June 14, 2002


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Dilip D'Souza

Meanwhile in Bhopal

Meanwhile in Bhopal, there are some people on fast. Ho hum. Stifle a yawn, pass the beer, and hey, what's the score from the Brazil-Costa Rica match?

Of course, we would immediately brand them terrorists.

Meanwhile in Bhopal, they are still on fast. You probably don't even know it. Isn't that something? Think about it. If instead of fasting, they pick up guns, strap a few bombs to their belts, stroll over to Bhopal's spectacular Correa-designed Vidhan Sabha and start spraying bullets about, start flinging some grenades here and there, then either blow themselves up or go down in a hail of police bullets; if they did those things, you and I and an entire nation would certainly notice.

What a choice. Make your demands over and over, peacefully, and nobody notices or particularly cares for them. Go on a hunger strike, and still nobody particularly notices or cares. Shoot some people? Now everyone will notice; but now you are a terrorist, so nobody pays any attention to your demands anyway. Besides, you may have died in the hail.

What does it take to persuade fellow citizens that you might have genuine, serious grievances; that your demands are not frivolous frippery?

But just what are the fasters demanding, over there in Bhopal? Something simple indeed. They are about to be pushed off their land, out of their homes, by a dam on the Maan river, a tributary of the Narmada. They want what Madhya Pradesh authorities have themselves officially agreed is just compensation for their trouble: land in compensation for the land they are giving up. That's it. A demand so simple that you would make it if someone was pushing you off your land. "Give me what your own policies say I am entitled to," you would ask, "give me land for the land I am going to lose."

But that must be an unreasonable, yes frivolous, demand. Because the fast has gone on for 25 days, and there's not a single sign that anyone of any governmental consequence in MP is listening.

Now I have a copy of a letter spelling out Madhya Pradesh policy for handling people displaced by the Maan dam in particular. It says that "the rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) of families living in the areas likely to be submerged due to the construction work up to 15th June of any year should be completed by the 31st of December of the preceding year as per policy".

It is June 15, 2002, as you read this. In 16 villages in the area, a thousand families -- let's say 6,000 people -- live on land that the Maan dam will submerge. Were they rehabilitated and resettled by December 31 last year, as Madhya Pradesh policy states they must have been? That's easily answered: if they had been, they wouldn't be on fast in Bhopal.

Why is it so hard for MP to meet its own commitments to the people its dam projects will displace?

Many reasons. R&R is universally regarded as a sort of irrelevant detail in dam projects, not to be treated seriously. It is hard to find land to turn over to people who are displaced. It needs firm doses of political will both to find the land and to make sure the displaced people get it; that will is in as short supply as the land itself. Besides, it is too temptingly easy to ignore the whole issue of R&R.

In fact, when it comes to our various dams, we did just that for years. Ignore. People who lost their land were simply asked to get up and go, period. Once in a while, they were given some rupees for their pains. Even in such cases, the amount was niggardly even before it was eaten into by corruption. The idea of doing R&R for dam-affected people -- I deliberately say "the idea", for actually carrying it out is another matter -- the very idea is a relatively recent development.

This is not something I pulled from the top of my head. In a 1989 leaflet about the Sardar Sarovar dam that I have, Sanat Mehta, then chairman of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited, wrote these lines: "This is the first ever project of the country wherein rehabilitation problem was considered in much details (sic). ... If the project would have been executed in the old fashion, its cost would have been far less."

Take note of the admissions here. Four decades after Independence, the head of the organisation building a major dam on the Narmada confesses that this is the "first ever project in the country" to pay attention to R&R for displaced people. What's more, he also confesses that if this project had gone about its business in "the old fashion", where displaced Indians were insignificant details, the project's "cost would have been far less."

As Mehta's allusion to the "cost" of the "old fashion" way of doing things suggests, it was no particular altruism that brought about this change in attitude in the 1980s, with the projects on the Narmada and its tributaries. It was years of accumulated discontent from displaced people, reduced to misery by these "development" projects. Their discontent, their questions, pushed the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal -- that decided the parameters of the Narmada projects in 1979 -- to lay down, for the first time, an R&R policy for dam projects. That's what Sanat Mehta refers to. Here, from its final award, is how the NWDT set the context for this new way to look at R&R:

"The displacement of the people due to major river valley projects has occurred in both developed and developing countries. In the past, there was no definite policy for rehabilitation of displaced persons associated with the river valley projects in India .. [C]ash compensation [under the provisions of the Land Acquisition Act] was the practice, which resulted in the resettlement of displaced families becoming unsustainable due to squandering away of the compensation money. This type of rehabilitation programmes deprived the poor and illiterate tribals from their land, houses, wages, natural environment and their socio-economic and cultural milieu."

And the NWDT's R&R policy, later "liberalised" by the states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and MP, explicitly lays down that people who give up land must get land in return. For example, Gujarat's policy begins by promising that all oustees will get land "equal in area to the land acquired, subject to a minimum of 2 hectares per project-affected family".

But even if "liberalised" R&R packages exist, project-affected people are realising that they exist only on paper. No dam-building authority treats R&R with any will or determination. Close to two decades after work began on dams on the Narmada, R&R there remains a story of failure and misery, visible to anyone who so much as has his eyes open on that river.

Yet even that story is being turned more bitter than it already is. As I explained in my column A Letter Comes From MP, MP is actually seeking to change the terms of the NWDT Award. That state wants to return to handing out cash to displaced people.

What happens if they succeed in this effort? We will have an award that actually spells out the dangers of cash compensation and uses that as a context to spell out a detailed R&R package. And that very package -- MP's proposed amendment is to the package itself -- will contain a clause allowing for cash compensation. That *very* package.

The more I learn about these issues, the more they leave me stupefied. The intricate levels of injustice, of trickery, of double-speak, of sheer bull-headed indifference to the condition of ordinary human Indians, are truly beyond comprehension.

And in many ways, that incomprehension is what a few of your fellow citizens are fasting over, in Bhopal. Simple, right? What you would do.


Please send faxes to Digvijay Singh, CM of MP, urging him to listen to the demands of the people on fast in Bhopal. 91-755-551781/540501.

Dilip D'Souza

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