Those Damned Floods Destined to Obscurity

(158 of 197)The Aftermath of a flood: The house of Sundar Lal Varma at Chikalda village. A fisherman by trade, his house was entirely submerged on the 24th of August, 2013. He has received no compensation or help from the state as of the 2nd of October, 2013.

This article appears in The Sunday Guardian on the 6th of October, 2013

‘The mismanagement by the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh to respond to the floods of the Narmada valley is indicative of their failures in the Rehabilitation and Resettlement itself. A state involved in Land Acquisition, doesn’t see citizens as much as they see Project-Affected Persons.

There were a series of floods across India in the past monsoon season, from Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh to West Bengal that did not make headlines like the Uttarakhand floods. But it was the recent flooding of the Narmada valley where politics and the nature of an administrative system revealed itself as completely unmotivated to respond to the man-made disaster. It was late at night when the Bhilala adivasi villagers from Morkata in the Nimad region of Madhya Pradesh, realized something was wrong with the reservoir waters of the Narmada river on the 23rd of August, 2013. Water slowly started to seep through the doors of Kamal Chauhan’s house, over a kilometre away from the river, and within two hours, he and his family would be in water just over their necks, carrying whatever belongings they had, to higher ground.

On the other side of the Narmada river at Chikalda, a Valmiki hamlet on a hill overlooking 60 feet above the normal levels of the river, would disappear completely on the 24th of August. The homes of Munu Hussain, Munu Vijay, Munu Nana, Munu Kamal, and Antim Munuram were completely destroyed, and while the caste system took them across the villages to clear all the carcasses of livestock littering the landscape, the state that completely ignored them led their resilience to rebuild on their own, with the remnants of anything that wasn’t destroyed. ‘Nine of our pigs were taken away by the waters,’ Said Munu Hussain, with callused hands, clearing debris over his home, ‘We found their bodies four days later, they got stuck in the bushes and drowned.’

The waters started to rise at around 8pm at Chikalda and would reach their highest level at 10pm, and unlike previous floods, the waters did not recede for days. 115 homes would be destroyed, but for one family on the Valmiki hamlet who earn their living cleaning 12 nearby towns, Suresh, Mahesh and Rajesh Babulal, along with Rekha and her mother Gulshan bai, it wasn’t any different from the flood waters three weeks earlier on the 2nd of August, or last year, or in 2010, or in 1994, when the Tava dam water’s had destroyed their home.

At Picchodi village in Badwani district, the illegal sand mining at the banks of the river, that led villagers a month ago to stop dozens of trucks and ensure the arrest of the few involved, were further dealt with the fury of the waters to enter through the broken banks, mined into a soft flatbed, letting the flood waters turn a road into a river that ran through the village, ensuring hundreds of acres of crop would be fated to destruction.

The village of Nisarpur on the other side of the river, with thousands of homes, shops, with mosques, temples and a thriving market, had water levels rise slowly over three days, as the Ori tributary of Narmada started to rise on the 23rd, and continued to, on the 25th, entirely submerging hundreds of shops and destroying over 105 homes.

Apart from the local media, there was absolutely nothing written in the mainstream national press, besides a few short reports on floods up the river in Gujarat, barring exceptions from the independent media organizations. A whole week after the destruction at Nisarpur, only one Revenue Officer had showed up towards the hamlets most affected by the backwater floods of the Ori tributary of the Narmada. Dozens of families in Dhangarpara of Nisarpur were living in the private schools of village until they were kicked out a week later. The village of Morkata was given 50 kilograms of wheat as relief, only after they stormed the collector’s office at Badwani. By the second of September, angry villagers from across the region began their march against the administration, in Maharashtra’s Nandurbar district as well as Badwani, Alirajpur and Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh, while at the same time up the river, the Jal Satyagraha began by those facing displacement by the Omakeshwar dam demanding fair rehabilitation and resettlement, especially land for land, house plot for house plot, agricultural land for agricultural land, and yet the administration responded by  ordering curfews and preventive arrests. This matter at least made some ripples in the mainstream media. For those affected by the recent floods, an oft-repeated response they had received from tehsildars office to tehsildars office, was that the land is already acquired, and therefore Panchanama’s of the damage caused by the submergence couldn’t be done. This led the villagers to file legal notices against the officials to ensure that all the damages are recorded in the ‘Revenue Book Circular (RBC) Rules and the oustees are duly compensated, which as of October 2nd, is yet to be done.

The decades –old project of the Sardar Sarover Dam on the river Narmada (amongst 18 other dams in different levels of completion on the river), according to the website of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, would claim to provide for hydroelectricity generating over 1200 MW and 250 MW power to three states, would irrigate 18.45 lakhs of hectares of land, covering 3,112 villages in Gujarat, 2,46,000 hectares of desert land in Rajasthan and 37,500 hectares on the tribal hills of Maharashtra.  Yet it is a prime example of an attempt at a utilitarian philosophy gone wrong, where the benefit of the majority over the few, is an almost iconoclastic destruction of democratic values, when the few (in and around 3 lakh people as per 2011 census) are not even paid attention to, as those in the submergence areas of the dam, are condemned to an absent administration, a horrific level of corruption in the Resettlement & Rehabilitation policy, as well as the further risk of the dam’s height increasing from 122.92 metres to 138.68 metres, which will further submerge over 245 villages. Looking at the calmer waters of Narmada from the home of fisherman Sundarlal Verma of Chikalda village, one can see that if the dam height were to be raised to 138.68 metres, the destruction of the village would be complete, as the floods that devoured his home happened as the water level was height of 129.44 metres.

The Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra ModI has been vocal about raising the dam’s height over the past few months, and was promised ‘co-operation’ by the Prime Minister’s office. His website NarendraModi.in, has a wonderful post of the dam overflowing at 129.44 metres on the 2nd of August, described as a ‘breathtaking sight’, when at the same time the Valmiki hamlet of Chikalda would be submerged for the first time this monsoon season, when the overflowing dam’s backwaters were as breathtaking as the destruction of their homes.

The Narmada river was a violent force in the month of August and again in late September, destroying thousands of homes, stranding whole villages, in the district of Bharuch and Ankleshwar in Gujarat, that led to the army and the airforce to conduct rescue operations. The death toll in August by some reports was above 106 people. Yet in the submergence areas, the state had provided little to no relief, to thousands of destroyed crop, and countless homes that were washed away when the backwaters flooded over the hills of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra, until the villagers from over 106 villages from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra marched to the offices of the respective Tehsils and demanded answers. They even challenged the state’s complete lack of disaster management, even as the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited’s, Flood Memorandum of 2013, a 558 document with every officials mobile number, from Gujarat to Madhya Pradesh, of the Engineers, to the managers of the Narmada Project, to emergency services, was released ‘for official use’ months before the floods, compiled by the Superintendent Engineer of the Narmada Project Design Circle, based out of Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

The response of the state of Madhya Pradesh, has convinced angry villagers after angry villagers, that the state is just trying to forcibly displace them, a perception, whether justified or not, has still created an angry population living on rumours that the raising of the dam, to the vagaries of the canal system, is to provide water for the upcoming 90 billion dollar project, the Mumbai Delhi Industrial Corridor. And they may have a other reasons to by suspicious of their state. Since 2008, the project authorities of three states submitted to the Narmada Control Authority that the project-affected persons from each of the three states, is ‘0’, and the NCA has accepted those figures.

The risks of yearly floods, compounded with the mistrust with the state’s rehabilitation policy can be explained with the story of just one farmer: Ramsingh Ghedia, a Bhilala farmer, who had lived in the village of Pichodi until the year 2000, when rising water levels from the Sardar Sarover dam compelled him to accept one installment of compensation. He was told by the state that the dam would be helping thousands of farmers in Gujarat and Rajasthan, as they would be supplied irrigated water. He moved over 40 kilometres away into Madeel Panchayat, where his family purchased four acres of land, which are now lost because the Narmada Valley Development Authority has excavated the massive main canal of the Indira Sagar Project, and have dumped massive amounts of debris onto it.

In Morakta, a public hearing with the Bhilala adivasis indicated clear enough how outsiders had managed to rent homes in the village, and take compensation, how land registrars were filled with people who didn’t exist. All of this was brought to light to the Jabalpur High Court, that constituted the Justice Jha Commission of Inquiry on the 21st of August, 2008. The Commission conducted field visits to Nisarpur and Chikalda in 2009, and it found villagers more than willing to talk about how they were approached by agents, asked to bribe, and how those that were eligible landholders, would be deemed ineligible, as they couldn’t afford to pay.

The Inquiry is now in its fifth year, and the raising of the water levels and the recent floods, would stand in violation of the Supreme Court’s order that until the rehabilitation is complete, no homes or properties can be submerged. Land and livelihood based rehabilitation was guaranteed by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award, Rehabilitation policy and the judgements of the Supreme Court of 15th October, 2000, and 15th March, 2005, yet the demands of the villagers across the region for cultivable agricultural land remain unheard. The Justice Jha Commission would further find that at five rehabilitation sites at Badwani and Dhar, the civic amenities were more than lack, considering they couldn’t get their own water bottles filled, as there were no working handpumps, water tanks were incomplete and taps were constructed over missing pipelines. They found families living in the schools and dispensaries of Pichodi. Across Badwani, the rehabilitation sites for Pichodi, or Morkata, or at Dhar, at Nisarpur or Chikalda, only those who belong to a contractor class, or with a higher purchasing power, were able to shift to the new plots of land.

Meanwhile, just as the villagers from the Narmada Valley marched to government offices demanding compensation for the dam-induced floods and fair rehabilitation in the first week of September, the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, had lobbied for his amendments on the recent Land Bill, which were approved by the Prime Minister, which specifically focuses on the un-feasability of ‘land for land’ rehabilitation, and for the deletion of the clause that when land would be acquired for irrigation projects, the affected families would be given monetary compensation and land for land.

And isn’t going to impress Subhram Patel, a 70 year old Bhilala farmer from Morkata, with 25 acres of land for his family, who is yet to be compensated for his agricultural land, and whose village was flooded when the dam waters were raised, ‘I had showed them all my documents, why didn’t they give me my land?’

Photography Post-Script

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Ramsingh Ghedia, a Bhilala farmer, lived in the village of Pichodi until the year 2000, when rising water levels from the Sardar Sarover dam forced him to accept compensation. He was told by the state that the dam would be helping thousands of farmers as they would be supplied irrigated water. He moved over 40 kilometres away into Madeel Panchayat, where he purchased four acres of land, which are now lost because the Narmada Valley Development Authority has decided to build a canal through it, and have dumped massive amounts of debris.

 

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The aftermath of a flood: Chikalda village.

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Chikalda village.

 

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The aftermath of a flood: at village after village, the water levels were clearly visible even a week after the incident, as hay and forage that was washed away, continued to stick to the walls.

 

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The aftermath of a flood – Nisarpur, Dhar, where 105 homes were destroyed by the floods.

 

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Thousands of acres of crops were destroyed on both sides of the river.

 

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Many families spent their nights on ground as high as they could get to.

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