"Till the Rivers All Run Dry": A Human Ecological Analysis of the Narmada Bachao Andolan

Article excerpt

The World Commission on Dams report vindicates much of what dam critics have long argued. If the builders and funders of dams follow the recommendations of the WCD, the era of destructive dams should come to an end . . . Had the planning process proposed by the WCD been followed in the past, many dams would not have been built.

-Patrick McCully, Campaigns Director of the Berkeley, California-based International Rivers Network.

The Government of India claims that the multi-purpose Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) would irrigate more than 1.8 million hectares (mostly in Gujarat and some in Rajasthan) and solve drinking water problems in drought-prone areas like Kutch and Saurashtra in Gujarat. The Sardar Sarovar Dam is the largest among the 30 'big dams' planned to be constructed on the Narmada River1 in central and western India. This dam, with a proposed height of 136.5 meters (455 feet), has emerged in the notso- recent past as the focal point of the Narmada Bachao Andolan's (NBA)2 concerted opposition and resistance.

The NBA has steadfastly maintained that 'tall' claims on the part of the government are exaggerated and untenable.3 The SSP would instead displace more than 320,000 persons and adversely affect the livelihood of innumerable others. NBA activists have even estimated that a population of at least 1 million would be dislocated if the SSP were to be completed (as a result of displacements caused by the canal system and other allied projects). Although Varma's conclusions on the basis of the actual performance (karma) of large dams in India can be questioned he eloquently describes the growing need for water and power in India and concludes that it is the duty (or dharma) of dams to meet these growing needs.

In a recent report written by some of us for the World Commission on Dams, 'Large Dams: India's Experience,' an exhaustive look at the facts and figures available establishes that until 1978, most dams were not assessed for their environmental and social impacts. Even when they began to be assessed, alternatives to the dam were never assessed and mostly not even considered. Also, that the current system of granting environmental clearances is subject to all sorts of political and administrative pressures, resulting in clearances being granted to projects without assessing their impacts or even when they are non-viable. What is worse, the concerned ministry has little ability to ensure that the parameters and conditions of clearance are adhered to. In fact, they are disregarded and flouted, as a rule.

Perhaps the best indicator of how lightly the nation has taken the environmental and social damage that large dams cause is the absence of data on these aspects. We do not know what the environmental impacts of most dams were. In most cases we do not know whether any of the safeguards prescribed actually worked. We do not even know the total number of people displaced or the area of forests submerged by large dams (Varma, 2000).

The NBA has been opposing this project for a decade now, and its activists sought to highlight demerits of the SSP during 1990-91 by employing statements of protest like dharnas, or sit-ins, and satyagraha, or non-violent non-cooperation. The World Bank (that was about to finance the dam for $450 million) was subsequently compelled to set up an independent review committee, the Morse Commission, the first of its kind. The Morse Report indicted the World Bank on many counts, and (tacitly) supported the major human ecological concerns raised by the NBA. Adverse international reaction that had followed the Morse Report finally decided the World Bank against financing the SSP.

The Supreme Court of India, the country's highest court, had suspended further construction of the dam in 1995, at a height of 80.3 meters, following a writ petition by the NBA demanding a comprehensive review of the SSP. However, the Supreme Court, in an interim order (February 1999), had given go-ahead for the dam's height to be raised to a height of 88 meters (85m + 3m of 'humps'). …