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After the flood

A series of floods hit India this the past monsoon season, from Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh to West Bengal — it wasn’t only Uttarkhand. Javed Iqbal travels to the Narmada valley, the site of one of the recent disasters, where political forces and the administrative system revealed a worrying lack of motivation when it came to responding to the man-made disaster.

JAVED IQBAL  5th Oct 2013

Due to Illegal sand mining at Pichodi village in Badwani, Madhya Pradesh, the rising dam water entered the village and destroyed thousands of acres of standing crop | Photos: Javed Iqbal

n the night of 23 August, Bhilala adivasi villagers from Morkata in the Nimad region of Madhya Pradesh realized something was wrong with the reservoir waters of the Narmada river. Water had slowly started to seep through the doors of Kamal Chauhan's house, over a kilometre away from the river, and within two hours, he and his family were swimming through water that reached over their necks, carrying whatever belongings they had, to higher ground.

The next day, on the other side of the Narmada river, Chikalda, a Valmiki hamlet on a hill, from where one could see that the river had risen 60 feet above normal levels, disappeared completely. The homes of Munu Hussain, Munu Vijay, Munu Nana, Munu Kamal, and Antim Munuram were completely destroyed. "Nine of our pigs were taken away by the waters," said Munu Hussain, clearing the debris over his home with callused hands, "We found their bodies four days later, they got stuck in the bushes and drowned."

The waters had begun to rise at around 8pm at Chikalda and reached their highest level at 10pm but, unlike previous floods, the waters did not recede for days. 115 homes were destroyed. for one family in the Valmiki hamlet — Suresh, Mahesh and Rajesh Babulal, Rekha and her mother Gulshan Bai — who earned their living cleaning in the neighbouring towns, it wasn't any different from the floods three weeks earlier, or last year, or in 2010, or in 1994, when the Tava dam waters had first destroyed their home.

At Picchodi village in Badwani district, the illegal sand mining on the banks of the river caused the water to enter through broken banks, mined into a soft flatbed. Though the villagers had moved against this activity earlier in the year, the damage had been done — the flood waters had turned a road into a river, ensuring the destruction of hundreds of acres of crop. Nisarpur, a village on the other side of the river, saw water levels on the Ori tributary of the Narmada rise slowly over three days, entirely submerging hundreds of shops and destroying over 105 homes.

A week after the destruction at Nisarpur, only one revenue officer had shown up at the hamlets most affected by the backwater floods. Dozens of families in Dhangarpara of Nisarpur were living in the private schools of the village until they were kicked out a week later. The village of Morkata was given 50 kilograms of wheat as relief, but this was only after they stormed the Collector's office at Badwani.

By 2 September, angry villagers from across the region had begun their march against the administration, in Maharashtra's Nandurbar district as well as in Badwani, Alirajpur and Dhar districts of Madhya Pradesh. Meanwhile, up the river, those displaced by the Omakeshwar dam started their Jal Satyagraha, demanding fair rehabilitation and resettlement, especially land for land — to which the administration responded by ordering curfews and preventive arrests.

Those affected by the rise in water levels of the dam are condemned to an absent administration, horrific levels of corruption in the Resettlement & Rehabilitation policy, as well as the risk of the dam’s height being raised.

This matter managed to make some ripples in the mainstream media. For those affected by the recent floods, an oft-repeated response they had received from tehsildars offices was that the land is already acquired, and therefore panchanamas of the damage caused by the submergence couldn't be registered. This led the villagers to file legal notices against the officials to ensure that all the damages are recorded in the Revenue Book Circular (RBC) Rules and the oustees are duly compensated – none of which has been done till date.

The website of Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited claims that the decades-old Sardar Sarovar Dam project on the Narmada (amongst 18 other dams on the river at different levels of completion), would build the capacity to generate over 1200 MW and 250 MW power to three states; and to irrigate 18.45 lakhs of hectares of land, covering 3,112 villages in Gujarat, 2,46,000 hectares of desert land in Rajasthan and 37,500 hectares on the tribal hills of Maharashtra.

Yet it is a prime example of a utilitarian philosophy gone wrong, where the dictum of the 'greater common good' has led to the reneging of democratic values, when the 'few' (in and around 3 lakh people as per the 2011 census) are not even paid attention to. Those affected by the rise in water levels of the dam are condemned to an absent administration, horrific levels of corruption in the Resettlement & Rehabilitation policy, as well as the additional risk of the dam's height being raised from 122.92 metres to 138.68 metres, which will further drown over 245 villages.

Looking at the calmer waters of Narmada from the remnants of fisherman Sundarlal Verma's home in Chikalda village, one can see that if the dam height were to be raised to 138.68 metres, the destruction of the village would be complete, as the floods happened when the water level height was at 129.44 metres.

Narendra ModI has been vocal about raising the dam's height over the past few months, and was promised 'co-operation' by the Prime Minister's office. On 2 August, his website had a post of the dam overflowing at 129.44 metres, described as a 'breathtaking sight' when, at the same time, the Valmiki hamlet of Chikalda was being washed over for the first time this monsoon season.

The Narmada was a violent force in the month of August and again in late September, destroying thousands of homes, stranding whole villages in the districts of Bharuch and Ankleshwar in Gujarat, requiring the army and the air force to conduct rescue operations. The death toll in August, by some reports, was over 106 people. Yet, in the submerged areas, the state had provided little to no relief, until the villagers from over 106 villages from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra marched to the offices of the respective Tehsils and demanded answers. They even challenged the state's complete lack of disaster management, even as the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited's Flood Memorandum of 2013, a 558 page document with every official's mobile number, from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh, of the Engineers, to the managers of the Narmada Project, to emergency services, was released 'for official use' months before the floods.Image 2nd

The response of the MP government and bureaucracy has convinced villagers that the state is just trying to forcibly displace them — a perception, whether justified or not, that has created an angry population living on rumours that the raising of the dam is to provide water for the upcoming Mumbai Delhi Industrial Corridor. And they may have other reasons to be suspicious of the state. Since 2008, the project authorities of three states have submitted reports to the Narmada Control Authority that put the number of project-affected persons at '0', and the NCA has accepted those figures.

The risks of yearly floods, compounded with the growing mistrust over the state's rehabilitation policy, can be explained with the story of just one farmer: Ramsingh Ghedia, a Bhilala farmer, who had lived in the village of Pichodi until 2000, when rising water levels from the Sardar Sarover dam compelled him to accept one installment of compensation. He was told by the state that the dam would help thousands of farmers in Gujarat and Rajasthan, as they would be supplied irrigated water. He moved over 40 kilometres away into Madeel Panchayat, where his family purchased four acres of land, which is also lost now, because the Narmada Valley Development Authority has excavated the massive main canal of the Indira Sagar Project, and has dumped massive amounts of debris into it.

In Morakta, a public hearing with the Bhilala adivasis indicated how outsiders had managed to rent homes in the village and take compensation, how land registrars were filled with people who didn't exist. All of this was brought to the notice of the Jabalpur High Court, which had constituted the Justice Jha Commission of Inquiry on the 21 August, 2008. The Commission conducted field visits to Nisarpur and Chikalda in 2009, and it found villagers more than willing to talk about how they were approached by agents, asked to give bribes, and how those that were eligible landholders had been deemed ineligible, as they couldn't afford to pay.

The Inquiry is now in its fifth year. The raising of the water levels and the recent floods stands in violation of the Supreme Court's order that until rehabilitation is complete, no homes or properties can be submerged. Land and livelihood-based rehabilitation was guaranteed by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award, rehabilitation policy and the judgments of the Supreme Court of 15 October, 2000, and 15 March, 2005 — yet the demands of the villagers across the region for cultivable agricultural land remain unheard. The Justice Jha Commission further found that at five rehabilitation sites in Badwani and Dhar, civic amenities were lacking, considering they couldn't get their own water bottles filled as there were no working handpumps, water tanks were incomplete and taps had been constructed over missing pipelines. Across Badwani, the rehabilitation site for Pichodi, or Morkata, or at Dhar, at Nisarpur or Chikalda, only those who belonged to a contractor class, or held a higher purchasing power, were able to shift to new plots of land.

Meanwhile, just as the villagers from the Narmada Valley marched to government offices demanding compensation and fair rehabilitation in the first week of September, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, CM of Madhya Pradesh, had succeeded in getting his amendments on the recent Land Acquisition Bill approved – these argued for the deletion of the clause that when land would be acquired for irrigation projects, the affected families would be given monetary compensation and land for land.

This isn't going to impress Subhram Patel, a 70 year old Bhilala farmer from Morkata, with 25 acres of land for his family, who is yet to be compensated for his agricultural land, and whose village was flooded when the dam waters were raised. "I had showed them all my documents, why didn't they give me my land?" he says.

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