Children playing near a tree still standing on their submerged farms in the Sardar Sarovar reservoir(Rohit Jain/HT)
Children playing near a tree still standing on their submerged farms in the Sardar Sarovar reservoir(Rohit Jain/HT)

The government’s indifference to dam oustees continues

The Madhya Pradesh incident, where the apex court has rebuked the State for its compensation measures towards dam oustees, shows how strongly the judiciary has weighed in on the side of the displaced yet justice eludes many of them, some for up to over half a century
By Lalita Panicker | Hindustan Times
PUBLISHED ON JAN 09, 2017 04:08 PM IST

An oustee is a displaced person irrespective of the project which affected her. This is what the Supreme Court has sought to establish in its ire towards the Madhya Pradesh government last week for giving Rs 11,000 as interim help to families displaced by construction of minor dams as against Rs 50,000 given to those who lost their homes to major dam projects. In a stinging rebuke, the bench of Justices Khehar, NV Ramana and DY Chandrachud said: “You are treating them like animals. You have to give proper compensation to them,” ordering the immediate payment of Rs 50,000 to each family.

The issue of compensation and rehabilitation of persons displaced by dams has been a long and contentious one in India. It is no one’s case that development projects to meet water and electricity need to be held up on this issue, but successive state and central governments have gone about this in a mindless and often cruel manner. In the first place, people who are affected are rarely taken into confidence; rather the sites are decided and then they are informed about the fact that they will have to leave their lands.

The argument in favour of such displacement is that people are offered land in exchange elsewhere and monetary compensation. But that is to look at it clinically. In the Narmada dam case, fought valiantly by civil society groups on behalf of the oustees, many people did not want to leave their ancestral homes and their places of worship. The land in exchange is often arid land that offers them no livelihood. The compensation packages are either inadequate or do not even reach the oustees.

Many oustees have lived out a generation in displacement as they shuttle from legal pillar to post in order to get even the small compensation once offered. The courts have repeated intervened in the disputes surrounding the Hirakud dam, the Narmada dam and the Pong dam to name a few but such are the delays in the judicial system that little moves even once a decade.

The fact that those affected, in the MP case, are mostly tribals, means that their access to affordable legal help is limited. This has not always worked out well for the State either with legal tussles leading to cost increases and huge delays in project implementation. The issue of displacement, which was once for huge development projects, has spread to other forms of construction from ports to airports to shopping malls leading to people having to leave their lands.

There have been few cases in which the oustees have got a fair deal despite the best efforts of civil society agencies and the law. In fact, the World Bank, which was the chief donor agency in the Sardar Sarovar project, was so overwhelmed by the transgressions and lapses in the project that it withdrew. The number of displaced keeps going up.

The Madhya Pradesh incident shows how strongly the judiciary has weighed in on the side of the displaced yet justice eludes many of them, some for up to over half a century.

@LalitaPanicker

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