Old war, new bodies


‘Money evaporates, land remains’

The dam drowned his fields and pastures. When he demanded land for land, the government turned its back on him

Gokhru Mangal, rehabilitated on paper

DON’T PUBLISH this picture, the government will think I’m a terrorist,” says Gokhru Mangal as he displays his countrymade bow and arrow. “We have fought the dam for the last 20 years, but our struggle is non-violent.” Mangal belongs to the Bhil tribe that lives in the village of Kharya Badal in the Vindhya mountains, on the border of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. In 1999, the waters of the SSP reservoir submerged Mangal’s 16 acres of land and the pastures surrounding it. Most of his 35 buffaloes died of starvation.

The government offered Mangal a cash compensation of Rs 11 lakh for his 16 acres. He refused and demanded land. He has the right to do so under the Narmada Tribunal Award, which mandates that displaced villagers should be rehabilitated with land. “Money is like air,” Gokhru says. “It will evaporate. The government won’t be responsible for us after it is gone. The land will remain for our children. Give us life in return for life.”

The government gave the villagers uncultivable land in Rabarghatti, 150km away from their house plots

Today, Mangal cultivates his crop on two acres of land he found in the hills. Sometimes he’s afraid to drink the water. The now-stagnant Narmada is filled with mosquitoes and the floating corpses of dead animals. He knows that cases of malaria and health diseases have shot up around the valley.

To sustain his family of four, he now runs a tea stall on a mountain road. When the waters came in 1999, they also cut off his access to the mainland. Mangal could not afford to pay Rs 20 per boat ride to reach the other side. So he got together seven villagers, who contributed two kg of ancestral silver and bought themselves a boat. Mangal now ferries people across the Narmada. He tries not to think about his fields rotting below the waters.

To rehabilitate Kharya Badal, the government gave the villagers land in Rabarghatti village, Khandwa district, 150km away from their house plots. By the government’s own admission in a Supreme Court affidavit, 24 of the 34 hectares offered to them in Rabarghati are uncultivable. The villagers collectively refused the land.

It has been 10 years since the waters submerged their fields, but the adivasis of Kharya Badal haven’t moved. In SC affidavits, the government claims they are all successfully rehabilitated. Their existence now is loose patchwork, stitched together by the pastures they could find, the cattle they could save. They have been pushed further into the mountains, isolated further from the land and the river that was once their life.


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