Old war, new bodies

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Dubious middlemen, farmers tricked into selling their land, dam oustees sent to jail — it’s all part of the government’s rehabilitation package. Tusha Mittal captures the cascading madness in Narmada valley

Uprooted Medha Patkar with Sardar Sarovar dam oustees on the Narmada
Uprooted Medha Patkar with Sardar Sarovar dam oustees on the Narmada
Photo: AP

STORY AT A GLANCE– Gujarat, MP and Maharashtra governments want the dam to go higher, but SC says every oustee should first be rehabilitated  Two lakh people affected by the dam. More than half without homes  The MP government says it has no land to give oustees, yet later claims to have rehabilitated them  MP asks oustees to find land themselves, triggering massive scams • Fake land is bought and sold by middlemen while oustees are jailed for this  Unaffected farmers are now being displaced by those displaced by the dam• Cash compensation ruins farmers used to self-sustaining land-based economies

TEN YEARS AFTER the waters submerged her fields, 65-year-old Ali Bai continues to live on a half-submerged hilltop, under a broken bamboo roof. On paper, she’s been rehabilitated. In reality, not only has she been cheated of most of her compensation money, she could also face a potential jail term. So could thousands of others trapped in a new sinister game being played in the Narmada valley.

More than 20 years ago, the people of Narmada valley were asked to make a sacrifice for the greater common good of the country. Eight lakh hectares of irrigated land, drinking water for millions of people and 1,450MW of power: for this, they were asked to look away as the waters drowned their huts, their fields, their cattle, their schools, their hilltops. They were promised fair compensation.

In the last 20 years, the debate around the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) has become emblematic of the larger questions around the idea of development itself – the fight over our resources, the conflict between people and progress, the erosion of self-sustaining ways of life. In the last 20 years, the SSP has also been touted as yet another ‘temple of modern India’ – a gateway to the kind of developed society we want to become.

Ganga Ram hadn’t received any compensation and so complained to the local officials. He went missing the next day

That is why it is significant that four years after it was scheduled to be completed, none of those promises have been fulfilled. Only 72,000 hectares have been irrigated, only 7 percent of the promised water is reaching the thirsty millions — because only 30 percent of the canals have been constructed — and only 30 percent of the promised power has been generated. In the drought-prone region of Kutch that was touted as the raison d’être of the project, people have filed cases in the Supreme Court (SC) against the dam because the promised waters haven’t come. The Planning Commission cleared the Sardar Sarovar Project dam in 1988 at a cost of Rs 6,406 crores. Today, Rs 45,000 crores have been spent and the figure could rise to 70,000 crores by 2012. That is why there is reason to be cautious of the new promises the SSP dam authorities are rapidly and boldly making. The Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra governments are furiously petitioning the Narmada Control Authority for permission to take the dam to its final sanctioned height of 138.68 metres from its present height of 122 metres.

OF THE two lakh people who live in the project’s submergence zone, Madhya Pradesh has the largest number of oustees – almost 80 percent. Their sacrifices for the greater common good of the country will never make them martyrs. There will be no memorials or anniversary celebrations. And in 1999, the Madhya Pradesh government admitted to the SC that it has no land to give them either.

The SSP is perhaps the only project in the country where the rehabilitation of the displaced at each stage is a pre-condition for further construction. No other dam has been as much in the public eye or received as much international attention. No other people’s movement has managed what the Narmada Bachao Andolan has – in 1993, the World Bank withdrew its funding over human rights violations. For no other dam has the SC asked for proof that the thousands displaced have been resettled before it gives further clearances.

This is what makes a new scam in rehabilitation even more significant. Desperate to meet pre-conditions and raise the dam higher, the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) introduced a Special Rehabilitation Package (SRP) worth Rs 300 crore in 2001. It gives oustees cash compensation as long as they can prove they’ll buy land with it – a feat the government couldn’t accomplish themselves.

Today, the SRP scheme has led to more chaos and displacement. While the State defines only those whose lands are slated for submergence as “project affected”, as one travels through the Nimad plains of Madhya Pradesh, it is impossible to find a non-project affected family — farmers who were unaffected by the dam have begun killing themselves, those displaced are finding themselves in jail, those who have received compensation are being asked to return it, while the ineligible and the deceased are paid crores in compensation.

When 70-year-old Ganga Ram of Kawthi village realised he hadn’t received a penny of the Rs 5.6 lakh given to his son who died two years ago, he complained to the local authorities and threatened to go to higher if the money wasn’t returned. Ganga Ram went missing the next day. Villagers tell TEHELKA they saw his body floating in the Narmada river.

No one expects a government scheme to reach its target population without money being embezzled along the way. What makes the corruption in the rehabilitation of SSP oustees significant, perhaps, is the years of turbulent history behind it. The Supreme Court issued orders in 2000, 2002, and 2005 that all displaced people must be rehabilitated on lands they have agreed to accept at least six months before submergence. Those losing more than 25 percent of their land must be given land in return, a minimum of five acres. In April 2006, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself wrote to the SC. He promised that the oustees would be rehabilitated in four months, before the dam height reached 122 metres.

A fake seller, a fake photo, fake witnesses. Fake land that does not exist is bought by the oustees to get their compensation

Dam authorities have testified to the SC that all required rehabilitation is complete. Yet the irony is that people affected not only at the current dam height of 122 metres, but since the dam was 90 metres high, are yet to rehabilitated.

On paper, the villages of Nisarpur, Kharya Badal, and Bhavaria are empty — everyone has moved to the rehabilitation site. But when TEHELKA visited the villages, we found bustling courtyards, temples, children herding the goats. “For the benefit of thousands, we can’t save your land,” officials in Bhopal told Ram Das when he marched to the capital in protest a year ago. 17 acres of his cotton and chilli had been razed to make rehabilitation plots for 200 families from Nisarpur. Today, those 17 acres lie empty with churned rubble. The land with its soft black alluvial soil was ideal for cultivation, but not for construction. The open drains, lack of water and large pot holes did not help. All 200 families returned their house plots. Meanwhile, Das’ son has quit engineering college because his once successful father is now a landless labourer ‘for the benefit of thousands’.

Those who haven’t lost land to submergence or to nonfunctional rehabilitation have lost it to canals being pushed through their fields. In many cases, like Dinesh Bhai from Dharampuri, those fields were already irrigated with tubewells. None of the 23,500 families who’ve lost land to the Narmada Canal count as “project affected.” Now, there’s a new way to lose your land and livelihood – without your knowledge, a cabal of middlemen and government officials could transfer it to an SSP oustee, for the greater common good.

THERE ARE no roads that lead to the adivasi hamlet of Kotbandhini. It is only when you cross the Narmada on boat and trek up the Vindhya mountains to meet Ali Bai on a green mountain summit, that you understand the senselessness of what has happened in the Narmada valley, and the horror of what is about to happen if the authorities get their way again. It is only then that you understand how crude money can be, and how it is turning self-sufficient land-based economies into midget replicas of a cash-driven world: A villager sells off his goats to make room for a new motorcycle, only to realize he can’t afford the petrol; a village suddenly has a large number of bachelors because no one wants to marry their daughters to the new prodigal alcoholics; a brother gets a bigger house and stops talking to his poor family – the many crises of a monetary city life creeping into rural communities.

Rs 1,190 crores – that’s the rehabilitation budget of the MP government to resettle 40,000 families affected by the SSP. Ali Bai doesn’t know how much of it she has received; she cannot count. Teeth gone, gums loose, her voice is loudest, clearest when she says ‘Heera Lal’, the name of the dalal (broker) who took her to a big town to get her compensation of Rs 5.6 lakh. He left her with a few thousand.

In 1999, the MP government said to the SC that it has no land to give to oustees. The SC replied that it should buy private land. Farmers have written letters to the government willing to sell their land to the SSP oustees at current land rates. The government refused because “land prices were too high.” Suddenly, in 2000, the MP government wrote to the SC saying it has created a land bank to rehabilitate the oustees. In reality, much of this land was uncultivable, drawn from cattle grazing area or already inhabited by adivasis. No surprise then that most farmers refused to accept it. “Out of 4,304 projectaffected families, so far 4,044 have refused to accept the allotted land and opted for the Special Rehabilitation Package (SRP),” the NVDA wrote to the SC in a 2008 affidavit.

This is what the SRP is: Since the state government cannot find land, it tells the oustees to find it themselves. Each oustee and a major son is allowed a cash compensation of Rs 5.6 lakh in two instalments. After the first, they must find five acres of land to purchase, pay an advance, and produce a “sauda chitti” or land sale agreement before they are given the rest.

The land rates are at least Rs 2 lakh per acre for non irrigated land, and much more for irrigated land. How is an oustee expected to purchase five acres in five lakhs? The scheme itself is unworkable. Desperate to get their cash compensation, the oustees have fallen prey to a nexus of middlemen — brokers, local land records officers and revenue officials — who say they will help the oustees get their money for a broker fee.

And so fake land sale agreements are born: A fake seller, a fake photo, fake witnesses, fake land that does not even exist being purchased on paper by the oustee to get his due compensation. Except that all of it is not fake. In many cases, the land that oustees show they are buying has been snatched by the middlemen from real land owners whose fields and lives had until now been unaffected by the SSP.

Land records show Chaggan Bhai sold his land to SSP oustees. “What?” he said, his pink turban slipping off, when TEHELKA visited his village in Kukshi. He hadn’t a clue his land had been transferred to someone else’s name.

It was Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activists who first brought this scam to light. From 2005 to 2007 they asked the MP government to look into the matter but the government denied any fake records. In 2007, the Narmada Control Authority, headed by a secretary of the water resources ministry, asked the MP government to form a task force consisting of police and revenue department officials, to inquire into fake registries. Suddenly, the NVDA began transfering people. GS Bhagel, Vinay Kumar Dhoka and Ambaram Patidar were all land acquisition officers who are now sub divisional magistrates in the revenue department. As a result, the officers enquiring into the charges were those at the helm during the corruption!

The government task force report admitted to 758 cases of fake registry, but it only showed the oustees as the ones culpable. The government registered 230 FIRs and directed the NVDA to take action against them. Of those FIRs four are against middlemen and two against government officials. The remaining are the land buyers — those already displaced by the SSP, witnesses, and sellers — like Sitaram Mal Singh of Kukshi, who owns only 12 acres but is registered as selling 15.

The NBA went to court against the government inquiry. Its own assesment is that more than 2,000 registries are fake. When the Jabalpur High Court gave an interim order in February 2008 to stop further arrests, 55 of the 230 charged were already in jail for “cheating and forgery of valuable security”, punishable by upto 10 years or life imprisonment. Accepting the government inquiry is one-sided, the high court appointed an independent commission. Its report is due in two months.

When Alok Gulab from Semalda village reached NVDA for his compensation, a resettlement officer called Mr Modi pointed to thedalals perched outside: “Come through them.” The greater common good is not what he had in mind.

The people of Kotbandhini were rehabilitated on lands in Gujarat. On reaching there they found the same plot of land allotted to oustees from another village in MP. They were forced to return. Those who stayed returned two years later because the land was infertile. Yet, in affidavits to the SC dam authorities say Kotbandhini has been successfully resettled.

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