Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose his birthday on Sunday to dedicate the Sardar Sarovar Dam to the nation. While many may wince at the thought of an elected leader publicising the use of a personal anniversary to officially launch a public project as potentates of yore did, the question that suggests itself is whether Mr Modi would have chosen to inaugurate the dam if the Gujarat Assembly election were not around the corner. The reason for the question is that benefits from the dam are unlikely to accrue to Gujarat’s farmers as the canal system meant to carry the water to irrigate farmlands in some 18,000 Gujarat villages is not even half done. The BJP’s critics, in fact, contend that barely 20 per cent of the canal work is complete, though the saffron party has been in power in Gujarat for the past 22 years, of which Mr Modi himself was at the helm for 14.
The Sardar Sarovar project, deriving its water from the Narmada river, is meant to supply water for irrigation and electricity generation to the drier regions of Madhya Pradesh, and needy parts of Rajasthan and Maharashtra, besides Gujarat. But all the hoopla generated by BJP chief Amit Shah and the PM himself is on Gujarat. Is this because polls are not imminent in the other three states? Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, also from the BJP, did not show up at the grand Sunday inaugural although he was supposed to. The reason is that even as the PM’s birthday was being celebrated in high gear elsewhere, thousands of people, led by Medha Patkar’s Narmada Bachao Andolan and several political parties and NGOs, were marching in protest in MP and offering “jal satyagraha” (standing for an indefinite period in the Narmada waters at great personal risk). Their concern is that the building of the dam has submerged lakhs of hectares of high quality agricultural land in the Narmada valley in MP, and displaced about 40,000 people in the “submergence” area.
These nowhere people have lost their lands and livelihoods and have not been rehabilitated in terms envisaged by the Supreme Court, and are running form pillar to post. The protests led by the NBA have been staged over a very long period of time and the public mood is roiled. In June this year, the state had even imposed the National Security Act to deal with the villager protesters, an unusually large number of whom happen to be women. Apart from rehabilitation, other concerns voiced relate to environmental damage and fears that the Narmada waters are being handed over to automakers and foreign soft drink conglomerates in Gujarat since the canals are not yet ready to take them to farmers.