Newsletter Sep 1998

The ‘people’s siege’ of Maheshwar Dam continues despite a crackdown by the nexus of the state administration and private capital. Thousands of people, with women in the lead, have been on the roads in the sweltering heat of April - June, bearing the brunt of the monsoon to save their homes, farms and villages. The Maheshwar hydro-electric project being built on the Narmada at village Jalud in Khargone district is the first major privatised hydro-electric project in the country. The Madhya Pradesh government has handed over the dam construction and power generation of this 400MW project to the private company S.Kumar’s, which will hold 51% equity. The rest will be held by foreign companies like Pacific Generation Co., Siemens, Asea Brown Boveri and the German Bank, Bayerische Vereinsbank. The foreign component in the total outlay will be about 76%.

About 5000 hectares of fertile land in 61 villages will be submerged. These lowlands of Nimad on the banks of the Narmada have rich soil with river and are well irrigated. Agriculture provides employment even to seasonal migrant labourers from adjoining districts. The area supports thousands of workers artisans, boatsmen, fisherpeople, those dependent on the seasonal badis of pumpkins and water-melons on the river-side, and those employed in sand and stone quarries. Apart from the 2200 families which will be displaced, the livelihoods of thousands of people who share a dynamic relationship with the Narmada, will be ruined. However, despite the magnitude of displacement, the High Power Committee set up in March 1997 found that in violation of the conditions set down by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, not even a plan for re-settlement was ready. Instead, lands had been acquired by the government, often through intimidation, with meagre cash compensation.

The people of the area came together to fight this project under the banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. After a year-long struggle, the MP government issued an order on January 30, 1998, announcing suspension of all work on the dam, power house and land-acquisition, pending a comprehensive review of the costs, benefits and alternatives. However, in March 1998, S.Kumars surreptitiously re-started work at the dam site, on the pretext of building a wall to protect the trenches from silting during the monsoons. Blasting and other construction work was carried out under prohibitory orders that banned protesters from the dam site, with the protection of more than 1500 policemen!

On April 22, several thousand villagers ‘captured’ the site of the Maheshwar Dam, facing severe lathi-charge, and courting arrest. Women peacefully lying down on the road to form human cordons to block the entry of trucks carrying supplies for construction were meted brutal treatment. Reports followed in the national press of police atrocities on the villagers, especially women. At Saheli, we received appeals for solidarity from the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Co-ordination with other women’s groups and progressive organisations in Delhi led to the formation of an independent fact-finding team to investigate the incident.

The 5-member team visited 8 affected villages,and met oustees, villagers as well as concerned officials. The team found that in Jalud, which will be the first to be submerged, intimidating police presence is an overwhelming factor in the lives of the villagers. Their daily activities are restricted, since the fencing has made it very difficult to get to their grazing grounds, cemetery, temple and vegetable fields. Moreover, blasting at the dam site has damaged houses in Jalud. In Lepa, the impact of blasting is so deep, that people sleep outside, for fear of the house collapsing on them. The team found that deliberate misinformation has made it difficult for the villagers to get the correct picture. For instance, the MP Electricity Board (MPEB) listed only 90 families in Jalud as affected, but according to the map of the project, 285 families are involved. Similarly, a survey conducted by the Narmada Valley Development Corporation in 1982 showed the level of submergence as much lower than the level marked by the MPEB recently on the same school building, although both surveys used the Full Reservoir Level as the benchmark. In any case, the Maximum Water Level must also be taken into account, for it can extensively damage life and property.

The team met injured women who had been at the receiving end of police brutality on April 22-23. The women had been beaten with lathis, their clothes torn in the scuffle, and abused and terrorised by the police and ‘black cat’ commando forces. Police threatened the women, “If you want to retain your izzat, go straight home.” Medical personnel at the hospital confirmed that the injuries had been inflicted not only by a fall and stampede (as claimed by the administration) but by deliberate blows from lathis and blunt instruments. In a revealing statement to the team, the site engineer confirmed that the wall being constructed was part of the power house - very much part of the dam. Thus, the work was clearly violating the government order of January 30. Further, the biased position of the administration in favour of S. Kumar’s is apparent from the team’s interview with the SDM, who asserted that the construction at the dam site was only a ‘security wall’ which would eventually be demolished.

The independent fact-finding team pointed to the collusion between the state administration, and private capital against the interests of the people. It recommended immediate stoppage of dam construction until the report of the Task Force for Review, which has been pending since January 30th this year. Subsequently, teams of the National Human Rights Commission as well as the National Commission for Women visited the area, and reiterated the above demands. The NCW also recommended compensation for the injured women and demanded a judicial inquiry into the incident of state repression on April 22-23.

On June 17th, the Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, the dam builder Vikas Kasliwal of S Kumar’s, bureaucrats and NBA activists took part in a public debate in Mandleshwar. Despite the rhetoric of rehabilitation, the CM and company officials could not provide answers to questions of cost benefit, displacement, economic and cultural issues. In the subsequent meeting of the Task Force in July, the CM announced the extension for the Task Force for the review of the dam, and also a fact-finding team to assess the impact of submergence by the Narmada Sagar Project during this monsoon. The people of Maheshwar and elsewhere in the Narmada Valley will continue to highlight the dangers of mega dams and power projects being constructed in the name of ‘development’. Despite all the odds, the struggle for people-oriented development goes on.

(Based on the report of the Independent Fact Finding Team and Narmada Samachar)