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Rehabilitation concerns

Print edition : Feb 02, 2002 T+T-

A report exposes irregularities in the rehabilitation of people displaced by the Tehri project even as the police wield the lathi against those who seek to highlight these.

THE unrest in the Tehri valley took a violent turn on January 6 with the police lathicharging residents of Malidewal and Sirain villages in the Bhagirathi valley who were demonstrating against the lifting of red earth for work relating to the Tehri dam. The protesters had stopped two trucks carrying red earth and would not allow them to pass until their demands were met. The Deputy Superintendent of Police, who was present at the site along with the Sub-Divisional Magistrate, warned that they would be arrested. Almost immediately a lathicharge was ordered and mayhem broke loose.

What the people sought to do was to highlight their rehabilitation requirements, but instead of hearing them out the authorities made them the target of police brutality. The protesters were beaten in the presence of the Sub-Divisional Magistrate: 24 of them, including 11 women, were arrested on the charge of disrupting the peace and released after six days.

The police, including personnel of the Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC), acted without provocation, injuring more than 100 persons, said Jagdamba Ratauri, in a letter to the District Magistrate on behalf of the Tehri Coalition Group, which is fighting for the rights of the families displaced by the dam. The police allegedly entered homes and roughed up even children. Medical reports revealed injuries on all parts of the victims' bodies. Khem Singh was beaten up even as he was on his way home, while Harish Prasad of Sirain was dragged out of his house and beaten. The police also beat Sameer Ratauri, who was taking pictures of the police action; they also seized his camera and exposed the film. Those who were arrested were allegedly beaten and abused all the way to the Tehri district jail. It is said the aim was to drive home the message that any obstruction to work on the dam would not be tolerated.

The protesters belonged to Malidewal, Sirain and Dobra villages and were demanding ownership rights of the land that had been allotted to them in Pashulok, on the road to Hardwar, where they were rehabilitated. The allotted land is forest land and they fear that they would have to face legal disputes. They also demanded employment for one unemployed member in each family.

According to Mahipal Negi and Shailendra Nautiyal of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), the lifting of red earth has been put on hold until tempers cool down. However, with the Bhagat Singh Koshiyari-led Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttaranchal attaching great importance to the project, work on it is expected to resume soon. In the coming Assembly elections in the State, the possible loss of three seats in Tehri will be more than offset by the gains that can be had in the rest of the 67 Assembly seats by projecting the dam as an outstanding achievement of the government. "The Tehri seats and the people don't matter to the government. Otherwise it is unusual for such police action to take place on election eve," said Negi.

Work on the dam has progressed to the vital stage of filling the reservoir. Of the four tunnels through which the Bhagirathi and the Bhilanganga rivers flow, the shutters on two were lowered in November and the water level has been rising since then. Among the houses that were submerged was that of Chipko movement founder and a critic of the dam, Sunderlal Bahuguna. It is only a matter of months before the rest of old Tehri town goes under.

The dam, work on which began in 1976, is expected to be completed this year. Initially there was resistance to the project, but it waned after a while, though questions on environmental clearance, seismicity and rehabilitation remained unanswered. The reservoir, spread on 42 sq km, will submerge Tehri town and 22 villages and affect 74 villages partially. The number of villages would be higher if those affected by the Koteshwar dam are also included.

The people in the valley have constituted a broad front called Matu (which roughly stands for "our soil, our heritage"). Vimal Bhai, the Delhi coordinator of Matu, said several promises had been made after the agitation in April-May last year. Koshiyari, who was then the Energy Minister, had assured them that their demands, including the prime one - land for land - would be met within three months.

Matu representatives also said that the Murli Manohar Joshi committee, which was studying the impact of the dam on the self-purification process of the Ganga and its safety in view of the Bhuj earthquake, was a sham. The 11-member committee, whose tenure has been extended until January 31, was set up in a knee-jerk response to VHP leader Ashok Singhal's theatrics on the Tehri issue, they said. It is reliably learnt that the seismic safety of the dam was never considered adequately at the meetings of the committee. Three members reportedly expressed dissenting views at its deliberations.

Two reports, one by the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP) and the other by the district unit of the PUCL, have a lot to say on the rehabilitation issue. According to the SANDRP report, over 70 per cent of rural families and over 90 per cent of the partially affected families were yet to be given resettlement benefits. Over 57 per cent of the fully affected families were yet to get land; this figure excludes more than 330 families of Godisirai village, which comes in the submergence area. Between 1997 and 2001, practically no additional land was acquired for resettlement.

The Hanumantha Rao Committee, which studied the rehabilitation and environment clearance issues, had stated in its report submitted in 1997 that the State government had acquired 4,100 acres (1,640 hectares). However, the Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R & R) report of March 2001 stated that the government had in its possession 3,577 acres. This indicated that while additional land had not been acquired after 1997, a good part of the acquired land had been rejected because it was non-cultivable. The Hanumantha Rao Committee, set up in September 1996 under the chairmanship of the former member of the Planning Commission, submitted one of the most comprehensive reports dealing with the aspects of rehabilitation and environmental clearance of the Tehri project. The majority of its recommendations were acceptable to the people of Tehri.

According to the SANDRP report, the R & R package of the Tehri project does not match that of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) or conform to the international norms laid down in the World Commission on Dams report. The SSP offers five acres (two hectares) of irrigable land to each displaced family, with the irrigation facilities provided by the State. In a family, each male member above 18 years of age is treated as a separate unit and is eligible for land. In the case of the Tehri project, the land allotted to each family is two acres, and that too unirrigated, and only male members aged 21 or above are eligible for land as heads of families. There is still only a draft national policy on resettlement and rehabilitation.

The promised rehabilitation benefits include cash compensation or alternative land, for land that would be submerged. Further, reservoir land would be given for temporary cultivation during the period when the reservoir level is low. Also, in areas where over 75 per cent of the villages are fully affected, the remaining villages also would be considered fully affected and their residents are entitled to cash compensation on a par with the fully affected families, but no land. However, these families would get other kinds of compensation, which include residential structures and incentives for seeds and fertilizers.

The SANDRP report mentions the case of Asena village, which was initially put in the "partially affected" category but later considered "fully affected" under what was officially called "special circumstances". This change happened after the people prevented the Tehri Hydro Development Corporation (THDC) from lifting stones from their village for dam-related work. Asena's farmland was slated for submergence in phase two of the project and the people had not been compensated for their land. In Plas village the SANDRP team found that fertile land that would be submerged in the first phase was considered partially affected. Godisirai, which will be submerged in the first phase, suddenly began to be considered as two units, Godi and Sirai, with the latter placed in the second phase. All documents refer to Godisirai as one village with 397 families.

Common property resources have not been taken into account in the process of rehabilitation despite the views of the Hanumantha Rao Committee on this. It had stated that the "displaced community must be individually and collectively compensated for all losses... including lands, trees, houses, community amenities and services and access to natural resources."

The SANDRP survey found several inadequacies at two of the official rehabilitation sites, Pathriwala and Pathri Roh, in Hardwar district. The soil was not fertile and the people did not have access to minor forest produce or proprietary rights over the land, which would have enabled them to sell or rent it out. They could cultivate only a single crop as against multiple crops in the Tehri valley. They had to pay for water, which increased their agricultural costs. Grazing land was grossly inadequate, and even fishing facilities were absent. Women in the plains also complained of insecurity and fear, a point that Sunderlal Bahuguna has constantly reiterated.

The World Commission on Dams Report, 2000, states: "The key economic risks to affected people are from the loss of livelihood and income sources such as arable land, common property resources (forests, grazing land, ground and surface water, fisheries and so on) and changed access and control of productive resources. The loss of economic power with the breakdown of complex livelihood system results in temporary or permanent, often irreversible, decline in living standards, leading to marginalisation." Perhaps this is just what the people of Malidewal and Sirain are experiencing.