Author: Annshika Bakshi, a student at Indian Institute of Management (IIM-Rohtak)

The Narmada stands tall among India’s crucial rivers, its waters vital for regions across Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. However, its significance surpasses mere geography. It’s a centrepiece in the battle for water resources, profoundly impacting lives and livelihoods tied to the construction of dams along its course. Ranking as India’s fifth largest westward-flowing river, it weaves through Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Yet, at its core lies conflict—major dams’ construction on the Narmada and the consequential impact on the environment and the neighbouring communities dwelling along its banks.

The story of damming the Narmada has been one wrought with controversies and intense political wrangling. It has been a hotly-debated issue where one cannot decide for sure which side of the argument is best suitable. The development versus sustainability argument plays out here in a manner which the Indian socio-political and legal scene had never seen before. In the 1990’s age of Public Interest Litigation and electronic media, the public debate on the Sardar Sarovar project reached its crescendo with this judgment and the controversy that surrounds it. The debate surrounding the decision to dam or not to dam the Narmada River fundamentally revolves around development—its objectives, methodologies, implementation, and strategies.

Medha Patkar has been a stalwart leader in this movement, leading numerous fasts, satyagrahas, and enduring multiple arrests in the pursuit of this cause. Her commitment to alerting and mobilizing the tribals of the Narmada Valley about the implications of dam construction led to the inception of Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). Another popular figure was Baba Amte, who believed that the Narmada would resonate as a symbol of struggles against social injustice across the nation. 

It is noticed that from the catena of decisions coming in from the Supreme Court, that the Narmada Bachao Andolan vs. State Of M.P. & Anr judgment is one of the few cases that the Supreme Court has not followed the usual path, the general trend of the Supreme Court to very actively stand up for the disadvantaged cause, conventionally advocating the “precautionary principle”, and other such approaches. This instance showcases a predominant commitment to “national interest”. Here, the construction of the dam and the resultant displacement of thousands of individuals have been permitted, prioritizing the broader collective benefit. It’s relatively rare for the Supreme Court to adopt such a markedly utilitarian perspective in an environmental Public Interest Litigation (PIL).

In a nutshell, on July 6, 1968, the State of Gujarat raised a concern to the Indian Government about a disagreement over sharing water from the Narmada River among Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashtra. To resolve this, the Central Government formed the ‘Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal’ in October 1969. This tribunal, also known as NWDT, issued a decision called the ‘Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award.’ Among its directives, the award determined how much Narmada- an inter-state river between the states of Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra. Additionally, it outlined guidelines for the State of Madhya Pradesh to release water for the Sardar Sarovar Project’s needs in Gujarat.

In November 1993, the Government of Madhya Pradesh’s Narmada Valley Development Department created a detailed plan for the Omkareshwar Dam. This dam was part of a series intended to be built along the Narmada River. Its primary purposes were generating power and providing irrigation by controlling the flow of water from the reservoirs upstream. This control aimed to ensure that Gujarat received its allocated share of water, as specified in the NWDT award. The proposed dam site was near Mandhata Island in the town of Omkareshwar, located in the Khandwa district of Madhya Pradesh. Unfortunately, its construction would have led to the submergence of thirty villages, impacting the lives of numerous families residing in the area.

To aid the families affected by the project, the Narmada Valley Development Department of the Madhya Pradesh government put forth a Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) Plan in August 1993. Various agencies of the Indian government received this plan. On October 8, 1993, the Ministry of Welfare approved the R&R Plan for the Omkareshwar Dam as submitted by the Madhya Pradesh government. Additionally, the Ministry of Environment and Forests granted environmental clearance on October 13, 1993, and forest clearance on October 22, 1993, for the construction of the Omkareshwar Dam.

Following the closure of the Omkareshwar Dam gates and the water reaching a level of 189 meters at the site, it was anticipated that only five villages—Gunjari, Paladi, Sailani, Bakhatpur, and Rampura—would be submerged. The authorities argued that acquisition and rehabilitation were completed in these five villages. However, the petitioner highlighted in an interim application that in the remaining 25 villages, acquisition and rehabilitation efforts were still ongoing. Despite this, the authorities were taking forceful actions, including cutting off water and electricity supplies and demolishing houses and public buildings like schools. On June 22, 2007, the Court, upon hearing arguments from both sides, issued orders prohibiting the authorities from disconnecting electricity and water supplies, demolishing public buildings in the other 25 villages, or taking any coercive measures that would compel the affected individuals to leave these villages during the ongoing legal proceedings or until further court instructions were given.

Ms. Chittroopa Palit, representing the petitioner, referenced previous cases, notably the first Narmada Bachao Andolan case, where the Supreme Court deliberated on whether displacing tribals due to the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam infringed upon their rights under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. The majority opinion in that case, as articulated by Justice Kripal, emphasized that mere displacement doesn’t inherently violate fundamental rights. The crucial factor was whether the displaced individuals, once resettled, experienced an improved standard of living and better facilities compared to their previous tribal habitats.

Additionally, she referred to the N.D. Jayal case, where Justice Rajendra Babu reiterated that the rehabilitation of those displaced by a dam is a natural consequence of Article 21 of the Constitution. The aim should be to ensure that those displaced can lead better lives and sustain themselves in the new rehabilitated areas. Furthermore, in the second Narmada Bachao Andolan case, Justice S.B. Sinha acknowledged the prior opinion that displacement itself doesn’t necessarily breach fundamental rights, emphasizing again the importance of improved living conditions and amenities in the rehabilitated locations for those affected by displacement.

Ms. Palit argued that the respondents were mandated by Section 5 of the Environment Protection Act, 1986, to adhere to the conditions specified in the environmental clearance. Additionally, they were obliged under Section 2 of the Forest Conservation Act, 1980, to comply with the terms outlined in the forest clearance. Furthermore, they were also legally bound by Section 29 of the Electricity Supply Act, 1948, to follow the clearances provided by the Central Electricity Authority. These legal provisions imposed responsibilities on the respondents to adhere to the stipulations and requirements set forth in the respective acts and clearances.

Ms. Palit highlighted that as per the NWDT award, providing land in exchange for acquired land was one of the stipulated conditions. Initially, the conflict regarding Narmada waters revolved around the Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat. However, after the NWDT issued its award, an agreement was reached among various states to encompass all projects planned in the Narmada Basin.

Consequently, the Omkareshwar Multi-purpose Project, designed in the Narmada Basin to facilitate the release of water as directed by the NWDT award for the Sardar Sarovar Project, fell under the jurisdiction of the NWDT award. This was evidenced by the June 3, 1997 notification issued by the Ministry of Water Resources under Section 6A of the Inter-State Water Disputes Act, 1956. The notification explicitly outlined that environmental protection and devising schemes for the welfare of displaced individuals and other affected persons were the responsibilities of the authority overseeing these projects. This authority was mandated to ensure the strict compliance of the terms and conditions specified in the NWDT award during project clearances. Based on these developments, Ms. Palit argued that the respondents were obligated to provide land in accordance with the NWDT award to those who were displaced or affected by the projects.

Mr. Ravi Shankar Prasad, representing respondent No. 2, countered by stating that Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the protection of life and personal liberty, emphasizing that this right cannot be curtailed except by a lawful process. He referred to the Supreme Court’s decision in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, wherein it was established that any procedure mentioned in Article 21 must adhere to the principles of Article 14 and must be reasonable. He argued that while Article 21 safeguards life and liberty, it does not inherently encompass the right to receive land in exchange for acquired land. He indicated that the demand for “land for land” carries elements akin to the right to property. However, the right to property is subject to the State’s authority through eminent domain. If land is acquired for a public purpose following a fair procedure as outlined in the Land Acquisition Act, it does not violate Article 21 of the Constitution.

To substantiate his stance, Mr. Prasad referred to the case of New Reviera Cooperative Housing Society v. Special Land Acquisition Officer. In this case, the Supreme Court asserted that if acquiring land for public purposes were seen as infringing upon Article 21, no land could be acquired for any public cause, since such acquisitions typically deprive individuals of their property. Additionally, he cited the judgment in Chameli Singh v. State of U.P., wherein the Supreme Court upheld that while compulsory acquisition might result in depriving individuals of their means of livelihood, it is justified under the State’s power of eminent domain for a larger public good. In such instances, the rights of individuals as landowners must yield to the overarching public purpose, and claims of deprivation of livelihood under Article 21 were deemed unsustainable.

The court held that displaced families and encroachers have the entitlement to receive agricultural land in accordance with paragraph 3 of the 1993 Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, as amended in 2002. Consequently, there’s a mandate for respondent No. 1 to diligently pursue the identification of government or private land and allocate such land to the displaced families and encroachers, should they choose this option. Moreover, these families are required to refund 50% of the compensation received as part of the land price installment, provided they agree to the terms specified in paragraph 5 of the 1993 Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy. However, the determination differs for agricultural landless labourers. They are not entitled to receive agricultural land based on the forest and environmental clearances granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. As a result, no directive or writ can be issued to the respondents in this particular petition for the allocation of agricultural land to agricultural landless labourers under the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy of 1993, as amended in 2002. Nevertheless, these landless agricultural labourers retain the opportunity to seek the allocation of agricultural land under any other law, rule, or governmental policy, distinct from the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy of 1993 as amended in 2002.  

An important rationale for permitting consent could be the fact that, even after seven decades of independence, not all Indian citizens have adequate access to water, potentially violating Article 21 and United Nations Human Rights Resolutions. India’s water resources hold the promise of alleviating the harsh conditions in the country’s arid regions, where sufficient rainfall is rare. This underscores the significance of ensuring broader access to water for addressing the pressing needs in these areas.

The Sardar Sarovar Project presents numerous lessons and a glimmer of hope for individuals impacted by other large dams along the Narmada River or in other regions. Despite encountering substantial conflicts and controversies concerning World Bank funding, ecological concerns, and alterations in policies and practices, these challenges did not result in the cessation or substantial reduction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam or the Larger Narmada Project. Assessing the success or failure of the project, whether in terms of completion or remedial measures, cannot be done in isolation from the broader context of other dam projects. It serves as a significant case study, offering valuable insights and potential strategies for addressing issues that affect communities affected by similar massive dam constructions, both within the Narmada region and elsewhere.


  1. World Bank, Project Completion Report – India – Narmada River Development -Gujarat Sardar Sarovar Dam and Power Project, Report No. 14159, 29th March 1995.
  2. NWDT Award, Clause IV (1), at page 47. 
  3. Report of the Narmada Water Resources Development Committee, Government of India, Ministry of Irrigation and Power (Khosla Report).

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