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Damned, as always

Leaders and policy-makers typically viewed the forced uprooting of substantial populations as legitimate and inevitable costs of development, writes Harsh Mander.

india Updated: Apr 10, 2006 01:35 IST

In the shadows of the tall offices of the nation’s power elite in the capital, for some flickering moments, a few hundred dispossessed women and men gathered tenuously. They were desperate because their homes and lands were shortly to be drowned forever. Years of brave resistance failed to prevent this day, because they are powerless before a government and courts that refuse to see and care. It was perhaps fitting that they were arrested in the dead of night by a battery of policepersons several times their numbers, to silence and exile them into their customary oblivion.

The greatest success of numberless local struggles of people displaced by large development projects over the many decades after Independence have cumulatively been in breaking the muffled silences that surround the astounding inequities of their dispossession by the State. They have also raised searching questions, which we have still not answered, about the nature and ‘price’ of development and who is condemned to pay it.

With the advent of planned development after freedom, the visibility, scale and sweep of mega-dams made them potent emblems of the reconstruction and regeneration of the battered economies of long-suppressed post-colonial nations. Leaders and policy-makers typically viewed the forced uprooting of substantial populations as legitimate and inevitable costs of development, acceptable in the larger national interest. Nehru, while laying the foundation stone for India’s first major river valley project, the Hirakud Dam in Orissa in 1948, said to the tens of thousand facing the grim prospect of displacement: “If you have to suffer, you should do so in the interest of the country.”

It is important to recognise that the staggering, unremitting and largely untold human suffering of people displaced by big dams is the direct outcome of State policy and law, and their implementation and interpretation by officials and courts.

Among the recurring trends in the experience of displacement and rehabilitation as a result of big dams in India, is that the State typically refuses to consult with and inform the people condemned to eventual submergence. There is typical confusion among resettlers in virtually every large project about even the precise contours of submergence — which villages or segments of villages would be submerged, and when. In the Narmada valley, even which persons are affected and who are to be compensated and rehabilitated has not been resolved, although their homes and lands have been submerged. Again, typically oustees are rarely consulted or even informed about the phasing and content of their rehabilitation package, their entitlements and their choices.

The only significant reparation for displaced persons guaranteed by law is the payment of monetary compensation for compulsorily acquired individual assets, mainly land or houses. However, the manner in which the law is framed and interpreted ensures that the displaced land-owner or house-owner is invariably the loser. Rural, especially tribal people, are unused to a monetary economy, and usually spend their money in consumption and repaying loans and in barely months are left pauperised. Landless farmers, fisherfolk and artisans, who lose their livelihoods but few assets, are barely compensated.

It is only in recent years that, chiefly under the impact of people’s movements, project authorities, state governments and international funding agencies have accepted responsibility for rehabilitation — one that extends beyond the payment of monetary compensation for expropriated individual assets and the provision of house sites. Involuntary relocation is always extremely painful, but a sensitive project bureaucracy can do much to relieve its trauma.

In practice, however, it has been observed that the driving objective of project authorities has not been to assist the families to relocate. Instead, frequently the only objective is to vacate the submergence zone of what are perceived to be its human encumbrances, with the brute force of the State. In many parts of the Narmada valley, this forced relocation occurs without even settlement of compensation claims.

Resettlement sites are often inhospitable, their locations are selected without reference to availability of livelihood opportunities, or the preferences of displaced persons. In the Narmada valley, even years after the relocation, basic facilities are not established in the resettlement sites. The locations themselves are sometimes small islands or at the far end of the reservoir, perched on top of hilltops, surrounded by kilometres of reservoir waters. For many settlements, small perilous wooden boats are still the only uncertain modes of transportation. Earth roads are submerged six months in a year.

Similarly, health and education facilities are ‘provided’ merely by the creation of buildings for sub-health centres or schools. Health workers or teachers are not positioned, health centres are not provided with the requisite equipment and infrastructure and in the end, buildings crumble and begin to resemble ghost town structures. People are abandoned to live and die, often literally in darkness, without even elementary healthcare, clean drinking water, electrification and education.

The Narmada Award requires oustees to get irrigated agricultural land in lieu of land they were forced to sacrifice. If implemented sincerely, this provision alone could have enabled affected people to rebuild their lives. But this has rarely been done. The government of Madhya Pradesh, in particular, continues to flout this provision with elaborate and shameful official subterfuge. It is an unconscionable failure of our legal system that courts have permitted the expeditious completion of the dam, even though the limited rights of rehabilitation of affected people are flouted with impunity by state governments.

Opponents of big dams have argued persuasively that these are part of a development strategy that intrinsically impoverishes poor people. The debate around big dams in India, in fact, have been inextricably intertwined with largely irreconcilable ideological battlelines about the nature and impacts of State-induced development. The opponents to big dams have also challenged the dominant orthodoxy that development, especially State-induced development, necessarily entails the human costs of displacement or involuntary resettlement.

They are not opposed to the expansion of irrigation or the generation of electricity. All they argue is that technologies exist and should be further developed, which provide water and energy to people with far less devastating human and environmental costs. The staggering costs of any mega dam, for instance, could permit the creation of innumerable small water harvesting and micro-irrigation systems for every village, that do not require vast populations to be dispossessed nor precious forests to be submerged.

The construction of large dams raises fundamental questions of equity, fairness and justice before law, in the matter of distribution of benefits and burdens. The deprivation suffered by displaced people also raises vital issues of constitutional norms and human rights, including the right to survival, and the basic right to live with dignity. It forces us to answer why people who already are impoverished must always pay the price of what we call development, whereas others who already live with privilege continue to reap the benefits of this development.