India Intelligence Report

SC Says Narmada Work to Continue


The Supreme Court (SC) ordered that the Narmada Dam project to continue as planned but asked the federal Government to institute mechanisms in parallel that will manage proper rehabilitation of affected people. The dam was conceived to be a major source of drinking water, irrigation, and power generation for Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh, has been generating sensation, drama, and negative politicking threatening development in India. 

Chief Justice Y K Sabharwal said that it is necessary “that the issue should not be discussed in an emotive and charged atmosphere but in a congenial atmosphere.” He further observed, “Such a type of dispute is a threat to public security." 

The controversy can be mapped into three distinct stages. The first stage is when the project was conceptualized and plan was socialized. The second stage is when the proponents sought to increase the dam’s height. The third stage is post-judgment after numerous cases in several levels of courts were fought.


It is even remarkable that three states actually agreed on a formula for water and power sharing formula and backed a single plan for the dam. Usually, narrow state, political, and regional interests dominate discussions leading to a stalemate debate. Numerous cases in the South such as the Cauvery, Krishna, Godavari, and Bhima River disputes show how petty politicking can cause innumerable hardships and threaten the lives and livelihood of people who depend on these rivers for survival. Hence, the very fact that the first stage evolved is a democratic miracle and the innumerable environmental, societal, developmental, and human rights objections raised were overcome through incensed and intense debate. While most detractors of the project essentially accepted the logic, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) led by Medha Patkar, which sought to fight for the rights of the 300 odd families affected by the dam continued to generate opposition in various forums but was vastly ignored. 

After the initial hurdle, the proponents of the dam sought to raise the height so more water can be captured. This new proposal infused life into the NBA which highlighted the plight of those affected and fought to stop the project and if that was unsuccessful to stop the increased height. The Narmada Control Authority (NCA) was formed to review this proposal and also the opposition. The NCA evaluated the development parameters projected such as increased water storage and power generation and also investigated the negative effects such as environment, displacement of families, and cost escalation. They took an informed view that although there is a cost in environment and human displacement, the cost of building the project is worth when the sheer number of downstream population that will benefit from access to drinking water, irrigation, and power. The NBA disagreed with this decision and too the NCA to court.

The Supreme Court looked at all the parameters and while sympathizing with NBA’s position said that the hardship and cost of development is worth the benefits that was shown to it on paper. It asked the Government to ensure that the displaced population was treated kindly and adequate compensation and rehabilitation was made to them. A key piece of evidence that the SC evaluated was the rehabilitation report from the NCA that portrayed a glorified picture of rehabilitation.

The NBA’s current agitation has been that the states benefiting from the project lied to the NCA and that most of the affected people were not rehabilitated. Those given rehabilitation found the new sites unusable. They accused the State Governments of corruption where corrupt Government employees to pay a bribe to collect their rehabilitation moneys harassed rehabilitation awardees. Moreover, the NBA accused the State Government of lying when it claims to have resettled over 22,000 families. When repeated appeals to the federal Government yielded no result, the NBA resorted to an agitation, which turned violent. After the Government put down that agitation, Medha Patkar went on a fast-unto-death campaign. With her health faltering and additional support from Booker Prize winner Arundathi Roy and actor xxx Khan generated more publicity, the federal Government woke up to the disaster. 

Water Minister Saifuddin Soz tried to convince Patkar to give up her fast on the promise of a review. When she declined, the Federal Government had her moved to a hospital in the middle of the night to monitor her condition and to get the news off the front pages. When these failed, a Group of Ministers led by Soz visited the site of the project and were reportedly shocked by reality. They found numerous families in areas that would be inundated in a few months who claimed to be residents who have not been given rehabilitation. They found irregularities in award distribution, non-existent names, ill-developed alternate sites, and unusable land allotted for rehabilitated families. 

Moved by reality, that they rarely venture to see except during election times, Soz and team submitted a report to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking him to make a call but recommending that the work on the project suspended till there is a clear fix on rehabilitation. The media was abuzz that the project is to be stopped and people in affected states, especially in Gujarat, went on a rampage agitating, destroying, and threatening Khan and others of dire consequences. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi announced a 51-hour hunger strike of his own to highlight the plight of the people in his state. Ironically, Singh punted the decision on the issue to the SC to make an administrative and policy decision that he and his allies have been accusing the judiciary of meddling with. 

Looking objectively, the whole episode highlights several issues. 

Firstly, Indian democracy functions only when there is agitation and someone is about to die and create inconveniences for the Government. This explains the number of strikes, hartals (agitation), bundhs (closure), and rail rokos (stopping the trains) in many parts of the nation by different groups of people who want to be heard. It is therefore crucial to set up some sort of an Ombudsman office that can handle these sorts of issues.

Secondly, as seen from the Soz report and mini-drama Indian ministers are out of touch with reality and when faced with it they are shocked and unable to make decisions. This leads to questions on the gaps in governance, decision-making processes, and strategic thinking. It may be prudent to have the Ministers and decision makers go through some management training from our premier institutions.

Thirdly, as seen from Singh’s punt to the SC, the Government would like the judiciary to make its decisions when they have a political consequence and stay out of decision making when not. As a Government that is babysitting a nation that is to be superpower down the road, the decisions, policies, and trends they set today will determine the growth, capacity, and quality of the nation those future generations will inherit. Therefore, it is important for politicians to decide once and for all if they need the judiciary to make policy and administrative decisions when such powers rest with the legislative. 

Fourthly, it is time we grew up as a democracy. While Patkar’s fight has been instrumental in getting the required attention on the lack of rehabilitation, is it really necessary to bring such drama into the issue? When an issue has been resolved through multiple independent and impartial forums, is it really necessary to keep fighting an issue just because we do not disagree with it?