Rehabilitation realities

Published : Jan 30, 2004 00:00 IST

Manibeli village on the banks of the Narmada river in north Maharashtra, which is facing further submergence. - VIVEK BENDRE

Manibeli village on the banks of the Narmada river in north Maharashtra, which is facing further submergence. - VIVEK BENDRE

The conditional clearance to raise the height of the Sardar Sarovar dam to 110.64 metres comes in the background of an incomplete and often unfair resettlement and rehabilitation effort.

ELEVEN years ago, Manibeli village in north Maharashtra, tucked away in the Satpuda hills, made it to the headlines by becoming the first human habitation to be affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam project on the Narmada river. The dam was only 50 metres high then. With every metre of increase in the height of the dam wall, the waters have risen higher up the hill slope. When the water level reaches too close for comfort the villagers would dismantle their homes and move further up the hill. Since 1992, the residents of Manibeli have relocated their homes and fields thrice. Now the village is at the very top of the hill. Its residents have literally nowhere to go if the water level rises further up.

And yet, the villagers persevere on. The jeevanshala established by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) years ago flourishes and the fields produce rich harvests of corn, jowar, bajri, tuvar, moong and fruits. For all purposes, Manibeli residents have an idyllic life - prosperous and self-sustained. A simple village economy in which all that is grown is either consumed or used as barter. The only shadow in their lives is the Sardar Sarovar dam, a mere 5 km away and clearly visible from the village.

"My children will never till the hill slopes. It is unthinkable. My father tilled here. I walked by his side as a child, knowing that I would be doing the same when I grow older. I cannot give my children these assurances. I cannot give them anything because whatever I have is suddenly not mine," said Jatrabhai, a 70-year-old resident. The most poignant memory in his life is of losing the Shoolpaneshwar temple, a major halt for pilgrims performing the Narmada parikrama. "There was no pain then," he recalls, "not of the heart, not of the body. Life was complete. There were so many jatras, so much prosperity. Now the mandir has sunk and so will we."

The December 27 announcement of the Environmental Sub-Group of the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) giving a conditional clearance to raise the height of the dam to 110.64 m has caused the final countdown for Manibeli to begin. If the dam rises to this height in the coming monsoon, Manibeli will be submerged completely.

The Environmental Sub-Group vetoed the objections of environmentalists regarding the dam after apparently debating the issues. Leader of the NBA Medha Patkar, however, alleged that the group gave in to pressure from the Gujarat government even before the issue could become a subject of debate. She also said that Maharashtra and Rajasthan were not represented at the meeting and the new Bharatiya Janata Party government in Madhya Pradesh did not yet have a complete understanding of the implications of the issue.

If safety was a criterion for the Environmental Sub-Group, then it should have considered the seismicity of the region. The Narmada valley has always been geologically unstable. The worst earthquake the region experienced in recent memory was in 1998 in Jabalpur. In August and December last year, the valley experienced two earthquakes, which measured 4.5 and 4 respectively on the Richter scale. The epicentre of the second quake was barely 100 km from the dam.

The clearance from the Rehabilitation and Resettlement (R&R) Sub-Group is the next step towards raising the dam height. Villages like Manibeli are banking on the decision of the R&R Sub-Group. But anti-dam activists expect little in their favour from the R&R Sub-Group because of its past record.

The increase in height seems to be taken for granted by the Sardar Sarovar Project authorities. While there is as yet no construction that impedes the flow of the river (which means it cannot technically be considered a part of the dam), the height of walls on both banks of the river has been increased. Only the gap over the river remains to be constructed, which will be done once the official nod is given.

In its plea to raise the dam height, the Gujarat government says that the 4,600 oustees from the State have been successfully rehabilitated. But, according to the NBA, the reality of R&R is quite different. Not only are recently affected oustees still in a state of limbo but those who were affected at 80 m and 90 m of dam height have not been rehabilitated.

The increase by 10 m will affect about 11,000 hectares of land in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. The NBA estimates that at least 12,000 families in Madhya Pradesh will be affected by the submergence. In Maharashtra at least 3,000 tribal families are still living in villages slated for submergence, and 2,000 of them are yet to be declared as displaced by the dam and resettled. Moreover, there are thousands of people who have not yet been declared as project-affected even though their villages are facing submergence.

Dam-affected people have certain rights, which have been acknowledged by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDTA) as well as the Supreme Court order of 2000. Both made it mandatory to resettle affected people prior to submergence with a minimum 2 ha of irrigable and cultivable land, house plots, and resettlement sites with amenities. Surveys conducted by the NBA and petitions of oustees from R&R sites indicate violation of these provisions.

STATE governments involved in the Narmada project have severely underestimated the number of affected people. Even those who have been declared as belonging to project-affected families have not received the minimum allotment of 2 ha of cultivable land. The few who have say that the land allotted is uncultivable or lacks irrigation facilities, which are mandatory. Yet others say that they have the land but not the title deeds.

Adivasi land rights continue to remain unrecognised, a problem that is felt acutely in Madhya Pradesh, which has the highest number of dam-displaced Adivasis. The desperation of the affected people surfaced on December 5 when 15 project-affected Adivasis from the taluks of Nandod and Naswadi in Gujarat attempted to commit suicide at the dam site. They said none of the promises made to them by the government had been met.

Medha Patkar says that the Grievance Redressal Authority (GRA) "insists on handling things case by case and not issue by issue". "Age-related proof and land records are two issues that have to be cleared up," she says.

One pervasive problem in R&R is the government's refusal to recognise sons above the age of 18 who are entitled to land compensation. Land records require to be updated. In some cases, those in their 70s are still recorded as adult sons. Their children and grandchildren are not listed in the records. A 1993 Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) report admitted to this and recommended the updating of records. However, this was not done and in 1994 the awards were passed, some in the name of people who were no longer alive.

Yet another category of affected persons is those who have no patta or official land documents to prove that they held the land prior to 1979. As proof of ownership, the GRA and the NVDA ask for certificates either from the local school or from the local police station. Both the GRA and the NVDA seem to be unaware of the realities of Adivasi districts where schools are mostly non-functional and police stations refuse to give any official document because they have no proof of record of births and deaths. The NBA suggested that the gram sabhas be given this responsibility, but this was not accepted.

There is yet another dimension of R&R that is being ignored. Tribal villages in the hills often consist of many hamlets dispersed at various places and levels. Naturally, all are not affected simultaneously by the rising water level. If the dam rises to its proposed height of 139 m, then about 3,000 tribal families spread over 33 villages will lose their lands. The NBA says that as per the NWDT provisions, all these should be settled as a unit and not as individual hamlets as has been done so far.

The R&R efforts undertaken by the authorities have been haphazard. Many sites still lack approach roads, clean drinking water, grazing lands for cattle, and civic amenities. Raghunathbhai of Pichodi village in Madhya Pradesh said he had been offered land but it was fragmented. "How can I look after two plots that are not even close to one another?" he asks. Oustees who have shifted to new plots say they have to face hostility from the original residents of the area, who throw stones at their cattle and drive them off common grazing grounds. "On paper, land is all about choice and consent but in reality it is all ex parte," said Patkar.

It will be inexplicable if, in the face of all these complications, the R&R Sub-Group claims that R&R is complete and gives the green signal to raise the height of the dam.

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