Last night in Manibeli

Last night, I dreamt I went to Manibeli again. Sure, I may have stolen that line from Daphne du Maurier’s classic novel Rebecca, but it’s true. I first went to that little village 13 years ago, and a few times since — but in my mind, I’ve returned often. (In some ways, almost daily).
Without being spectacular, there was a kind of heartfelt beauty to the place. Hills all around; a huge banyan tree towered over the square; a gentle slope led down to the Narmada River that flowed sinuously past.
Especially as the sun crept lower in the sky, as the shadows grew longer, as the colours in the sky reflected ever-more vibrantly in the river, and then I slithered down the slope to bathe in the cool Narmada — especially on Manibeli evenings, its loveliness would hit me in the gut.
Because through all that, I was constantly aware that Manibeli would soon vanish under a sheet of water: the dammed Narmada, dammed by the Sardar Sarovar dam only a few kilometres downriver.
But this is not about the beauty of a village, nor about the tragedy of its disappearance, nor even that such beauty should be an argument against a dam.
No: when I remember those trips to Manibeli, I remember a man called Keshuram Dhedya. One evening, he sat chatting with us for a long time. Then he took us to meet his wife in their little hut, a few dozen yards upriver from the banyan tree.
Not a greatly significant encounter. Or so I thought. Until just a few days after I returned from that trip, when I saw a photograph of a hut.
The picture was part of an article that spoke about how well the people of Manibeli and elsewhere — people about to lose their homes to the dam — were being resettled and rehabilitated (R&R) by the Government. The article was in a magazine called Narmada Vikas Varta, published by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited.
And why this photograph of a hut? The caption below told the story. This was, it said, the “last hut in Manibeli” to be shifted to higher ground as part of R&R measures. This was, it said, the home of one Keshuram Dhedya.
Very good. Only, I had been inside that very hut only days before, well after the date of publication of the magazine. It was firmly on the spot it had occupied for years, with Keshuram and family firmly inside it. It had not been shifted anywhere.
So you see, I think a lot about Manibeli and Keshuram and his hut.
Most recently, because some steely people are camped in Delhi, protesting the decision to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam to 120+ metres.
That means the dam will be taller by about 8 metres — nearly a three-storey building — and that increase will displace about 35,000 more families and submerge their homes.
Construction on the dam is going ahead. But these tens of thousands of families have not been rehabilitated. Think of that, then think of what the Supreme Court of this land has itself directed: that dam construction must happen “pari passu with the implementation of relief and rehabilitation”. (Then-Chief Justice B N Kirpal’s judgement, October 2000).
“Pari passu”, meaning both construction and R&R must happen at the same time.
And this is just what those Delhi protesters have in mind. Follow the order of the Supreme Court, indeed, of this project’s own guidelines.
What does that mean? People are about to be displaced. They have not been rehabilitated. Given what they know about R&R, they are not optimistic about it happening.
Whichever way you look at it, the Supreme Court order must mean that if R&R has not happened, construction cannot happen: simple. Surely this is not hard to understand?
So I don’t know if there are present-day Government publications that show some of those homes and claim that they have been shifted to higher ground, or claim that their residents have benefited from some other R&R measures, or some other claims altogether.
What I do know is that, ever since I saw Keshuram’s hut in that picture, I’ve been sceptical of all claims made about R&R. Sure, there are excellent R&R measures in place, on paper.
Unfortunately, as implemented on the ground they are, shall we say, not quite so excellent. That’s the message from the photograph in Narmada Vikas Varta.
People protesting the dam on the Narmada often are accused of hindering India’s progress. They are told, patronisingly, that “some people must sacrifice” in order for the country to develop, and that “there are no free lunches” in this rapidly progressing world. If the dam makes some people suffer, they are also told patronisingly, that’s a small number compared to the millions whose lives it will transform for the better.
As a country, we have to be prepared to pay that cost so that we can reap those benefits. Right?
Now I’ve always thought these cost-vs-benefit calculations are a mite too facile, too smoothly made.
But they become downright empty when false claims — like the one about Keshuram’s hut — are made to bolster them.
For consider this: whatever the benefits the dam will bring — and on paper, those look every bit as excellent as the R&R plans — those 35,000 displaced families must at least be rehabilitated satisfactorily before the calculation can be made at all.
Or the calculation makes no sense.

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