Sardar Sarovar Dam and the denial of Adivasi rights

This is the first of a three-part series on the rights of Adivasis affected by the Sardar Sarovar Dam, the deleterious environmental impact of the decades old project, and the failure in proper relief and rehabilitation

Sardar Sarovar

As India reels, third month running under the impact of the coronavirus lockdown, a stealthy attack on the rights of livelihood of Adivasis and forest dwellers has been taking place. With the eyes of the “media” on the Covid-19 pandemic, with some sections giving airtime to hate and blood-letting, little attention is being paid to the spate of these actions.

First, it was Odisha where the homes of tribal families were burnt and a community forest was destroyed by the forest department, then it was Manipur where the forest department demolished homes built in the reserve forest area and later came Madhya Pradesh where the forest department burnt down the home of a tribal couple and threatened to burn down more in the coming days. On May 27, the blowout caused by an ill advised GOI decision to allow drilling by OIL in the ecologically sensitive district of Tinsukia, Assam has had a fire raging for the past 16 days. Few media discussions have highlighted the massive loss of livelihood and environmental damage caused.

Early in May, Karnataka decided to dilute the Land Reforms Act, 1961 by allowing industries to buy land directly from farmers – a move to effectively aid land grabbing by corporates. Then came the news about the Uttar Pradesh government easing regulations by amending the Revenue Code and simplifying land acquisition under the Land Acquisition Act, 2013.

And now, there’s Gujarat where even during the Covid-19 lockdown, the government is allegedly trying to forcefully acquire the land of six villages around the Statue of Unity (SoU) to sell to corporates to build hotels.

In light of this, Chhotu Vasava, Gujarat tribal leader and Bharatiya Tribal Party (BTP) MLA from Jhagadia wrote a letter to the Prime Minister to stop the land acquisition of the six villages around the Statue of Unity (SoU) – Limbdi, Kevadia, Vagadiya, Navagam, Kothi which are located in the Narmada district’s Garudeshwar taluka, the Indian Express reported.

Tribals in these six villages have been protesting against the fencing of their land by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited (SSNNL) since mid-May 2020 after the company began the process of fencing the land for projects allied with the SoU.

In his 10-point letter, Vasava states that the government had acquired the land in 1961-62 for the Narmada Dam project, but since then, 58 years ago, the location of the project had changed, and the land was lying vacant. He stated that the empty land was now being sold off to corporates to build hotels and this commercial sale of land should be stopped. He also stated that Adivasis were not getting the benefits from the Sardar Sarovar Project – agricultural and industrial workers were not getting financial and other benefits as per their rights. Vasava also demanded that there be a judicial inquiry into the police action against the villagers.

The BTP MLA also made other important points in his communication to the PMO, particularly pointing out Gujarat’s Adivasis couldn’t even avail basic health facilities and had to travel long distances for medical check-ups. He also stated that while, on paper, there was a separate budget to ensure that Adivasis have homes to live in, there were many workers and widows who still didn’t have a place to live in.



Videos of police assaulting and harassing the villagers are making the rounds on social media. Posting some of the videos, Vasava said that the Gujarat government was taking advantage of the Covid-19 lockdown to rob people of their lands, adding that the media was not reporting these incidents at all.





On June 1, SSNNL, probably to ease the tension around the protest happening in Kevadiya, issued a public statement on the issue. In this statement, SSNNL mentioned a relocation plan and compensation package for displaced families saying that it would allot commercial shops in a complex of the SoU parking lot to those affected, IE reported. The statement said, “SSNNL is only fencing the land that it has measured as part of its acquisition claim. No other private land has been forcefully fenced or acquired.”

The statement further said that the beneficiaries from the six villages would be relocated to an “Adarsh Vasahat”, a project to be constructed over 16 hectares of land belonging to SSNNL in Gora village. It read, “We will also construct concrete roads, ensure a network of tap water connections in all homes, drainage lines, aanganwadis, primary health centres, toilets in all homes as well as primary schools at an expenditure of Rs 15 crore.”

SSNNL also said it was willing to accommodate the demands of some beneficiaries who had earlier accepted the compensation offered by the government in 1992, but later expressed their displeasure with it and wished to opt for the revised 2013 package. The corporation also stated, “We will allow such 61 beneficiaries and 82 major sons of these beneficiaries to give up their earlier compensation and choose the new package.”

However, while the Statue of Unity remains in the spotlight, with Adivasis and activists making allegations of land grab, with the Gujarat government being accused of acquiring 1,100 acres of the 1,700 acres land without the consent of Adivasis, and putting the lives and livelihoods of around 8,000 Adivasis at risk, the bigger problem remains the Sardar Sarovar Dam project. Even today, hundreds of those displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project are fighting for rehabilitation and compensation, after being forcefully ousted from their villages. 

The impact of the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project has affected almost 400,000 people across three states, displacing them, snatching their livelihoods and offering pittance for rehabilitation. The repercussions are more than can be imagined. 

In the first part of a three-part series analysis of the damage done to the affected persons, we look at lives of Adivasis affected, their homes submerged and their repression by the state, in the process of being evicted from their lands.

Adivasis affected, villages appropriated

In his article on India’s Narmada River Dams: Sardar Sarovar Under Siege, John R Wood shows how large dams come with large problems – the most obvious being submergence of arable land, forests and wildlife, interruption of a river’s natural flow, harm to downstream agriculture and massive storage of water causing flooding, and salinification of crops.

In 1985, the World Bank approved a loan of $450 million for the Sardar Sarovar dam. However, after resistance from rural and social activists, it was forced to take an independent review on account of the environmental and social impact of the project. The Sardar Sarovar Dam Project that spans across four states – Gujarat, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, has been the site for resistance and struggle over the forcible eviction of Adivasis, ecological damage and lack of rehabilitation and compensation. Studies and reports show that the dam displaces more than 41,000 families (approximately over 200,000 people) across 245 villages in the three states, with 56 percent of the population being Adivasis or indigenous populations.

As per the SSNNL, the estimated cost of the SSP was estimated to be over 6,000 crores (1986-87 price level) with four major components of the project being the dam, main canal, hydropower complex and the branches and distribution system. As per the Gujarat Irrigation Department, the reservoir of the dam would submerge over 37,000 hectares of land, out of which 30% would be agricultural land, 36% forest land and the remaining 34% would be the riverbed and wasteland. The Sardar Sarovar Construction Advisory Committee, 2003 mentioned that state-wise 1,877 hectares in Gujarat, 1,519 in Maharashtra and 7,883 hectares of private cultivated land would be submerged. The forest land, set to be submerged, would be 4,166 hectares in Gujarat, 6,488 hectares in Maharashtra and 2,731 in Madhya Pradesh. Wasteland including the river to be submerged would be 1,069 hectares in Gujarat, 1,592 in Maharashtra and 10,208 in Madhya Pradesh.

A 2005 study by Anupama Jain titled, “Resettlement in the Narmada Valley: Participation, Gender and Sustainable Livelihood” stated that a majority of the Adivasis in Gujarat come from the Tadvi, the Vasava, the Dungri Bhil, the Rathwa, the Naila (or the Nayka) and the Goval tribes. Livelihood activities of the tribes included agriculture, fishing, cattle rearing, selling forest wood and collecting minor forest produce.

A fact-finding report by the Delhi Solidarity Group and others published in 2015 stated that 193 villages were affected in Madhya Pradesh, 33 in Maharashtra and 19 in Gujarat. The total numbers of families affected in Madhya Pradesh were 37,729, 4,227 in Maharashtra and 4,500 in Gujarat. The total land in submergence in Madhya Pradesh was 20,822 hectares, in Maharashtra – 9,590 hectares and in Gujarat 7,112 hectares. Over 13,000 hectares of forest cover, 48.5% in Maharashtra, 31% in Gujarat and 20.5% in Madhya Pradesh have been projected to be submerged by the SSP.

An impact assessment report, “The Independent Review of the Sardar Sarovar Projects 1991-1992” stated that in addition to 100,000 persons living in the villages in the submergence area, there are likely to be 140,000 families who will be affected by the construction of the canal and irrigation system. Finally, there are the persons living downstream, below the dam, numbering thousands more, whose lives will be significantly affected due to the impact on fisheries and salt-water ingress.

Harassment and human rights violations of villagers and activists

The Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) has been the primary organisation resisting the construction of the dam, the arbitrary arrests, assaults and detentions, apart from the inhuman attack on the livelihood and environment of the people. Manibeli, the first village to be submerged by the dam, became the epicenter of demonstrations against police abuse and intimidation of villagers. A Human Rights Watch report from 1992 states that because Manibeli, a village on the Maharashtra-Gujarat border with a sizable tribal population was located near the dam site, its residents faced extreme pressure of relocation by the government. While residents of villages in Gujarat were given notices to move out in mid-1991, the residents of Manibeli and surrounding Dhankhedi, Jangthi, Chimalkhedi, Sinduri, Gaman, Bamni, Dandel, Mokhdi and Mandva in Maharashtra’s Dhule district, were not given such notices. On December 31, the residents were given a notice to move out within a month. However, this was resisted as the provisions of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) states that notices were to be given 18 months prior to the scheduled submergence.

In March 1992, some 150 villagers and activists in Manibeli, Maharashtra were detained during a government operation to relocate residents of the village, which is scheduled for submergence in mid-1992. According to NBA activists, during protests in Manibeli on April 11, 1992, 20 villagers were arrested, a number of whom were reportedly beaten by police. One activist, Mangleya from the village of Bhadal, suffered a broken nose as a result of the beatings. Over the next several days, police officers accompanied by forest officials returned to mark trees for cutting as part of a planned forest clearance before the submergence. When villagers, many of whom depend on the forest for their livelihood, protested and requested a meeting with the forest officials, the police arrested eight leading activists, including Medha Patkar.

In 2003, a report by Asian Age said that the police arrested 74 people in Chimalkhedi village, including women and children, for protesting displacement due to submergence. In a 2003 interview Chittaroopa Palit, an NBA leader said that the police beat up several activists and destroyed entire tribal villages like Anjanwada. The police destroyed homes and confiscated things of need.

Speaking about not being rehabilitated, Bava Mahare, a resident of the Jalsindhi village in Madhya Pradesh told a fact finding team of the Habitat International Coalition, “When we ask for proper land, we are shown jail cells. I have not done anything wrong, never bribed or anything. I have only been arrested when I’ve organised tribals and asked for things for the tribals. I have been arrested eight or nine times.”

Khiyali Bai from Domkhedi in Maharashtra told the fact finding team that a day after monsoon waters reached their lips on August 21, 2002, 200 police personnel arrived and began arresting the people. She said that the people asked the police, “This exercise of saving us is meaningless. We are asking for alternative land, why are you taking us to jail? How is that a safer place? We are in our own homes, we have not committed any crime, why should we be arrested?” She was transported to three different towns over the course of 24 hours, and was then jailed in Dhulia, Maharashtra, for four days. The submergence waters destroyed her house and her family’s crops and swept away all of their personal belongings.

These are just a handful of accounts of the people who continue to suffer even after more than three decades since the project came into commencement. While this is just an overview of the profile and number of people affected, there is more to talk about the environmental impact of the SSP and the major lacunas in relief and rehabilitation that the villagers and activists continue to fight for even today.



MP Forest Department allegedly burns down tribal family’s home

32 tribals homes demolished in Kalahandi Odisha

Odisha govt cancels forest applications of over 6000 tribal families

Cutting the Ground: Human rights impact on forcible eviction

Denying Forest Dwellers Rights, Gauhati HC orders removal of Adivasi “encroachers”

Assam: Fourteen days later massive fire breaks out at oil well in Baghjan oilfield

The price of profit, OIL’s misadventure threatens Tinsukhia’s reserve forests & wild life sanctuaries: Assam

Assam gas -well blowout: 11 days on, threat to humans and animals remains high



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