In some cultures, butterflies are considered to be souls of the dead. One does not know whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi had that in mind when he released hundreds of these pretty insects at the Sardar Sarovar dam site on the Narmada river as a part of his birthday celebrations on September 17, at a time when the homes, lands and livelihoods of thousands of people were being submerged by the rising waters of the damn’s reservoir. As the levels grew higher, they lost everything but their lives.

Prime Minister Modi’s attitude towards the lives of the Narmada residents was an echo of a statement Morarji Desai had made in 1961 in the context of Himachal Pradesh’s Pong dam. “We will request you to move from your houses after the dam comes up,” declared Desai, who was finance minister at the time. “It will be good, otherwise we shall release the waters and drown you all.” The people displaced by the Pong dam met a grim fate that Narmada valley residents would face a few decades later.

For 34 years, the Narmada Bachao Andolan has been knocking on all possible doors in an attempt to seek justice for the people of the Valley.

During that time, the organisation has petitioned the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, every government at the Centre since 1985, the World Bank (the financier of the dam in the initial years), local courts, the High Courts of all three states and the Supreme Court.

Controversial project

The Sardar Sarovar dam, one of 30 major and 135 medium dams on the west-flowing Narmada river, was mired in interstate disputes for nearly two decades after Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru laid its foundation stone in 1961. Without the affected people being a part of the negotiations, the three states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat arrived at an agreement in 1979 on sharing the project’s waters between them.

Nearly a million people were estimated to be displaced or severely impact by this one dam, in its reservoir, canal system, in the downstream of the dam, the compensatory afforestation scheme that was required to accompany it and other associated activities. Around 45,000 families in 245 villages were to be submerged in the reservoir of the dam.

Since late ’80s, a people’s movement under the aegis of Narmada Bachao Andolan has been raising issues ranging from the lack of rehabilitation plans to the violation of the award of the Narmada Water Dispute Tribunal Award, which was constituted by the Central government in 1969 to resolved the inter-state dispute. The Andolan also noted the absence of a cumulative impact assessment to determined the effects the project could cumulatively have on people and on the environment. It also questioned the financial viability of the project.

Narendra Modi releases butterflies at the Sardar Sarovar dam to celebrate his birthday. Credit: PMO via Twitter

These logical and humanitarian concerns have been drowned by the political expediency of Gujarat. Ten chief ministers, starting from Chimanbhai Patel in 1990 to Vijay Rupani now, marketed the dam as the “life-line of Gujarat”, promoted it as a symbol of Gujarati pride and diverted nearly all state resources for irrigation for this one project the past several decades, starving all other projects of funds.

Moving to Delhi in 2014 from his previous job as Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi allowed the full construction of the dam on the 17th day of his first tenure. This despite the fact that the Narmada Control Authority – the body that implements the decisions of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal – had allowed the construction only in phases until then, depending on the progress rehabilitating people displaced by the dam.

Since 2006, when the Narmada Control Authority allowed the height of the structure to rise to 121.92 metres, the dam had been at a standstill. Less than three weeks of Modi moving to the Centre, the Authority changed its position on rehabilitation.

Ironically, though the dam wall has been completed, Gujarat has yet to realise the claimed benefits of the Sardar Sarovar Project because the canal system to carry the water to users is less than half-constructed. But more than 28,000 families (the Narmada Control Authority keeps changing these numbers whimsically) are yet to be rehabilitated. This monsoon, the waters of the dam submerged their homes and farms.

Social media was filled with heart-wrenching videos of residents breaking down seeing their houses and villages submerged. This was a reminder about the tragedy that has been faced by Indians in the footprint of other dam projects – Bargi and Tawa in Madhya Pradesh,Ukai in Gujarat, Hirakund in Odisha, Nagarjunsagar in Andhra Pradesh, Rihand in Uttar Pradesh and many more. In these places, there was no rehabilitation plan nor a strong people’s movement trying to protect their rights.

A long struggle

The 15,000 families from the Narmada Valley who have actually moved to rehabilitation sites got there because of their protests. In the absence of the struggle, they would have joined the approximately 40 million Indians who have forcibly been displaced by dam projects since Independence.

Picnickers at the Sardar Sarovar dam. Credit: Amit Dave/Reuters

Thirty four years is a long time for a struggle. The scale of winning and losing a political battle is difficult to assess. What stands out in the end is the sheer impunity enjoyed by governments and bureaucrat for filing out false affidavits on the status of the rehabilitation process and letting the people of the Valley face a watery future; the failure of every institution tasked with ensuring the delivery of basic justice to people, who for all these decades, despite betrayals and insensitivity, stuck to a non-violent path of struggle even when state authorities resorted to violence.

The injustices of the Narmada Valley, of the state authorities being allowed to perpetrate indiscriminate violence on Indians, have been repeated across the country: in the state-inflicted violence in Kashmir, in the arbitrary nature of Assam’s National Register of Citizens, in the attacks against minorities in Gujarat and Kandhamal, and in various development projects across India.

Modi may have released butterflies from his laundry bag but they are not flying free.

Joe Athialy is a social activist based in New Delhi