identified by a field survey by the local leaders in 38 villages, and only a few of those are surveyed by the NCA and allotted alternative land at resettlement site while others have been left out.
The museums established in Kasrawad hardly contain any artefacts from the Sardar Sarovar affected region. Whatever few remnants and idols are kept there, are made from plaster of Paris from Dharmapuri and few other sites in the Sardar Sarovar project submergence area. Many important sculptures and sites have even been left out after reducing the backwater level, which appears to be fraudulent, as claimed by Central Expert Committee in 2010.
The compensation of structures of enormous religious and cultural value such as various temples has been given to collector, i.e. the State, rather than the concerned social committee of that place, which would have otherwise utilised the funds in a better way.
According to the Archaeology Act, 1958, most of the monuments and ancient sites come under “protected area” and thus should have been given proper priority by the NCA and State Archaeology Dept. but dereliction of duties have been reflected in their actions. Although, these ancient sites are in danger of permanent destruction by the SSP, the State Archaeology Department has shown much reluctance in investigation and conservation, leave aside reviewing the plan of submergence. This should have been done as a part of preservation following the Madhya Pradesh Act No.12 of 1964 (Section-12). Severe casualties can be noticed in the steps of NCA and Archaeology Dept., whose primary motive was to continue and push ahead the work of the SSP even at the cost of losing the rich heritage sites.
According to the Archaeological Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act 1958, under its Archaeological excavation clause, if an archaeological officer has reasons to believe that any area not being a protected area contains ruins and relics of historical and archaeological importance, he has to submit a report to the central government after which such sites will be acquired compulsorily by the order of the central government. The archaeological officers after conducting the excavation have concluded the existence of important prehistoric and archaeological sites dating back to the Palaeolithic Age and Chalcolithic Age. In spite of this, there has been no action by the government and bodies like NCA, to acquire and preserve the areas in danger and of permanent loss due to submergence because of the Sardar Sarovar and other dam projects constructed on the Narmada River.
The question still remains: Will the eminent archaeologists and ASI take a position to preserve the rich archaeological sites, temples and monuments in the region and stop the flawed reporting done by the responsible bodies like NCA and NVDA? Without a full and fair review, there can be no submergence against law, even when the dam wall is built up to the final height of 138.68 metres including 30 gates, 17 m in height each, that were closed on June 17, 2017. While the valley was mostly saved this year (2017) due to people’s struggle and low rainfall; both, the threat of complete destruction of heritage and the indispensable loss of not just national but worldly treasure looms large till date. Urgent measures should be taken to review and survey the sites of archaeological importance, to make a new action plan for preservation and relocation. Will the archaeologists, historians, geologists, and even common citizens awake to save the culture of the oldest civilization and history of humankind?
The writer is a student of Ambedkar University, Delhi and is currently interning with Narmada Bachao Andolan.