Many years ago, as I was speaking to students at the University of Hyderabad on the Narmada Bachao Andolan, one of them asked me to explain the difference between flood and submergence. The techno-engineering explanation is that floods devour downstream lands for a short while, but with the construction of a large dam, something very different happens. The dam blocks the flow of what otherwise would have been a seasonal flood during monsoon, and converts that into submergence - where thousands of hectares of farmland, villages and towns are lost not for a few hours or even days, but forever.
That reality is evident now. Just a few days ago, my friend Sudarshan Rodriguez shared with me the news that the second and revised edition of India Disaster Report II: Redefining Disasters (edited by S Parasuraman and Unni Krishnan, Oxford University Press) was scheduled for release in Delhi on 24 August 2013. Shortly afterwards, another friend, Rehmat who belongs to a West Nimad village on the banks of the river Narmada sent me latest photographs of the third bout of submergence by email.
The news published in The Indian Express from Vadodara quotes Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited officials stating that the water level at the dam site had reached the 128.68-metre mark on the evening of 23 August; it also added that this was expected to touch the 130-metre mark. News that trickled in on the evening of Saturday, 24 August validated this by putting the water level at the dam site at the 131.05-metre mark by 5 PM in the evening.
The dam is constructed upto a height of 121.92 metres; thus, an overflow beyond that height to create a 7 to 9 metre vertical wall of lakhs of cubic feet of water gushing downstream every second, for more than a day, tells us about the enormous releases from upstream dams. Couldn't the waters have been released in a gradual manner from mid-July when the first showers of monsoon had filled those dams to the brim? What we have witnessed over the last week is not a flood, although the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, who chose to take an aerial view, would like us and the media to believe that. What we have witnessed in reality are flash floods compounding the impact of submergence manifold.
However, in utter disregard to the woes of the submergence-affected, thousands of Gujarati tourists have been offered a visit to the dam site as a tourism and picnic package by Gujarat Tourism Development Corporation and Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited. While these tourists would throng the dam site and marvel at the towering height of the dam, very few would perhaps question what lies on the other side of the dam wall. If they do want to know, they should perhaps ask the local people, for example those from the village of Chikhalada.
The 1994 flood levels and 1970 flood levels are etched in the memory of the West Nimad villagers distinctly, since those have been the severest in recent decades.
The Narmada Bachao Andolan, in its press release dated 25 August, has described this submergence impact as a criminal conspiracy hatched by the governments of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. It alleges that the states have joined hands to create a watery grave for thousands of affected families who should have been rehabilitated at the latest by June 2005, before the dam was raised to the height of 121.92 metres in the summer of 2006, as per the binding rehabilitation clauses of the Narmada Waters Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) Award, 1979.
That they had not been rehabilitated as per NWDT directions became obvious to governments in the summer of 2006. A group of cabinet ministers who toured the affected villages had to face hundreds of affected families voicing their protests about unfulfilled rehabilitation promises.
The NBA press release also points out that the most recent bout of submergence has drowned hundreds of houses in those villages which the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) had arbitrarily stated to be "outside the submergence zone". According to the release, the local administration represented by the district collector has visited only a few villages that are on the main road from Badwani, but there have been no serious efforts till date to assess the quantum of submergence impact and record the losses suffered by each affected family.
Interior villages had only one or two police officials posted there, even as the third round of submergence started drowning farmland and habitation. The NBA has questioned the callous attitude and complete absence of relief measures by the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) which claims to have spent enormous amounts on relief efforts every year after the monsoon.
The monsoon this year in the Narmada valley has followed a pattern that I witnessed first-hand in the year 2002, when water levels began rising very early. I still remember rushing with my friend Jojo from Badawani to the Chikhalada-Rajghat bridge, trying to figure out from the level of water beneath that bridge whether waters would have started submerging Jalsindhi and Domkhedi.
Later that night, along with a few friends, I reached Jalsindhi after taking a boat from Happeshwar only to see that the house that Luhariya built had gone under water completely. Luhariya's house had been made famous in P Sainath's acclaimed book, Everybody loves a Good Drought. An affected resident and tenacious activist of the Narmada Bachao Andolan from Jalsindhi, Luhariya builds a house ahead of the monsoon and stands there along with his family facing the rising waters submerging vast expanses of farmlands. He has been doing this for more than a decade now, in a spirit of protest that quintessentially captures the popular slogan of the movement, "Koi Nahi HaTengaa" (None of us will move from our homes and villages).
Villages outside the official submergence zone also find themselves under water. (Picture by Rehmat)
A worsening situation
Submergence in the year 2002 has taught me a lot in life. In July when the backwaters of the dam rose, a documentary filmmaker friend from Abhivyakti, Nasik and I witnessed our boat plying straight in front of the sanctum sanctorum of the Happeshwar Shiva temple. Later that month when, along with a journalist friend from Mumbai, I set out to reach the villages in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, we found ourselves stuck in quicksand at Happeshwar. We were lucky and a few more steps calibrated with bated breath had taken us to the other side, where a boat was waiting to take us upstream.
The next year, in August, when I reached Happeshwar, the boatman could land us on the terrace of a two-storey building in the Happeshwar Shiva temple complex. We had reached there after the waters had started receding and we could take a few steps down from the staircase. But what I saw in Happeshwar, the first village on the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border on the Narmada river bank, made me alert to the enormity of the submergence impact. I shuddered to think of the eventual fate of Jalsindhi, Domkhedi and Nimgavhan.
Ten years later today, when I see the photographs that Rehmat has e-mailed us from a submergence village and an aerial photograph of the massive flood upstream from there in Hoshangabad, I feel compelled to ask our Prime Minister if we have really planned disaster management any better today. Even as I argue here for pro-active disaster preparedness and risk reduction measures, The Times of India reports that there is no dam safety manual for the Sardar Sarovar Dam as yet. Should not the three ministers who had gone on a fact finding mission to submergence villages in Narmada Valley in Madhya Pradesh in the summer of 2006 be rushed to the same villages, and then made to tell us the truth of the rehabilitation claims?
It is also perhaps incumbent on the editors and authors of India Disaster Report II: Redefining Disasters to reflect on the ground situation of a project that has been identified as India's Planned Environmental Disaster, and reveal details of disasters that keep unfolding with alarming frequency.
- Water level rises in Narmada dam, The Indian Express, 24 August 2013
- Water in Sardar Sarovar Dam at record high, Business Standard, 24 August 2013
- No safety manual for Narmada dam yet, The Times of India, 26 August 2013