A symbol under siege

Published : Jun 22, 2002 00:00 IST

NIJ-BAL is not just the home of social worker Baba Amte. Located at Kasravad on the banks of the Narmada in Madhya Pradesh, it is a symbol of the struggle of the people affected by the dams coming up across the river at various points. It has become a centre for social activists. That explains the illegal possession of the house on June 8 by a group of men led by Tulsiram Gilya of Kasravad. They broke the lock of the house after threatening its 78-year-old caretaker. Four days later, the administration sealed the house, which lent credence to the general belief that Gilya had its blessings.

Gilya claimed that the land belonged to him. The veracity of the claim is in doubt because he, like his fellow residents in the village, was paid compensation 30 years ago for property lost. Moreover, the Narmada Valley Development Authority and the local administration passed an award of about Rs.9 lakhs in Gilya's name recently without holding any sort of hearing. This after the local administration had served a notice on him under Clause 9 of the Land Acquisition Act in February and the NBA had filed a written complaint against the acquisition. Even if Gilya has a claim on the land, the house, built as it was with contributions from the village residents, is certainly not his.

Baba Amte is a long-time supporter of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). Nij-Bal lies 140 kilometres upstream of the gigantic Sardar Sarovar dam and the area is expected to be submerged during this monsoon. Baba Amte, who is undergoing medical treatment in Maharashtra, is due to return to Nij-Bal prior to the monsoon. His presence would have been a powerful inspiration for satyagrahis, such as those who gathered at Nij-Bal during every monsoon season for the past few years. Besides, it would have been embarrassing for the local administration to shift him once the water level started rising.

In a letter to the Badwani District Collector, Baba Amte termed the occupation of his home a "mean, disgusting and unjust" act and hoped that there would be no impediments when he returned.

THE land belongs to the government. It is located in old Kasravad, which was vacated by the people in 1971 because of frequent flooding. The residents were compensated for the loss of their fields and homes and have been living in the village at a higher location. In 1990, when the Sardar Sarovar controversy was at its peak, they decided to build a house for Baba Amte. It was a gesture of protest because they knew that the land was in the submergence zone. An NBA activist said: "I suppose you can technically call this an encroachment but they were not out to claim the land in the manner of encroachers. They wanted to make a symbolic point that challenged the unfairness of their own impending eviction." There is a line of argument that the government is justified in taking possession of the house since it is built on encroached land. But in this case the house was sought to be occupied by an individual, and not the government.

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