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Krishna and Narmada
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by Gail Omvedt

THE KOYNA, built high in Satara district of the Sahyadris on one of the major tributaries of the Krishna, is a big dam, a ”major irrigation project” in the terminology of the Indian Government. Its reservoir has a storage capacity of 98 tmcft and the dam generates over 900 MW of electricity. When lift irrigation schemes on the Krishna are completed, about 2.5 lakh hectares of drought-prone land in eastern Sangli district will be irrigated. The reservoir has submerged 98 villages, affecting a little over 9,000 people. Of these, 8,203 are officially classified as ”projected-affected persons”; of these, 6,372 have received 7,524 hectares in five districts of Maharashtra. Though the dam was completed in 1956-59, over 2,000 of the evictees have received land only since 1989, when the Koyna Dharangrast Sangram Sanghatana was formed.

The areas to be irrigated by lift schemes taking water released from the Koyna reservoir include Khanapur taluk, where the struggle to build the Bali Raja Memorial Dam, a famous ”small dam”, was launched. This dam irrigates 900 hectares in two villages, on the basis of ”equal water distribution” providing that all families in the villages, even the landless, get water. However, its benefits cannot be extended to the whole of the tehsil, since the Yerala river continues to have water only for one month a year and any number of small dams built on it will not provide sufficient water for the whole tehsil. The farmers and agricultural labourers of the tehsil, like those in most of the Krishna Valley, scratch along on dry land or try industries like poultry; and most families send out sons who work in the textile industry or informal occupations in Mumbai or find niches elsewhere. Some even join the migrants from the drought districts of Marathwada or Karnataka to the south who work for six months a year in miserable conditions as cane-cutters on sugar fields in western Maharashtra. All of these are ecological refugees; their number may be around 1.5 lakh from one tehsil alone. For these reasons, the people in the villages supplied by the Bali Raja Memorial Dam have joined those in 13 taluks of drought-prone areas of the Krishna valley who are agitating, not against big dams, but for the completion of the dams and the completion and restructuring of canals and other distribution schemes so that every family in the valley can get irrigation water.

This does not mean that the struggle is finished. Many of those who are officially evicted continue to live in villages within the reserved forest around the Koyna reservoir. Most of these also have the land given in compensation, and spend money on bus fare to go as far as to Solapur district to work on that land also. Their staying in their original home is not a matter of ideology but a practical matter, making the most of their situation, ”walking on two legs.” Few have enough production from their lands in the reservoir to maintain themselves; most depend also on remittances from Mumbai or on some production from the lands given to them elsewhere. According to Bharat Patankar, the Koyna Dam Dharangrast Sanghatana also makes demands for these villages, including roads that will make health and other services available, training in horticulture, water allocation from the reservoir to irrigate their fields and demarcation of their agricultural lands from the forest areas and building of fences to protect them from wild animals.

I have mentioned the Krishna valley dams to make the point that not all ”big dams” are destructive; many prevent vastly more number of ecological refugees than they produce. The Koyna dam submerges very little forest and displaces under 10,000 people, enough to be rehabilitated. Mr. Ashish Kothari partly admits this reality in his reply to me in The Hindu (August 17) when he says that dam evictees in the thousands can be rehabilitated, those in lakhs cannot be. This was precisely my point: not all big dams are alike. But admitting this – admitting the particular conditions of the Krishna valley and its completed and under- construction dams – leaves no ground for Mr. Kothari to claim that ”all” big dams either submerge vast areas of forest or create too many evictees to be given compensation. Each dam is different and has to be evaluated on its own terms.

For too long the public discourse on big dams has been dominated by polarised, ”either-or” claims. Big dams are either sources of destruction, like bombs; or they are bringers of life. They either entice peasants away from their simple but satisfying life of producing nutritious food crops to the commercialised monetised business of ”cash crops”, or they provide abundance and new, ”green” agriculture. The reality is not so simple. Many dams are ill-conceived, over-centralised and in need of restructuring. In most cases, the state simply builds the dams and keeps the canals and distribution systems in abeyance. In almost all cases, those evicted for the dams have got little in compensation without any struggle.

But each case is different, and I continue to say: big dams are not bombs; people who produce ”cash crops” almost always eat better than those scratching along on dry land (and ”cash crops” are also more often food). Farmers desiring to add water from canals to their lands are not, as Mr. Krishna Iyer refers to them, ”kulaks”; the large majority are poor farmers subsistined on dry lands, hoping to have a little better life. And creating perennial irrigation and producing two crops, where one was done before, are not like getting hooked on steroids. It is in fact a millennia-old Indian tradition to improve the land, to grow more crops, to dam and channel water and build reservoirs to do so. Ask anyone in Thanjavur. And big projects can have decentralised management of water and even electricity.

What about the Sardar Sarovar? This in many ways is a unique situation, in which primarily Adivasis and non-Adivasi farmers in Madhya Pradesh are getting evicted, while the benefits will go to lands far away in Gujarat. We agree that the height should be lowered or kept low; that there should be a minimum of displacement. The Paranjpe-Joy proposal would have drastically restructured the dam to reduce the submergence by almost 70 per cent and the number of persons displaced by up to 90 per cent. It would also have linked this to forms of ecological agriculture in Gujarat itself, using minimum of water and other inputs – but using some ”external inputs” – to produce a variety of crops. But little of such alternatives became part of public discourse. Instead, the situation was polarised between ”no dam” and those holding fervently on to their hopes for more water for their lands from the gigantic Sardar Sarovar project. The NBA went on saying ”we will not move” and rallying both Adivasis of the valley and worldwide support; but the Gujarat Government went on building the dam higher, and people moved.

Like Mr. Kothari, many activists of the NBA have blamed me for contesting the simple ”no big dams” slogan at a time of struggle. However, rallies of thousands, and passionate urban and international support, will not shake the Gujarat Government. Only the support or consent of farmers in the drought-prone areas of the State can do so, and this can be won only by restructuring the Sardar Sarovar, not by rejecting the dam- building project completely. If the Paranjpe-Joy proposal had been accepted, the Sardar Sarovar would have been drastically changed with a much reduced height; but it would have remained a ”big dam” and a huge, not simply large, irrigation project. In fact, there is still time for restructuring proposals to win acceptance. There is, even more at this time, need for widespread public discussion on all alternatives. If, for reasons of organisational identity, the NBA cannot back off from its ”no big dam” stance, it is the responsibility of others to bring these alternatives forward. This would be in the best interest of the Adivasi and non-Adivasi farmers of the Narmada valley as well as those in Gujarat and elsewhere.

[ First published in The Hindu in August, 1999]. 

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