India Together has learnt that the Union Minister for Water Resources Priyaranjan Das Munshi is sending a three member Central government team to visit the Narmada valley submergence area. New Delhi wants to assess the status of resettlement and rehabilitation of the oustees, who are mostly tribal people, before sanctioning a further increase in the height of the gigantic Sardar Sarovar Dam. The Prime Minister is reported to have asked Das Munshi to visit the valley. Das Munshi is unable to make the first visit himself, but reliable sources say that his team will visit the valley between December 10 and 12.

The resettlement and rehabilitation track record of the Narmada valley projects are perhaps the starkest example of both livelihood related rights violations as well as massive public information manipulation. Forget P C Sorcar, who hypnotized a few people to believe that the Taj had disappeared for some moments. The Narmada Control Authority (NCA) is an official agency that wants the country to believe that it has lifted a civilization from river valley, and resettled it to a new world, tailor-made with all amenities! If that’s not all, the news is posted online. This, after all is the era of information. There’s a difference though. Sorcar entertains. The NCA does not.

Set up in 1980 under the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT), the NCA is headquartered in Indore and coordinates storage, apportionment, regulation and control of the Narmada waters, sharing of power benefits from dam projects, acquisition of land and disbursal of compensation and rehabilitation dues to the oustees. It is a corporate body with representatives of four states -- Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan -- and the Government of India. It is funded in equal proportions by all four states, and chaired by Secretary (Water Resources), Government of India.

In it latest update, the NCA says that it has rehabilitated and resettled all the families affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) when the dam height was raised from 100 metres to 110.64 metres. “The balance of R&R,” says the NCA’s official website, “is zero.” Never mind then that thousands of families stay put in their scattered hamlets waiting for a new dawn and hope after two decades of struggle. The authority has released what must be taken as official information.

You can already smell a rat in that, says the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA), the people’s movement against the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). The people’s group says that the information posted on the NCA's website is “untrue and false.” To debunk the NCA’s sweeping claims, NBA leaders Medha Patkar, Ashish Mandloi and others have dared officials to visit villages in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat in the presence of eminent citizens.

The NCA's Director of Rehabilitation Dr.Afroze Ahmed could not reached for comment. Staffers at his office preferred not to respond to questions.

The Andolan has been demanding the Right to Information since 1986. This year, following a UPA government decision, the NCA did post the information about rehabilitation and resettlement of dam-displaced persons on its website. But, as the NBA puts it, “the website misinforms on many issues, including the aspect of rehabilitation”. So much for the people’s right to information. It is in this light that New Delhi's decision to send a team to the river valley must be seen.

According to the chart on the status of R&R posted on the NCA official website, the total families displaced after the dam was raised from 100 metres to 110.64 metres were 6708, of which 1,908 families belonged to Gujarat, 606 to Maharashtra and 4,194 to Madhya Pradesh. The information does not speak of the villages that were displaced, but it claims that all of them have now been rehabilitated at the R&R sites in the respective states. But the NBA contradicts the NCA, saying that over 10,000 families are still living in the valley and in the Nimad region (the submergence area of the SSP) in Madhya Pradesh.

In fact, barring a few hundred families, a majority of the affected-families have refused to move to the rehabilitation sites. Families losing more than 25% of their land in submergence have no alternative agricultural land in sight near the R&R sites in the region. Citizens in the villages of Jhabua, Dhar, Barwani districts, which are supposedly rehabilitated, haven’t moved an inch. Kukshi, Manavar, and Thikri villages as well as towns such as Khalghat haven’t moved either. Paradoxically, the corresponding R&R sites in Nimad are lifeless.

For many villages such as Khaparkheda and Kadmal, the R&R sites are yet to be identified, forget their rehabilitation as yet. To add, land acquisition process has not been completed for many villages in Nimad at the current height of the dam, though the R&R schedules state that they were to be – and have been – rehabilitated by now.

For sometime, the reality has been different from what NCA has bee painting. People continue to live where they were. The new sites wear a forlorn look, with little or no amenities. Alternative agriculture land is not in sight. The NBA strongly contends that the number of affected families has been dwarfed. Official figures vindicate this contention. For instance, the NCA has not taken into account fresh surveys conducted by the Maharashtra Government’s Task Force, which submitted its report in September 2002. The number of affected families had risen considerably in that survey.

Furious, the Andolan has challenged the NCA to furnish the names of families it claims to have rehabilitated at the new sites. Activists also want the NCA to show land for the rehabilitation of thousands of other families who would be displaced when the dam height is raised further, up to 138.68 metres. "The data is absolutely false. According to us about 11,000 PAFs are still to be rehabilitated at the current height of the dam, and about 40,000 total oustees will have to be rehabilitated when the dam touches 139 metres", says NBA leader Medha Patkar.

Patkar adds that the Government of Maharashtra had given a written assurance that oustees who were deemed as encroachers in the earlier surveys will also be included in the updated lists. "According to our surveys 1500-2000 families in Maharashtra are still to be included in the fresh lists, but even before that process could be completed, the NCA authorities included barely 167 families in Maharashtra and, what is more, considered that they have already been rehabilitated!", she says.

But questions are not merely about information on rehabilitation. Cost and debt escalation have been enormous. The original cost of the SSP dam, according to the economic appraisal report, was Rs 4,200 crore in 1983. It had shot up to Rs 6,404 crore in 1988. The Planning Commission had approved that cost. The present cost of this dam has soared to a staggering Rs 40,000 crore, according to the submission to the Construction Advisory Committee (CAC) of the NCA in March 2004. The Planning Commission has not yet approved this escalated cost, the NBA says. Added to this, the SSP and the Gujarat government are facing financial constraints. Even the Comptroller and Auditor General of India had emphasized this in its audit reports from time to time (2001 and 2004). The NCA does not refer to any of this on its website.

The manner in which the NCA has been addressing resettlement is itself problematic. The Authority does have its own R&R department. Its mandate does permit it to carry out surveys on the people ousted by the Narmada dam projects, but it does not. Instead, the NCA depends on the data provided by the state government departments looking into the rehabilitation and resettlement aspects. For instance in MP, it is the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) and in Maharashtra, it is the Department of Rehabilitation. The NCA does have a Grievance Redressal Authority (GRA) which is supposed to recheck the figures, and settle the disputes.

The MP state government has recently suspended 37 officials of the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) for misappropriations found during audit.
 •  Rising waters, declining hopes
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In the first half of November 2004, the Grievance Redressal Authority (GRA) of the NCA led by a retired High Court judge visited the rehabilitation and resettlement sites in Gujarat. The GRA chose to visit a few better-off sites, where villagers have been given jobs by the government. But it refused to visit the sites where families are standing deep in a cauldron of problems, with no avenue for livelihood and no amenity worth a mention.

According to the law, government officials cannot raise the height of the dam unless they rehabilitate the oustees in their respective states. This includes allocation of alternative agriculture land. But officials tampered with the facts and manipulated figures by deflating the number of oustees and inflating the rehabilitation expenses.

The MP state government recently suspended 37 officials for exactly the same reason, following several complaints against them. The action was a result of enormous misappropriation noticed by the auditors while auditing the accounts of the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA), which as mentioned earlier provides information to the multi-state and stakeholder NCA. Those suspended included high-ranking officials like Executive Engineers and Superintending Engineers. The NVDA was specially constituted under the 1985 Madhya Pradesh Government resolution for the development of irrigation potential and power generation in Narmada Basin. Activists have held that officials deliberately left the flaws to aid the government to make a case in its favour to raise the dam height. With the audit, they stood vindicated.

In what is a seen a good sign, the Centre has reportedly taken a stand that the height of SSP would not be raised until all the oustees are rehabilitated and resettled properly. Medha Patkar and other NBA leaders note that if the government fails to take action against the officials, it would mean that the Central government is merely giving lip service to the cause of the Right to Information. The NBA is demanding “a comprehensive review of the unjust, illegal decisions and criminal actions related to land acquisition and rehabilitation.”