Sunday, February 24, 2013

Neck deep, and out of their depth

Do you remember them — standing neck-deep in water for 17 days? Did you understand what the farmers were trying to say to the state and to other citizens who might benefit from their dislocation?
They were saying that it wasn’t so much about land; their very lives were at stake. The Madhya Pradesh government had agreed to some of their demands, like lowering the height of the Omkareshwar dam across the Narmada (but when another group protested, asking that the height of Indira Sagar dam be lowered, the police forced them out of the water).
In recent weeks, while the Kumbh Mela was on in Allahabad, a ‘Jal Sansad’ was underway on the riverbank, discussing a crisis in the trans-Yamuna area. The organisers believe that upto 10 lakh people will be affected by three proposed thermal power plants. In summer, this could mean the Yamuna running dry, which will lead to a stop in sand-mining, river-bed farming, fishing, ferrying, not to mention extensive pollution due to burning coal.
Also, in recent weeks, a workshop on development projects was organised by a media advocacy group, Vikas Samvad (disclosure: I prepared a report for this organisation as an independent journalist in 2010). The workshop report points out that, between 2007 to 2010, about 395 MoUs (memoranda of understanding) were signed between the state and investors, of which 21 firms gave no addresses; 22 firms did not mention how much money they’d invest; 87 firms either changed their minds about investing or the government cancelled their projects. Anyway, the state went about procuring land for firms, regardless of how many livelihoods would be gained or lost. An RTI query revealed that over 2, 43,787 hectares of land had been acquired for 130 companies.
Other activists remarked on how gramsabhas — integral to the process of community consultation — were held. In one Chhattisgarh village, the meeting had 1,500 policemen in attendance.
For water, the battle is larger because once rivers are dammed, local climate change is inevitable. The price is always paid by those who live nearby. One workshop participant spoke of how there are no major chemical factories near his village and yet, the Narmada water stank. Malaria was rare in the Tawa valley; now it rages freely.
When dams are proposed, the stated purpose is often ‘providing drinking water’ to urban areas and irrigating fields. But despite dams, parts of Madhya Pradesh remain thirsty. Fields in the vicinity remain parched in summer while Bargi dam feeds cement factories.
Since 1992, there’s been little addition to the net area irrigated by large and medium irrigation projects. Yet, the new Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) set up by the Ministry of Environment and Forests reportedly considered 262 hydropower and irrigation projects since 2007, and rejected almost none.
They also allege that the EAC relies on fake Environment Impact Assessment reports and sometimes violate the law. The Himachal HC had appointed a committee that recommended at least 5km of flowing river water between any two projects. However, activists say that the EAC has been following a norm of just 1 km, and sometimes, zero.
In recent decades, the USA has also ‘decommissioned’ some dams to save certain species of fish. Indians who live by rivers, who make a living off rivers, must be wondering if their lives are worth less than that of American salmon or eel.
First published here

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