Trouble over Man

Print edition : April 28, 2001

The Madhya Pradesh government's resolve to go ahead with the construction of the Man project without implementing the land-for-land rehabilitation policy agitates the Adivasis who would be affected by the project.

THIS monsoon, another tragedy is waiting to occur. And the place once again is the Narmada Valley. The dam in question this time is on the Man river and is one of the 30 big dams that form a part of the gigantic scheme devised by the Narmada Valley Development Authority to harness the waters of the Narmada and its tributaries.

As has happened in the case of other projects here, the issue revolves around rehabilitation. Some 993 Adivasi families (about 5,000 persons) belonging to 17 villages in Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh will be affected when the monsoon breaks this year and submerges their lands. Generations of these Adivasis, mostly Bhils and Bhilalas, have inhabited these plains cultivating corn, wheat, cotton and pulses on the fertile black soil irrigated by the perennial Man.

Adivasis sit in dharna at the Man dam site under the banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan demanding total rehabilitation ahead of the monsoon of those displaced by the project and a halt to the construction activity.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

On March 21, hundreds of Adivasis stormed and occupied the dam site demanding total rehabilitation prior to the monsoon of the families affected by the dam and a halt to the construction activity. About 250 protesters were arrested and lodged in the Dhar jail. Later 33 persons were released and the rest, who included women with babies in their arms, remained behind bars. Fifty children who participated in the dharna were taken to jail along with the adults but were released immediately. On the seventh day of the protest, all but two women, Chittaroopa Palit and Urmila Patidar, were detained. Palit is a field worker of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) and Patidar is an NBA volunteer. Incidentally, Patidar is one of the persons affected by the now-stalled Maheshwar dam project. The NBA activists were charged with committing atrocities on the Adivasis. In order to detain the protesters, warrants relating to old cases were submitted to the Jail Superintendent. The jail official received warrants against Palit for six cases in Dhar and for five cases from the Mandleshwar Court. Warrants were also served by the Khargone Court, directing that she be produced before it. Palit and Patidar were detained for 13 days.

Palit says: "The case against me and 13 others under the SC/ST Act states that we abused Adivasi policewomen as we beat them up, saying Randi, phir aa gayi. Tum logo se kya hoga, Bhildi? (There is nothing you can do to stop us, Bhildi). Bhildi is a contemptuous way of referring to Adivasis. Of course it is not clear why someone participating in a movement for Adivasi rights should use the word Bhil pejoratively."

IT is evident that the NBA had made a determined effort to resolve the Man issue through dialogue and that it resorted to the agitation only after these failed. A brief timeline proves this. On January 24, the affected families staged a demonstration in front of the Dhar district headquarters demanding that the construction be stopped and that a land-for-land policy be implemented. On January 30, the government acquiesced to the demand to halt work. However, construction work re-started on February 9. On February 20, Deputy Chief Minister Subhash Yadav chaired a meeting at which the affected people raised questions about the incomplete rehabilitation. This was the first meeting of the Punarvas Ayojan Samiti, a committee for rehabilitation, appointed by the government to look into alternatives for the proposed projects and study the rehabilitation process. From the protesters' point of view the meeting was a failure since they were not allowed to present the entire issue. The meeting adjourned halfway through.

THE struggle against the Man project started four years ago. The construction of the dam began in November 2000 despite the fact that no move had been made to rehabilitate the affected families. One key aspect of the rehabilitation policy is that any person losing more than 25 per cent of his or her landholding is entitled to irrigated agricultural land in the rehabilitation process. As is true in the case of other Narmada Valley dams, the majority of the displaced persons will be Adivasis. Initially the authorities presumed that the general lack of land deeds and other papers of ownership among them would make land acquisition easy. However, Schedule V of the Constitution safeguards Adivasi rights. A Supreme Court ruling that prevents the transfer of land from an Adivasi to a non-Adivasi for any purpose lends further strength to the constitutional provision.

The rehabilitation policy states that cash compensation can be given only to those affected persons who apply for it. And if the applicant is an Adivasi then the Collector must issue a certificate stating that the payment of cash compensation, rather than the allotment of alternative land, will not be detrimental to the future of the applicant.

In 1990 and 1991, some Adivasis affected by the Man project accepted small amounts of cash compensation. They now say that they were coerced into accepting these by government officials who told them that if they did not accept the money at that point they would get nothing. Their claim is borne out by the fact that there is no record of applications made by Adivasis nor of any certificate issued by the Collector.

The Man dam is one of 30 large dams planned by the Narmada Valley Development Authority. About 250 protesters were arrested when they reached the dam site on March 21.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Chittaroopa Palit says: "The choice of cash against land has to be voluntary in the case of any of the oustees, especially in the case of Adivasis since they are not integrated into the monetary economy and there are several covenants against the purchase or acquisition of tribal lands for cash. The Collector is meant to investigate first and then verify whether acceptance of cash would lead to the pauperisation of the family. In the case of Man there was no application, nor was there any investigation by the administration. They were just forced to take cash - that too a pittance - nearly a decade ago, without being informed of their rights."

The Man project, with a proposed height of 53 metres, received environmental clearance in 1994. A precondition for the clearance was that the affected Adivasis must be resettled on non-forest agricultural land - a policy statement that was reinforced by the State government's own policy that stipulated a land-for-land resettlement. Yet cash compensation transactions did take place. As a result of these violations, the appraisal committee of the Central Environment Ministry blacklisted the project in 1984. In 1997, when eviction notices were handed to the Adivasis, they rallied together under the banner of the NBA.

After three years of pressure, the State government agreed to convene a committee for rehabilitation. A government order clearly bars all construction activity that might endanger any affected person whose rehabilitation was yet to be completed. Work resumed on the spillway of the dam in October 2000, potentially endangering the lives of over 500 Adivasis during the coming monsoon. Work was stopped following a public protest, but it resumed after 10 days under police protection.

The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, which was appointed by the Union of India in 1969 to arbitrate differences among the three States of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat on the sharing of the Narmada waters, has made precise provisions in its award stating a land-for-land principle in matters of land compensation. The award also stipulates that there should be community resettlement to facilitate easier resettlement of families. The rehabilitation package provides for house plots (in some cases, with construction costs) and cultivable irrigated or irrigable land. The Madhya Pradesh government based its 1989 rehabilitation policy on this, but Palit says those affected by the Man project "have not been given the mandatory house plots nor the basic village infrastructure under the Madhya Pradesh policy. When the reservoir fills up this year, the people will have nowhere to go."

Project officials say they have prepared an emergency plan. To compensate for the permanent submergence of the lands and homes of over 500 people the NVDA has proposed temporary camps to provide shelter, food and medical assistance. Half of the minimum wages for the initial monsoon months have also been promised, but as Palit asks, "what happens after that?"

To date only 22 Adivasis have been given lands, which according to the NBA is either encroached or uncultivable land. Ironically, the rationale of the Man dam is itself questionable. The project's promoters say that it will vastly increase the scope for irrigation. But a 1998 Task Force investigation revealed that 54 per cent of the command area was already irrigated and the remaining land was unsuitable for irrigation. It was also found that the existing irrigation facilities were not being maximised.

A project official conceded: "If the dam construction proceeds as per plan, the crest level of 286.10 metres will be achieved by the monsoon of 2001. At this height, at the maximum water flow of 10 cumecs along with the backwater effect, 993 families will be affected. Of this, 283 families have vacated and 710 are yet to vacate the submergence area."

Regardless of these facts, NVDA officials are adamant about continuing the work. They argue that the grant of NABARD (National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development) credit for the project requires that the dam be constructed by June 2001.

The controversy about the Man project is the first major one to erupt in the Narmada Valley after the Supreme Court judgment on the Sardar Sarovar dam. Bolstered by the judgment, Madhya Pradesh is forging ahead with the construction work, largely ignoring all directives on rehabilitation. The Man events indicate that the State government will take up similar projects in the coming months.

Summing up her experience with regard to the project so far, Palit says: "After the Supreme Court judgment, they (the government) think it is a free-for-all. On January 28 they called a meeting of the committee on the Veda and Goi projects, which were meant to be alternatives to these large dams. I am also a member of this committee, which was set up under the orders of the State government issued in May 1999. We had staged a 21-day fast in Bhopal. The committee was set up in late 2000, and at the first meeting, held in January, we were told in no uncertain terms that there was no question of alternatives and that the government would go ahead with the large dams. Then came the meeting of the committee on the Man-Jobat projects where they basically said that everything had been done and that they would construct the dam to its full height."

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