EPW    Commentary October 28, 2000

Narmada Valley: Planting Trees, Uprooting People

Tracey Brieger
Ali Sauer

By 1995 the villagers of Jangthi, Maharashtra, had had enough. The forestry department had started tree nurseries on their agricultural land, much of which was legally theirs by title. They first raised their complaints about this injustice by filing petitions and applications and marching in rallies – but to no avail. Since their complaints fell on deaf ears, they took action themselves. Two to three hamlets came together and ploughed and planted on the land that had been appropriated for plantations. They marched in protest through other villages with nurseries and plantations on cultivated lands. On the way, they dug up the saplings to free the land for cultivation, redistributed them to farmers and replanted them on the banks of rivers and nalas. Contrary to the government’s disparaging portrayal that they were destroying trees, the villagers had simply moved the saplings so that the trees could live and villagers could simultaneously cultivate their land. When the march reached the forest office, villagers demanded that the forestry department stop planting nurseries. After the police arrested and filed cases against 150 people, the forest department begrudgingly conceded and the plantations were stopped for several years.

The villagers were defending their land from being used as replacement forests to offset the government’s clear-felling and deforestation of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP), located in Gujarat. Including the canal networks, SSP is the largest dam in the Narmada Valley Development Project (NVDP) affecting villages across Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. The entire NVDP calls for the construction of 30 large dams, 130 medium size dams and 75,000 km of canals and distributaries.

While it may seem illogical to protest against mitigation efforts that are supposed to offset SSP’s environment impacts, the affected villagers’ opposition to activities such as afforestation must be contextualised within the entire environmental clearance process for SSP. Closely examined, this process blatantly fails existing legal requirements such that it calls into question the validity of the entire project. By the letter of the law there is no environmental clearance for this huge project and yet it continues to be built.

Environmental Clearance

The 1979 decision of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT), effectively determining state water allocation, was the first official step in making the decades long dream of damming the Narmada a reality. When the decision was made, many important environmental issues were not well understood or well documented. In 1983 the newly formed ministry of forest and environment formulated guidelines for River Valley Development Projects for the union and state governments. Ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) did not accord clearance for the Sardar Sarovar project, the secretary outlined that a number of important studies had not been completed. Despite this the World Bank sanctioned a loan for US $450 million, without meeting its own requirements for studies. This loan was used as leverage to pressure the MoEF to give clearance on the project.

The first alleged ‘Environmental Impact Study’, conducted by M S University, Baroda in 1983, for an alarmingly short seven month period did little to shed light on the potential impacts of the project. It was a superficial study that examined areas only in Gujarat and excluded assessment of the canal and command areas where some of the most severe impacts will occur. Consequently, it covered only 1.2 per cent of the total project area. Despite being obviously limited, the government deemed it comprehensive enough in its analysis of environmental impacts to justify the project’s clearance in 1987. A thorough, independent evaluation of a project’s benefits and impacts prior to its clearance is the foundation of proper environmental impact assessment in both India and abroad. However, in the case of SSP such an assessment did not occur, proving the government’s blind faith and determination to construct the project.

In 1987, behind closed doors the prime minister was presented with two letters authored by the ministry of environment and forests and the ministry of water resources summarising the status of the studies and clearly stating that only conditional clearance could be given. Despite the questionable legality, and undemocratic nature of this process, SSP was granted conditional clearance that same year. This clearance stipulated that the numerous remaining studies be completed by 1989 and that action plans for mitigation of negative impacts proceed pari passu (or ‘at the same rate as’) work on the project.

Both of these conditions clearly depart from the fundamental principle of EIA demanding an informed decision be made prior to proceeding with any project work. The lack of logic in the pari passu clause is self-evident: it wholeheartedly approves the project and allows work to proceed before the myriad environmental and social impacts are analysed and understood, causing potentially irreversible damage. The pari passu clause undermines the scientific method since the impacts are already underway by the time the studies are conducted. For example, how can one study a certain species that will be affected by SSP if its original habitat has already been severely degraded by project work?

With the exception of the Supreme Court’s four year stay on dam construction, work on the project has pressed on until the present, all the while failing to meet planned deadlines, and subject to intensive corruption by state contractors. In 1990 when the studies had not been completed, the Environmental Sub-Group (ESG) of the Narmada Control Authority (the group charged with monitoring this process) reported that clearance had lapsed. In 1992, the secretary of the MoEF reasserted this lapse and threatened to revoke the earlier clearance altogether if compliance was not met. Today, this uncertain status remains – the project authorities have not applied for clearance nor has the MoEF extended or renewed the clearance. The studies remain incomplete and the pari passu clause is clearly not being complied with.

Compensatory Afforestation

Every country is supposed to maintain a minimum of 33 per cent forest cover according to the India Country Study, ‘Large Dams: India’s Experience – A Report for the World Commission on Dams’ that was submitted in June 2000. It states that India has approximately 24 per cent forest land, and with numbers like this submerging forests becomes significant on a national level. The Sardar Sarovar project will submerge a total of 39,134 ha of land, of this 32 per cent is forest land. The Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam promises to plant about 4.25 crore trees, a number which, with 10 lakh trees looks promising, but even conservative sources suggest that this number is too high.

Afforestation is often considered a good compromise even by urban environmentalists who may be opposed to the environmental destruction wreaked by SSP. With trees being planted to replace the vast tracts of land being deforested by state contractors and submerged by the dam, afforestation seems like a positive step. Such logic is more consistent with a notion of the environment that separates nature from culture, yet in the villages where people’s lives and livelihood are inextricably linked to the environment, a more inclusive approach to environmental protection and mitigation is required.

It is important to differentiate between government afforestation schemes, and local level afforestation. Villagers within the Narmada Valley have been planting and managing forests within the villages for many years. Watchmen are appointed and ensure that the forest is protected on a voluntary basis. Afforestation on a village level is drastically different than government mitigation programmes.

‘Jangal jangal dubadta – Rupa thanin kay karta’ (You are submerging forests, what’s the point of planting trees?) This is a common slogan heard in the Narmada Valley. It questions the logic in deforesting and then attempting to reforest to make up for the lost jungle. The villagers of Narmada are not alone in questioning how planting trees can ever make up for the biodiversity and the ecological balance that is lost with the submergence of a forest. A forest is a habitat for various non-timber products that the villagers depend on for food, livelihood and herbal medicine as well as for numerous birds, insects and wildlife. A plantation, frankly put, is a tree farm, which if it is properly planted and if it survives will take decades to come close to resembling any kind of a forest.

There is ample fodder for theoretical debate on these issues, but the on-the-ground reality is that compensatory afforestation for SSP has been a failure on its own terms according to the project’s own guidelines. The ESG, the government body charged with ensuring that environmental safeguard measures are planned and implemented pari passu with progress of works on the project commissioned a field visit in 1999 to assess the experience of compensatory afforestation for SSP. The study was based on interviews with local forest officers from a sample of five villages across Maharashtra and MP over three days, a survey so limited in scope as to be almost useless. The report claims a lofty 98.4 per cent completion rate of the total area to be afforested. Tree survival rates are only documented for three of the five villages – at 60 per cent, 70 per cent and 80 per cent – raising suspicions as to why figures for the other two villages are absent. These statistics completely contradict the experiences of other villages making the government results dubious, especially in light of the small sample size, the short visit and the fact that the authors never spoke to the villagers themselves.

In a preliminary investigation – a short-term study with a small (albeit larger than the official) sample – we spoke to people from 19 different villages across the three affected states from July 20th to July 31st, 2000. Afforestation in the villages selected represented a range of plantation sizes and types of land used for planting on both titled and untitled lands. With the objective of getting a picture of villages’ experiences with compensatory afforestation, we approached the interviews with a set of specific questions that provided a basis for a broader discussion. This interview style allowed the villagers to direct and shape the conversation so that they could explain in their own way how compensatory afforestation affects their lives. This technique proved useful since the issues that the villagers consider important are not necessarily the same as those raised by outsiders. In addition to the more formal interviews, we attended many community meetings as observers. Highlighting its importance, villagers frequently raised the issue of afforestation in their own discussions.

While we examined numerous government and independent documents, we relied mainly on primary data. The crucial importance of primary data has been consistently underplayed and ignored throughout the life span on the project. Since the NWDT, judgements on SSP’s desirability and feasibility have always been based on secondary data. No decision-makers or authors of required studies thought to talk to the villagers themselves. Thus it is no surprise that villagers’ experiences are not reflected in the official version of the project and its effects.

Contrary to the official statistics, when 10-15 per cent of the trees survived after the second planting in Bilgaon, it was considered to be high in light of the 0 per cent survival rate experienced after the first planting. Tribal people from Danel, Dhankhedi, Chimalkhedi (Maharashtra) and Talav (Gujarat) reported survival rates of 5 per cent or less. In Maal, Maharashtra, not one tree survived after being planted. The highest survival rate reported in our interviews – much higher than in all the other villages – was 50 per cent in Trishul and slightly under that in Bijari, both in Maharashtra. In Turkheda, Bori, Chikhli (all in Maharashtra) and Kadda, (Gujarat), survival rates were reported at 25 per cent. In Rajbardi, Gaman and Bilgaon (Maharashtra), villagers reported ‘low survival rates’.

Survival rates ranging from low to zero are hardly shocking when state forest departments ordered the planting of seeds instead of saplings, ordered planting in the wrong season, neglected to protect or maintain the trees once planted, or even failed to plant at all, dumping the saplings into ditches as witnessed in Chimalkhedi, Maharashtra. The blatant incompetence and intentional disregard of these actions is indisputable and makes a mockery of the entire afforestation process.

The participation of villagers in planning local afforestation programmes on land traditionally used and shared by adivasis was never sought. Villagers were not consulted about species of trees to be planted or on which land. It comes as no surprise then that in Jalsindi (MP), and Anjanwara (MP), the villagers resisted and prevented any afforestation. The claim that 98 per cent of the land has been afforested is at best an idealistic dream, and at worst a gross misrepresentation of this situation. Afforestation’s intended environmental functions of binding the soil and preventing soil erosion are not being realised, but it is also a serious legal issue with respect to compliance with the environmental guidelines established by the MoEF. The ESG report proudly states that the experience with compensatory afforestation thus far has been ‘satisfactory and encouraging’ but since many of the trees planted never survived even one season and other villagers outright resisted the plantations, such a contention is environmentally unsound, woefully irresponsible and raises serious questions about the legality of the whole environmental clearance process and validity of mitigation efforts. Many villagers, not just those who were surveyed, told of the forestry department forcibly taking over their agricultural and grazing land while simultaneously blocking their access to forests. These complaints reoccurred across the majority of villages surveyed.

From a previous government survey, Pandurang Phirangya Pavana was given papers entitling him to permanent ownership of his land. This, however did not stop the forest department from appropriating his land for afforestation. In Gaman (Maharashtra), almost 200 families lost land, in Danel (Maharashtra), 150 families lost land, in Chimalkhedi (Maharashtra), 50 families lost land and in Dankhedi (Maharashtra), 40 families lost land to afforestation programmes. The forcible removal of productive farmland, and lack of access to forest produce and grazing land translates into food shortages, reduced income, no fuelwood and no timber for subsistence villages in the valley.

Another source of economic burden and general hardship is the systemic corruption of the forest department. Bribery is a chronic problem throughout the project, plaguing the villagers. In Turkheda, Gujarat, a forest official collected money for foresting the same tract of land each year, meanwhile demanding bribes from villagers to continue cultivating portions of the same plot. The forest officials have also been known to pay labourers from the villages for afforestation projects less than recorded in official records, if anything at all, and skim off the extra money for themselves. This exploitation of cheap labour was reported in Turkheda, Gujarat, and Bilgaon and Maal, both in Maharashtra. Yet another example of corruption is the forest official taking money for afforestation that never occurred. Almost all of the saplings destined for Chimalkhedi were dumped into a nala instead of being planted. Another vivid example is Talav where 75 per cent of the trees claimed as planted were dumped before arriving at the nursery. Of the remaining trees that were actually planted, only 25 per cent survived – a mere 6.25 per cent of the original stock.

Local forest officials established their own rule in the villages, sometimes beating people as in Gaman and burning the forest in Danel and framing the villagers. Overall, they used their powers for a project of exaggeration where the ‘on-paper’ statistics grossly misrepresented reality. They dug less pits, but claimed more, they did not plant some trees at all but counted them as planted, they collected money to pay a certain number of labourers and hired less. “Unacceptable” barely begins to describe an afforestation programme where land is counted as planted even if a sapling dies before your eyes, before ever being planted.

Land Rights

Such rampant corruption is facilitated by unclear and inconsistent land rights laws, left deliberately vague by the central and state governments. This has given enormous power to forest bureaucrats who can interpret existing statutes at their own discretion and ushers in the intrusion of state control into the villages and forests, areas where it previously had little influence. At least Pandurang Phirangya Pavana and some of the villagers of Jangthi who protested by ploughing their fields had land title (many of those who did not were due to receive land rights), and thus a legal basis for their complaints. Other villages affected by SSP do not always have even this weak recourse for rectification of government injustices.

A Supreme Court ruling directed state governments to settle land title for ‘old encroachers’ (villagers who cultivated their land only since 1978 or before). Not only did the government of Maharashtra fail to implement this order to regularise the title of encroachers who had cultivated land prior to 1978, but it further failed to execute the order even after being ordered to do so by the Supreme Court in 1995. All orders to rectify the land rights situation in the past have been ignored. As a result, the land rights have never been settled in many villages.

This leaves many adivasis and other villagers affected by SSP with no legal land rights despite their historic cultivation and reliance on the land. In general, the lack of land title results in increased conflict with the forestry departments regarding land use excludes villagers from positive small scale development schemes such as wells or subsidies, and prevents villagers from legally transferring the land to their children. In the context of a large project such as SSP, the situation becomes even more dire since villagers’ existing land is not only targeted for mitigation measures, but also those who have no title are not granted resettlement lands. Instead, they receive only a small sum of money, if anything at all, far below the market value of the land, as compensation. Therefore for the untitled, leaving their land is an effective one-way ticket to urban slums despite their strong and valid – if not officially legal – rights to ownership of the land they have traditionally lived on, worked and protected.

The tale of compensatory afforestation above adequately demonstrates that, in practice, government officials discriminate against both the titled and the untitled villagers. Thus, not only are there serious shortcomings with the laws themselves but this demonstrates that they are inadequately implemented, and consistently violate villagers’ rights. Since the extreme injustices against villagers will only continue to grow and deepen in the absence of official title, the situation of land rights must be urgently corrected.

In Jalsindi, MP, no afforestation has occurred through SSP. In 1988 and again in 1995, villagers defiantly prevented the forest department from clearfelling and planting saplings and thereby kept them from exerting unjust control over village land. They effectively and successfully blocked state appropriation of their rights and livelihood. For the same reason, the villagers in Bori (Maharashtra) protested to save their agricultural land and won – not one tree was planted even on officially untitled tracts.

The issue of compensatory afforestation only begins to reflect the myriad of injustices surrounding SSP. Compensatory afforestation’s failure – a failure of almost scandalous proportions – is indicative of the blatant overall illegality of the SSP’s environmental clearance process even if it is ever properly given. From the very beginning when the decision to proceed was rubber-stamped despite entirely inadequate studies, the tone was set to push the project through regardless of negative environmental and social impact and even in brazen contempt of the law itself. Successful studies are the cornerstone for formulating effective action plans for mitigation. The argument that affected people will benefit from dam projects rests on the premise of successful mitigation. Compensatory afforestation is a poignant example of this process gone awry. People are being displaced and suffering on one hand from afforestation schemes, and, on the other hand, the schemes are not even being implemented properly according to their own guidelines. The importance of proper environmental impact assessment is not just to fulfil legal requirements, but instead is a crucial aspect of project planning. In order to perform a legitimate cost-benefit analysis to determine a project’s feasibility and desirability, all of the costs must be thoroughly accounted for. Environmental impact must therefore be studied before a final decision is taken. Also, land rights must be settled prior to a cost benefit analysis for the simple reason that the required recompensation – a significant cost – is impossible to determine without knowing what and how much land is being lost. If a project proceeds after establishing that its negative impacts are reparable and costs compensable, then mitigation strategies are of critical importance.

September 23, 2000


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