December 1, 2001


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Dilip D'Souza

A letter comes from MP

'In the past, there was no definite policy for rehabilitation of displaced persons associated with the river valley projects in India ... [C]ash compensation ... 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."

Where do you think I found those lines? In a tract put out by some pinko environmentalists, perhaps? Luddites intent on halting India's "progress"?

Nothing of the sort. These are from a written submission the Government of India made to the Supreme Court in the Narmada case that was decided last year. The submission quotes and explains the provisions for resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) in the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award of 1979. This award ended years of wrangling between Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh and determined how the waters of the Narmada river would be shared among them. Thus it defines and is the basis for the dam projects on that river, including the best known of them: Sardar Sarovar.

As you can see, the award was explicit about the failures of R&R in previous river projects in India. Why? Because the NWDT wanted to contrast those failures with the R&R package the award goes on to spell out: an acclaimed set of measures that the three states then further liberalised. The whole tone of the award through this section about R&R is of remorse for past neglect and indifference ("no definite policy", no less), and resolve for future justice. Resolve to treat some of our most vulnerable peoples better than they have been. In fact, the first objective of R&R, the award says, must be to "improve the standard of living or at least regain the standard of living [displaced persons] had been enjoying prior to their displacement".

Notice, in that light, the mention of "cash compensation" and its dangers. In the past, governments would simply acquire land for projects, uproot the people who used it and dole out handfuls of rupees to them. And that's where this actually happened: there were plenty of cases where it did not. The NWDT Award specifically recognises the dangers of distributing cash like this, noting the way it ruined lives. This very recognition shaped the generous R&R package the award offers.

That was 1979. Leap forward 22 years. In May this year, the Government of Madhya Pradesh wrote a letter to the Narmada Control Authority that contains these lines:

[T]he Government of MP proposes that following [clause be added to the NWDT Award]:

[T]he displaced family shall have the option of obtaining full compensation for settling down and purchasing land in a village of his choice ... An option once exercised shall be final and no claim for allotment of land can be made afterwords [sic].

In other words, Madhya Pradesh has proposed to give displaced people "the option" of cash compensation for giving up their land. It wants to make this explicitly a part of the award. It blithely ignores the equally explicit language in the award that warns of the danger of doling out cash.

What a pretty circle we tread: hand out cash compensation for years while displacing people for "development", recognise the harm caused by and the injustice of doing so, formulate and put in place more humane R&R measures, return to cash compensation.

Why do you suppose the Government of Madhya Pradesh has suggested this return to doles? Well, that letter to the Narmada Control Authority tells us the reasons, and in doing so leaves us with a host of things to think about.

The GoMP has become increasingly worried about its ability to carry out its R&R commitments in the Narmada projects. Remember that MP is the state with the largest number of displaced people. A 1998 Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Limited publication I have says that one dam will displace 40,727 "project-affected persons" (PAPs), of whom 33,014 are in MP. Of those 33,014, nearly 14,000 are "willing to settle in Gujarat"; that still leaves MP with the task of finding land for about 19,000 people. And that's just this one dam that isn't even in MP. Most of the other planned dams on the Narmada are actually in MP and will displace their own thousands of people.

The GoMP's letter observes that the number of "project-affected families (PAFs) is increasing day by day necessitating requirement of larger area of land in Madhya Pradesh ... According to Government of MP, there is paucity of cultivable government land in MP. As pointed out at various fora, it is difficult to arrange more land for the oustees [who choose to stay in MP]. Although efforts are on to identify and procure as much land as possible for allotment to the oustees, past experience does not raise hopes very high".

Quite an admission in those last eight words. Not only is MP uneasy about fulfilling its future R&R commitments, it is far from sanguine about how it has done in the past.

I find it difficult to imagine that anyone can examine India's -- not just MP's -- record of R&R in our myriad "development" projects and still believe that that first objective of R&R, as spelt out by the NWDT Award, will be fulfilled. Regardless of how generous the R&R package looks on paper. Because your natural tendency, as a person about to be displaced by a dam, is to look at this "past experience" -- which the award itself describes. If you do that, your hopes of being treated justly are hardly likely to rise "very high" either.

Indeed, "past experience does not raise hopes very high", and that's precisely why so many people object to these dam projects in the first place.

But with that admission taken care of, the GoMP's letter goes on to further explain its reasons for amending the NWDT Award:

[The] Hon'ble Chief Minister of MP ... had very explicitly observed that, if the PAFs are to be allotted agricultural land and arrangement of land is to be made by the State ... then it will be very difficult to adhere to the time frame for the resettlement of the PAFs as approved by the Narmada Control Authority.

You see, the NWDT Award's Sub-Clause IV(7) of Clause XI, entitled 'Allotment of Agricultural Lands', which forms part of that R&R package I keep mentioning, explicitly says that displaced families "shall be entitled to and be allotted irrigable land". A minimum of 2 hectares of such land per family. So the Honourable Chief Minister of MP is saying that if the PAFs are to actually get what has only been promised to them -- and promised to them in a package that has been repeatedly hailed as "liberal" and "generous" -- not only will that be hard to do, but it will also take an inordinate amount of time. So inordinate that it will threaten the dam builders' own schedule for R&R.

And you see, this is why the GoMP wants to amend that NWDT Award. In fact, its letter says it wants to amend that very Sub-Clause IV(7) of Clause XI by

introducing a provision on the option of the oustee to accept compensation in full in one instalment to enable him to purchase land and settle down as per his choice.

And in case you have any doubts, let me assure you that in suggesting this amendment, the GoMP is thinking solely of the welfare of those PAFs. As the letter itself says, the proposed amendment is

in the interest of the displaced family as it would enable him [sic] to settle down and purchase land in a village of his choice at the earliest.

Small question: if the government finds it "difficult to arrange" for land for these PAFs, how will the PAFs themselves arrange for and buy it, and that "at the earliest"? Second small question: Just what happened to the NWDT's observation that cash handouts "deprived the poor and illiterate tribals from their land, houses, wages, natural environment and their socio-economic and cultural milieu"?

Then again, who has time for small questions? There are schedules at stake! This same letter mentions still another one. The amended policy, it says, "will also help complete the project as schedule [sic]".

Yes sir. It is apparently "very difficult to adhere to the time frame" for R&R. But the project itself must be completed "as schedule".

The hell with R&R, just build the dam! Here, take your money and begone!

Dilip D'Souza

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