Ground realities

Published : Nov 03, 2006 00:00 IST

The families displaced by the Upper Krishna Project in Karnataka are unhappy at the rehabilitation centres.

RAVI SHARMA in Bagalkot

IT is the time of the day when all able-bodied men in any village should be working in the fields. However, at the Biligi rehabilitation centre in Karnataka's Bagalkot district, a group of unemployed men are seated behind an electronic keyboard on the sun-baked floor, practising music for a stage play. The men insist that their unproductive days are but a reflection of how the Upper Krishna Project (UKP) has turned their lives upside down. The irrigation project, which has taken over 40 years to complete, dislocated 93,263 families (a vast majority of whom are dependent on agriculture), saw the government acquire 72,327 acres (1 acre = 0.4 hectare) of land ( to build canals, 136 rehabilitation centres, roads and anicuts) and submerged 174,787 acres of land and 70,010 structures in 177 villages and Bagalkot town. The rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) costs of the UKP until the end of July 2006 totalled Rs.2,414.12 crores (of which Rs.1,753.35 crores was used for land acquisition).

S.N. Cheluvadi, a landless farm labourer and resident of the Biligi rehabilitation centre, said: "It's been 10 years since I was shifted to this place, but I still have no work. Work can be found only 14 kilometres away. I can't even gather firewood in the rehabilitation centre; it has to be bought." Moreover, he said the bonhomie and the sense of togetherness, common in villages were absent in the centres, which, given their largeness, made even a neighbour seem like a stranger.

The others soon abandoned the rehearsals and came forward to vent their ire at the lack of jobs, land to cultivate and proper facilities. They pointed out that there were no cremation or burial grounds. The UKP and its R&R component, they claimed, had left them destitute, with the only option of joining the construction labour in cities and towns such as Bangalore, Udupi, Mangalore and Hubli or in Panaji or Sholapur outside the State. Annasaheb Sirur, who lost his land and has been rehabilitated in the nearby Korati rehabilitation centre, said: "At least in Goa I can catch fish and eat! Here I am forced to serve tea in the school."

Dr.S.M. Jaamdar, Commissioner (R&R and Land Acquisition, UKP), however, differs: "Even before the UKP came up, there was unemployment in the region. Employment for the agricultural labour has always been seasonal. Today, with more land coming under irrigation and groundwater recharging at a faster rate thanks to the storage of water in the dams, both employment opportunities and wages have gone up. Some farmers whose lands have been acquired practice draw-down cultivation [cultivation of the land when the waters recede] and reap at least one bumper crop between December and June. The multiplication effect of irrigation is manifold and the farmers are benefiting."

Jaamdar admits that rehabilitating a huge population of illiterate, landless labourers and their family members is a mind-boggling task. He said, "More than 40 per cent of the 4.25 lakh displaced persons fall in this category. Where do we put them? What kind of non-agricultural occupation do we find for them? Shifting them from manual labour to semi-skilled labour is difficult. We hope that once agriculture picks up they will be absorbed productively. But a new problem has cropped up; that of educated unemployed. These youth do not want to work in the fields but look for government jobs. The government has reserved 5 per cent of Class C and D jobs for them, but that is hardly sufficient in an era when government-run factories are getting closed.

The government's plans to introduce through non-governmental organisations a number of income-generating schemes, have also not taken off as expected.

Many farmers in the command area, especially those whose lands are close to the Andhra Pradesh border have given their lands on lease to farmers from that State. According to experts, in the long run this practice can result in the marginalisation of the Karnataka farmers.

The UKP was conceived in the early 1960s to irrigate six lakh acres of land in the arid drought-prone districts of Gulbarga, Bijapur and Raichur. The initial estimate was Rs.58 crores. After only Rs.38 crores was spent, paucity of funds, a lack of political will, bureaucratic red tape, reluctance of engineers to serve at the site and unsatisfactory R&R packages halted its progress. In 1978, funding for the first stage (the UKP is divided into two stages) was provided by the World Bank. The irrigation potential was re-estimated at 10.6 lakh acres and was to be achieved by utilising 119 thousand million cubic feet of water (out of the State's share of 173 tmcft) and at an enhanced cost of Rs.283 crores.

But the World Bank largess had its own pitfalls. The Bank periodically changed the technical specifications and R&R conditions. Among other things, it insisted that the government subsidise house construction by Rs.22,000, make provisions for a one-in-a-hundred-year flood situation and dole out compensation to two adult sons in every project-displaced family. This not only pushed up the project cost, but saw the project being suspended until Karnataka complied with the provisions. The Bank's stringent conditions saw a miffed Karnataka raising funds through the Krishna Bhagya Jala Nigam, especially constituted for this.

The cost of the UKP, which consists of a balancing reservoir at Narayanpur, the Alamatti dam where water is currently stored to a full reservoir level (FRL) of 519.60 metres, (as against the planned height of 524.256 m and the full storage capacity of 227 tmc ft), and a series of lift irrigation schemes, canals and a hydroelectric power station, has mounted to around Rs.10,000 crores. Interestingly, the UKP's irrigation potential lies not just in the command area but in the vicinity of the reservoirs thanks to lift irrigation schemes such as the Alamatti Right and Left Bank and Mulawad and the fast recharging of groundwater.

According to experts like Captain S. Raja Rao (retired), a former Irrigation Secretary and Engineer-in-Chief of the UKP, up to 60,000 acres of dryland in the vicinity of the reservoirs has now become cultivable. But it is equally true that although the basic infrastructure has been created, many of the canals and anicuts are yet to be constructed. Much of the water in the two reservoirs is in fact stored and then released to Andhra Pradesh in the lean months. Karnataka's farmers are not yet in a position to utilise the stored waters fully.

Today, the UKP is aimed at irrigating 15.55 lakh acres (of which 10.63 lakh acres has been achieved). The State also hopes that once it gets the permission to increase the height of the Almatti dam to an FRL of 524.256 m, the irrigation potential of the UKP will go up to 25 lakh acres. If and when the dam's height is increased, another 55,000 acres in 22 villages will be submerged and the government will have to acquire a further 25,000 acres for R&R packages.

With the backwaters of the two dams (Narayanpur: 60 km in length and 132 sq km in area; and Almatti: 130 km in length and 181.2 sq km in area) causing disruption of life, politicians such as Bagalkot legislator Veeranna Charanthimath have questioned the merit of "losing almost 200,000 acres of highly fertile land just to transfer water onto acres of arid land that is far away".

Undeniably there is benefit for the State, but the displaced people have paid a huge price. Compounding the loss of land and livelihood is the uncertainty about the project, the displaced families are not quite sure what will happen eventually. Initial compensation packages, especially in the case of the 11,317 displaced families from 41 villages whose lands were submerged under the Narayanpur dam, ranged from Rs.4,000 to Rs.10,000 an acre.

Even those families that were displaced from the 54 villages before 1995, when the height of the Alamatti dam reached an FRL of 509 m, received meagre sums as compensation.

However, post-1995, after the government offered the choice of a consent award, compensation amounts went up, ranging from Rs.54,000 to Rs.148,000 an acre, benefiting families in 82 villages. The enhanced compensation, coupled with an R&R package that included a house construction grant (of Rs.22,000) for those living in the rural areas, a land purchase grant of Rs.20,000 and an employment generation subsidy, not only speeded up the acquisition process but enabled the Karnataka government in 2002 to impound water up to 519.6 m in the Alamatti dam (which translates to a backwater level of 521 m and to which level structures have been acquired in the affected areas).

Ironically, in a number of villages, especially those in Jamkhandi and parts of Biligi taluks, where lands and structures have already been acquired and compensated for, residents are refusing to move to rehabilitation centres. Having realised over the past four years that the backwaters even corresponding to a level of 521 m will only reach their doorsteps but not enter their homes (which have also been acquired), they have decided to stay on. During the floods of 2005 and 2006 many of these villages were marooned and the residents sought and pocketed flood relief.

There are some happy stories too. Thammanna Kudri, whose five acres of land in Beerkabri (Bagalkot district) was submerged, bought three acres of rain-fed land in the neighbouring village of Sunagakeri and 30 goats and spent Rs.50,000 to dig a borewell. The money, he says, was well spent

According to Jaamdar, the government has over the past year written to institutes for social and economic change to undertake a post-resettlement socio-economic evaluation (which the World Bank has agreed to partly finance) to ascertain the economic and literacy status of the project-displaced families and for skill upgradation. But this has not yet materialised.

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