EPW    Commentary November 18-24, 2000

Dam-Oustees' Movement in South Maharashtra

Innovative Struggle

Anant Phadke

Over the last couple of years, the dam oustees’ movement in south-west Maharashtra has achieved path-breaking victories; but sadly, they have not been reported in that national press, though there has been detailed, extensive regular reportage on this movement in the local press. From the viewpoint of left wing politics, the importance of these significant gains goes beyond local politics as they point to an approach towards hegemonistic, instead of merely oppositional politics. The approach, developed by this movement, is an essence based on the same perspective that guided the famous ‘Baliraja Dam’ movement in south-west Maharashtra, in the 1980s. During last couple of years, this movement has gained three significant victories.

Alternative to the Uchangi Dam

‘Uchangi’ is a nondescript village in the Aajara taluk of Kolhapur district. The Maharashtra government decided to build a dam there (on Tar-ohal, a small river in that area) that would submerge partly or wholly six villages to impound 660 million cubic feet (mcft) of water. The affected villages had pointed out way back in 1986, that in this region, with an annual average rainfall of about 4,000-mm, water could be easily impounded with a number of smaller dams. But this alternative was ignored. When the irrigation department actively started preparation for this dam in November 1997, thousands of men and women in the upstream villages actively opposed it. This resulted in a meeting of the affected villagers and the activists of the Shramik Mukti Dal, with the district level officials. In this meeting the officials agreed that if a scientific alternative is prepared to the proposed scheme, then the government would consider such an alternative positively. This agreement was first of the series of pioneering achievements of this movement. Well known expert, K R Date and his associates in Society for Promoting Participative Eco-system Management (SOPPECOM), agreed to help in preparing this alternative, if the relevant data were made available. With the guidance of these experts, the villages of Chaphawade, Jeur, and Chitale carried out a systematic survey, including a participative resource mapping (PRM), of the area to asses the possibility of an alternative.

A rough plan was prepared on the basis of this survey and PRM. But some systematic topographical survey data were needed to formulate concrete alternative plan. The irrigation department which had the relevent data refused to part with it on the pretext that they fell under the Official Secrets Act. The movement kept up the pressure to get this information as a matter of ‘right to information’ and also submitted the preliminary, rough alternative plan. The district level authorities rejected this plan as also the demand that the whole matter be discussed with the higher authorities in the Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation (MKVDC). They tried to start the dam construction in June 1998. There was severe opposition to the starting of the dam work. Despite heavy rains, almost all the villagers from Chaphavade and Jeur and many from Chitale sat down along with their cattle, at the dam site to oppose construction. A police force of more than 1,000 were waiting to charge down on the protestors. But at the last moment, the superintendent of police, beat a retreat in view of the determined opposition of the villagers. The demand to provide topo sheet data and to hold discussion with higher authorities was also cancelled. This was an unprecedented victory for the movement.

Despite this assurance, the irrigation department delayed providing these data for 16 months. It even attempted to start work of the dam once again. The movement foiled such attempts and ultimately the government had to provide the topo sheet data. Perhaps, nowhere else has any movement been able to force the government to give such topo sheet data. Despite the inadequacies of these data, experts from SOPPECOM and activists of the movement submitted an outline of an alternative plan. This consisted of three smaller dams on the rivulet Tar-Ohal. They together would impound 624 mcft of water, that would irrigate almost double the area in the government plan since, as per the alternative plan, each family would get 3,000 cubic metre of water, in accordance with the principle of equitable water for sustainable development. The rest of the water would come from local watershed development. There would be no displacement and very little good quality land would be submerged.

The engineers of the MKVDC agreed that Khetoba village, one of the sites in the alternative plan, was a good site. They agreed to build a small dam there and to reduce the height of the Uchangi dam by two metres. They rejected the two other sites suggested in the alternative plan on the ground that they do not meet the cost-criteria of the irrigation department. The delegation consisting of the leaders of the Maharashtra State Dam and Project Oustees’ Organisation, Shramik Mukti Dal, the villagers’ representatives and the SOPPECOM experts argued that the very parameters used by the irrigation department were questionable. Secondly, well-established techniques to reduce dam construction cost were available. However, the MKVDC officials pleaded their inability to go beyond government norms and techniques.

The modified MKVDC plan of the Uchangi dam of reducing the height of the dam by two metres was not acceptable to the villagers. But gains so far were unprecedent and tremendous. The government had to agree to build a second dam, and also to modify the present plan so that none of the houses in the village ‘gaothans’ (settlements) in these six villages would be submerged. Good quality land near the river bed would be submerged, but the government has agreed to lift water from the dam to irrigate the rest of the land at its own cost. (This was also an unprecedented step.) In view of these facts, it was decided that the villagers would express their opposition to the modified plan by courting arrest on the inaugural day of dam construction, but would then focus on forcing the government to implement the various promises made as part of the modified plan. This dharana and the subsequent follow up by the activists has kept up the pressure on the government to implement its promises.

Joint Front of Dam-Affected and Water-Starved Villages

The movement in south Maharashtra for equitable distribution of the dammed water is now a decade old (see EPW, November 26, 1994 for a report of the initial phase of the movement). This movement has spread to 13 talukas in Sangli, Satara and Solapur districts. As a result of intense, sustained pressure of repeated mass mobilisation of thousands of water-starved villagers, the government has now accepted the principle of ‘equitable distribution of dammed water’, albeit only in case of new dams. This movement organised by the Shetmajoor Kashtakari Shetakari Sanghatna, (‘landless labourers and toiling peasants organisation’) (SKSS) is being led by the legendary firebrand 75-year-old freedom fighter Nagnath Anna Nayakwadi and Shramik Mukti Dal’s Bharat Patankar and others like Nana Shyetye of the Lal Nishan Party (L). All of them are known to be hard-liners as regards forcing the bureaucracy to give written commitments. The Hutatma Kisan Ahir Cooperative Sugar Factory, led by ‘Anna’ Nayakwadi, helps this movement with jeeps, etc, for the activists and some of the prominent local leaders of left parties have supported this movement at some junctures, but there has not been a clear support for it from the party high command.

The demand for equitable distribution of the dammed water is complementary and conducive to the demand for land redistribution. Bharat Patankar argues that irrigated water is also a means of production, and demand for its redistribution is as important as the demand for land redistribution. The demand for equitable water distribution as formulated by Shramik Mukti Dal, includes 3,000 cubic metre of water for every family, including the landless. (Of course the quantum of water would vary as per specific agro-climatic conditions.) It is argued that when the landless families get the right to their quota of the irrigated water, they take land for cultivation from the peasants with larger landholdings on a sharecropping basis. This sets up a tradition of the landless cultivating land and this would concretely create the hunger for and become the basis of landdistribution later. Patankar complains that the left parties have not officially accepted the demand for equitable water distribution, though they have participated in some of the mobilisations on sets of demands, which include equitable water distribution. The left parties, he laments, do not think creatively and hence, do not understand the significance of irrigated water as a mobile means of production. Organisations like the Narmada Bachao Aandolan also do not take up this demand, as they feel that local watershed development is enough; there is no need of exogenous water and hence there is no question of making equitable water distribution of dammed water, a key demand. However, scientific evidence shows that in many drought prone areas, local watershed development is not adequate and exogenous water is required to supplement local water for sustainable development.

Despite the reservations of various political groups and parties, the SKSS has gone ahead in putting forward the demand for equitable water distribution, as there has been overwhelming response from the toiling people in the water-scarce areas. Given this response in the form of big rallies of tens of thousands of people, the left parties, some individuals from left parties, from the Congress Party supported this demand. The Nationalist Congress Party included this demand in its election-manifesto for the Maharashtra Vidhan Sabha election in September 1999. After coming into power as Democratic Front government, it has not yet fulfilled its election-promise. But when put under intense pressure, it ultimately declared equitable water distribution policy for new dams being constructed. Though this policy excludes the old dams, it is undoubtedly, a step forward, and constitutes a victory for the movement. Equitable water distribution on per capita basis (access to water on the basis of number of people) has been included (in fact as first one in the list!) in the 51-point common minimum programme suggested by the N D Patil committee appointed by the present Democratic Front government. The pressure to implement this policy and to include the old dams in equitable water distribution is being mounted with mass mobilisations.

The Maharashtra government had been in a great hurry to build a series of dams in the Krishna valley, to impound as much water as possible by May 31, 2000. This is because of the Inter-State Water Dispute Tribunal’s award, in 1975 (known as the Bachawat Award), which had specified that if the quota allocated to the concerned states (Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh) is not utilised by May 2000, then the unutilsed share would come under consideration, during the next round of negotiations. Since the Maharashtra government had lagged behind in full utilisation of its share of water, it has desperately tried to expedite dam construction in the valley. These constructions were being pushed through without proper rehabilitation of the dam-affected villages. However, the Maharashtra Rajya Dharan Grasta Va Prakalpa Grasta Shetkari Parishad (MRDPSP) (Maharashtra State Dam and Project Affected Farmers’ Organisation) in south Maharashtra were determined to teach the government a lesson. This led to a number of defiant struggles in which the dam constructions were forcibly stopped at the various dam sites like Chitri, Wang-Marathwadi, and Urmodi in particular. Fierce political struggles ensued; every effort was made by the ruling establishment to break the unity and determination of the aggressive mass mobilisation. But there was unprecedented, systematic opposition by the project-affected people led by a very unyielding leadership. As a result, dam construction could go ahead only in step with the fulfilment of the promises as regards rehabilitation. The leadership of this movement would always insist on written assurances from higher authorities, would give a call to the people to forcibly stop the construction of the dam if these time-bound written promises were not met. The police could not launch an offensive given the scale of mobilisation, the larger support to that movement, the innovative forms of struggles, which were extensively reported in the local press. The ruling establishment was forced to go on the defensive. There was no time to wear down the movement because of the urgency to complete as much work on dams as possible before May 31, 2000.

The struggle reached its peak of mass mobilisation when, last year from October 27, there was a three-day-long ‘dharana’ simultaneously in 13 taluks in three districts, in support of various demands of the people in both dam-affected areas and water-scarce areas. Generally, the ruling class pits these two sections of the people against each other. But in these dharanas, in which in total of about one lakh people participated, these sections supported each other’s demands. Both the sections demanded completion of dam construction in time, but with full rehabilitation of the dam-affected. This was an unprecedented dharana in south Maharashtra in terms of nature of its demands, and the mobilisation around it.

The dharana was converted into a gherao. It was particularly intense in the three district headquarters – Kolhapur, Sangli, and Satara. This was extensively reported in the local press. (A typical headline would read ‘Nine hours of gherao of the collectorate’.) The authorities were forced to give written promises as regards rehabilitation of the dam-oustees. Since then, pressure has been continuously and successfully put on the bureaucracy to implement the various assurances. For example, as per the act passed in 1987 (Maharashtra Rehabilitation of the Project Affected), the rehabilitated villages should be provided 13 civic amenities include schools with playground, piped water supply, construction of drainages, cemetery, etc. Generally, only some of these amenities are provided. Here, thanks to the pressure of the movement, the dam work was halted when the rehabilitation work did not progress properly and hence, the rehabilitated villages have been provided with all these 13 amenities. Secondly, villagers did not allow dam work to start unless the alternative land was transferred in the oustees’ names and would not allow dam work to be completed unless all the dam oustees actually get possession of the alternative land.

Monthly Irrigation Compensation

The Maharashtra government has promised that the dam-oustees would get irrigated land in the command area. But generally for years, the irrigation facilities in the command area do not reach to the land given to the oustees. The dam-oustees, movement in south Maharashtra, therefore, demanded that the oustees should be given a monthly remuneration to compensate for this loss of income till irrigation actually reaches their allotted land. This unusual demand met with a lot of resistance from officialdom. But, the dam-oustees were in a do-or-die mood. The oustees of the Marathwadi dam forcibly halted the construction of this dam for 20 days in the crucial pre-monsoon period. The other dam-affected people threatened to halt construction at other dam sites. The authorities finally wilted and gave a written assurance that the earlier decision in February 2000 of giving compensatory remuneration of Rs 600 per month to the oustees till they get irrigated water for their allotted land, would be implemented immediately. Similarly, an indefinite dharana of hundreds of Warana dam-oustees in Kolhapur from May 24 on this and other demands forced the authorities on the day of the dharana to concede their demands. This compensatory irrigation allowance is unprecedent indeed. It is however a moot question, whether the government would continue to pay this promised allowance to the thousands of dam-oustees till their allotted land is irrigated. It has been dilly-dallying about the payment after the first monthly installment. When the dam construction is over, the dam-oustees will not have much bargaining power. As of today the movement has achieved what initially looked impossible. The leaders of the movement have been touring hectically almost round the clock for more than a year. This is not sustainable. But the most critical struggles are now over and all the activists look forward to a relaxed harvesting season.

All the government officials are today, in a conciliatory mood. They had to give written promises and have been forced to keep these promises. The officials arrange for the transport of the transport of the village representatives, for going to the meetings with the officials. The newly resettled villages look better than the original villages. There are brick-houses and not thatched huts; there is piped water supply, wide roads with constructed drainages on both sides, a school with a playground, etc. All the 13 civic facilities are being arranged. The villagers are, however, struggling to cultivate the newly allotted land, as there is some resistance from the original landowners. But with organised strength, problems are being solved. The sense of pride and militancy is apparent along with the lament as being forced to leave the original village.

The dam-oustees and the drought-prone peasantry have been one of the most unorganised vulnerable, neglected sections of the toiling people. Their movement in south-west Maharashtra has demonstrated that even these sections can be mobilised most successfully by rallying them around the mutually supporting demand for equitable distribution of irrigation water and support to the necessary dam construction on condition of proper rehabilitation with irrigation facilities for sustainable development. The society at large supports such a movement and the government finds it difficult to suppress it, given this wider support and given the pressure from the contractors of dam construction to settle the matter at the earliest. This strategy however, also requires a competent, hard working, militant leadership, which can sustain the tempo of mobilisation work and all kinds of pressures from the establishment.

Today, globalisation with privatisation is making inroads everywhere. The demand for equitable distribution of water challenges this march in a concrete way in rural areas. Equitable distribution of water including for the landless for sustainable development involves an alternative path of development which includes an alternative approach to agriculture, irrigation, energy and biomass based dispersed industrialisation. The toiling peasants movement in south-west rural Maharashtra is now poised to bring forth these issues, once the initial basic struggle is over. ‘An alternative development Parishad’ for Aajara taluk is slated in the coming months. It is to be seen what response people give to the call for this new, different phase of the struggle.

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