It has taken the force of arms to make rehabilitation a central political issue in this country. Events in Nandigram and rising opposition to the process of industrialization in Orissa may have forced the government to finally place the draft Relief and Rehabilitation (R&R) policy before the Cabinet, but much of the discussion still seems to ignore lessons that could be drawn from the issue’s history.
Last week, the Supreme Court asked for the status of relief and rehabilitation (R&R) measures for people affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam. The problem had all but faded from public memory till it was highlighted by Medha Patkar’s fast in April last year.
The truth of the matter is that ever since the Narmada Valley Project was conceived it was clear that several hundred thousand people would be affected, but over a period of more than a decade the entire state apparatus —and this must include the judiciary—has failed to enforce the simple principle of rehabilitation before displacement.
Away from the technical arguments that abound in Delhi, a visit by an unbiased observer to any village affected by the dams, or to any rehabilitation site, should supply enough evidence for this assertion. Consider the Omkareshwar project that is now nearing completion. It is an area where the Narmada Bachao Andolan is not active, which may explain why it has largely gone unreported.
The impoundment of the reservoir will take place during this monsoon. Upriver from the dam, Selana is the first village on the right bank. Here, according to official records, rehabilitation is complete. This is news to more than 50 people from the Bargunde community of basket weavers living here. They are victims of a double tragedy. In 2005, their homes were washed away by an unannounced discharge from the Indira Sagar Dam that also killed over 50 pilgrims. Now living in makeshift houses thanks to one dam, they do not qualify for relief from the denudation headed their way from another dam.
Such ironies are not isolated events; they are at the heart of the R&R disaster. The state government in March has found survey mistakes in 12 out of the 30 villages affected by the Omkareshwar dam. This, after the bureaucracy has gained considerable experience of dealing with R&R problems caused by both the Indira Sagar Project and the Sardar Sarovar Project.
It is against this backdrop that the new R&R policy needs to be discussed. Consider its well-meaning objective, “To ensure that all those who are displaced are significantly better off, not just in economic terms, but also in terms of human development and security, in a reasonable time frame, and in accordance with their aspirations, than they were prior to displacement.”
To enforce this ideal, the policy envisages a National Rehabilitation Commission (NRC) with the statutory responsibility of assessing all projects that would displace people. This may sound fine in theory, but the entire sequence of events that unfolded over the Sardar Sarovar dam has seen precisely such a mechanism fail even when the Supreme Court has played exactly the part required of the NRC in the Act.
The problem: Rehabilitation is carried out by the state and is eventually assessed by the state.
Ineptitude and corruption combine to deliver a mess on the ground and then the same bureaucracy shields its own. In practice, shunting IAS officers between departments obliterates the very idea of monitoring by an independent body.
Ideal though the dismantling of the IAS would be, it is not likely to happen in a hurry. There’s a lesson in another aspect of a dam project. Till recently, cost overruns due to construction delays were common, but dams such as the one at Omkareshwar are being completed ahead of schedule. The National Hydroelectric Power Corporation has managed this by the simple expedient of contracting the construction out to a private firm—JP Associates.
Perhaps it is time to consider doing the same for rehabilitation. Let the power company responsible for the dam be given charge of rehabilitation and let the state act as a monitoring agency with set guidelines for rehabilitation. There need not be any change in the pattern of funding for this.
In the case of Special Economic Zones (SEZ), the government may well be thinking along these lines. According to news reports, the UPA government has now decided to table a Bill in Parliament making it binding on companies to rehabilitate farmers before they are displaced for setting up industries. This could work for dams, too. A delay in R&R in a project such as Omkareshwar, would directly delay impoundment and lead to cost overruns. Today this doesn’t happen simply because faced with the rapid progress in dam construction, the state lies about its failure in R&R. The idea would be the same as for SEZs—without the coercive power of the state, private companies would need to satisfy the people affected before they could begin to profit from the project.
Hartosh Singh Bal is a journalist who has reported extensively from Madhya Pradesh. He is currently working on a travelogue set in the Narmada valley. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org