Compromise marks talks on Narmada project

Compromise marks talks on Narmada project COMPROMISE and concession were reportedly the guidelines prevailing at the first-ever talks between the government, represented at the highest levels, and the leadership of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) on the controversial Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). Participants described the discussions on the future of the Rs 13,500-crore, multipurpose SSP as "free and frank". Explained NBA's Medha Patkar, "We wanted to discuss all aspects of the project in an atmosphere free of rancour."

But these expressions of goodwill may be premature because the formation of a study group to review all issues relating to the SSP has become uncertain, with water resources secretary C D Thatte refusing to confirm or deny that a decision to set up such a panel was taken.

But other sources assured the study group would indeed be formed and the delay in issuing a joint statement was because of the absence of Union water resources minister V C Shukla.

Pressure from Gujarat was also the reason stated in reports for the Centre backing out of the proposed panel. As a major beneficiary of the project, Gujarat reportedly has been insisting it would have to be consulted on the setting-up of any panel.

The government is said to have conceded an NBA demand that several independent experts be named to the review panel. The government also has agreed to rebuild "forcibly demolished huts" in the villages where they were originally located. In turn, NBA delegates withdrew their demand that these huts must be rebuilt on original sites. Patkar explained the huts will be rebuilt above the permanent submergence level but below the temporary one. "There are 180 other families in Maharashtra who will be affected if the Narmada waters, impounded by the now 61-m high dam, rise," she noted.

Another point on which NBA has compromised is its demand that irreversible work on the dam be stopped while the SSP is reviewed. The compromise reportedly was necessitated because the political situation in the states is such that the Centre would be unable to make Gujarat, the state responsible for the construction, stop construction. "We agreed not to press the point," said NBA activist Sripad Dharmadhikari.

The important outcome of the talks, explained Arun Kumar Singh of Other Media, a pro-NBA group in Delhi, is that the government has been obliged to listen to people's views on a project and heed their objections, regardless of how much money has been spent on the project. The people affected by the project must also be informed of its ramifications and be briefed on who will benefit and at whose expense, he added.