People from 16 villages on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border have been demonstrating their resistance to the Par-Tapi-Narmada river interlinking project, another multi-dam project which is slated to submerge 3,572 hectares of forests and displace 25,000 people
It was noon and the sun could no longer hide behind the clouds. One by one, women trickled in to sit on the black tarpaulin laid under a cluster of bamboo trees. Behind them sat the men, in the shade. K P Sasi’s Gaon Chodab Nahi blared from loudspeakers nearby.
Finally, it was time for the meeting to begin. Anusuya Ben, who had travelled 20 km in a tempo, took the mike and began to sing a song she had composed specially for the event: “Paikhed gaamcha dam aamhi baandhoon denaar naahi” (“We won’t let the Paikhed dam be built”). The assembled crowd of around 200 joined her in song.
For the next two hours, Naragdhari village reverberated to the sound of loud, angry, determined speeches. Hot, thirsty and hungry, people from 16 villages on the Gujarat-Maharashtra border sat in the sun to show their collective disapproval of the Par-Tapi-Narmada river interlinking project. A month earlier, they had coloured their thumbs blue and stamped two memorandums to be sent to the Ministry of Tribal Affairs and the Ministry of Water Resources requesting that the mammoth river interlinking project aimed at supplying water to already-irrigated central Gujarat be shelved.
A few quick figures would best explain the significance of this meeting and other such congregations in the past: seven rivers, seven dams, seven reservoirs, a 401 km-long link canal, submergence of 3,572 hectares of forest land, displacement of 25,000 people, and cattle.
The project is part of the peninsular river development component, proposed in the 1970s. It comprises the building of seven reservoirs on the Par, Nar, Tapi, Purna, Ambica, Auranga and Khapri rivers, and a 401 km-long link canal connecting the reservoirs, to irrigate 1.88 lakh hectares in Bharuch and Vadodara districts which are already slated to be irrigated by the Sardar Sarovar dam waters. The feasibility reports prepared by the National Water Development Agency (NWDA) mention that the project will also generate 93 Mkwh of electricity; the end consumers are only vaguely mentioned. The human price to be paid has been calculated using census data from as far back as 1991: the displacement figure has been put at 14,832 people. Today, the number of people likely to be displaced easily stands at 25,000.
One day in 2010, men with large maps and measurement paraphernalia arrived in some of the villages and began taking measurements of the river and the soil. The men told the villagers they were from the irrigation department. “Ramesh called me up to tell me about the measurements being taken. I looked up the Internet and was shocked to find out about the river interlinking project. It was then that we realised that the NWDA had been discreetly conducting its surveys without informing the people about the project or its consequences,” says Michael Mazgaonkar, an activist based in Narmada district. Since that phone call, he and several others have been travelling to villages in Dharampur taluka, Valsad district. Everywhere they go they speak to people and sense their anger at not being consulted on the project.
Collective realisation of their possible submergence, and the subsequent anger, resulted in the formation of the Par-Purna Adivasi Sangathan comprising people from Gundiya, Khadki, Tutarkhed, Chikhalpada, Mohanakavchali, Satvakal and other villages and hamlets across Dharampur taluka.
The NWDA’s feasibility report says surveys could not be completed at sites where the Paikhed, Jheri, Kelwan and Mohankavchali dams are to be built “due to local resistance”. Surveys at other dam sites -- Chasmandva, Chikkar and Dabdar dams -- have been carried out by the Survey of India, entrusted either by the Government of India or the NWDA. “Water from the seven proposed reservoirs will take over part of the command area of the ongoing Sardar Sarovar Project, while irrigating small areas en route. This will save Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) water which will be used to extend irrigation in the Saurashtra and Kutch region,” the report says.
But there are several loopholes in the report: apart from incomplete sub-surface geological and other surveys, there is no mention of the areas to be irrigated, or details of provision of drinking water to Vadodara municipal regions, or data on existing and future industries and their water requirements.
The Miyagam and Vadodara branches of the SSP currently supply water to Bharuch and Vadodara districts. These are regions that also support a large number of industrial estates and Special Economic Zones (SEZ). At the ‘Vibrant Gujarat: Global Investors Summit’, held three times during this decade, 69 and 38 MoUs were signed within Bharuch and Vadodara respectively, with a total investment of Rs 1,01,810 crore and Rs 14,414 crore respectively. These districts get their water from the SSP. Clearly, the surplus water to be brought from south Gujarat -- if the river interlinking project does manage to see the light of the day -- will be directed at materialising these bulky investments.
Based on the 2004-2005 price index, the project was cited to cost Rs 6,016 crore. The NWDA report puts the cost-benefit ratio at just 1:1.08 -- the usual ratio for approval is 1:1.5. The cost to people and the environment have not been factored in.
The catchment area is pristine forestland that falls in a seismic III zone. The NWDA mentions that the reservoirs will together submerge 7,559 hectares of land. This includes 3,572 hectares of forestland, and around 24 villages. The NDWA claims 51 villages will be partially submerged, although people in the area say their common understanding of the hilly terrain places the number much higher. Like any large dam project, this project too will be responsible for large-scale displacement of people and livestock.
Over the past two years there have been several calls for solidarity, culminating in meetings and a massive rally earlier this year. The Par-Purna Adivasi Sangathan has passed at least five resolutions at the panchayat level.
In September, 1,500 residents of Gundiya, Khadki, Tutarkhed, Chikhalpada, Mohanakavchali, Satvakal and other villages in Dharampur taluka, Valsad district, assembled on the banks of the river Nar. By 11.45 am, the grey riverbed, as seen from the winding road leading down to the river, was dotted with colour. A stage built the previous day out of large rocks was the focus. One by one, the sarpanch of each village represented in the Sangathan spoke about why unity was important in protecting rivers, fields, livelihoods, homes, humans, cattle -- indeed all of their futures. “We are happy to come here together, but don’t take our photograph now. Take my photograph when I’m angry, when I’m crying,” said one woman who had walked for almost three hours to get to the meeting site. I asked her if she had come alone. “My whole village is here, my husband, children and grandchildren too. We all woke up early today to clean and cook so that we could be here on time.”
In another corner, a woman was breastfeeding her child. After a while both were still -- the child had fallen asleep, the young mother listened with rapt attention as the details of two memorandums were read out. They were addressed to V Kishore Chandra Deo (Minister of Tribal Affairs) and Pawan Kumar Bansal (Minister of Water Resources), offering scientific explanations as to why the proposed project would only spell doom for the region. The two-page letters detailed the illegal way in which the NWDA had been conducting surveys in several villages without any consultations with the gram sabha.
Besides issues like flood damage and increased river salinity that could be caused by the proposed project, questions are also being raised about the efficacy of the project at a time when the impact of the SSP is yet to be assessed, and the need for additional water clearly established.
Although around 6,500 people eventually signed the memorandums, Sujata Shah, who has been at the forefront of the struggle, believes the fragmented nature of resistance among various sections of the people will weaken the effort. “We need to set up committees in every village, and committees led by women too. While large meetings like this are essential, you have to take the lead in preventing this project from displacing you,” Shah explained at the meeting.
For now, people are contributing small sums of money to fuel the resistance. Anusuya Ben says: “I do not know what to do. My anger and fear about this project come across through my songs. I’m glad that these songs are becoming famous and people are singing them at every meeting. But finally, the sarkar should hear our pleas.”
(This article has first appeared on Infochange News & Features. View it here)