The dam-land conundrum

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST

The Madhya Pradesh government relents to review the rehabilitation of Maan dam oustees following an indefinite fast by Narmada Bachao Andolan activists.

THE Madhya Pradesh government's stand on issues concerning the dams across the Narmada, particularly its attitude towards the indefinite hunger-strike undertaken by Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activists against the construction of a dam on the Maan river (a tributary of the Narmada) in Dhar district, is seen to be baffling. The Maan dam is one of the biggest in the Narmada Valley Development Project. The dam, which is nearing completion, will rise to a height of 53 metres and displace about 1,000 families when submergence begins this monsoon. While the district administration says that the displaced families have either been resettled or given cash compensation, the NBA says that no family has been resettled successfully and that cash compensation is not an acceptable alternative to land.

Ignoring the NBA's protests, the government went ahead with the eviction of the families from the dam-affected villages. In order to 'persuade' the residents to leave their homes, public facilities such as water pumps, tubewells and school buildings were demolished. But the people refused to move out. On May 15, the NBA activists and the residents sat in a dharna in Bhopal to draw the administration's attention. When the sit-in did not elicit the desired result, four of them - Chittaroopa Palit, who has been involved with the NBA for 15 years; Ramkuvar, a 22-year-old tribal girl; Vinod Patwa, whose village was submerged by the Bargi dam 12 years ago; and Mangat Varma, who will lose his home and lands if the Maheshwar dam is built - began an indefinite fast. On June 12, the protesters were arrested and jailed. The four activists who were on fast managed to escape.

At one point of time during the many attempts at negotiations made since May 15, it seemed as if the fast would be called off. This was when the NBA agreed to the suggestion by the government that an independent committee be formed under the chairmanship of Justice (retd.) P.B. Sawant, former Chairperson of the Press Council of India, to consider the issues within seven days and give its directions, which would be implemented in a time-bound manner. However, soon an emissary from the Chief Minister's office arrived at the site of the dharna and that was followed by the withdrawal of the proposal.

The fast finally ended when, on June 18, the government asked Ravindra Sharma, Chairman of the Grievance Redressal Authority (GRA) of the Narmada Valley Development Authority to look into the question of rehabilitation. The committee is to give its recommendations by July 31. For its part, the NBA demanded that the dam should remain empty until the committee ensured total rehabilitation. It stated in a press note: "While extending all cooperation to the committee, the NBA will face the submergence, if the water inundates the houses and fields of hundreds of Maan-affected families before proper rehabilitation, according to the rehabilitation policy..."

The NBA has the support of several people's organisations from across the country. In a statement released to the press in Bhopal, the Kisan Adivasi Sangathan, Shramik Adivasi Sangathan, Jagrut Dalit Adivasi Sangathan, Ekta Parishad, Adivasi Mukti Sangathan and the Bhopal Gas Pidit Mahila Udyog Sangathan, among others, said that the series of events since May 15 had exposed the government. Social activist Baba Adhav and Gandhians Thakudas Bang and Kumar Prashant expressed their concern over the state of the rehabilitation process.

IT is difficult to explain the contradictory actions of the State government. Its rehabilitation policy promises land for land, but in practice it offers cash compensation. As the health of the fasting activists deteriorated, the government responded aggressively by posting police personnel in the affected villages instead of adopting a conciliatory attitude. The government is seen to be pursuing an agenda that is detrimental to the environment as well as Adivasi society. It promises improvement in the quality of life but overwhelms villages by demolishing hand pumps and closing schools.

It speaks of social equality but does not compensate for the loss of livelihoods or for the future earning potential of those who are forced to give up their lands. Neither is it moved by the fact that those affected are largely tribal people and Dalits, the underprivileged sections of society.

In reality, relief and rehabilitation (R&R) at Maan has the potential to be a model for other such exercises since the R&R here is a relatively small project. The NBA believes that "mutually agreeable solutions were turned down by the politician-bureaucrat lobby, for whom the rightful rehabilitation of the dam oustees would have set a precedence of justice in the case of the other dams."

Another curious factor is that the government is shying away from a process of public dialogue and feedback. There have been three recent instances of this. In April, a public hearing was held by the Indian People's Tribunal in Dhar in order to record public grievances about the Maan dam. The panel was headed by a retired High Court Judge. The State government was invited to be a part of the proceedings, but it refused to join in. In May there was another such hearing on the Maheshwar dam. The government again chose not to attend the proceedings. There was yet another hearing in May about the fishing cooperatives in the Tawa dam. Once again, there was no government representation.

The government is playing the "development" card but has no answers for the oft-raised questions, "whose development?" and "development at what cost?" It promotes the Narmada dams saying that they will increase the power potential, expand the irrigation network, ease the prospect of drought and, on the whole, improve people's living conditions. Ironically, those who give up their lands in order that others lead better lives have no real guarantee of a better future for themselves.

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