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Reality and Law Seldom Meet: A Critique of the Supreme Court Judgment on the Narmada Dam

22 Nov 2000

This report presents a critique of the Supreme Court judgment on the  Narmada dam. The peoples struggle against Sardar Sarovar dam began in 1980 with Nimad Bachao Andolan. This was joIned by other organizations and subsequently led to the formation of the Narmda Bachao Andolan (NBA). In 1994 the NBA filed a comprehensive writ petition in the Supreme Court regarding the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam on Narmada. They pointed out violations of the rehabilitation policy, adverse impact on the environment and the adverse impact on the lives of many people around the Narmada region.

A divided judgement was given in 2000 by the Supreme Court. The majority judgment argued that there was little wrong in the project. The minority judgement noted several lapses in the project. However this majority judgement allowed the construction of the dam. This report highlights the flawed nature of the judgement.

The report points out many problems in the judgment. For example the judgment sees the dispute as one between states and not between government and the people. The judgement blames the Madhya Pradesh government for not cooperating with the Gujarat government on rehabilitation. However instead of stopping construction, the Madhya Pradesh government is asked to cooperate with the Gujarat government. This violates the MoEF guidelines on implementation of rehabilitation plan, which needs to have been fulfilled before water fills the reservoir. The Court also sees no need to provide rehabilitation plans for non agriculturists.

The Court gives a clean chit to the Narmada Control Authority, though it is their failure to function on important issues which led to the petition.

The judgment also neglects important evidence like the inability to get environmental clearance. For the majority judgment since there was no legal requirement on environmental clearance at the time, there were no violations. The judgment shows that the environmental clearance was based on political meeting between the PM and Chief Ministers of MP, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Thus the environmental clearance was not based on any facts, making the cost-benefit analysis of the project highly flawed. The court instead puts the onus of proving that the dam will cause environmental problems on the NBA.

Shockingly the Court views large dams as good since displaced people get a chance to access hospitals and schools. The Court’s judgment makes clear its prejudice towards large dams. Because of this prejudice the court treats NBA as an anti-dam organization which wastes public money by its PIL.

The report critiques the judgment as a sermon to people to trust the government, even though instances of the government betraying promises to its people are innumerable. The judgment reproduces a colonial mindset of government prerogative unsuited to demands of a modern democracy.

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