Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The history of the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal

Recently, none other than the Supreme Court (SC) of India meted out injustice to the people of Narmada valley to be displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). The SC ruled that the oustees be paid cash compensation and further (as reported in the Telegraph) - “the judges asked the 4,897 families to vacate their land by July 31 this year, failing which the authorities will be free to "forcibly remove them”. This fundamentally violates the provisions of rehabilitation and resettlement laid down by the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal Award (NWDT) for the dam to be built. The judgement also robs the people of the Narmada valley of their fundamental rights, rights to justice and dignity.

As this recent SC judgement violates the NWDT award I was reminded of the history of the interstate dispute over the dam height between the States of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, as well as the fascinating history of the ongoing people’s struggle in the Narmada valley. The  formation of the NWDT in the year 1969 under the Inter State River Water Disputes Act, 1956, the declaration of the award in December 1979 and the provisions of resettlement laid down by the NWDT that are binding on all States;  the Nimad Bachao Andolan in the late seventies and the subsequent struggle of the people of the Narmada valley as Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) –  it would be difficult to narrate this fascinating history of the project and people’s struggle in the Narmada valley in any detail. However, I thought it would be important to note some of the history of how the Narmada (SSP) project was conceived and the formation of the NWDT as detailed in the autobiography of Late Mr. Morarji Desai titled, ‘Maru Jeevan Vrutant’ (My life account). I translate the relevant portions of the autobiography from Gujarati here:

Sardar Sarovar Dam. Photo Source: Wikipedia.

Morarji Desai: "In 1947-48, it was thought to implement several irrigation projects in the State of Mumbai [Which at that time included areas of today’s Gujarat and Maharashtra]. Tapi and Narmada projects were accepted then but since statistical information was not available regarding the Narmada project that the sketch of the Narmada project could not be drawn immediately. It was decided by Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and many of us to first lay out the sketch and implement the Tapi project and after that take up the Narmada Project. When this project was being planned, I was the Chief Minister of Mumbai State. I had instructed several industrialists of Ahmedabad to set up a ‘Nigam’ to give final outline to the project, to administer it and to raise necessary funds for the project. I had promised them that the management of the project would remain with them so long as the Government does not repay the amount they had invested in the project.  At that time the Narmada Project was the cheapest and yet it was not possible to pay ordinary interest. As there was poor response to this, these negotiations were abandoned. When the Mumbai Government first planned the project, as proper statistical information was not available, the height of the dam was fixed at 300 feet. In the year 1960, it was when Gujarat and Maharashtra were separated, that Shri. Jawaharlal Nehru had laid the foundation stone of the dam.

“However due to lack of funds, the construction work could not be started. Keeping in mind the States of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Rajasthan, in order to study the Narmada Project in-depth, the Government appointed the Khosla commission in the year 1963-64. The head of the commission Shri. Khosla was a well known engineer and an able administrator. He or any of the members of Khosla commission had nothing to do with Gujarat. The commission collected all kinds of data, kept in mind the interests of all the four concerned States[1], and seeing that the rights of none of the concerned States were affected, it took into account the utmost way in which waters of the Narmada could be utilised. While giving its final report in the year 1965-66[2], the commission recommended the height of the dam at Navagam[3] should be minimum 500 or 530 feet. Gujarat gave its consent and Rajasthan[4] also accepted this. Madhya Pradesh opposed this and did not accept this. Due to this height approximately 99,000 acres of agricultural land in Madhya Pradesh would drown in the water. Besides, Gujarat would be deprived from the future use of Narmada waters for only 150 miles where as Madhya Pradesh approximately 700 long miles. It was on these grounds that it had opposed [the height of the dam proposed by the Khosla commission]. Maharashtra where Narmada flowed only over 30 miles, joined common cause with Madhya Pradesh and demanded more share in the electricity to be generated. As Madhya Pradesh opposed with fury, it was not possible to implement the project in Gujarat.

“After the fourth general elections, I rejoined the central cabinet ministers. I was not in the Government from 1963 March to 1967. As per the provisions of the constitution, in case of inter State river disputes and decisions by the States there in, the central Government did not have the rights to impose its decision on the concerned States. However the central Government had the rights to appoint a legal tribunal that would hear the petition/ appeal/request of the States and give a reasonable judgement. In order to overcome the deadlock created by Madhya Pradesh, as per the provisions of the tribunal, I requested the Prime Minister to refer this dispute to a tribunal. Smt. Gandhi had agreed to my suggestion and this question was handed over to the legal tribunal in the year 1968-69. Unfortunately Madhya Pradesh by employing several good and bad measures delayed the matter.

“In the election of 1972, Smt. Gandhi had promised the people of Gujarat to bring an early resolution of the Narmada controversy. The people of Gujarat believed that Smt. Gandhi would intervene and give her decision in August 1972...

“...the height of the dam could be kept at 530 or 500 feet but it was also that Madhya Pradesh could construct as many projects in the future as it wished. If Madhya Pradesh utilised all the Narmada waters and as a result if Gujarat did not get any water, Gujarat would not complain is what I am sure of. Yet, Madhya Pradesh was not satisfied because even if its interest were not to be compromised, it did not like that Gujarat got benefits from the Narmada project[5]. More importantly, due to the terrible floods in the Narmada, many areas like Baroda and Bharuch in Gujarat have to suffer excessive loss/damage. This can be stopped only if the height of the dam is kept at 500 feet. When more than fifty lakh acres is to be irrigated, it is not possible to ignore the voices of the 99,000 acres of submergence lands. The landowners of whose lands are to be submerged can be given other land either in Gujarat or Madhya Pradesh and they can be better placed also...

Waters of the SSP enter the villages of Madhya Pradesh submerging homes and fields in 2013. Photo Source: Rajesh Khanna (Bacchu).

“Prime Minister promised the people to bring about a quick solution to this issue, as a result the people were lured and out of 160 seats in the legislative assembly of Gujarat, they gave 140 seats to Smt. Indira Gandhi...Though the Prime Minister had promised to bring about a speedy solution, there was no solution till the year 1974. As opposed to this, she withdrew this issue from the tribunal and kept it unresolved and submitted this issue once again to the tribunal in the end of the year 1974. This is how the judgement was delayed for no reason at all. That one of the two states will have to be displeased and so decision is not being taken is what she had said. But she should have understood this from the very beginning. She should not have promised the people of Gujarat an early decision in the matter. If the Prime minister had not withdrawn this dispute for arbitration, then the tribunal may have announced its decision in the year 1974 itself...”

Rally in Baroda by the Sardar Sarovar Dam affected oustees of Gujarat. Photo Source: Not known.

It would have been interesting to know Mr. Desai’s thoughts on the events that unfolded after the year 1977 in the case of the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the NWDT award as Mr. Morarji Desai became the Prime Minister of India from 1977- 1979. Unfortunately his autobiography – “Maru Jeevan Vrutant”, covers the events only up to the year 1975. It is therefore difficult to know in the words of Mr. Morarji Desai himself from his autobiography what transpired while he was the PM in the case of the Narmada/SPP and the NWDT. However the people of the Narmada Valley in the submergence zone of SSP firmly believe that it was only after Mr. Desai became the Prime Minister that the NWDT gave its award in favor of Gujarat allowing large scale submergence of fertile lands and rich forests in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. While this is a matter of different history, a people’s history, it is equally an important history.  

I also take this opportunity to express my faith that the people’s movement in the Narmada valley will continue as it has continued against all odds over several decades now.  Long live the struggle.


[1] It is important to note here that Rajasthan is not a riparian State as far as the river Narmada is concerned and yet it was made a party State in the dispute.
[2] Note that the report for such a mega project was given within one year of the formation of the Khosla commission.
[3] Navagam, a tribal village on the banks of the river Narmada, currently in the Narmada District of Gujarat was then the site of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. In fact, the Sardar Sarovar Project was also popularly called the Navagam dam.
[4] There was no land area, villages submerging due to this dam in Rajasthan.
[5] Mr. Morarji Desai belonged to Gujarat. One wonders therefore if this statement exhibits bias because Madhya Pradesh indeed had its valid reasons to oppose the 530 feet dam that was to submerge thousands of acres of agricultural land, forests and displace large number of people.