Above: Just a few hundred meters upstream the proposed Jhari Dam, a tribal woman struggles to find water in the dry Par river bed Photo: Parineeta Dandekar
Village of Jhari at the northern most corner of Western Ghats has some of the loveliest houses I have seen. Appreciation for the evolved vernacular architecture goes beyond the obvious urban romanticisng of anything tribal. Homes in this region of tribes like Kokani, Warli, Thakurs, etc, are unique in their architecture, building materials, craftsmanship and the seamless mix of beauty and functionality. The tiled roof of our host Haribhau had intricate wooden trimmings, the mudfloor was cool and the door frame was carved in exquisite motifs. Vines arched and spread in disarray over courtyards. We were assembled under a passion fruit or ‘Rasna’ vine, bursting with white flowers. Inside, cane baskets creaked under the weight of Ragi, Udid and Rice filled to the brim: This year’s harvest has been good, though that’s not always the case. The hosts, both men and women, were busy with lunch preparations.
This lunch was nothing like I had tasted before. A small mountain of piping hot Ragi Bhakris welcomed us to be eaten, with “bhuja” which was roasted udid dal mixed with water and chillies, we had raw mangoes roasted with chillies and some more fried chillies, just in case we needed more! All food was either cultivated by the hosts, or collected from the forests.
“So do you know about the dam that is planned here?” I asked between mouthfulls. “No one will build anything here. This is our land. They only conduct surveys,” said an old man, repairing his wooden plough. The youths looked at him in a mix of exasperation and understanding.
If the plan of River Interlinking of the current government in the Centre as well as Gujarat and Maharashtra goes forward, then the entire village of Jhari, with its gardens and courtyards and temples and forests will be under water.
And it will not be alone. If the Par Tapi Narmada Link Project (PTN Link Project) one of the priority links in the ILR scheme is materialized, then 75 tribal villages, 3592 hectares of forests in Western Ghats and a minimum of 7559 hectares of land will be submerged. As per 1991 Census, it will displace 15,000 tribals, now the number is likely to be more than 35,000.
I was accompanied to the site of Jhari dam, the first dam of the Par Tapi Narmada Link Project, by the former MLA of Dindori Mr. Narhari Jhirwal. Despite being a seasoned politician, Mr. Jhirwal is unsure about the PTN Link Project. He thinks the state’s leadership cannot really agree to such a jolt on its tribal community. He knows the entire region like the back of his hand and has initiated and worked on several water conservation works in the region. He passionately believes that assured water holds the key to the development of this region. He tells us “Even educational institutions will not come to our region if we cannot ensure water.” If Mr. Jhirwal supports some majorly flawed and infeasible projects like Manjarpada[i], it is a painful compromise in a bid to secure water for his own tribal region. He has no idea of the extent of the PTN Link, or of the the pressure from the center and of the opacity of his own State Government on the issue.
Jhari is situated on the banks of the Par River which originates in Dindori taluka of Nashik and flows on to Gujarat, to meet the Arabian Sea at Valsad. Under the ILR scheme of the Central Government, 7 dams are proposed on the west flowing basins like Par, Nar, Auranga, Ambica and Purna, which will transport this west flowing water from Maharashtra and Gujarat to unbelievably far-off places in Gujarat like Kutch and Saurashtra, in reality it is likely to be used up in the Central Gujarat region.
The National Water Development Agency, a strange “society” registered under the societies Act is actually an agency under the Ministry of Water Resources, River Rejuvenation and Ganga Cleaning (MoWR for short) to work on the various studies like the Pre-feasibility, Feasibility and DPRs of the River Linking projects[ii]. Despite its formation way back in 1982, the Society has not completed even Feasibility for several link projects. The existing Feasibility Reports (FRs) date back to 2004 or even earlier, are outdated and of a shockingly poor quality. NWDA has planned 30 ILR projects for the entire country. Many of them may not materialise due to a slew of factors, but discussions about Par Tapi Narmada Link have been heating up in Maharashtra Assembly, Gujarat Government and also the MoWR.
PTN Link Project according to NWDA FR: As per the NWDA Feasibility Report[iii], PTN Link involves seven reservoirs proposed in north Maharashtra and south Gujarat, to enable transfer of 1350 MM3 (Million Cubic Meters) water from the west flowing rivers like Nar, Par, Auranga, Ambica, Purna into Tapi and Narmada. Initially the project was also supposed to utilise surplus waters of Tapi from Ukai dam, but later it dropped Ukai from the calculations. The infrastructure of the links consists of “seven dams, three diversion weirs, two tunnels (5.0 km & 0.5 km of length), 395 km long canal (205 km in Par-Tapi portion including the length of feeder canals and 190 km in Tapi-Narmada portion), 6 power houses and a number of cross-drainage works.”[iv]
The seven dams proposed in the scheme are Jheri (Jhari), Mohankavchali, Paikhed, Chasmandva, Chikkar, Dabdar and Kelwan. The Jhari and Mohankavchali dams are to be constructed across Par river, one below the other while the Paikhed dam is proposed across Nar river, a tributary of the Par. Chasmandva dam is proposed across Tan River which is a tributary of Auranga, Chikkar dam is proposed across river Ambica, Dabdar is proposed across Kapri which is Ambica’s tributary and Kelwan dam is proposed across river Purna. In addition, three diversion weirs are proposed downstream of Paikhed, Chasmandva and Chikkar dams.
Out of these, only Jhari dam, named after the village we visited, falls completely in Maharashtra. All other dams are in Valsad and Dangs District of Gujarat and not in Maharashtra but part of the submergence of 4 of the 7 projects falls in Maharashtra. Of the total submergence of 7559 hectares, nearly half of the area, 3136 hectares, falls in tribal and forest region of Maharashtra.
All the 7 dams will together submerge 3572 hectares of Forest land n the Western Ghats region. Land required for canals will be separate, but the FR by NWDA has not even attempted estimating this figure! The cost of the project was Rs 6046 Cores, by 2004-5 prices. Even by NWDA calculations, the project has a dismal Benefit Cost ratio of just 1 : 1.08! (Annual expense: Rs 572 Cores and annual benefits Rs 618 crores).
The NWDA FR, in a bid to push for this project states that the submergence is “only” 7559 hectares, while the command is 1,88,414 hectares and the “submergence ratio is only 0.04”. It even goes to the extent of saying that “the ratio will improve if only cultivated land is considered in submergence”. This submergence also consists of biodiversity rich forests and homesteads and livelihoods of thousands of forest-dependent tribals in Gujarat in Maharashtra, but it seems NWDA is not bothered about this. The tables below, taken from NWDA depict various figures about submergence, however all these figures, especially ‘population’ are GROSS under-estimates and we are using these only because these are official figures.
To justify the project, the FR says that “no developmental activity is planned in the region as it is thinly populated region with forests and poor communication network.”[v] The report-makers should actually visit the region near Jhari and the submergence which stretches for several kilometers to witness local developmental activities, smaller check dams, irrigated fields, schools and health centers developed in the region. Pertinently, there are different definitions of development and being “under-developed” as per one particular definition is not a qualification for being submerged!
While there are several instances of NWDA’s shockingly poor FR, we are only stating some illustrative examples. Without enumerating a single fish species in rivers of Western Ghats the report says, “The impoundment will improve the aquatic life such as fish, crocodiles etc.” It also brushes aside any submergence of any “monuments or recreational sites”. But on every turn we take, Mr. Jhirwal shows us a sacred tree or a tribal memorial or a Veergal (Memorial). When it comes to impacts on aquatic life, NWDA only says: “Both un-economical and economical fishes are available in the project area. There is no crocodile breeding ground coming under the submergence of the project.” If NWDA did not have the time, expertise or resources to study the impacts on rich aquatic diversity of rivers in Western Ghats, it could have just stated so rather than making foolish, unfounded assertions.
When it comes to birds, the NWDA lists some unheard of species like “swallaone, dovers, sandours, earni”[vi] Without actively exploring the region for birds, we saw an entire breeding colony of vultures, all species of which are classified as “Critically Endangered” as per the IUCN Classification, exactly at the dam site of Jhari.
The most shocking part is the way NWDA has summed up the socio-cultural impacts of the project. The report actually says that the affected people only work in fields and forests and that “When the affected families will be shifted to new places having all civic amenities such as, water supply facilities, medical facilities, schools and community building for recreation purposes, there will be general improvement in the life style of the people and their culture.”[vii] (Emphasis added.)
It seems NWDA is assuming itself to be the authority for improving “cultures” and also a judge who thinks that tribal culture is inferior and needs “general improvement”. This highlights the ignorance, bias and high handedness of the agency towards these people and their lifestyles. In any case, if the aim is to provide the tribals with amenities and services, it can still be done without displacement?
Again and again, the report tries to underline the fact that this region is underdeveloped and hence somehow, worthy of being submerged. In the same district of Nashik, remarkable political leadership in tribals regions of Trimbakeshwar has ensured water to tribal fields and this has brought about a small revolution in the region.
Opposition to Par Tapi Narmada Link: There have been sustained protests against the PTN Link from tribal regions of both Gujarat and Maharashtra, although the movement is stronger in Gujarat. When I visited Bhugad dam site (a part of Damanganga Pijal Link) in 2014, the affected farmer told me, “In Maharashtra we are mostly unaware of the issues, but in Gujarat, the tribals do not allow even survey until they are informed what it is about and what is proposed. We take inspiration from them”.
In 2011, tribals from several affected villages from Gujarat and Maharashtra together participated in a Yatra against the project. In villages like Mohankachali, where Maharashtra will lose more than 1372 hectares of land and Gujarat too will lose 122 hectares, the villagers had strongly opposed survey of NWDA since NWDA refused to provide basic information to them. [viii] In the divisive water sharing rhetoric of the states, unity can be found between tribals of Gujarat and Maharashtra over this issue.[ix]
In January 2015 Minister of Water Resources, River Rejuvenation and Ganga Cleaning Sushri Uma Bharti met Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis [x] to clear the air about Damanganga-Pinjal and Par Tapi Narmada Link Projects. During this time, tribals in Jhari and nearby villages undertook a protest right inside the river bed, opposing the project and diversion of water outside Maharashtra. Till date, the State government has not shared what transpired in this meeting.
There were strong repercussions of PTN Project discussions in Maharashtra. In a bid to foil any transfer of water outside the state, the Tapi Irrigation Development Corporation (TIDC) hastily drew up a plan to transfer the water from Par, Nar, Auranga and Ambica basins in Maharashtra itself, right upto Marathawada. This effort was to effectively show that although Gujarat wanted 598 MCM from Maharashtra’s catchment for the PTN project, Maharashtra itself needs to divert 547 MCM out of this for the Par Tapi Girna Project, leaving very little for Gujarat. [xi]
In Maharashtra assembly, there were heated arguments against PTN project and Congress-NCP have now succeeded in making this into a polarized and political rallying point[xii]. Many political parties openly blame the Maharashtra government for its insensitivity to Maharashtra’s water needs and its servility to the Delhi govt[xiii]. The assembly had to be adjourned in response to the protests of the opposition[xiv]. Finally CM Devendra Fadnavis had to assure the people that he “Will not allow a drop of Maharashtra’s water to go to Gujarat.” [xv]
Gujarat had maintained a stony silence on this issue for some time, but it too has come out it open now, stating that it will allow Maharashtra to utilize full waters of Damanganga River through the Damanganga-Pinjal Link only if Maharashtra shares its water with Gujarat through the PTN Link. Gujarat CM’s advisor and Ex Chair of CWC Mr. Navalawala strangely calls it a “purely barter arrangement”[xvi], ignoring the massive impacts this will have on the people and environment. The center is reported to have constituted a “Task Force or a Consensus Group” to resolve contentious issues involved in Interlinking. [xvii] But the head of the Task Force Mr. Navalawala is a Gujarat Govt adviser and he is thus unlikely to be acceptable to states like Maharashtra. (Incidentally, Mr. Navalawala is the only former water resources secretary of India who had to reportedly resign under directions of the then-PM since Manohar Parrikar, erstwhile CM of Goa complained against him for being biased about Goa-Karnataka water sharing dispute on Mahadayi river, way back in Vajpayee era).
Where are the tribals?
In all this rhetoric of Par-Tapi Narmada Link or the Par Tapi Girna link of Maharashtra, the tribals of Maharashtra and Gujarat find no place. In Maharashtra’s Par Tapi Girna Project, the tribal region is set to lose about 3000 hectares of land through 22 large dams and in PTN also it will lose more than 3000 hectares. In Damanganga-Pinjal link, tribals will additionally lose over 4000 hectares of land.
The Damanganga-Pinjal Link is solely for the water use of Mumbai Municipal Corporation and the Par Tapi Narmada link is supposedly to “take over part of Sardar Sarovar Command and save water of the Sardar Sarovar Project” [xviii]. Now as we have discussed in this report (Dams in Tribal belt of Western Ghats for the Mumbai Metropolitan Region), Mumbai has several benign ways not based on new large dams of securing its water rather than destroying forests and mountains of Western Ghats or displacing thousands of tribals. This was also accepted by the Mumbai officials on camera during an NDTV Truth Vs Hype Program. On the other hand, waters of the Sardar Sarovar are being diverted [xix] to unjustifiable and unplanned uses like to SEZs[xx], municipal corporations like Ahmedabad and Baroda, large number of industries and towns south of Sabarmati, cosmetic projects like Sabarmati River [xxi] front development and were even let out in the Rann of Kutch on one occasion [xxii], in the absence of a real canal network to take this water to the promised land of Kutch.
The “ILR” tag to these projects is magnifying the scale of conflicts and making the issue political and hence the gains and losses are being counted in political terms alone. The states have made no effort in informing the tribal villages about their plans. Ironically, although discussions about these projects rage at the Centre and State Mantralayas, locals have no clue as to what will happen to them or their rivers, forests or their lands and livelihoods. Could such opacity flourish if the affected region was not predominantly tribal?
Despite the interference and pressure from the Centre, the states need to step back and reassess the loss in terms of ecology, sociology and economy through such long distance transfers. There is a need to carry out truly unbiased and objective options assessment to understand that local solutions, be it in Mumbai or Kutch and Saurashtra are cheaper, faster and more sustainable than these grandiose plans.
Back in Jhari, Mr. Narhari Jhirwal tells me, “The people doing the survey don’t even talk with us locals. I know each and every mountain and river in region and we can help identify places through which tribals will lose least land and gain most”.
I hesitate to tell Mr. Jhirwal that welfare of tribals is the last thing that the Par Tapi Narmada or Damanganga Pinjal Link has in mind.
-Parineeta Dandekar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
[iii] For an earlier analysis of this link, see: https://sandrp.in/riverlinking/Par_Tapi_Narm_1206.pdf
[ix] http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/villagers-start–nonviolent–protest-against-dam-project/734084/0, http://napm-india.org/blogs/awareness-campaign-against-par-tapi-narmada-riverlinking-project-kicked,