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Narmada dam activism helped villagers get better compensation. But not how you think

I oversaw the largest land acquisition in history for Narmada dams, the story we forget.

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An attempt has been made in recent days to extol the economic benefits that have accrued to those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam project in Gujarat. While some displaced persons may indeed have been rehabilitated satisfactorily, we must not allow these individual happy stories to overshadow the gargantuan complexities of dam-building across the Narmada and overlook the contributions of those who sacrificed their land to enable this project to come up. It is appropriate, therefore, to lend a little perspective to this subject for the sake of record.

It was during 1988-1990 that the final decision on whether to build the Narmada dams had to be taken by the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat in the face of extreme concern expressed by international financing agencies and by an anti-dam movement in the country. I was the district collector of MP’s Khandwa district in that period and was tasked, apart from administrative responsibilities, with the job of undertaking perhaps the largest volume of land acquisition in any single district in history. This was the land acquisition of several thousand acres for the hundred villages of the Indira Sagar dam – the first, the largest and the most critical project on the river Narmada, located in Punasa village (now called Narmada Nagar) of the Khandwa district. In terms of storage of water, it is today the largest reservoir in India, with a holding capacity of 12.22 billion cubic meters. We also had to initiate land acquisition work for the next downstream dam project, at Omkareshwar, in Khandwa. Without these upstream dam projects, the Sardar Sarovar in Gujarat could not have effectively come up.

It was because of the Narmada dam in Punasa that an entire tahsil with a population of about 40,000 persons, Harsud, was submerged – Wikipedia’s perfunctory obituarial mention acknowledges that: ‘Harsud, was a town and municipality in Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. Although the town was more than 700 years old, it was submerged under the waters of the Indira Sagar dam in 2004.’


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Doob kshetra of Khandwa district

At that time, villagers from the ‘doob kshetra’ whose land was going to be acquired were faced with unimaginable uncertainty and emotional suffering. On the one hand, we were pushing to expedite the acquisition proceedings and deprive them of their rights over their land, on the other hand, activists were beginning to raise their voices, stage dharnas to protest against the dam and to assure them that they would never have to shift. Harsha Mandar, the collector of neighbouring Khargone district, wrote a letter to the government, himself protesting against large dams, which appeared in the newspapers. No villager in the doob kshetra, had the courage to make investments in their lands and so the agricultural output was abysmally low. We had to constantly jostle with aggrieved villagers and their anxious public representatives.

As administrators, the biggest dilemma before us was the rate of compensation for the land being acquired. In fact, there had been a total market failure, as this project had been under discussion since the turn of the century and so, in any case, there had hardly been any land sales (shunya bikri chhaaant patrak) in most villages. This prevented discovery of the true market value of the land that was being acquired. It also precluded the awarding of a decent compensation, as it was supposed to be based only on the past sales in that same village where the land was located. Even the highlighting of the potential or future value of the land was infructuous – as its only prospect was that it was going to be submerged and thereby rendered of no value.


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Benchmarking of market rates

We could have easily gotten away with paying as little as a few hundred rupees per acre under the compulsory acquisition proceedings which had been advised by the state government. However, doing so would have been too cruel to the villagers who were abjectly poor. And yet, there were no guidelines to permit any latitude in the methodology for awarding compensation. At this point, we approached RS Khanna, then additional chief secretary of Narmada Valley Development Authority, and apprised him of the terrible human calamity on our hands—if we tinkered with the methodology for calculating compensation at our own level, we would be violating rules and subjecting ourselves to vigilance inquiries. We desperately needed government backing. The ACS asked for a formal proposal and said he would discuss this with the government at the highest level (the Chief Secretary and Chief Minister) in the light of the public outcry against the project.

We proposed that for villages where there were no benchmarks of past sales, we should be allowed to consider a broader unit – the Revenue Inspector or Kanungo level circle (comprising of about 20-30 villages) sales – for benchmarking of market rates, even if such sales were few in number. We mentioned that fair compensation would go a long way in assuaging the villagers whom we could then dissuade from joining the activists who were protesting against the dam and raising an international pitch to block its construction. The government heard us and issued a clarificatory order supporting a more liberal methodology for dealing with the compensation issue. This helped to raise per acre compensation rates from an abysmal Rs 500 an acre to about Rs 5,000-15,000 an acre. At this stage, we also proposed a first draft of what was to later evolve into a relief and rehabilitation policy that recommended land for those displaced.

We also expedited infrastructure development for Chhanera, which is now called New Harsud with whatever allocations were available for rural development programs. We also made a strong pitch and almost succeeded in convincing the top brass of Bharat Petroleum to choose Chhanera for what is now the Bina-Oman Refinery project, primarily on the consideration of plentiful availability of water, land and the need to balance environmental concerns with the humanitarian initiative of creating jobs for those who were going to be displaced in and around Harsud. However, political considerations finally prevailed and the project was located in Bina.

Apart from the acquisition of complete villages for the dams, we had to also contend with the relocation of the railway line between Khirkiya and Talwadiya – a large part of which was going to be submerged in the Khandwa district. So, a new alignment was needed. This was another time-bound task involving huge human dislocation.


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Blow to anti-dam movement

Later, in the autumn of 1989, we had what was globally hyped as the ‘Woodstock of Environment’ in Harsud. Environmentalists from all over the world descended to this conference to protest displacement of the villagers, particularly tribals. About 30,000 villagers from the submergence areas came. Every known activist and environmental sympathiser attended, including Medha Patkar, Sundarlal Bahuguna, VC Shukla, Menaka Gandhi, Shabana Azmi, Shivram Karanth and Baba Amte, who was carried to the dais on a stretcher, perhaps for histrionic impact.  About 150 foreign and Indian print and television journalists covered the event, including the ones from The New York TimesReutersNational GeographicTime, and Mark Tully of BBC.

All policemen for the conference, at my insistence, were kept in plain clothes (Usha Rai of Times of India was surprised and reported about the minimal presence of cops) and all government vehicles were kept away from the venue. Thanks to our timely interventions about raised compensation and better package for those displaced, and our constant paternalistic interactions with the villagers, we had already defused the mass negative sentiment. As a result, the activists’ exhortations rang hollow and unlike what was apprehended by the state government (the Chief Secretary Nirmala Buch and the Director General of police Natarajan had wanted to send a higher level of police force and do an inspection by helicopter a few days before, but I had appealed to them to trust me to handle the event) the much-touted protest event turned out to be a staid affair without any adverse reports in the international or national media. That single event was perhaps the greatest blow to the plans and aspirations of the anti-dam protestors.

Even later, at no point did we allow any activist to impede the momentum of our work. As a result, protestors shifted their activities to MP’s Khargone and Gujarat.

Even though the activists were disruptive, even obstructive, their overall presence helped to create a climate wherein we, as administrators, could give better relief to the displaced villagers. This was indeed an epochal displacement and devastation. Gujarat has effectively and systemically reaped huge advantage by training the Narmada River and by building the downstream Sardar Sarovar dam with attendant facilities – this deserves both appreciation and applause. Yet, it should be taken on record that Gujarat would not have been what it is, had it not been for our pathbreaking work on land acquisition for the Narmada Sagar and Omkareshwar dams in the Khandwa district of MP.

Had we not neutralised the activists without arresting or hurting them and had we not denied them an opportunity to appear credible, they would have succeeded in stymying the dam projects at an early stage. It is also noteworthy that had MP not borne the brunt of the colossal initial displacement, the Sardar Sarovar dam could not have been built successfully.

Instead of making it appear that all was hunky dory, one should reflect on the past, not try and allow the end to justify the means or to underplay the psychological and other damage to huge swathes of humanity. Never in the history of India has so much been owed by so many to those who were displaced.

The author is a former IAS officer and ex-Secretary Government of India. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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