A victory for the NBA

Print edition : October 13, 2001

The Maharashtra government agrees to formulate a master plan for the rehabilitation of people affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project, but only after NBA leader Medha Patkar goes on a hunger strike.

IN what is seen as a positive development in the matter of resettlement of people affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) in Maharashtra, the State government has put together a plan that not only involves the participation of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) but also promises the formulation of the long-awaited master plan for rehabilitation and resettlement. The NBA's leader Medha Patkar and six activists ended their 10-day-old hunger strike on the issue on September 27, after the government conceded most of their demands.

The NBA, which has been spearheading the agitation of the people evacuated by the dam, seeks the implementation of the recommendations of the Justice S.M. Daud Committee as well as a review of the controversial land rights and resettlement issues. Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh assured Medha Patkar that a complete verification of the Project-Affected People (PAP) would be done before any further decision on the dam height was taken. Furthermore, he said the Daud Committee report, which was submitted over two months earlier, would be discussed at the next Cabinet meeting.

Medha Patkar, who came close to being administered intravenous fluids, welcomed the breakthrough. "This is a major step forward," she said. "But breaking this fast does not mean the end of an ordeal. The real painstaking fight lies ahead when we try to get these promises implemented."

Medha Patkar on hunger strike demanding rehabilitation of the families displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project in Maharashtra.-SHASHI ASHIWAL

The NBA had demanded that the process of verification of the Project-Affected Families should be done through village-wise surveys at heights of 90 metres, 93 metres, 100 metres and the full dam height. The government said it would consult the Narmada Control Authority on a re-survey and ensure that the survey and the verification were done within two months. For this it will appoint a task force as demanded by the NBA. Representatives of the NBA and the Punarwarsan Sangharsh Samiti (PSS) will be part of the task force, which will be headed by the Divisional Commissioner of Nashik.

In addition, a letter from Principal Secretary (Rehabilitation) R.K Bhargava to the NBA states that a new planning group, which will include NBA members, will be formed to draft a comprehensive master plan for rehabilitation. Surveys would be done to take stock of the resettlement work and detect lacunae, if any. A Secretary-level overview committee would supervise the implementation of the whole programme, the letter said.

The government also told the NBA that it would not stand in the way of providing land rights to 33 affected tribal villages in Akrani tehsil of Nandurbar district - an important demand of the NBA. Until recently the government had used a High Court case pertaining to the conversion of forest settlements to legitimate revenue villages to deny land rights to the affected tribal people and other villagers. The Bombay High Court is expected to hear the matter on October 10.

The NBA argues that these so-called forest villages were formed before the promulgation of the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980, and a proposal to designate them as revenue villages was ready by 1986-87. However, the government delayed the notification and finally issued it only in 1992. "This process cannot be cancelled arbitrarily, as the government did in 1994 by cursorily cancelling the notification of 1992," an NBA statement said.

The dharna by NBA activists and the hunger strike by Medha Patkar were part of the Andolan's protracted struggle against the governments of the three States "benefiting" from the SSP. "The Maharashtra government may have conceded the NBA's demands, but it remains to be seen whether it is just a tactic to pacify me and get me to end the hunger strike," Medha Patkar told Frontline. She believes that without the "political will, issues relating to the SSP will never be resolved". The government, she said, appeared to be making some effort, but a number of problems remained. For instance, she wondered whether there was enough land to be given as compensation. Madhya Pradesh was willing to provide monetary reparation, but that was not the solution in the case of people who had lost acres of cultivable land, she argued. "Piecemeal solutions will not do," said Medha Patkar. She wanted a master plan that looked at the larger issues. The Maharashtra government has agreed to formulate this plan but NBA activists are sceptical about it reaching fruition. After all, in its judgment permitting the project authorities to go ahead with the construction of the dam, the Supreme Court stipulated that a master plan for rehabilitation and resettlement be presented to it within 40 days of the ruling. The deadline expired last year and there has been no mention of it since. This, the NBA said, had led it to understand that the governments had no intention of looking at the larger picture.

A government official told Frontline that one of the biggest difficulties the Maharashtra government faced was in compensating for the lost of land with land: "We are in the process of purchasing land but there is not enough land available for distribution when the dam reaches its full height." There does not seem to be enough land even for those who were affected by the dam when its height reached 90 metres. According to the NBA's figures, of the 144 families displaced at the 90-metre height, only 69 have been resettled. Should the dam height be increased, as many as 1,061 families in Maharashtra could be displaced.

NBA activist Clifton Rozario said the government cleared 2,700 hectares of forest land in 1990 to resettle those who had been displaced. Subsequently, it cleared another 1,500 hectares. Of the 4,200 hectares, 795 hectares was not cultivable. Rozario claimed that in Maharashtra approximately 20,000 hectares would be affected by the dam. "How can 4,200 hectares replace 20,000 hectares?" he asked. He pointed out that those who were resettled in 1994 had not yet been given land titles. "It means that tomorrow the land can be snatched away from them without any explanation," he said. "The Chief Minister has promised us that the land titles will be given within the next three months," he added.

WHAT is resettlement and when is a family resettled? According to the World Bank's guidelines, the purpose of resettlement is to help a family regain its previous standard of living. By that yardstick, the resettlement and rehabilitation plans of the governments of Maharashtra and the other State governments concerned were failures, said Rozario. In Maharashtra, none of the five resettlement sites in Taloda met the standard requirement, he said.

In fact, the Committee to Assist the Resettlement and Rehabilitation of Sardar Sarovar Project-Affected People, headed by Justice S.M. Daud, exposed the Maharashtra government's failed resettlement and rehabilitation efforts. Its report brings out the inherent inadequacies in the resettlement process. These include the non-availability of land, incorrect enumeration of the project-affected Adivasis, non-granting of land rights, unequal resettlement policy and bureaucratic corruption. It places the blame for most of these on the absence of a master plan for rehabilitation.

A physical verification of the project area, it states, shows that the resettlement of those displaced at a dam height of 90 metres is yet to be completed. It is against increasing the height of the dam before families that have already been displaced are resettled. Additionally, owing to the non-availability of land, hundreds of displaced tribal people have no source of income, the report says. Members of the Committee, who visited resettlement villages, say the sites "lack almost all the basic facilities required for habitation. One of the greatest shortcomings is the non-availability of water even for cooking and drinking."

The Committee was formed after people from the 33 affected villages protested for three days in Mumbai in January demanding an independent review, within the framework of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA), of the plight of those who had been relocated and those who were in the submergence zone. In fact, Deshmukh announced the formation of two independent committees, to review the rehabilitation status of the persons displaced in Maharashtra and to do a cost-benefit analysis of the SSP for Maharashtra. While the Daud Committee reviewed the status of the affected people and submitted its report on July 3, 2001, the second committee remained only on paper. Now the State government has said it will constitute a study group to do a cost-benefit analysis of the project. The report is expected in six months.

FOREMOST among the Daud Committee's recommendations is the one to alter the definition of "project-affected persons" by including all those affected by every type of construction related to the dam. In addition, the committee suggests that the government undertake a fresh survey to determine the number of families that would be affected and the compensatory acreage as part of the process of granting land rights, using the unpublished official surveys of 1985-86.

The Committee, having surveyed much of the area, recommended that for the loss of agricultural income the tribal people should receive monetary compensation, in addition to land, for a period of at least 50 years. For those who have been deprived of their houses and agricultural land because of submergence but have not been placed in possession of cultivable land and house plots, it suggests a compensation of Rs.3,000 an acre a year from the date of ouster to the date on which they are placed in undisturbed legal possession of new land. "What we prescribe is far less than what the tribals are entitled to. Their loss is irreparable," the report says.

Much of the report's contents are common knowledge. Now it has been officially documented. Unfortunately, when the report was presented to the government, it was labelled "anti-dam and pro-NBA". Perhaps that explains the government's indifference to discussing it and, of course, its implementing the recommendations.

One of the critical requirements of the NWDTA is that the rights of the displaced Adivasis are ensured before work on the dam begins. It states that any individual or community facing submergence owing to proposed construction should be rehabilitated one year before actual submergence. This norm has been consistently violated, says Rozario. Once the reviews and surveys are complete and are presented to the Narmada Control Authority, if the government does not provide adequate resettlement before increasing the height of the dam, that will be in complete violation of the law, he says. Given the history of the struggle, the NBA wants to make sure every project-affected person is accounted for.

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