The current situation in the villages in Gujarat's Narmada district is a throwback to the days of Narmada Bachao Andolan, the three-decade long agitation against the controversial Narmada dam project.
The only difference is that the earlier movement was spearheaded by social activists like Medha Patkar, while the present one has emerged from within the community.
Several tribesmen who took part in the protests against infrastructure development around the Sardar Vallabhai Patel Statue of Unity, located on an island facing the Sardar Sarovar Dam on river Narmada, have sought refuge at the ashram inside the Ranchod temple complex fearing arrest.
They came under the scanner after clashing with the police during the foundation-laying ceremony of Haryana Bhavan in the vicinity of world’s tallest statue by Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar. Cases have been registered against hundreds of tribal community members from Kevadiya, Vagadiya, Nayagaon, Gora, Limbdi and Kwotti villages in the region.
Dakor is famous for the Ranchod temple of Lord Krishna. According to Hindu mythology, the name Ranchod, which literally means the one who flees the battlefield, was ascribed to Krishna after he cunningly ran away while fighting Jarasandha because the latter was destined to be killed by Bhima. Now the hapless tribesmen who lost the battle with the outside world have left their fate in the hands of the god.
Over the years, the region has witnessed a string of incessant protests by residents of lower-lying villages inside the ‘submerge zone’ of the Sardar Sarovar project. The Save Narmada Movement was instrumental in ensuring a special rehabilitation package for the displaced families under which they were paid money to purchase land. Apart from compensation for their properties, jobs were provided to a member of each family of the project-affected persons under the rehabilitation scheme. Moreover, every member of the displaced families who had attained the age of 18 years on January 1, 1988, received five acres of land.
As many as six villages with a total population of 22,000 are located downstream Narmada. The Statue of Unity is built at Sadhu Bet island, which is three kilometres from the Sardar Sarovar Project. Though these villages are part of the dam project, the residents were not considered as project-affected persons. The villagers are complaining that their lands were taken away for the dam project as well as for the Statue of Unity and all other tourism activities which have been planned in the area.
Narmada River valley is the largest west flowing river which runs through Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra. Recently a major dam has been constructed eight kilometres down the stream. Plans are on the anvil to develop the area for world-class tourism with hotels, camping grounds and trekking trails, among other infrastructure. Going by the current phase of construction works, the project will be completed in six months’ time. By the time, a major portion of the six villages is feared to be submerged.
Unofficial estimates place the number of people displaced across the country due to development projects since Independence at six crores. The total number of dams in the country is around 3,000, of which 54 are mega dams like the Sardar Sarovar reservoir. Most of the displaced are assetless rural poor, marginal farmers and tribal communities.
As per rules framed under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, the quantum of compensation would be at least four times the market or guideline value of a given piece of land. However, as existing rates are taken as approved market value in rural areas, the compensation would be much lesser as compared to properties in urban areas.
Overall, the Sardar Sarovar project has displaced over 2 lakh people belonging to 41,000 families scattered across the three states of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. About 56 per cent of the people affected by the dam belongs to indigenous communities. Unfortunately, no proper studies have been conducted to analyse the situation of the displaced people. Unofficial studies have substantiated that a majority of those displaced remain without proper rehabilitation.
Dr N C Saxena, former member of the Planning Commission and National Advisory Council, who conducted a study on communities displaced or relocated by development projects, has recommended to the government to track forced displacements during the past 50 years. He also sought to create a special corpus fund in order to provide justice and relief to the future generations of the resettled families.
Let’s us live and die here
Dinesh Tadwi’s grandfather owned 60 acres of land in Kevadiya. The entire property was taken away by the government-controlled Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd. for the dam project. The authorities are said to be forcing the residents to sacrifice their interest for the larger common good by leaving their native villages.
Scores of people have been directly affected by the land acquisition for setting up tourist facilities around the Statue of Unity. “Land plots have been taken away for road widening. Renovation of the bridge connecting the memorial structure to the mainland is progressing. They say the beautiful landscape on both sides of the river will make for a heavenly sight and leave visitors mesmerised. Why do they want to make our land a heaven on earth by driving us away?” asks Dinesh.
'How will you compensate us'?
Excerpts from a letter from Bava Mahalia of Jalsindhi village in Jhabua district to Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Digvijay Singh in 1994:
“We have lived in the forest for generations. We know the name of each and every tree, shrub and herb; we know their uses. If we were made to live in a land without forests, then all this knowledge that we have cherished for generations will be useless. The Narmada has many kinds of fish in her belly. Our children play on the river’s banks, swim and bathe there. Our cattle drink there throughout the year, for the river never dries up. In the belly of the river, we live contented lives. We have lived here for many generations; do we have a right to the mighty river and to our forests or don't we?
…How will you compensate us for our river - for her fish, her water, for the vegetables that grow along her banks, for the joy of living beside her? What is the price for this? ... Our gods, and the support of our kin - what price do you put on that? Our adivasi life - what price do you put on that?
Where are the documents?
The foundation stone for the Sardar Sarovar Project was laid on January 5, 1961. The authorities claim that they had obtained consent of the ancestors of the villagers before their land was acquired for the project. Though the residents filed an RTI request for a copy of the consent letters submitted by their ancestors, the reply was to approach the district collector for the same. The collector, however, turned down their request saying that the details of the land acquisition process could not be made public. Villagers now believe that the so-called consent letters are anything but imaginary.
The Gujarat government has invited other state governments to construct own guest houses at the site, which is fast emerging as a top tourist destination. On January 19, when Haryana chief minister Manohar Lal Khattar came over to lay the foundation stone for the Haryana Bhavan, thousands of tribals, carrying the tri-colour, gathered at the site to air their grievances to him. However, before they could meet the chief minister, security forces forcibly removed from the scene. The villagers wanted the government to return the patches of land acquired from them that are unlikely to be submerged, and provide job to a member from each family at the proposed tourist centre. However, all that the government offered was a compensation of Rs 3 lakh.
Land Acquisition Act (2013) brought about by the UPA government was not followed for the projects implemented in Narmada valley. The present NDA government had tried to amend the new Act, which replaced the archaic Land Acquisition Act enacted by the British in 1894, in a bid to promote industries, but the move was dropped following widespread protests.
In the name of national Interest
There has been a steady erosion of traditional tribal rights and their command over resources. Rules stipulate that the state is committed to obtain consent from the community, legally described as gram sabha (the village assembly), before acquiring land in scheduled tribal areas for ‘a public purpose’. If the project gets delayed, the land should be returned to the original holders. Also, the people, affected directly or indirectly following the acquisition of land, have to be assured of an honourable place in terms of equality in the new environment.
These rules can be tweaked to acquire land for public good and in the ‘national interest’. Of course, dams are being constructed in the name of progress and national Interest, but ousting people from their homeland for tourism projects is unjustifiable.
(To be continued…)
References: Study reports published by the Planning Commission; articles by Arundhati Roy, Prof Hari Mohan Mathur, and Himanshu Dhakar.