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The message from Pathrad

Frontline Volume 17 - Issue 07, Apr. 01 - 14, 2000
India's National Magazine on
from the publishers of THE HINDU

Table of Contents


The message from Pathrad

By organising a dharna and a public hearing against the construction of the Maheshwar dam, the women of the village and the NBA demonstrate that they will continue the agitation, against all odds.

in Pathrad

BY all means, Pathrad is a model to the entire Nimad region of Madhya Pradesh. The village of about 300 families is prosperous and has electricity, telephones with subscriber trunk dialling (STD) facility, and good sanitation. It was hit by three major f loods in the Narmada river in the 20th century, but was reconstructed by the residents, who adapted to the situation. Each house, situated on a big plot, is open from three sides. Most houses are constructed with bricks. The local people depend on sand e xtraction, river bed cultivation, fishing and dry wood collection to make a living.

But Pathrad's affluence may once again be under threat - this time not from floods, but from the Maheshwar dam coming up on the Narmada. As Pathrad is one of the 61 villages affected by the Maheshwar Hydel Power Project, promoted by S. Kumars among other companies - the anti-dam movement Narmada Bachao Andolan chose it as the venue of a 'public hearing' on March 15. The hearing was presided over by Dr. Syeda Hameed, member of the National Commission for Women (NCW).

The village is close to the project site and also Mandleshwar town, and most of it, including its prominent Hanuman mandir, is likely to be submerged, according to government projections. But the residents are undeterred; playing host to a vast number of similarly affected men, women and children from neighbouring villages, they told Dr. Syeda Hameed that they would not accept the meagre cash compensation that was sought to be doled out to them.

Since neither any State government official nor the project personnel concerned turned up at the public hearing, there was no opportunity for any exchange of ideas on the utility of the project. The NBA, which organised the function, claimed that it had invited Chief Minister Digvijay Singh to answer their questions at the hearing, either personally or through a representative. The State administration, however, ignored the invitation, stating that the NBA had fixed the date and venue of the hearing uni laterally. The officials also ridiculed the NBA's 'invitation', saying that it was anything but a public hearing as only pro-NBA viewpoints were permitted. Being a party to the dispute, the NBA cannot expect the Government, which is an interventionist, t o participate in such a programme, they claimed. Government sources pointed out that the NCW too had not extended it an invitation, and that it was wrong to call it a public hearing held by the NCW.

It is true that the NCW did not organise the Pathrad hearing; it only accepted the NBA's invitation to send an observer, based on precedents. Similar public hearings organised by voluntary organisations had taken place in Mandleshwar and in Chennai in th e presence of NCW members and government officials. At the public hearing held in Mandleshwar, Digvijay Singh, Deputy Chief Minister of the time Subash Yadav, and project as well as government officials took part. The Chennai hearing was organised by Tha nnurimai Iyakkam. The NCW has the power to sit as a court and hear various parties; it also accepts invitations to witness public hearings organised by voluntary groups and promotes public discussions and debates on various issues.

THE Pathrad hearing, despite its predominantly one-sided character, was democratic in content. NBA representatives put open-ended questions to the assembled women on the issue of accepting the cash compensation and invited a few of them to air their view s. The verdict was unanimous: there is no question of accepting cash compensation as a solution to the problem of displacement. In unequivocal terms, the women told Dr. Syeda Hameed that they wanted land and not cash, and that they would not beg for a hi gher cash compensation.

The Narmada at Pathrad.

Dr. Syeda Hameed supported the demand that the public utility of such projects as Maheshwar should be clearly established before any displacement takes place. Silvi, an NBA spokesperson, declared that the affected people would be willing to sacrifice the ir personal interests if they knew what greater good would accrue from the project.

Speaking at the hearing, Booker Prize-winning author Arundhati Roy, who has been highlighting the NBA's cause in her writings, promised the people that she would draw the attention of the world to their plight. She wondered whether the State government b elieved in privatising the police; she was referring to the police action of taking her in a vehicle owned by S. Kumars after they arrested her during the January 11 picketing of the dam site by NBA activists (Frontline, February 4, 2000). She dep lored the Government's accusation that the NBA activists were outsiders. In fact, she said, the project itself was backed by outside sources - 76 per cent of its proposed outlay is to be from foreign sources.

Arundhati Roy told Frontline that any number of exposes on the deficiencies and inconsistencies of the project had apparently failed to move the authorities concerned. The Government did not even pretend to be accountable for the issues raised, sh e lamented. "Why on earth should these innocent people agitate for days together, risking state repression?" she asked.

The agitation against the Maheshwar dam, unlike the one against the Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat, has highlighted the assertive role of women. When several men signed affidavits accepting meagre cash compensation, the women members of their househol ds protested, fasted and even denied food to the men, and forced them to return the cash. The Narmada river, which the local people worship, and the land where these families have lived for centuries, offer emotive links between the past and the future f or the womenfolk.

The NBA finds it difficult to mobilise the relatively well-off section of society in Maheshwar, because of its heterogeneity. However, the co-existence of various caste groups in the Maheshwar dam area, unlike the predominantly tribal population that is affected by the Sardar Sarovar Project, has proved to be a challenge and an opportunity for the NBA to demonstrate its message. Dalit women representatives voicing their concern about the project, along with high-caste women, was a common sight at the pu blic hearing. Project officials pointed out that the economically-vulnerable Dalit families often found the cash compensation and rehabilitation offers too tempting, compared to high-caste groups. Ajodhya Bai of Behegaon claimed that Kewats and Kahars (a fishing community in the region) now earned between Rs.150 and Rs.400 a person daily from sand quarries and other riverine resources. The State offered just Rs.11,000 as compensation in return for submerging these valuable resources, she lamented.

Government and project officials implicitly admit that there is not enough cultivable land in the area to be distributed to the displaced people. That was why, they claimed, they extended cash compensation offers, which it was claimed had elicited a good response despite disclaimers from the NBA and the local womenfolk. Informed sources associated with the project told Frontline that about 120 hectares of land had so far been purchased and that the process of purchasing 320 ha was under way. The local people have been offered cash compensation for about 160 ha of land belonging to them. The plan is to acquire 800 ha of land for the project.

Officials claim that only 13 villages would be fully submerged, while a large number of villages would be partially affected. They also pointed out that the compensation offered for various lands, which differed in terms of quality, far exceeded what was stipulated under the Land Acquisition Act.

The project authorities have reported substantial progress in the acquisition of land for the project as well as for Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R), and in the disbursal of cash compensation. The villagers, however, accuse the authorities of wrong surveys and of depriving them of their legitimate dues in terms of cultivable land and housing plots. The NBA seeks to raise the level of awareness about the high cost of the electricity that the project would lead to, and its sheer inadequacy to meet t he State's power requirements.

Amidst the women who attended the public hearing at Pathrad, author Arundhati Roy.

Even as the issue of R&R stares it in the face, the State government seems determined to curb all forms of protest by the NBA. It has clamped Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure at the project site and in Mandleshwar town, purportedly in view o f the ongoing school examinations. The NBA's two-week-long dharna, led by women, in front of the project site at Maheshwar was stopped by the district administration on March 8, International Women's Day. Many participants, including NBA leaders, were ar rested. They were later released on the intervention of the NCW. The Government also rejected the NBA's request to hold a public hearing at Mandleshwar town, and extended the scope of Section 144 to the town, in deference to "requests" from students, tea chers and parents against noisy demonstrations. Pathrad also had students taking their examinations, but that did not affect the public hearing.

If the public is against the NBA, as the local administration claims, how was it that the NBA-supported candidates swept the civic and panchayat elections in the entire region of displacement, asks the NBA. The women at Pathrad urged immediate action aga inst the Khargone District Collector, Bhupal Singh, for blocking all peaceful means of protest against the project.

Clearly, the people of the Maheshwar region are determined to act, this time.

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