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Home > Columnists > L C Jain

Prepare now for India's 100th anniversary

September 13, 2007

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It was barely two weeks after we rejoiced at the 60th anniversary of our Independence on August 15. I had the opportunity to be at a public hearing at Badwani in Madhya Pradesh, and listen to Shantidevi, a farm hand. She asked, "Kya hum is desh ke nagrik hain? (Are we citizens of this country?)"

Should any citizen of the Republic be driven to ask such an agonising question? What was her provocation to do so?

Shantidevi is one of the thousands of rural people being uprooted from their abode, livelihoods and lands -- which are to be submerged in aid of the Sardar Sarovar dam. They were told they have to make this sacrifice in the larger national interest. They were assured of satisfactory resettlement as per the salutary principles laid down by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal in 1978, and reiterated since more than once by the Supreme Court.

The foremost and firm principle was that they would be given land for land and, with the other constituents of the rehabilitation package, their standard of life would be better than what it was at present. The Tribunal ordained that 'rehabilitation sites should be developed and be ready for occupation one year before the date of submergence and notices for shifting to the developed sites must be issued to each and every project affected person six months before submergence.' The resettlement arrangements were thus to precede submergence by regulating the progress of construction of the dam, stage by stage.

In reality, the reverse has happened -- construction has overtaken resettlement by leaps and there are gaping holes in the rehabilitation process, both in quantity and quality. One critical reason is that, unthinkingly and grievously, the overall control of the implementation of the Tribunal's directions was vested with the construction engineers instead of the head of rehabilitation. Unless this fault line in the management design of large projects is set right, the ocean of displaced humanity will drown the good expected from such projects.

This is clear from the fact that the Sardar Sarovar project is not a unique case. The mid-term appraisal undertaken by the Planning Commission (which is headed by the prime minister) in 2000, recorded that in the past 50 years large development projects had displaced 25 million families. Only half of them had been rehabilitated. The rest -- 40 per cent of whom were tribals -- had become pauperised. Alas, even this shocking revelation, 'pauperised', has not shocked the authorities out of their wits.

At the public hearing where Shantidevi spoke, there were hundreds of affected families who brought out the dismal state of their resettlement, the brazen of violation of the NWDT charter and deceitful practices like the fake registry of sale deeds purported to have given land for land to the displaced. Around 36 officers have already been suspended for fake registries.

To ensure fairness, the concerned officials were invited to the public hearing so that they could listen to the complaints and have the opportunity to explain and assuage the grief of the affected families. Regrettably, none came. At a similar hearing in a village in the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, all senior officials -- collector, et al, came -- listened, explained and stayed throughout the long public hearing. Their answers were probably not wholly satisfactory as far as the affected, but their conduct was marked by concern as behoves public servants.

Of course, in yet another similar hearing in a village in Gujarat, the presence of the administration could be seen and felt as all its nominees came in vehicles with a red light on top. They were dressed in khaki, carried a notebook and pen and were asking the visitors' names. But no one responsible from the administrative benches was listening to the affected.

In one village, which is to be submerged, arrangements for shifting and resettling the families are not complete. Yet, the local administration decided to close down the village school straightaway and shifted it some five kilometres away. The tiny tots who attended the school were expected to walk the distance. The village community has put its foot down on this outrageous proposition. Marvel the depths to which our administration is sinking!

Currently, officials are busy preparing compliance reports on rehabilitation to be considered by the Narmada Control Authority on September 11. This will be chaired by the prime minister. They are looking to consider approval to raise the Sardar Sarovar Dam to its full-proposed height.

The issue is not the height of the dam, but the depth of its consequences -- vast human displacement, suffering and environmental devastation wantonly inflicted by public authority in disregard of the laws by which it is bound. These consequences can be brushed aside only at the cost of causing more holes in our political fabric woven under the democratic sky.

The Administrative Reforms Commission headed by M Veerappa Moily will no doubt put new stitches on the torn administrative fabric. The challenge is to make the administration absolutely accountable, if not reverential, to the people, at the cutting edge level in particular.

It continues unchanged despite severe indictment by Rajiv Gandhi in 1988, and the institutional remedy he proposed. He told Parliament: 'I toured hundreds of villages. I spoke to countless people. There, in their hearths and homes, I experienced the cruelty of an unresponsive administration, the oppression of an administration without a heart, the callous lack of compassion that most of our people find at the hands of much of our administration. We learnt that callousness, inefficiency and corruption could only be ended by empowering the people to send their own representatives to institutions of local self-government.'

The Panchayat Raj and Nagarpalika Bills (73rd, 74th Amendments to the Constitution) are not only instruments for bringing democracy and devolution to every village, they are also a charter for ending bureaucratic oppression, technocratic tyranny, crass inefficiency, bribery, jobbery, nepotism, corruption and the million other malfeasances that afflict the poor of our villages, towns and cities.

Reacting to independent reports that official claims on rehabilitation were not entirely reliable, the then chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Digvijay Singh, turned to the Gram Sabha, a statutory body created by Article 243 of the Constitution of India, a la Rajiv Gandhi. He instructed that, in future, all such reports by local officials to the government must be accompanied by a verification report by the Gram Sabha, listing each displaced family and the status of its rehabilitation. Believe it or not, official reports have continued to travel to the top without such Gram Sabha verifications, as has been brought to the attention of the Supreme Court recently on behalf of the project affected persons.

Imagine the implications of such criminal ill-treatment of those uprooted. Will such conduct inspire people to cooperate and sacrifice for development projects? We are already witnessing widespread violent protests across the country, be it SEZ or the like. More worrisome is the response of the administration. It is not setting its course right and adorning itself with unfailing courtesy and accountability to the Shantidevis of India. Its answer is to visit police on them.

A population of over one billion can be governed only by principles and rule of law and certainly not by force of arms. Khaki is not the right colour. We must be better clothed for the 100th anniversary.

Dr L C Jain was an active participant in the Quit India movement and has been engaged in economic-social development for the last 60 years. He was a member of the Planning Commission and served as India's high commissioner to South Africa.

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