In mid August, in Kakrana village in Madhya Pradesh’s Alirajpur district, local revenue officials directed its residents to demolish their own homes. Failing this, the officials told the locals, they would bring in JCB machines to tear everything down. Kirta Bhaila, a 38-year-old man who owns a small grocery shop, said the officials warned the residents of his quarter: “Nothing will be left of your belongings and the goods in your kirana store if we bring in the machines.”
The residents were being evicted as the quarter—comprising about 17 households—fell within the submergence zone of the Sardar Sarovar Dam project, on the Narmada river. Like his neighbours, Bhaila demolished his house within a week of the revenue officials’ visit—but he did not demolish the grocery shop and a small room that had been built behind it. The other residents moved out of the area, to either seek refuge at their relatives’ homes in other parts of the village, or build temporary shelters that would not be submerged. But Bhaila and his wife Jili stayed put and stayed in the room behind the grocery shop. On 12 September, when I visited the area, it was surrounded by chest-high water. Bhaila’s room stood on elevated ground and was safe from the rising water at the time. “It does scare me,” Bhaila told me. “The water level rises by over one foot every day.”
Today, on the day of his 67th birth anniversary, the prime minister Narendra Modi will inaugurate the Sardar Sarovar Dam at Kevadia in Gujarat’s Narmada district, 56 years after its foundation was laid by Jawaharlal Nehru. The Sardar Sarovar is the largest dam in the Narmada Valley Project—a multipurpose river development plan that includes the construction of several dams across the river and its tributaries. The dam, whose height has been raised to nearly 139 metres from the initially planned 80 metres, is now the world’s second-largest concrete gravity dam by volume.
The Narmada endeavour is also arguably India’s most controversial development project. Over the years, several groups, most notably the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) led by the activist Medha Patkar, have challenged the construction of the dam on various grounds, particularly the environmental, economic, social and cultural damage caused due to its construction. In 1996, on a petition by the NBA, the Supreme Court issued a stay order on the dam’s construction due to environmental and rehabilitation concerns surrounding it. The construction resumed four years later, but the Supreme Court directed that the dam’s height could be raised in steps only after the people affected by the project had been resettled or rehabilitated.
The Sardar Sarovar project was declared completed on 17 June. That day, the Narmada Control Authority—an intergovernmental body responsible for implementing the directions and decisions pertaining to the Narmada project—granted the Gujarat government permission to close all gates of the dam. This led to an increase in water levels in the villages upstream of the river, extending from Gujarat, across Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh states.