The brewing Narmada dam raising controversy which was in the papers with the ‘fast unto death’ by `Narmada Bachao Andolan` (NBA) leader, Medha Patkar, has overlooked some very key issues central to the controversy dogging the project for more than a quarter of the century.
The issue is of rehabilitation of the project affected families. The first condomum is which project affected families? When the Narmada rehab package was announced in the 1980s, it’s ‘land for land’ premise, with a one year dole to help farmers to settle into their new lands and develop them, plus the shifting of their homes with various other add-ons, hailed as a novel first in project rehabilitation programs, as it included every adult son over 18 years, at the cut off date, as a separate family.
Unfortunately, the process of identification of families has stretched on so long that any number of boys who were under 18 then and also hundreds of those who were unborn then have turned crossed 18 as the cut off date kept being pushed forward by agitations and court cases delayed work on the dam.
Then an attempt was made to accord POP status to those through whose lands the canals were to go. Could the sudden delay in working on the canal network have been one of the responsible factors? Open question, apart from the usual corruption suspects.
Today, there is a massive mass of unsettled project affected families which have again become an issue.
The term project affected person (POP) is itself also much misunderstood. POPs can include , for instance , those who stand to benefit from the dam as their lands are so close to the edge of the reservoir that when annual rains fill the reservoir to its full strength, their lands may be flooded; but quickly the waters would recede, leaving the lands fertile with loam.
There are those who only stand to lose part of their lands for which they are compensated with fresh lands, while the old ones get the annual flooding benefit perhaps. Others lose only their homesteads, which are to be transported at official expense to new sites.
Yes, in `Madhya Pradesh, there are many large plantations on the fertile black soil which would be negatively affected; but the NBA usually speaks for the tribals who may benefit from acting as a cover for the bigger kulaks etc.
Then there were those, many from Gujarat and `Maharashtra, who accepted the benefits of the rehab policy at a very early stage. Their entire homesteads and assets were transported to the rehab site at official expense. Obviously their new lands may not have been as fertile or as developed as their old ones. So for a whole year, they had the benefit of a monthly dole from the Narmada development corporation, if they were lucky, one job in the family too.
And , this is very interesting, while they were still developing their newly acquired lands, they were still tilling their old lands, since the dam was not done and the waters had not inundated their old lands yet!!
In fact at one stage, there was a proposal to build dykes to hold back flooding of reservoir site villages. So they would escape flooding and pop status. But that move met opposition and was quietly buried.
Now the NBA is again in action to delay the dam height work. How have the tribals benefited actually from this delay of over two decades? Their children are in much the same position they grew up in, except for a few lucky families of activists associated with such like organizations.
What is noteworthy is that there is an alternative to the fast unto death route to get the POP tribals their rights.
In the tribal belt of Gujarat, there is a Dr. Anil Patel who is also working with the POP tribals. What he and his organization did was assess the lands the tribals were giving up and help them spot good ones from the government pool for rehab. They assist the tribals through the maze of official red-tapeism and get them what they should be getting under the announced package. With the general cooperation with the authorities, some lucky few may possibly be getting some extras also, for all one knows.
The point is that it is possible to get people their rights; but that requires a lot more effort and much less publicity than a fast unto death. We definitely need more of the Anil Patel to help the tribals get some good lands before they are all snapped up by the big farmers who e already eyeing the canal side sites for large plantations etc. that would help to get India’s poorest of the poor into the national economic mainstream at a time when we are aiming for globalization with a human touch to cover all our people.