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“Worlds Greatest Planned Environmental Disaster”: The Narmada River Valley Project

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Sardar Sarovar Dam has a significant role in the Indian debate around the environment and has a unique dam-building history. From an economic perspective, the government argued that various dams have invariably overvalued benefits and undervalue costs however while going through the several data the siltation rates are much higher than what the government anticipated, and it is shortening the life span of reservoirs. From an ecological perspective, the construction of huge dams leads to the submergence of a tremendous amount of forest and wildlife also. The construction of large dams also affects fish life and assists the spread of waterborne diseases.

Sardar Sarovar dam was part of the Narmada River Valley Project and one of the thirty large dams in the project. The construction of the dam started under Prime Minister Nehru in 1961. The dam has been constructed to secure power, irrigation, and drinking water. Claud Alavares (1989) termed this project as the world’s “greatest planned environment disaster”.

The Sardar Sarovar Dam is a case of a development project that is both directly and indirectly causing a massive amount of environmental displacement. The major beneficiary of the dam lies in Gujarat and the major displacement has happened in Madhya Pradesh which is another state. Around 193 villages in Madhya Pradesh have been submerged because of this project. This makes over 100,000 people homeless.

NEW DELHI, INDIA – JUNE 24: Activists of Narmada Bachao Andolan staging Dharna at Jantar Mantar on June 24, 2014 in New Delhi, India. The activists were protesting the recent government decision to raise the height of the controversial Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat state from 122 mts to 138.68 mts, which according to them affects more than 40,000 families across three states. (Photo by Khyati Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The People’s Movement

The protest again this dam was started by the villagers of the Nimand region of Madhya Pradesh in early 1977 and the social activists Medha Patkar began working for the proper rehabilitation of people who were getting affected. The government put forward a ‘land for land’ policy for those who oppose the construction of dams however the fact is there wasn’t any land available in Madhya Pradesh or Gujarat for the rehabilitation.

The movements acquired power in the next ten years and the protestors started to block roads, hold public meetings, demonstrations, and hunger strikes. Many of them took a pledge that they won’t leave their homes even if the dam waters rise and drown them. The villagers from ‘Badwani’ uprooted the stone markers from the dam’s submergence area and flung them outside the Madhya Pradesh state legislature. Apart from these localized protests, there were certain protests which got wider public attention. ‘Sangharsh Yatra (Mobile protest movement)’ was one of the examples of this.

In 1989 the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan(Save The Narmada)’  (NBA) was formed and it spread into other parts of India also. NBA activists found that the dam will submerge forest and agricultural land. Few scientists have added that the construction of large dams could cause earthquakes. They also added that in a country like India, it is likely that the necessary maintenance of this dam may suffer.

The Role Of The Supreme Court

The NBA filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) in the Supreme Court and they raised issues regarding the environmental deterioration caused by the construction of the Narmada dam. Also, they argued that the environmental clearance which is granted for the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam was without proper studies regarding the same.

The Ministry of Environment had only granted the conditional and tentative clearance subject to environmental studies and remedial plans for the project. So the NBA argued that the project can’t be allowed without doing proper studies. In October 2000, the Supreme Court permitted the construction of the dam.

Certain features make the Narmada movement unique.

  1. The activists’ groups are from 3 different states and
  2. It was a non-violent protest and the participants have been repeatedly harassed, beaten, and jailed.
  3. Narmada Bachao Andolan has been widely and sympathetically covered in the print media.

This protest has been promoted by many environmental groups from overseas.

Environmentalists from Japan have persuaded their government not to advance money for the Narmada Valley Project and the environmentalists from the US have tried to convince the World Bank to do the same.

There was an active counter-movement has generated in support of the dam. Most of the political leaders and social activists from Gujarat stood for the state’s well-off farmers who gain most from the Narmada valley project. They organized demonstrations and press campaigns and also portrayed the Narmada movement leaders as anti-national and anti-development.

At the beginning of the protest, the project was considered a social issue. From 1984 onwards, the environmental impact of the project was widely circulated, and people started to view this project as an environmental issue. Around 13385 ha of forest submerged and environmental safeguards are not effectively implemented. The catchment needs to be properly treated to check soil erosion and siltation in the reservoir as both contribute to the degradation of water quality of the reservoir and reduce the life span of the dam.

Environmental Justice And Environmentalism Of The Poor

One of the major environmental impacts is due to the continuous irrigation the fertile of agricultural soil degrade and salinization of the soil. The conflicts over Sardar Sarovar Dam can be considered in two different aspects, i.e. red and green aspects- both representing social justice and environmental sustainability respectively. The environmental impacts created by this dam construction was quite large

  • Biodiversity loss
  • Desertification & Drought
  • Food insecurity due to crop damage
  • Loss of landscape and aesthetic degradation
  • Soil erosion,
  • Floods
  • Deforestation and loss of vegetation cover
  • Surface water pollution
  • Decreasing water quality
  • Groundwater depletion
  • Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems
  • Reduced ecological and hydrological connectivity

There is always a connection established between environmental justice and the environmentalism of the poor. Many arguing that although all environmental conflicts are targeted to local grievances there is a global movement for environmental justice. All the local movements are global because they appearing regularly elsewhere in the world or those local issues find global network and connections therefore they are operating at a global level. While we are coming to the Sardar Sarovar dam here also people’s urge for environmental justice would be considered as the environmentalism of the poor.

Both environmental and social justice wasn’t served in this case. The rehabilitation measures have not been properly applied, rehabilitation of around  80% of the affected population is incomplete and the people haven’t received proper compensation from the government also. One of the environmental compensation that has been assured by the government was compensatory afforestation and about 4,650 hectares are estimated for compulsory afforestation however the project authorities have not been able to identify non-forest land for compensatory afforestation.

The Supreme Court Of India permitted the construction of the dam even after the facts about environmental degradation were presented.

The main thing is the project is still incomplete and no credible assessment of the costs, benefits, and impacts of the project has been done. However, the government has declared the project is complete. In 1970, the Narmada Water tribunal has said that there isn’t any other alternative for the SSP project to resolve the drought issues of Kutch, Saurashtra, and north Gujarat. However, the water-rich and politically-socially-economically powerful central Gujarat’ canal network and the people have been enjoying full use of the water, way beyond their share in the original SSP plans.

The government argues that the dam is a boon in environmental aspects. The Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary area is going to increase from 150 square kilometers to 607 square kilometers and around 76.1 million tree saplings have been planted. Being a developing country, development was considered inevitable for our country.

However, still in many cases, our judiciary tried to consider the right to the environment also. But in the Sardar Sarovar dam case, the Supreme Court of India ignored the issue of environment protection and permitted the construction of this dam. It was a clear cut deviation from our judiciary’s earlier environment-friendly approach.

In the 1980s there were many verdicts in which the Supreme Court gave priority to the protection of the environment and they considered the development process as secondary. Then a time period came where development had more priority than the environment because the court believes that development can resolve problems of both under and unemployment issues of India.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The government alleged that the construction of the dam would increase the area of the Shoolpaneshwar wildlife sanctuary (pictured above).

During these times, the court tries to connect the environment and development differently and they mentioned it as sustainable development. It applied principles of sustainable development as per the international mandate to protect the environment. However, in the Sardar Sarovar dam case the judiciary deviated from its environmentally friendly approach.

The Supreme Court is supposed to protect the environment and environmental rights and also our government should be committed to protecting our environment at an international level. However, our Supreme Court forgot the mandate of various international human rights documents that speak about protection and improvement of the environment in the Sardar Sarovar Dam case.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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