First the dams. Then the damned canals

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Defying court orders, the network of canals in the Narmada basin is destroying small farms that never needed the water, reports Baba Umar

Mindless machines Earth-moving equipment dig up fertile farmlands
Photos: Tarun Sehrawat

BHILALA TRIBALS often assemble next to what used to be their village, Atursumba of Khargaon district in southeast Madhya Pradesh. Dwarfing them is a 100-feet-wide canal laid high above the ground. Water has seeped from the earthen embankments and submerged the village. “Now, we don’t sing harvest songs; the fun is missing from marriage parties. We are overwhelmed by the destruction of our fertile land,” rues Kailash Pawar, 40, of the tribal village.

Pawar alleges his 20 acres in Khandwa district, on which he grew chilli and cotton, was procured under duress for laying the canal system extending from the Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar dams on the Narmada river.

When the canal work reached Atursumba in 2009, all the 62 farmers initially resisted. However, all but one succumbed before the intimidating policemen who were accompanied by officials of the Revenue Department and the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) — the government body responsible for the entire Narmada belt. “We’ll take your land anyway. So it’s best you take the compensation, sign the consent letters and move away,” the farmers were told.

Despite a hillock in the vicinity, dozens of earth-moving machines drew soft black fertile soil from the cotton fields for raising embankments. Avtar Singh, 27, who refused to hand over his cotton field, says the NVDA will not stop the seepage until the rest of the farmers too ‘donate’ their land to the government.

Six km ahead in Toklia village, seepage in a small canal inundated wheat crop. Sanju Nandia and Dhanu Valia of the Gujjar community read the signs early and sold their 25 acres to another farmer. “The new owner is now repenting. The canal hasn’t benefited any of us,” says Nandia.

The government’s aim is to channel water to fields in the three remote districts of Dhar, Barwani and Khargaon. However, the canals are being laid on either sides of Narmada and Maan rivers over alreadyirrigated fields. The over 600-km-long canal network being laid over the past five years has adopted a questionable land acquisition process. There are discrepancies in rehabilitation and compensation practices. Even the Command Area Development (CAD) plan was found inadequate by an expert committee of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF).

As their appeals to officials proved futile, they went to court along with Medha Patkar’s NBA

The farmers kept writing in vain to the state and Central government to spare their farms. As a last resort, they joined hands with the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) to file a writ petition in the Madhya Pradesh High Court in June 2009 raising these issues and citing non-application of the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996, in the area. The HC in its judgment dated 11 November 2009 stopped the construction on both canal systems “till rehabilitation plans are put in place”.

When the matter went in appeal to the Supreme Court, it issued interim orders in February and May 2010 and on 27 January this year, putting the onus on the MOEF and the state government to act on the reports of the respective expert committees and compensate farmers adequately. As the MOEF is yet to issue a final decision on both canal projects, many court orders are being ignored on the ground.

On top of that, coercive tactics and complete disregard for human suffering seem to be rampant. In Barwani district’s Mandil hamlet, for instance, Kalu Surpal lost his one acre and was offered a piece of land almost 150 km away. “When I realised the land at Nimsar was encroached upon, I refused to vacate. The officials escorted by police, however, excavated my fields.”

Disrupted lives Ram Singh of Bhogdad village rues a livelihood lost

Interestingly, according to the government’s own records, out of a total 16.26 hectares in Nimsar, 14.61 hectares have been encroached upon while the rest is arid. Even in Pitnagar area of the same district, 16.703 hectares of the government’s land bank of 55.39 hectares being offered to canal-affected villagers, have been encroached by tribals while the rest is unsuitable for agriculture.

Another farmer, Raja Ram, rues the day his land was acquired. Ram’s one hectare was acquired by the NVDA along with the 30 feet-deep well for a paltry Rs. 1.13 lakh. Ram is among many farmers who say they were coerced into signing ‘consent letters’ and were made to accept paltry amounts of cash compensation.

THE VILLAGERS say the market rate is Rs. 6-7 lakh per acre. Far less compensation was given for pipes randomly broken and wells destroyed. Those who had taken loans for laying pipes from their fields to the banks of the Narmada were not compensated. Many others like Ram Singh of Bhogdad in Dhar district, who until recently had a house of their own, live in ramshackle huts. Worse is the lot of those whose land stood adjacent to the excavated strips and is strewn with mounds of mud and rocks left by contractors.

Just recently, 50-year old Budha Bai of Mandil obtained a loan of Rs. 60,000, which she spent on levelling her land and clearing it of stones and wild grass. Soon after, a machine dug up a neighbour’s land and piled the soil over her wheat crop.

“There wasn’t any one around to help me. I wept for some days and that’s it. Now it’ll take another Rs. 60,000 to level and clear the fields,” she told TEHELKA.

In Dhar district, villagers of Dharampuri, Manavar and Kukshi tehsil irrigate their fields by pumping water from the Narmada and Maan rivers or using borewells, open wells and tanks. Almost 80-100 percent of farms are irrigated by these water sources and hence there was no need felt for surface water from the Omkareshwar dam.

“That’s why we ask why canals are being dug here. We don’t want to lose our land for illogical activities,” says 54-year-old Radhesham Gansham of Dhamnod village in Dharampuri tehsil.

Some villagers say they and their children will join the Naxals if their land is taken away

Ironically, the Omkareshwar canals are being dug parallel to the old network of Karam canals that had been functioning well since the 1950s. Another cause for anger is that the administration never held public hearings and the objections they file are rarely answered. In all the three districts TEHELKA tracked, stories of mismanagement, deception in rehabilitation and coercion were rife and vows of resistance gaining momentum.

“My children and I will join the Naxalites if our land is taken,” says Totaram of Nandra village in Khargaon district. But not all villagers have reached this stage of despair: dozens of agitators have been successful in halting excavation on a 10-km stretch in Nandra.

The NVDA, however, is adamant about implementing its plans. “We didn’t coerce anyone. And the compensation was paid according to the legal provisions,” Vice- Chairman OP Rawat told TEHELKA. He said public hearings were held before the lands were acquired.

As hundreds of farmers hope against hope, the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which is spearheading this agitation, is looking towards the MOEF.

“We expect the ministry to take a position and slap a moratorium immediately on the activity like it did in the Lavasa project,” says NBA founder Medha Patkar. However, she adds, “The ministry is under huge political pressure and that is why it is delaying its final decision.”

More damningly, she says the government has been justifying the acquisitions “by quoting misleading figures”, which amounts to perjury. It has been using outdated statistics about the irrigated acreage, which has increased 50 percent due to the farmers’ own efforts over the years.

“Even the Narmada Control Authority, which is the statutory monitoring body both on the canal-affected lands and families, has been presented with conflicting figures by the government,” she says.


PROFILE

A Marked Man

Dev Kanera, 58
Khaperkheda village

One of the oldest members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, this activist has been to jail 43 times

DO THEY know how many mosques and temples have been submerged here? Why isn’t anyone doing politics over these religious places?” he asks.

His right leg aches, his small hands are stiff, his skin dark and wrinkly. He has never been to school, yet wise men seek his advice. Meet Dev Ram Kanera, one of the oldest members of the Narmada Bachao Andolan launched in 1986. He has been jailed 43 times. In his long career, almost 158 cases have been slapped on him that range from ‘attempted suicide’ and ‘threat to public harmony’ in as many as four states of India.

“Right now I’ve three cases against me in Maharashtra for ‘interfering in government work’,” he laughs. The wooden ceiling of his humble house, an hour’s drive on a muddy little road from Kukshi tehsil in Dhar district, is hung with agricultural tools, wicker baskets, jute bags and other household items while a small box on a wooden shelf contains screw drivers, pliers, cutter and kaput parts of his old Yamaha Crux motorbike — his proud possession.

“I never get to stay here for long. Except for the motorcycle, I don’t use anything,” he says. His bike is a familiar sight in 345 villages hit by dam activity.

Kanera’s father died when he was only one. Before his marriage to Shakuntala Bai, he reared goats and sheep. Soon after, he became a full-time activist. His elder brother Raja Ram’s advice, “Stop this activism, the State does what it wants at all costs,” did not dampen his zeal for championing people’s causes. His wife accompanied him to all the big rallies and protest meets.

Nothing seems to dampen his zeal for championing people’s causes

“According to a government survey,” says a villager, “I would get Rs. 15,000 for my house as compensation. Their survey didn’t tell them that the main iron gate of my house cost more than Rs. 10,000. Thanks to Kanera, we were saved.”

Kanera is known for his level-headedness even in the most difficult situation. Years ago, when both his daughters married outside the clan, the villagers temporarily boycotted his family. “Those days were painful,” he says, clasping his hands. “But like my family, people of this entire state are important. The government’s activities have divided families, ruined villages of historical importance, submerged centuries- old structures and culture associated with them, created miserable daily wagers out of contented farmers and in return offered peanuts as compensation just because politicians, contractors and government employees want it so.”

Medha Patkar praises Kanera’s astounding memory for statistics, dates and court hearings. He knows the names and number of the dam-hit in each village. Clearly a dam good asset.

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