56-year wait ends
Better late than never' is a metaphor that is today resonating with even more relevance. After a wait of 56-years, the Sardar Sarovar Dam has finally seen the light of the day. Celebrating his 67th birthday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River in Gujarat. The dam which is scheduled to have a height of 1.2 km and a depth of 163 metres is expected to be one of the largest dams in the world. This construction would also lead to a fixed parameter of water sharing between the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Rajasthan. Union Minister Nitin Gadkari, hailing the inauguration by Prime Minister Modi, confidently said that this construction would alleviate water woes incurred by about four crore Gujaratis, while it will also provide for irrigation in fertile agricultural lands up to 22,000 hectares. This dam is yet another step, taken by Prime Minister Modi to achieve the dream of uplifting the condition of India's poor farmers, who have been a top priority for the Prime Minister. The inauguration came after a long wait of over five decades.
In 1961 India's first Prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru had laid the stone for this ambitious project that seeks to provide water in the perennially parched regions of Kuchh, Saurashtra, North Gujarat and certain districts falling in the state of Rajasthan. Since 1961, when Pandit Nehru laid the first stone towards achieving this dream, the project has been wrapped in controversies and conflict. Initially, it was halted to finalise the sharing allocation between the three states and also Maharashtra. The Planning Commission finally approved the project in 1988, after thoroughly reading through declarations provided by the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal, which was founded to resolve the conflicts surrounding distribution of water. Soon, after the Planning Commission approval as manual planning begun to seal this project, it grabbed the attention of several social activists who noted that building the dam does not circumscribe to the regulations laid down by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The project would lead to mass dislocation of several thousand who have made their living on the banks of the River, often worshipping it as a goddess who has sustained their livelihoods. Medha Patkar was at forefront of these agitations which began after a realisation that a World Bank loan had been sanctioned despite not receiving a green signal from the Ministry of Environment and Forest. While Patkar aimed at complete annihilation of the project her initial target was to challenge loopholes in the World Bank loan. As her movement, which was supported by several thousand civilians along with noted authors and social personalities, began gaining momentum, a council was set up to review the lapses in the loan. In 1993, the World Bank loan was finally cancelled as the council noted that necessary regulations had not been fulfilled. This led to further escalating of the movement which sought to provide protection to the thousands of common people who were going to be distraught with the construction of the dam.
The Supreme Court finally allowed the dam to proceed in 2000 after laying down strict regulations that necessary conditions of rehabilitation had to be provided for all those displaced by the 5-meter increase in height. The Court further stated that necessary methods of allocation must be adopted for every consequent rise of 5 metres. The Supreme Court in its verdict had said with an optimistic outlook that: "The project has the potential to feed as many as 20 million people, provide domestic and industrial water for about 30 million, employ about 1 million, and provide valuable peak electric power in an area with high unmet power demand." While the positives of this project are many, residents in the Nimar region are rightfully perturbed with the fear of displacement and relocation. The dam has the potential to provide much-needed water and electricity to large parts of Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, while also employing several daily wage labourers.
However, as Patkar and others have emphasised, the government must take cognizance of the side effects of this project and cater to the needs of those who face the risk of losing their homes, livelihoods and very ideas of life. Development is a most important paradigm in our fast-growing world with rapidly multiplying population, and development cannot be halted for the sake of holding on to one's property or tradition. Yet, the development also should not occur by bringing misery to the impoverished farmers of the Nimar region, the very target group who Modi seeks to alleviate by 2022. The Sardar Sarovar Dam, fondly named after India's first Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, could usher in a new step towards a developed country. The government must be astute in their execution of the project, ensuring as a top agenda that no more lives are lost in the name of hurried growth.
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