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A people savaged and drowned

Print edition : Apr 25, 2003 T+T-

The report of a fact-finding team documents the colossal suffering imposed on the people in the Narmada Valley in the name of development.

DURING the monsoons in August and September 2002, some of the tribal villages affected by the Sardar Sarovar and Mann dams were submerged by the rising waters, and standing crops and homes were destroyed. The Housing and Land Rights Network of Habitat International Coalition set up a fact-finding team to investigate the effects of the 2002 monsoon and to assess the current status of the rehabilitation of the people affected by the Narmada Valley projects. The team visited the affected villages and rehabilitation sites, and met with several officials, activists and affected people.

A very small number of concerned citizens gathered for the release of the team's report in New Delhi on March 31, 2003. But those who did were wrenched by the painstakingly documented colossal human suffering imposed once again on vulnerable tribal people by the state, in the cause of what continues to go by the name of `development'.

The ordeals of the residents of the villages that were submerged, echo dully the experience of 50 years of planned development, which has entailed many such large-scale forced evictions of vulnerable populations, without the countervailing presence of policies to assist them to rebuild their lives. Most of the negative aspects of displacement, such as lack of information, failure to prepare in advance a comprehensive plan for rehabilitation, the undervaluation of compensation and its payment in cash, failure to restore lost assets or livelihoods, traumatic and delayed relocation, problems at relocation sites, multiple displacement, and neglect of the special vulnerabilities of the most disadvantaged groups have been repeatedly highlighted by activists and scholars in the past. Yet, last monsoon, the authorities in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh demonstrated their stubborn resolve to refuse to learn from their mistakes. As the height of the Sardar Sarovar project continues to rise, more suffering, manufactured directly as the result of state policy, is in store for the vulnerable people of the Valley, in the coming monsoons.

With the adoption of policies for planned development after Independence, a major priority for policy-makers was the harnessing of the country's water resources for irrigation and power. Support to earlier technologies, based on diversion or run-of-the-river schemes, gradually diminished in favour of large dams. The visibility, scale and sweep of mega dams made them potent emblems of the reconstruction and regeneration of the battered economies of long-suppressed post-colonial nations.

Although enthusiasm for mega dam projects amongst policy-makers remains largely undimmed, a formidable body of independent empirical research into many of these large dams has established how their social, human and environmental costs have been ignored or grossly understated in the planning of these projects, and the expected benefits exaggerated. The actual output of irrigation and power of these projects has fallen short, sometimes spectacularly, of the level on the basis of which investment on the project was initially justified. Of the very many neglected costs of the big dams, some of the most grave are the social and human consequences of displacement.

It was clear from the start that mega projects lead to the displacement or forced uprooting of substantial populations, particularly for projects that entail large-scale submergence for reservoirs. However, national leaders and policy-makers typically viewed these as legitimate and inevitable costs of development, acceptable in the larger national interest. Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, while laying the foundation-stone for India's first major river valley project, the Hirakud Dam in Orissa in 1948, said to the tens of thousand of people who faced the grim prospect of displacement: "If you have to suffer, you should do so in the interest of the country."

The same sentiments were echoed 36 years later by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in a letter to one of India's most respected social workers, Baba Amte. She wrote: "I am most unhappy that development projects displace tribal people from their habitat, especially as project authorities do not always take care to properly rehabilitate the affected population. But sometimes there is no alternative and we have to go ahead in the larger interest."

THE Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), the biggest dam of the Narmada Valley Development Project, envisages the construction of 30 big dams and more than 3,000 medium and small dams on the Narmada and its tributaries. The SSP is being constructed on the Narmada in Gujarat. It is a multi-purpose, inter-State project that involves the construction of a large dam (138.68 m high) in Gujarat, being implemented by the governments of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, with the active participation and assistance of the Government of India.

In 1994, grave concerns regarding rehabilitation and the environmental impacts of the project were raised in the Supreme Court by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). The court stayed work on the project from 1995 until 1999. However, on October 18, 2002, the Supreme Court cleared the way for the continued construction of the dam, and said that compliance with conditions on which clearance of the project was given, including the completion of relief and rehabilitation work, should be ensured. Since then, there have been several reports that the rehabilitation of people affected at a dam height of 90 metres has not been completed, which led to the demand that the height of the dam should not be raised further. Nonetheless, the dam height was raised again, to 95 m, in May 2002.

In its report, the fact-finding team found that submergence owing to the 2002 monsoons and the raising of the dam's height in May 2002 has destroyed the crops and homes in SSP-affected villages in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, rendering some of the villagers homeless. The people face a severe food and drinking water shortage. In Jalsindhi, Jhabua district, Madhya Pradesh, and Domkhedi, Nandurbar district, Maharashtra, the team witnessed the destruction of homes and standing crops.

The team also reported brutal repression of democratic protests by the local villagers and activists of the NBA against the forced submergence. According to the report, Khiyali Bai from Domkhedi stood in the rising monsoon waters inside her house with other villagers on the evening of August 20, 2002. On the morning of August 21, 2002, when the water reached their lips, 200 policemen arrived with two barges and arrested the protesters. Khiyali Bai said that she told 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 waters destroyed her house and her family's crops and swept away all their personal belongings. Bava Mahare, one of the residents of Jalsindhi, told the team, "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 have organised tribal people and asked for things. I have been arrested eight or nine times."

The rehabilitation sites that the team visited were not fit for habitation. At Gehalgaon and Gopalpura rehabilitation sites, Dhar district (Madhya Pradesh), there are some rocky, uneven plots for housing, and villagers explained that they had rejected the resettlement sites as unsuitable, in part because there was no provision for agricultural land or alternative livelihoods.

The team found that the residents of Chikhalda, also in Dhar district, affected when the dam's height was scaled up to 95 m, have not been resettled at all. Nine-hundred families live in Chikhalda, and 75 per cent of their agricultural land is expected to be submerged. One hundred and sixty-eight families were recently issued notifications that they were in the anticipated submergence area at 95 m. These families are now falsely listed in the government's Action Taken Report as having been rehabilitated. The land initially chosen by the government for the Chikhalda resettlement colony was rejected by the people because this land was itself in the submergence area. Gehalgaon and Gopalpura in Dhar district are listed as rehabilitation sites almost ready but the team found that at each rehabilitation site, there were three empty structures: the school, dispensary and grain store. The hand-pumps were not working; electric poles did not carry wires. There are a few small houses built at the sites but they were locked and abandoned. No agricultural land has been provided at these sites; only house plots have been marked out.

The team also visited one of the oldest rehabilitation sites in Gujarat - Aggar in Narmada district. Even though it was set up more than 10 years ago the team found that problems related to land and other basic facilities were still unresolved. Savita Behn, an Adivasi, has been forced to become a labourer from being a farmer after moving to the Aggar resettlement site. She has to travel for 24 hours to Kathiawar leaving her infant and two younger children at the resettlement site. She told the team of her desire to return to her previous home, even if she risked death by drowning. She felt that it would be better than the miserable life that she was leading in the resettlement colony. Moreover, Aggar has no cremation ground, provision for irrigation water, secondary school or transport facilities or any grazing land. People do not have access to the forest for firewood or non-timber resources, which traditionally are major livelihood resources for tribal communities.

A grave subversion of people's elementary legal rights to rehabilitation was reported by the team, because the State governments are issuing ex-parte house and agricultural land allotments to "nonresponsive" project-affected families; that is, families not accepting any rehabilitation offer of the State. The government sends a notice to the oustees informing them of the allotment of a house or land to them, often in another State. Once this notice is sent, the people, even while they live in their original villages, are counted as rehabilitated on government records. In Jalsindhi, nine project-affected families were given ex-parte notification of land in Gujarat, even though they had been asking for land in Madhya Pradesh. Similar was the case of 16 project-affected families in Chikhalda, who are now shown as rehabilitated in the Action Taken Report of the government of Madhya Pradesh. A task force set up by the Maharashtra government also examined the phenomenon of ex-parte allotments. In its report in September 2002, it admitted that some of the land being given as ex-parte allotments in Maharashtra was already being cultivated or was owned by other people and some of the land was uncultivated.

The fact-finding mission cited evidence from Madhya Pradesh to illustrate that "rehabilitation is being emphasised only as a numbers game, to prepare lists and tables and charts and documents, and even empty resettlement colonies, in order to create the illusion of rehabilitation. However, the charts and tables do not reflect reality in terms of who has been or will be affected or who has been rehabilitated. The emphasis seems to be on creating records and documents that can be used to support an increase in the dam height, rather than ensuring the right to housing of those affected by the project".

THE evidence collected by the fact-finding team regarding the Mann Dam irrigation project is even more damning. A 53m tall dam is being constructed on the Mann, a tributary of the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh. The families affected by the project, in both the submergence areas and the command area, are predominantly tribal - people belonging to the Bhil and Bhilala communities.

The report states that the residents of Khidi Balwadi village - the first village slated for submergence - launched a satyagraha, demanding land-for-land and full rehabilitation before submergence. Even as the outstees were on dharna and fast, on May 17, 2002, school buildings were razed in the submergence villages; all hand-pumps (the only sources of drinking water during summer in Dhar district, which had faced a drought for the last four years) were removed; electricity connections were severed; transformers lifted away; and trees were chopped down in an attempt to make living conditions miserable and coerce the village residents into abandoning their homes. On July 20, 2002, several hundred police personnel, a large number of whom were armed, surrounded the village and forcibly evicted people from their homes. It was market day, and most of the men were away from the village. The women questioned why they were being taken from their homes when they had not been rehabilitated and had done nothing illegal. The police dragged them into trucks and began beating with lathis those who resisted. In the process, many of the women's saris came off.

Involuntary relocation is always extremely painful, but sensitive state authorities can do much to relieve its trauma. In practice, however, it has been observed that the driving objective of project authorities has not been to prepare and assist the families to relocate and to make a gradual and less painful transition to their new habitats. Instead, often, the only objective is to vacate the submergence zone of what are perceived to be its human encumbrances, with the brute force of the state if necessary. The report of the fact-finding mission is evidence that the approach of state authorities to vulnerable project-affected people remains unchanged.

Monsoons will come and go. As the rains - normally life-giving and life-affirming - splatter the graceful Narmada Valley that has for centuries nurtured nature, many forms of life and a gentle civilisation of tribal people wait to see which new village will be savaged, its forests drowned, its people dispersed, pauperised and then forgotten? In the end, we all stand indicted: state authorities, political leaders, courts, writers, development workers, journalists, ordinary citizens, all who resolutely refuse to see or care.