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The Hindu on : People versus large dams

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Tuesday, April 06, 1999

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People versus large dams

By Kuldip Nayar

I DO not want to comment on the Supreme Court judgment on the Narmada dam. I wish the judges had waited for a report on rehabilitation, which they themselves had ordered, before allowing a higher level for the dam. It is no use going over whether the particular dam or, for that matter, any big dam will serve the purpose. Resettlement of the displaced people has to be on the top of the agenda of every project.

It is not just mechanical resettlement I have in mind. Migration causes the agony of rootlessness. This is something forced, something violent, which inflicts pain on the people. This aspect has to be attended to before any project is built.

The Narmada Tribunal, which saw logic in the argument of rehabilitation, gave a verdict many years ago that the oustees must be settled six months before their houses and land were submerged in impounded waters. But the verdict has been disobeyed, both in letter and in spirit. True, some of the displaced people have been given land or money to restart their life. But their number is small. Others have no land, no house and no resources to stand on their legs.

This is the reason the villagers of Aliraipur in Jhalua district started their agitation earlier in the month. They will have no place to go when their land goes under water because of the additional height of the Narmada dam. Some villagers are threatening to drown themselves. According to the Tribunal verdict, they should have been given an alternative site by this time. This is what the Supreme Court should scrutinise. The debate on the dam has to become shrill when the oustees go from pillar to post. I am not talking about the environment or their mental make-up at a new place. Mere land, not to speak of a house or a rehabilitation grant to begin all over again, is not available.

I am a refugee who came from Pakistan in 1947. I can imagine how difficult it is to restart one's life. It is hard and painful. But if the state helps, the difficulties will lessen. The Gujarat Government has lost not a day in resuming the construction of the dam. But what about the complaints of the uprooted who have just been thrown up at another place, where they have no facility at all. The court should, in fact, use the Narmada case to find out how the oustees of earlier projects have been treated. Even after 25 years, many of them in several States are awaiting rehabilitation.

Land is the very charter on which the Adivasi/indigenous culture is based, the resting place of ancestors and source of spiritual power. It is thus regarded with respect and reverence. As a result, large dam projects, specially in the developing countries, ironically, have become the symbols of survival, anxiety and agony for the affected people. Their voices and grievances are not heard by the project authorities. In spite of adverse effects, no government is ready to face the challenges posed by large dams.

The proponents of large dams have been saying these are necessary for electricity, irrigation and water supply. According to them, hydroelectric power is cheaper and less polluting than nuclear and thermal power. They argue that in many developing countries, safe drinking water and irrigation are the biggest problems. Therefore, mega-dams would eventually solve these problems.

But the fact is that large dams destroy not only the environment but also the lives of those people at whose cost they are built. Besides, these dams have proved to be unreliable. A study indicates that many such projects are failing every year. For example, when the 23-metre high Johnston Dam in Pennsylvania broke, it led to the death of about 10,000 people. Another very common feature is `overtopping' during floods. It occurred in Maichu II dam in Gujarat in 1979 and caused the death of 1,500 people downstream.

The Government must understand that there will come a time when people rise against such dams and projects. A specific case is that of the residents of Mitihini, a tiny village in Sonbhandra district of Uttar Pradesh, questioning their displacement without fair rehabilitation and challenging the fund-mighty institutions - World Bank and National Thermal Power Corporation. The villagers met the Deputy Magistrate the other day. Ferrying nervously across the Rihand reservoir, they reached the venue of the meeting where the he was discussing the nitty-gritty of rehabilitation. They narrated the injustice done to them and he spoke in assuring terms and asked them to return to their village. They went back only to find that the pace of construction had been stepped up. Was there no justice for them?

They rushed to the High Court at Allahabad. Endless trips to the court were a revelation that rehabilitation was not a right recognised by law in independent India. So what if some villages are sacrificed on the altar of ``development?''. The Government retained the Land Acquisition Act, legislated by the British in 1894, whereby it could deprive the citizens of any land for ``public purpose''. Dumping flyash in Mitihini was a ``public purpose'' so that power could be generated without interruption to ensure ``national progress''.

Slowly, the realisation dawned on them that theirs was a bitter struggle, fight against the system - a system where it is perfectly safe to uproot the tribal population from its ancestral homes and hearth for a pittance called `compensation' in the name of development, a system which sells dreams of prosperity to the poor and the marginalised in order to take away from them even their meagre and fragile bases of existence. They have realised that the institutions of democratic state, set up ostensibly for the protection of human rights, do not perceive forced displacement as a human rights issue. The people of Mitihini in their naivete thought otherwise.

* * *

One seldom associates police with human rights. Its image is so tarnished that the worst type of excesses are associated with it. Seldom does an example of fair play come out. Human rights cells in police may be a good idea. But they will be considered an exercise in public relations unless policemen change their behaviour and their methods to ``extract confession''. The Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Mr. Justice M. N. Venkatachaliah, has said 60 per cent of police arrests in the country are ``unnecessary and unjustifiable''. Addressing a group of district and sessions judges and officers from correctional services, he said that most of the complaints reaching the NHRC related to police and even innocent people with mental disabilities were sometimes being held in prisons.

In Delhi's Tihar jail, according to him, only 10 to 15 per cent of the inmates are convicts, the rest being undertrials. ``There is a very low rate of conviction as the investigations carried out leave much to be desired,'' he said. According to the NHRC annual report, the rate of acquittals, particularly in cases of heinous offences, is ``almost 80 per cent and the delays in trials have now become proverbial.''

A far bigger task facing the public than the setting up of human rights cells is the fight against religious contamination of the security forces. And this may not be possible unless there is demolition of temples, which have come up at police lines. There was a time when religious buildings at such places were banned. Now the laxity is so much that a steeple with a flag is visible in every police colony. Several inquiry reports on communal riots have pointed out how temples have stoked the fire of communalism.

It is no more a secret that police has come to fight on the side of Hindus at many places of rioting. Muslims have often alleged that their fight with Hindus often turned into a confrontation between them and police.

Training at police academies for cultivating in the force the ethos of secularism makes more sense than opening human rights cells. The NHRC is also getting its priorities wrong. It has associated itself with the opening of such cells but has not proposed the removal of temples from police colonies. These are the places where hatred festers and later takes different shapes. The Commission on the Minorities did a commendable job bringing before the public the atrocities committed against the Christians in the Dangs district of Gujarat. But the atrocities have also a human rights problem, on which the NHRC should take follow-up action for redress.

A team by the People's Union for Civil Liberties has brought out in its report how the Dangs happenings were not accidental. ``They have been preplanned and (are) part of (a) well-organised strategy that is likely to be repeated all over the country'', it says. The warning has come true in the case of Orissa. Where else?

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