I was not assessing the fallout of the budget. I was following the disappearance of a town called Harsud in Madhya Pradesh from the face of India. The Narmada Valley Project has devoured yet another habitation. I have lost count. Hundreds of them — in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh — have gone to a watery grave.
My heart sinks whenever a town ceases to be a blip on the world’s radar. It reminds me of my hometown, Sialkot, which I left in September 1947, after Partition. It was a traumatic experience. But ours was a different story. We were broken on the rack of history. It could not be helped when the Congress and the Muslim League had agreed to divide the subcontinent on the basis of religion. Harsud has been submerged intentionally. It could have been saved like many other places, if we had preferred decentralised, sustainable, non-destructive water management to a mega project like the Sardar Sarovar.
In fact, the centralised water bodies created due to wrong perceptions in the past — the Tehri dam or the dams in the Krishna basin — give the same message: bad economics, distorted appraisals and violations of human rights. The dams have displaced more than five crore people, 60 per cent of them are Adivasi. It is a shame that even 20 per cent of those evicted have not been resettled yet.
Many experts warned the government against the devastation the Narmada Valley project would cause. Ten lakh people were considered too large a number to be displaced. It was pointed out that the reconstruction and other effects would be immeasurable. The World Bank cancelled the loan after it received an unfavourable report by a study committee it had appointed to look into the project. Medha Patkar and Baba Amte led a movement — the Narmada Bachao Andolan — encompassing thousands to stall the project. Fifteen years ago, hundreds of people from all over the country participated in a rally at Harsud itself against “destructive development”. But New Delhi did not relent.
I can well imagine the toils and travails of the ousted from Harsud. Like them, we too left behind our hearths and homes, friends and neighbours. Women and children were hard put even then. We were thousands, Harsud’s families are 28,798. But their fate has been worse than ours because we did not have to demolish our houses to be eligible for compensation. They had to do so in Harsud. Shivnarayan Jinodia, a resident, says he had to spend Rs 60,000 to reduce his place to rubble to get the money.
Harsud is 700 years old. But the plan to submerge it goes back only three or four decades. That was the time when the Indira Sagar Dam in Madhya Pradesh — one of the 30 Narmada Valley projects — was conceived. I visited the area some 10 years ago. A boat lazily took me across the serene Narmada to village Manibeli. Although the incomplete dam had even at that time caught enough water to submerge a temple from stem to stern, the Manibeli villagers had perched themselves on a height. They were determined not to quit. Where were they were dumped, I have often wondered.
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Uma Bharti says that Harsud’s residents are sacrificing all they had for the larger cause of farmers and the state. When we stepped out of Sialkot into the unfamiliar future, we too heard that we were sacrificing for a cause. Whose cause? In west Punjab, landlords and feudal elements occupied what we vacated. In Gujarat, the rich have benefitted the most. Still worse, the Sardar Sarovar project has failed to address issues of social justice and equity.
Even if the evacuees were expected to give up all for the project to be complete, they should have been at least rehabilitated properly. The Narmada Tribunal award, buttressed by the Supreme Court’s judgment, assured them land for land, a house and the cash assistance to buy what would help them restart their life. The directive by the tribunal and the Supreme Court was to build alternate habitations six months before disturbing people. Gujarat promised to give land to the oustees if Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh failed to do so. Mumbai has done a bit. But Bhopal has not given even a single person, proper agricultural land.
Last year, when Digvijay Singh was the state chief minister, I wrote to Congress President Sonia Gandhi, informing her that he was under pressure from Gujarat to agree to increase the height of the dam without providing for the displaced. In her reply she said: “I have already been in communication with our concerned Chief Ministers on the need to fully implement all the rehabilitation measures as per the approved plan before submergence takes place and also to make provision for compensation of land for land wherever possible. I am satisfied that both the Maharashtra and the Madhya Pradesh governments are fully committed to these objectives”. Medha Patkar talks at length about Digvijay Singh’s promises and their violation.
Roughly 1,000 sheds have been built for Harsud’s oustees. But they are not houses. Even if they were they would not have constituted a town. People of Harsud are looking for another Harsud. I waited for 25 years to visit Sialkot. But I could not stay there for more than 25 minutes. It was a different place. A town is not roads, houses or shopping centers. It means neighbours, familiar faces and those with whom you have grown up.
The people of Harsud, wherever they have been resettled, must be thinking in the same way: out of place. So many things die within you when a town dies. Such feelings are not tangible. But they remain part of you for the rest of your life. Harsud’s people may be scattered all over the country. But anything — a mound of rubble, a deserted road or a strain of song — may remind them of the days gone by, of the town where they and their forefathers had lived. Some wounds never heal. You only begin to live with them.