Tribal People Dammed
The occupants of the Narmada Valley in Northern India have been evicted to make way for a controversial mega-dam. Sam Beale reports on the Indian authorities’ disinterest in what happens to them next.
Squall 11, Autumn 1995, pg. 70.
People who are losing their homes and lands in the construction area of the much criticised Sardar Sarovar mega-dam in the Narmada River valley in northern India have staged demonstrations throughout the summer. Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) procedures for displaced peoples have been, as predicted by opponents of the dam, highly inadequate.
The Narmada is a sacred river, the River of Birth. Its banks are speckled with temples and the land in the valley is amongst the most fertile in India. Its people are a mix of Hindus and Muslims, farmers, labourers and tribal peoples who have lived in the valley for generations. If the dam is completed and the valley flooded these tribal peoples, who have no caste (making them lower in status in Indian society than the ‘untouchables’), fear they will be forced into migrant work and end up with the millions of other people displaced by recent government projects and living in poverty in slums on the fringes of Indian cities.
Around 400 people from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh who had been resettled on about 35 R&R sites staged a demonstration ‘dharna’ in Baroda at the end of June with the help of the major force behind the campaign to stop the dam, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA - Save Narmada Movement). The NBA has noted that most of the people involved in this demonstration had not opposed the dam initially because they believed government promises of “ideal resettlement”. The sites they are now living on are far from ideal.
Angry at the government’s failure to respond to their complaints the protestors issued a statement: “living is becoming impossible for us... we are willing to give your new Government (with old officials) one chance... if the process to resolve our problems is not started... we will, like the people of Malu, abandon our sites and return to our original villages.”
Their action followed the appalling treatment of 23 families who were relocated four years ago to Malu, which the NBA describes as a “desolate site”, in Baroda district. The site, not the one they had agreed to move to, is on poor quality land, it is much smaller than promised, there is no grazing land and no water or firewood nearby. “We sacrificed everything”, said one villager, “we gave up our birth place to come here and they gave us tin shacks”.
These families decided to return to the village they had been ousted from, despite knowing that it will be submerged in water within a year or so if work on the dam continues.
“The Narmada resettlement is a classic case of pauperisation and immiserisation of entire self-reliant communities in the name of development.”
As they were loading their belongings onto trucks the police turned up to prevent them leaving. Eventually, following police refusal to take a legal notice from a lawyer for illegal detention, the families decided to abandon their possessions. They made their way to see their resettlement officer and attempted to return the title deeds to the useless land but the deeds were not accepted. They have now returned to their original village, Gadher, where they have built makeshift homes. The police still have their possessions.
Conditions on most resettlement sites are reported as far below what was promised. In August, people who the government had claimed were happily resettled in Gujarat protested at the Ministry of Welfare in Dehli about the conditions on their site.
Committees of politicians from Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have condemned the realities of resettlement. Following visits to 18 sites, a report by the Peoples’ Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) found that ‘human rights are violated at every stage of the resettlement process... nowhere in the sites visited have the oustees improved or at least regained the standard of living they were enjoying prior to resettlement... Supreme Court directives are routinely violated... women especially bear the brunt of the displacement. The PUCL has concluded: “the Narmada resettlement process is a classic case of pauperisation and immiserisation of entire self-reliant communities in the name of development.”
Such gross treatment of ‘self- reliant’ peoples becomes even more unacceptable when the truth about the likely benefits of the project are revealed. The success rate of large scale dam-building is not high and the construction of dams much smaller than the Sardar Sarovar has long been considered unpredictable by scientific experts.
According to a Project Completion report by the World Bank (one of the original funders of the project, the Bank withdrew in 1993 after massive resistance coordinated by the NBA), it appears that consultants to the dam have “over-estimated the water availability and under-estimated crop water requirements”. The project planners have also overestimated the likely efficiency of the canal systems designed to carry the water to Gujarat’s factories and towns. Eighty per cent of Gujarat’s water budget is tied up in the £7 billion, project so all alternative water projects in the region have been halted.
Following years of protest and demands for an Environmental Impact Assessment (which was never carried out due to pressure from the World Bank for construction to start) work on the dam has currently stopped pending the result of a Supreme Court case brought by the NBA who are asking for an independent review of all the costs and benefits and the likely success of the project.