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Columnist Aiyar is Biased, Wants to Praise Government: Medha Patkar

Ajaz Ashraf |
The noted activist has been called an urban Naxal by a top leader of the BJP, and a police case has been filed against her in August for allegedly diverting funds.

Journalist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar, counted among the country’s most well-known columnists, recently wrote a piece demanding that Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar should apologise to the nation for opposing the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam. Aiyar said Patkar’s thesis that the dam would be a disaster has been proved wrong, and those displaced because of the Narmada project have prospered. To bolster his argument, he cited selected findings from a survey he and academic Neeraj Kaushal had conducted in Gujarat. Their survey was published in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Aiyar’s article was preceded by an FIR filed, in August, against Patkar for allegedly diverting funds collected for managing educational facilities for Adivasi students. Then a week or so ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused so-called urban Naxals of always conspiring against Gujarat. Immediately, Gujarat Chief Minister Bhupendrabhai Patel, in Modi’s presence, named Patkar as one of the urban Naxals who opposed the Sardar Sarovar dam, thus slowing its construction. Soon, Home Minister Amit Shah insinuated that the Aam Aadmi Party wanted Patkar to become Gujarat’s chief minister, thus facilitating a “backdoor entry” for her into Gujarat politics.

NewsClick asked Patkar what she felt at being dragged into one contrived controversy after another—and the veracity of Aiyar’s claims in the piece he wrote. She rebuts him with the same passion she brings to her activism and explains why the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is targeting her. Excerpts:

Columnist Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar recently wrote a piece saying your reasons for opposing the Sardar Sarovar project have all been proved wrong and that you must apologise for slowing its construction. Do you think you need to apologise?

(Laughs) I do not need to apologise. I think it is the planners and the government that should apologise, for pushing the dam at any cost and after violating several laws. Worse, they have lied about the benefits accruing to the people from the Sardar Sarovar dam.

Why do you say they have lied?

First and foremost, Narmada waters have not adequately reached the needy population of farmers and others in the arid and drought-prone areas of Saurashtra and Kutch in Gujarat as had been planned. [This was the principal justification for building the Sardar Sarovar dam].

But Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the Kutch Branch Canal in the last week of August.

He inaugurated the Kutch Branch Canal, but the minor or micro canal network to take waters to farms has not been built to date. In fact, a part of the Mandvi canal he inaugurated breached within 24 hours! This happened when the canal was being tested. Massive corruption in canal construction was exposed, with details, by a Gujarat-based TV channel. In fact, the question to ask is: Why is Modi inaugurating this canal now?

You tell me why.

The reason behind the inauguration is the Gujarat elections! According to the Narmada project plan, this canal should have been built years ago. But the BJP government did not prioritise the construction of the micro canal network in Kutch. Narmada waters reached Kutch in 2007 and were to be taken to farms in remote villages through the micro canal network. They did not concentrate on building the network for irrigation. Instead, they diverted the water to cities and big industries.

Narmada waters are supplied by the Sardar Sarovar Corporation through the Gujarat Water Infrastructure Ltd. They are selling water to industries at Rs 47 per 1,000 litres. However, drinking water has not reached all the villages mentioned in the project plan. In those villages where the water is to reach—but offered with tax—very few panchayats can afford to buy it. Nagar Palikas, or municipal corporations, are yet to pay a huge debt [because of purchasing the water.]

In other words, you say that industries have benefited from the Sardar Sarovar dam than farmers?

Yes. They have now, after decades, appointed a committee under the Narmada Control Authority to assess the impact of taking the water, through the canal, to arid areas! The impact of taking enormous volumes of water to arid regions is very different from what it is elsewhere. This is what we had been asking for a long time.

The Sardar Sarovar command area [that is, the area to be irrigated] was to be 1,12,700 hectares. Out of this, 8,000 hectares have been de-commanded, saying that a Special Economic Zone is to be established there. Do not also forget that the cost of building the Sardar Sarovar dam was estimated to be around Rs 4,200 crore. They have already spent over Rs 50,000 crore on it.

To answer your question, Narmada waters have reached Rapar Tehsil, but the micro network has not been completed, with proper drainage, for taking it to other parts of Kutch district. As such, only 1.6% of Kutch’s area was to be irrigated. But even this has not happened. The irony is that it is now they want to study the impact of taking Narmada waters to Kutch. To my mind, this is nothing but a tactic to divert the water to cities and industries. This diversion of water has happened all over Gujarat.

What is the magnitude of this diversion?

Around 1.6 million acre-feet (MAF) out of Gujarat’s total share of 9 MAF in the Narmada water was meant for municipalities and industries. But this has now doubled. They have given water to entities like the Coca-Cola plant, too!

By the way, this skewed system of allocation of water was criticised by none other than former Gujarat Chief Minister Suresh Mehta. Various Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) reports show that there has been hardly any expansion of irrigation beyond what it was in 2012-13. In between, the Gujarat government had claimed that 7.5 lakh hectares of land have come under irrigation because of the Narmada project. But even the CAG report said this number has not yet reached, when the claim was to irrigate 18 lakh hectares in Gujarat.

When should water have reached the villages of Kutch?

It should have reached in 2007 or so. Parshottam Rupala, twice the irrigation minister in the 1990s and agriculture minister between October 2001 and December 2002, had said they would make express canals to ensure the Narmada water first reached Saurashtra and Kutch. He said this because the experience of all big dams has been that the tail-end areas [of the canal network] are left deprived. Cities and industries located before the tail region divert the water to themselves. This is what has happened in Gujarat. A huge quantity of Narmada waters has been diverted to Gujarat’s three big cities—Vadodara, Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad—which were not in the Narmada project plan. The original idea was to supply Narmada waters to only towns and villages.

But Aiyar writes that Narmada waters reached Saurashtra, Kutch and Rajasthan decades ago.

(Laughs) Why is it that even farmers in Saurashtra are all the time complaining that they do not receive adequate and regular water supply? Farmer organisations in Kutch, Rajkot and Surendranagar keep raising their voices. However, cities and industries do receive the water. Why is there no water in the canal? I can show you photographs of last summer when the canals in Gujarat were full of mud. Why did Modi inaugurate the Mandvi canal now if the water had, as Aiyar claims, reached all parts of Kutch?

Why only talk of the water share of people in Gujarat? The only benefit of power promised to Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh is not yet attained. There is a dispute over their demand for Rs 900 and Rs 450 crore each. This dispute is still on. Gujarat had to release waters to Rajasthan after (or since) former Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje took up the fight.

Aiyar cites a 2019 survey he and Neeraj Kaushal of Columbia University did. According to them, tribals displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam and resettled and rehabilitated elsewhere are owners of assets—land, mobile phones, bicycles and two-wheelers, etc.—and have not been pauperised as you predicted.

To begin with, Aiyar does not even acknowledge, let alone appreciate, how we [Narmada Bachao Andolan and other activists] had to fight and fight and fight for ensuring resettlement and rehabilitation. It is because we waged legal battles in courts and on the ground that the displaced people were resettled and rehabilitated, even though not necessarily to the full satisfaction of many and ours too.

Aiyar is oblivious of all court judgements regarding the Sardar Sarovar dam. The Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal offered five acres of land to the displaced who were to lose 25% of their land [because of the dammed Narmada water submerging their villages]. But there was no planning. They had not even identified where the five acres of land to each family were to be given till we took the battle to the Supreme Court.

And the Supreme Court orders you all secured shifted the emphasis on resettlement and rehabilitation?

There were three orders—2000, 2005 and 2017. The 2000 Supreme Court judgement said that without taking into account the social and environmental impacts of the dam, without resettlement of people who were to be displaced, the height of the dam could not be raised. [As the height of the dam rises, the water in the reservoir rises, thus submerging villages on the slopes of surrounding hills.] The Sardar Sarovar dam has a 214-km long reservoir. Any increase in the dam’s height would have submerged more and more areas and affected more and more people. All the people from the villages that were to be affected had to wage a struggle, including Jal Satyagraha, indefinite fasts over the years, etc., to get the benefits that Aiyar credits to the government’s generosity and far-sightedness.

The 2000 judgement asked the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal and the Narmada Control Authority to decide on the rehabilitation package. Interpreting the Tribunal Award, the 2005 judgement of the apex court, in our case, ordered that all major sons of farmers and landless labourers, that is, above the age of 18, should be treated as separate families—and assigned benefits similar to those their fathers were to get. We got the same extended to unmarried daughters too. We also got them the right to fish in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Some orders are yet to be implemented—for instance, the order asking for land to be given to potters and certificates with facilities for boatmen. I can go on and on.

What about the 2017 judgement?

The dam had reached its maximum height in 2017, and the sluice gates were erected but not closed [the closing of gates led to the water level rising in the reservoir]. It is then we, in the Narmada Bachao Andolan, filed a detailed petition running into five volumes. In 2017, Chief Justice JS Khehar said he wanted to know the reality of the rehabilitation undertaken. Since 2009, the government, in its annual reports, had been saying that rehabilitation was complete—and the balance was ‘zero’.

We showed that Maharashtra was still in the process of distributing land, but Madhya Pradesh, only cash. In Madhya Pradesh, the land offered was of such poor quality that the displaced people refused to take it. In lieu of land, they were offered Rs 5.58 lakh per hectare. Then the Attorney General was asked whether it was possible to purchase five acres of irrigated land with Rs 5.58 lakh. The answer was: No. It was then hiked to Rs 30 lakh per hectare by the Supreme Court order, and the payment for two hectares could be up to Rs 60 lakh. A few hundred families are still awaiting receipt of it!

But cash payments are always tricky, isn’t it?

The encashment of rehabilitation benefits in Madhya Pradesh led to huge corruption. Because of our opposition, the Madhya Pradesh High Court appointed the JJ Jha commission of inquiry. I pleaded the case myself. The commission held officials responsible for the corruption. The resettlement colonies may look beautiful because some big farmers have built large houses. But there are hundreds of families in Madhya Pradesh still living under tin sheds, [as they had to leave their villages at the time they were getting submerged.]

You are talking about Madhya Pradesh, but Aiyar and Kaushal’s survey was done just in Gujarat?

I have about 300 files of displaced people from Gujarat who have not been provided what they are eligible for. Those allocated land of poor quality continue to suffer. Orders passed by the Grievance Redressal Authority for oustees in Madhya Pradesh and authority, which was appointed because of our struggle, have not been implemented. Those who received land of better quality are doing well. Do you, like Aiyar, think this happened because the Gujarat government, on its own, thought of a better rehabilitation policy? Initially, they just wanted to give money, not land. And when they first allotted land to Maharashtra oustees, it was full of stumps of trees that were felled. Some resettlement sites lacked even a source of water. We had to go on fast. It happened in 1986. Since then, the people of Gujarat people have fought with us and allotted some sites and received house plots and amenities, yet not devoid of problems. Aiyar, after he wrote the piece, has at last admitted our contribution in one of his TV interviews.

Is it fair to do a survey in Gujarat and then, based on its findings, project the Sardar Sarovar Dam to be a success without considering Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh? Aiyar did not even explicitly mention in his newspaper column that the survey was done just in Gujarat.

It is very unfair; it is extremely flawed. Their survey was based on a wrong research methodology. In fact, among the three affected states, Gujarat has had minimum submergence. For instance, the number of villages to be submerged by Sardar Sarovar in Madhya Pradesh was estimated to be 193, although the number of actually affected villages till now is 178. In Maharashtra, 33 villages and in Gujarat, only 19 villages are submerged, partially or fully.

But it is not as if the condition of all displaced people is good in Gujarat. The Adivasis living in forests have access to food, livelihood, fuel, etc., because of the common resource matrix. To earn a livelihood, they now have to migrate and offer their labour far away from the resettlement colonies where they live. Yes, those who received land of good quality are better off. We always said those who would lose their home and resources because of the Sardar Sarovar dam ought to also get a share in the benefits that would accrue from it. We struggled, and the judiciary also made governments improve their policies.

Aiyar and Kaushal’s survey reported that 54% of those resettled said they would return to the villages in the hills if given the same quantum of land they received once they agreed to relocate. He said their response was because of their nostalgia.

It is not about nostalgia. It is to do with the fact that they cannot survive in the cash economy into which they were thrown after they were resettled. Many have become labourers. There are people who would be unable to make this transition if full and fair alternative resources are not allocated. There are people who were cheated during the rehabilitation process. All of them think about their original villages, where they had community-owned resources, or commons, to depend upon

Aiyar wrote in his piece that one acre of land in resettlement colonies today has a market price of Rs 30 lakh and, therefore, they have become crorepatis.

The cost of land, obviously, will go up over time, particularly those closer to cities. But the Adivasis and farmers are not looking at the cost; they are looking at the cultivability of land—and the price their agricultural produce can fetch in the market. (Laughs) The farmer movement today is about securing a better price for their produce. Aiyar is an upper-class columnist-researcher who does not know much about the ground situation that farmers face. Even the gains that Aiyar is trumpeting could not have happened without people’s struggle, a fact even reiterated by officials. Aiyar is biased. His writing is not factually correct. He simply wants to praise the government. Sardar Sarovar’s economic appraisal was done in 1983 by TECS, with a cost estimated to be Rs. 4,200 crore. However, the latest information is that the expanded cost has risen to Rs. 50,000-55,000 crores! There is no reviewed cost-benefit analysis while the World Bank’s initial appraisal itself had concluded that the cost-benefit ratio will be ‘zero’, or negative if the cost goes up. In such a situation, without an economic review, how can a researcher claim the project to be beneficial?

Aiyar and Kaushal’s survey also reported that 31% of those who remained behind in villages, either partially or not at all submerged, would now want to be resettled if given the rehabilitation package offered earlier.

For one, the forests there are degraded—and they do not even have basic amenities that should be their right as forest-dwellers. Their life will worsen as the government is contemplating changes that would allow forest tracts to be diverted for development purposes without even the gram panchayat’s consent, as is currently the case. I know they conducted the survey in villages close to functioning mines. Their way of living is, anyway, under threat. I am not surprised that they would want to shift. Despite all this, their survey shows only 31% would be willing to shift out.

The BJP has chosen to target you?

This is because Gujarat will have its elections in December this year. This is also why they are saying I slowed the Narmada project and prevented Narmada waters from reaching Kutch. In fact, the people of Kutch gave their first wooden boat to us, coming to the Narmada and admitting the need for our struggle for justice. We, too, worked hard for 15 days in Kutch after the earthquake. We have never been anti-Kutch.

How did you feel when Chief Minister Bhupendrabhai Patel, in the presence of Modi, named you as an urban Naxal who conspired against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam?

They are afraid that the people of Kutch would blame them for the delay and denial of Narmada waters reaching them. They do, in fact, blame the government for the delay. The BJP wants to transfer the blame to me—and then also pin it on the Aam Aadmi Party. This is unethical politics, no doubt about it!

Why the Aam Aadmi Party?

That is because AAP seems to have enhanced its presence in Gujarat. They have spread the rumour that the AAP will field me as their chief minister. Even Amit Shah said this in Mumbai. They want to defame me—and through me, the Aam Aadmi Party also. I am not even a member of the party. I am not even interested in electoral politics.

But the AAP did field you as a candidate in Mumbai in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

I was in the party for just a few months. Many social activists joined the party after holding dialogues with Yogendra Yadav and Prashant Bhushan, then among its top leaders. Our National Alliance for People’s Movements, too, was in favour of joining the AAP. We then thought we could bring about a change by joining electoral politics. I was not fully convinced even then. Today, I remain convinced that we have to be in people’s movement outside electoral battlefields.

An FIR has been filed against you in Madhya Pradesh’s Barwani district, your organisation’s headquarters. Are you shaken?

I am not the only one who has been targeted. It is happening with all those who are engaged in people’s struggles and challenging the government’s perspective on development. They don’t want to be questioned on this score. Why, they also do not want to be questioned on communalism and casteism. They want to crush popular movements. But we instead are getting stronger, courageous and more committed to our cause of equity, sustainability and justice.

(Ajaz Ashraf is an independent journalist.)

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