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Above: The Gujarat government had raised the water level of the Sardar Sarovar Dam to its highest level on September 15/Photo: facebook

In a signal of hope for the displaced persons of the Sardar Sarovar Project, the MP government has told the Court that as their relief and rehabilitation is not complete, Gujarat cannot fill the dam to its full reservoir level

By Rakesh Dixit in Bhopal

The Kamal Nath government has rekindled hopes of rehabilitation among thousands of families who were displaced by the Sardar Sarovar project. In an affidavit to the Supreme Court, the Madhya Pradesh (MP) government said that as the Relief and Rehabilitation (R&R) of the Project Affected Families (PAF) was not complete and several applications were still pending adjudication before the Grievance Redressal Authority, it was opposed to the Gujarat government’s decision to fill the Sardar Sarovar Dam to the Full Reservoir Level (FRL) at a height of 138.6 m.

The affidavit was presented to a bench of Justices NV Ramana, Ajay Rastogi and BR Gavai on October 1. The MP government also stated that Gujarat had unilaterally violated the timeline by filling up the reservoir by September 15 instead of October 15, which was mutually agreed upon as per safety guidelines. The bench deferred hearing on the matter till October 15 because the Gujarat government could not present its stand and sought more time for filing its affidavit. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta appeared on behalf of Gujarat.

The Supreme Court has taken up the rehabilitation dispute following a bunch of petitions filed on September 17 by senior advocate Sanjay Parikh on behalf of the PAF under Article 32 of the Constitution. The petitioners claimed that the filling of the Sardar Sarovar reservoir was illegal and violated law, state policies and several verdicts of the apex court. In response, the bench sought replies from the governments of Gujarat, Maharashtra and MP and the inter-state body, Narmada Control Authority (NCA).

In an earlier hearing on September 26, the Union government and NCA rejected the plea for reducing the water level in the Sardar Sarovar to 122m by keeping the gates open. Their affidavits also claimed that the NCA and its various subgroups for R&R as well as environment had already granted all the requisite permissions for filling the reservoir to FRL in 2017. The Gujarat government also contended that the Supreme Court’s order of February 8, 2017, had directed all the PAF to vacate the villages by July 31, 2017, and this should have been complied with.

The petitioners, however, cited MP Chief Secretary SR Mohanty’s letter of May 27, 2019, to the NCA contending that thousands of families were residing in 76 villages and their R&R remains pending. The letter stated that about 3,000 applications by the claimants are pending for land entitlement or a Rs 60 lakh package per PAF granted by the Supreme Court in its 2017 order. The letter also accepted that civic amenities, as per the state policy, such as drinking water, roads and drainage were not in place.

The petitioners’ lawyer, Sanjay Parikh, stressed the gravity of the submergence which had affected human life and livelihood. Senior counsel for the MP government Kapil Sibal asserted that the impact of submergence was far more severe than had been presented. However, Mehta submitted on behalf of the Union and NCA that water level in the reservoir had been raised as per the procedure in the award.

The Kamal Nath government’s stand is in sharp contrast to its BJP predecessor’s which had told the Court that all displaced persons had been rehabilitated. Based on the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government’s affidavit, the Supreme Court had in February 2017 ordered all displaced persons to vacate their homes in the submergence area by July 2017. The Kamal Nath government’s affidavit suggests that the previous BJP government had committed perjury by presenting false claims about “zero balance” in R&R works.

The MP government’s turnaround has vindicated the Narmada Bachao Andolan whose leader, Medha Patkar, sat on an indefinite fast there from August 25, demanding that the level of the dam be immediately brought down by releasing water and be kept at 122m till all displaced persons were properly rehabilitated. Her fast ended on September 2 following the MP government’s concrete assurance that her justified demand would be taken up in all possible forums for an amicable solution.

Dispute between the two states over filling the dam has been going on since July this year after MP minister for Narmada Valley Development Surendra Baghel threatened to stop release of Narmada waters for the Sardar Sarovar Dam unless the Gujarat government and the centre addressed the concerns of the dam-affected people.

Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani reacted by asking MP not to politicise the issue as both governments were bound by the rulings of the Supreme Court and the NCA. MP also raised the issue of the displaced people with the Guj­arat chief secretary in a letter dated May 27, 2019, saying that 6,000 families were yet to be relocated.

MP is also unhappy because the state is not getting its due share of electricity from the project. The two hydel generation plants at the dam have a capacity of 1,450 MW, which is shared by MP (57 per cent), Maharashtra (27 percent) and Gujarat (16 per cent).

The Kamal Nath government has complained to NCA that Gujarat has flouted the 40-year-old Narmada Water Distribution Tribunal accord by denying MP its share of the power generated by the dam. In three letters to the NCA chairman, MP Chief Secretary SR Mohanty said that Gujarat neither supplied power nor paid compensation as was agreed in the accord. As a result, the MP government was forced to spend an additional Rs 229 crore to purchase power, the letters said.

Gujarat’s Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel clarified that as no hydel power was generated from the dam for the last two years, sharing electricity with MP was out of the question. The Gujarat government contended that for testing the gates of the Dam, it was essential that it be filled to its optimum level of 138.68m.

Even as the two states were sparring, Patkar started her indefinite fast in August to demand swift rehabilitation of thousands affected by floods in areas surrounding the Sardar Sarovar Dam. She launched an agitation—the “Narmada Chunauti Satyagraha”—at Chhota Barda in MP’s Barwani district. Her main demand was that authorities keep the gates of the dam open until the rehabilitation of 32,000 affected people in the submergence area was complete.

Eight days after her fast began, Kamal Nath appealed to her to give up her agitation as the state was committed to the rehabilitation of the villagers. He said: “Madhya Pradesh will make all-out efforts to open the dam gates.” He promised that the government would hold camps in the villages of the Narmada Valley and each and every claim for rehabilitation would be taken care of. Patkar ended her fast after discussions with Kamal Nath’s emissary, SC Behar.

However, Patkar’s agitation had no impact on the Gujarat government which went ahead with filling the dam to its optimum level a month ahead of schedule. Two days later, PM Modi celebrated his 69th birthday at the dam which was filled to the brim. Later, Patkar remarked that “thousands of lives of poor people in the valley were put at risk of inundation so that one man can enjoy his birthday”.

Neither Gujarat nor MP is likely to budge from its stand because both have different parties ruling them. Now the displaced persons have pinned their hopes on the Supreme Court.

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