Qui custodiet custodiens? goes the Latin saying, or
''who will guard the guardians''? In today's India, what
does it take to make a government obey the law? In the
case of the Madhya Pradesh government and the Narmada
Control Authority, defining and restating the law and
getting very clear orders from the Supreme Court is
clearly not enough.
pleas of those who have been unjustly displaced and
provided no compensation are obviously of no interest.
Nor is peaceful mass protest by thousands of ordinary
people of the region of any use in changing unlawful
decisions, apparently. Even knocking at the gates of
the powerful in Delhi, or going on indefinite hunger
strike in protest at blatantly illegal actions does
not seem to be enough.
Yet all that is being asked, from the government, is
that the laws of the land be upheld and the Supreme
Court's orders be respected. Even this appears to become
something to be extracted as a huge concession after
endless requests and ever increasing social pressure.
Consider the recent facts relating to the construction
of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. This controversial project
has been under question for more than ten years, as
all of its intended benefits have been questioned at
different levels. It is the hugest such project in recent
years, involving thousands of hectares of land and displacing
well over three lakh families. From the original chosen
height of 80 metres, it has gradually been raised to
120 metres, and each increase has involved ever more
Not only are the supposed gains for the farmers in dry
areas of Saurashtra and Kacch still unclear, but the
huge human and ecological costs of submergence and displacement
have been inadequately measured and certainly not compensated
for. There have also been scathing reports from the
Comptroller and Auditor General's office on the financial
practices of the project.
Yet the recent furore relates not to the project per
se, but to specific measures which blatantly go against
both administrative and judicial norms. The evidence
is overwhelming of completely inadequate rehabilitation,
in contravention of previous promises, declared procedures
and court strictures. And what is even more alarming
is that on 8 March this year, the Narmada Control Authority
unilaterally took the decision to raise the height of
the Sardar Sarovar Dam from its present height of 110.64
metres to 121.92 metres.
This decision was taken even though the Supreme Court
in a 2005 judgement had expressly said that raising
of the dam's height would not be permitted unless the
rehabilitation programme, which was found to be lacking,
had been carried out in full. In fact, almost all reports,
even from official sources, confirm that the rehabilitation
process thus far has been a disaster.
The core rehabilitation principle in the Sardar Sarovar
Project is land for land, rather than cash compensation.
The onus has been placed upon the state to ''acquire
and allot'' cultivable land to all eligible affected
families. According to the Narmada Tribunal Award, rehabilitation
sites should have been developed and ready for occupation
one year before the date of submergence, and notices
for shifting to the developed sites must be issued to
each and every project affected family.
Yet in fact, in Madhya Pradesh, hardly any families
have been resettled with cultivable land. Instead, some
families have been offered or sent off to occupy lands
which are already encroached upon by others, or of such
poor quality as to be uncultivable, or simply non-existent.
Other sites have no house plots and the areas themselves
have no amenities. For many thousands of other affected
families, there is even no stated site that has been
decided upon. And this, according to the government's
own affidavits filed before the Supreme Court!
Instead, the state government created a new (and illegal)
Special Rehabilitation Package, under which a cash package
is given to project affected families instead of land.
Usually the amount given is so small that there is no
question of purchasing new cultivable land with that
money, so that the people are rendered not only homeless
but also without livelihood. Even in Maharashtra and
Gujarat, many affected families are still to be either
compensated or rehabilitated. The Grievance Redressal
Authorities are barely functioning, in any of the three
The situation with respect to rehabilitation is so evidently
dire that even the Union Minister for Water Resources,
Prof. Saifuddin Soz, issued a statement on 10 March
indicating his lack of confidence in the rehabilitation
process thus far. He conceded that in this context the
decision of the Narmada Control Authority to raise the
height of the dam was premature, and said he would convene
a meeting of the Review Committee for Narmada Control
Authority to consider the case.
It might be expected that after such an admission, there
would be no question of continuing the work of raising
the height of the dam. Yet this is apparently too naïve
an expectation, since even as late as the first week
of April, nearly a month after the statement was issued,
no such meeting has yet been convened and work at the
dam site continues apace in complete disregard of all
All this forced the most recent protest in Delhi, where
Medha Patkar and some other activists of the Narmada
Bachao Andolan went on hunger strike. This did indeed
get some publicity, certainly far more than the months
of continuous protests within the region by the affected
people, but at the time of writing it was still not
enough to force the government to stop immediately all
work on what is a completely illegal exercise at the
Sardar Sarovar Dam. Instead, the government only promised
to ''examine the matter'' through a field visit!
We have in place a central government that thus far
has viewed a significant aspect of development as necessarily
involving the sale of land - to agribusinesses, to urban
land developers, to big projects in general. On the
day of writing this, the same government that would
not stop the height of the dam from being illegally
raised signed a huge deal selling off land to a consortium
of private companies for developing Delhi and Mumbai
airports in what is an extremely dubious and murky privatisation
deal, in the process breaking their promises to airport
workers that they would be heard before a final decision.
Despite coming into power on an anti-communal and pro-poor
platform, it has stubbornly refused to exercise the
most elementary discipline on rogue state government
like that in Gujarat, even in this matter of respecting
the basic rights of its citizens, especially the weak
It should be noted that most of the displaced families
are adivasis, and were already among the poorest and
most vulnerable communities in India. Dispossession
from their meagre resources leaves them no alternative
existence. At the Jantar Mantar in New Delhi where many
of the activists and affected people had gathered along
with local supporters, there was a stark question. We
are thrown out of our land and not welcome in cities
or villages, so where do we go? How do we continue to
Nearly 150 years after the first war of Indian independence,
it seems that it is not only freedom which is of concern.
Our state not only cannot ensure for many of its citizens
their right to exist, its market-obsessed economic priorities
seem even to have deprived it of the basic political
sense that a democratic state should at least be seen
to be caring for those at the receiving end.