Developing distress

  • 30/03/1995

Developing distress UPROOTED 4 times in 3 decades. Thirty thousand villagers of Madhya Pradesh were first displaced during the construction of the Rihand dam (late '50s); later, again, when coal was found in the mid-70s; a third time, to make room for industry; and finally, when the Singrauli mega thermal power station was mooted in the late '80s. And since the area has been recently earmarked for compensatory reforestation, they might be shown the door a fifth time.

But these villagers are no exception. "First they grabbed our little finger, then our hand and soon they swallowed us up," said Jasibehn Tadvi, a displaced woman from Bharuch district's Kevadia village. She was ousted during the first phase of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP). Jasibehn and many others displaced due to various developmental projects spoke their hearts out during a mid-January workshop organised by the Indian Social Institute in the Capital.

A large number of oustees, along with non-governmental organisations (NGOs), representatives of voluntary agencies, research institutions and mass organisations attended the National Workshop to discuss a series of draft rehabilitation policies prepared by the Union ministry of rural development (MRD) and the Central Water Commission, Coal India and the National Thermal Power Corporation. What emerged from the exercise is a graphic detailing of the price that the "have-nots" pay for development, which benefits the "haves".

There was much ire over the bureaucracy's typically secretive approach. The latest draft, marked "Secret", is signed by Shivraj Singh, joint secretary, land reforms, MRD. Says Singh, "I don't know how my name got in there." But he spoke of a fresh draft being prepared, with comments from all other ministries which are planning developmental programmes. But how are the people sought to be involved in the process? Singh said, "All that will be discussed."

There will be much struggle ahead. And the workshop -- the culmination of discussions at the taluka, district and state levels -- was a part of that struggle. As Jai Sen of the National Campaign for Housing Rights said, "We have to struggle to ensure that the people are part of the decision-making process, which enables them to decide whether the kind of development that displaces them should be allowed at all."

But it is also becoming increasingly clear that growing pressure, both from mass movements and the World Bank (WB), is forcing the government to lend its ears to public opinion. In 1992, the WB was forced to review such of its aided projects which had faced widespread discontent and agitations. Activists insist that the WB has been pressurising the government to come out with a rehabilitation policy.

The draft acknowledges the growing movement against displacement. It says, "The world financial institutions can go to the extent of withholding loan and aid so as to get fulfillment for their ecological concerns."
The beginning Development-related displacement in India can be traced back to the Raj days and the construction of the first state-owned Yamuna Canal system in 1789. The construction of the Upper Anicut dam on the Cauvery in 1863 raised the issue of involuntary displacement. Colonial administration came out with the Land Acquisition Act in 1894. Even after an amendment 90 years later, the Act remains a sore point with oustees.

The Tata Power Company's building of a dam at Mulshi Peta in 1920 near Pune displaced 11,000 people, and triggered off the first satyagraha against forcible displacement. Thirteen hundred Pune residents signed a protest letter, and on April 16, some 1,200 Mavla men, women and children forced the work to a halt.

The era of large dams began with the Mettur dam on the Cauvery in 1930. It was the country's first concrete dam. By 1950, about 100 major dams, with reservoirs having a culturable command area exceeding 10,000 ha had come up. The Bhakra-Nangal and Hirakud dams were touted as symbols of progress. By 1985, some 1,500 large and medium and thousands of minor dams had been commissioned. The public outlay on irrigation projects had reached Rs 20,000 crore.

But apart from dams, industrial and mining projects, national parks and sanctuaries and even tourist resorts have displaced people.

Rehabilitation of the oustees everywhere has been extremely poor. Merely 25 per cent of those displaced during the first 3 decades of planned development have been resettled. One example: of the 2,108 families displaced from Una and Bilaspur districts of Himachal Pradesh by the Bhakra-Nangal project, only 750 have been resettled.

Estimates of the total numbers displaced by dams since 195l vary: 210 lakh till 1985 according to activist-economist Vijay Paranjpye; and 164 lakh, according to Walter Fernandes, convenor of the workshop in the Capital. Fernandes claims that from 1951 to 1990, a total of 213 lakh people have been displaced by dams, mines, industries and wildlife sanctuaries put together.

Reliable data is mostly not available. While the government accepts a figure of 110,000 displaced by the Hirakud project, researchers claim a figure of 180,000.

Fernandes moans, "The nation ignores the 'internal refugees' of developmental projects, whose numbers far exceed the 150 lakh people displaced by the 1947 partition."

Tribals' trauma
Studies show that most of the oustees are tribals and other assetless rural poor who have traditionally depended on the common property resources (CPR), or survived by rendering services to the village.

Official figures, too, show that tribals, comprising less than 8 per cent of the country's population, exceed 40 per cent of those displaced till 1990.

But reliable estimates for dalits (Scheduled Castes) displaced by these schemes don't exist. Extrapolating data from some projects, Lakshman Mahapatra, former vice chancellor of the Utkal University in Orissa, estimates that dalits comprise 20 per cent of oustees.

The proportion of tribal oustees has shot up to 50 per cent in the last 2 decades. This stands true also for wildlife projects in south India. An official report (1990) of the Field Director, Karnataka, claims, "Shifting of tribals and other villagers from a Tiger Reserve has been an accepted principle for proper management by the Government of India and state governments."

Nonexistent planning has added to the miseries of the downtrodden. Multiple displacements, as shown in the case of the Rihand oustees, have been repeated many times over. Fisherfolk families displaced by the New Mangalore Port in the '60s, and resettled as agriculturists, are being displaced again for the Konkan Railway, after they have adapted themselves to their new lifestyle. Tribals displaced in the '70s by the Kabini dam are being dislocated again by a new bio-sphere reserve.

Tribals traditionally depend on common property for survival, unlike caste-based farmers who own land individually. But the government has differing attitudes towards these peoples. Only 18 per cent of the land claimed for the National Aluminium Corporation's Angul project in Dhenkanal (dominated by caste-based farmers) belonged to the government. But in the tribal-belt project in Damanjodi, Koraput district, 58 per cent of the land acquired was common property.

A warped national value system considers the tribal regions as "backward". Their land is assessed at a rate lower than in the "advanced" regions. The Damanjodi oustees received only Rs 6,670 per ha, compared to about Rs 62,000 per ha paid in Angul.

Tribals sometimes sell off land much before a project starts. Most often, non-tribals buy these lands with an eye on the prospects of wiggling out higher compensations as "oustees". This is precisely what had happened in the test-firing range of Baliapal, Orissa.

Nomads, who comprise 5 per cent of the total population, are totally ignored because they are landless. The Van Gujjars of the Rajaji National Park have been resisting their ouster and forced resettlement in a decrepit housing colony at Pathri, near Hardwar.

The onset of a development project does strange things to humans. A destructive streak overtakes the locals, who stop developing their own lands, cut down trees and steal the assets of other people. The communities which hitherto treated forests as a renewable community resource begin to ravage them. This triggers off environmental degradation, which invariably intensifies when resettlement is ignored. The tribals and dalits, the worst sufferers, resist marginalisation at times, but are soon neutralised.

Regime of insecurity
The formal sector's (banks and other institutions) reflexes, conditioned to operate in a milieu of security, do not allow it to give loans and grants to oustees, uncertain about recovering them. Moneylenders, middlemen and other outsiders exploit this regime of insecurity.

It is now widely accepted that the first norm of any displacement or rehabilitation policy should be the involvement and consent of the people. But this has not been done in any project so far. Upendra Baxi, eminent jurist and former vice-chancellor of Delhi University flays this: "The beneficiaries as well as victims of developmental projects must, on the logic of the plan, forfeit their sovereignty to the virtuous and benign bureaucracy, who alone know what is good for them in the short as well as the long run. Any questioning of the present development paradigm leads to being branded as :nti-poor' or :nti-development.'"

Development now appears as a new theology in which democratic articulation emerges as a sin against the people, says Baxi. "But which people? Those who benefit or those who pay the price?" he asks.

One key to the democratisation of development processes is information flow, which alone can expose the bureaucracy's double standards. "How long will the government go on saying one thing in international meetings and practising another thing within the country?" asks Sen.

Sen insists that the present practices of the government militate against the basic principles of the Constitution. Various sections of Article 19 and Article 14, guaranteeing right to life and dignity, freedom and right to settle anywhere in the country and right to equality lie violated.

Today, consensus has evolved regarding the government's duties before deciding to relocate communities to make room for developmental projects. Consent should be democratically obtained from the people likely to be affected, after explicitly clarifying to them their larger interests. The proposal should be publicly and nationally declared.

If those required to move decline to do so, there must be a public enquiry and adjudication through a sort of tribunal comprising independent citizens, but if its verdict is unacceptable to the State, the Supreme Court should be approached for a decision. If the tribunal or the Supreme Court directs the people to move, they shall be entitled to total rehabilitation and not just resettlement.

Where people enjoying customary rights over CPR are displaced, they should be automatically entitled to joint ownership of whatever industry or investment that causes their displacement and or of benefits accruing from it. But in no case should anyone be shifted more than once in at least 50 to 100 years. This calls for very comprehensive area planning. Projects are notoriously slow to complete, or even to take off. In case a project is not started or not fully underway within 2 years of displacement, the oustees must be given the option of regaining the ownership and full rights of use of the CPR.

This is crucial. It is a standing practice for the bureaucracy to issue notices for evacuation the moment a project is announced, though the actual shifting might not start for years. A Centre for Social Studies study shows that most of the oustees in the 19 Gujarat villages facing submersion due to the SSP had been issued notices as early as 1980. The actual shifting is yet to take place from many villages. The 557 households who had been shifted by 1988 should have been given a total of 1,118 ha of land, but only 526.5 ha had been actually handed over.

On the whole, the struggling peoples and organisations are perhaps seeing some rays of hope, with the recent pronouncements of the Supreme Court tending to castigate the government; the thrashing meted out last month on the Narmada project is a case to point.

The changing opinion climate in the West is forcing international financial institutions to become more responsible about funding projects in the peripheral nations. And mass protests on environmental issues are being echoed fast and loud by sympathisers in developed countries. Yet, the stubborn mindset of the bureaucracy and their callous indifference will need more than a few bashings to ensure that development projects are for the people, of the people, and have to be approved, first, by the people.

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