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The Hindu on : Marooned by development

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Sunday, July 02, 2000

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Marooned by development

Even after a decade of the Upper Kolab hydel project in Orissa displacing them, the Paraja tribals are still fighting for the right to live with dignity. 'Isolated from the world, we have been left to die,' some of them told MEENA MENON.

THE Upper Kolab dam in Koraput, Orissa, submerged Kamala Khosala's land. Yet, she has not been "recognised" as a displaced person. Old and a destitute, she leads a precarious existence. "After my husband died, I applied for a loan under the Indira Awas Yojana but did not get any money. I have no house of my own and I am forced to move from house to house in Kolab village (near the dam) which is meant for workers."

Malin Takri cuts stones for a living. Hers is the plight of all widowed old women who live in unoccupied workers' sheds in Kolab village. Abandoned by their children, they are insecure about their homes as well as income. "If I do not work, I do not eat. I also do housework in the Kolab colony or sell firewood," she says.

Elsewhere in Kotpad tehsil in Koraput district, in the four rehabilitation camps for those displaced by the project, the mood is militant. "We will blow up the dam if our voice is not heard," says Dasrath from camp four. "We were given three acres per head and last year I sowed three bags of seeds. In return, I got one and half bags of paddy. We have to depend on the rains and though there is a canal near the village, the lands are on an elevation and it is of no use to us," he says.

"The canal from the dam goes to Kotpad but we have not got any of the water. We are the ones who have given up our land, been forced to leave from the riverside while others are benefitting from this." Just opposite the camp are the green paddy fields irrigated by the canal. The lands of the villagers are behind the camp and bone dry.

Fifteen years after the Upper Kolab multipurpose project in Koraput, Orissa, displaced them, the affected people - most of them, Paraja tribals or dalits - are fighting for the right to live with dignity. The Upper Kolab Displaced Persons Association has been making repeated demands to the President and other authorities for redressal of its grievances. Starvation deaths are increasing and many are forced to beg, the association pointed out, while urging the Government to honour its promises.

Over 50,770 people were partially or fully affected from 206 villages. Over 3,000 families from 57 villages were displaced by this hydro-electricity and irrigation project on the Kolab river. About 52 per cent of the affected people are tribals and 17 per cent Dalits, according to a study by the South Orissa Voluntary Action (SOVA), a non-government organisation in Koraput which is helping to organise the displaced people fight for their rights.

Only 424 families have opted to live in Government rehabilitation camps in remote Kotpad tehsil, and almost all regret it. The rest of the families (82 per cent) have moved or relocated - nobody knows where. The Government has no records of these people.

The Rs. 160 crore project was commissioned in 1984-85. It has two main canals - the right one has a command area of 46,049 ha and the left one, 1,936 ha, which will be extended to 22,267 ha. It generates 95 MW/hour. However, for the displaced people, this is of no consequence. While the dam site and colonies for the staff were planned in meticulous detail, no such effort has been forthcoming for the people who lost their lands. The project submerges 30,525 acres at its full reservoir level of which 21,870 acres is private land and 189.95 acres forest land, which provided the tribals with valuable produce.

The four Government rehabilitation camps are located 80 km from Koraput in Kotpad tehsil. People walk to Kotpad block headquarters - 15 km away from the camps - if they have to access doctors or the market. About 64 families from seven villages live in camp number five - without any source of income. The promised roads, electricity or schools are a dream. The Government has given them three acres each that is supposed to be irrigated but is not. Earlier they used to get 45 kg of paddy from an acre. Now, people have to contend with 15 kg. There is a fresh water pond in this camp which is much sought after. All the families practise pisciculture and share the harvest.

Pithu Paika who once owned 20 acres and lived near the Kolab, says, "I have been living in this camp for 14 years and we have never had enough to eat. During summer we just sit around. There is no work to be done. Earlier, in a year we used to grow 12 varieties of crops."

Chandra Khilo says, "My father was given Rs. 14,400 as compensation and most of the money was paid back to the Government to buy land. I am now a labourer at Sasahandi village nearby. Sometimes we drink only water. That is our food. When we go to collect firewood - we get Rs. 5 a bundle. If we are caught by the forest department, the men are fined Rs. 5, the women Rs. 2.50, and the bundles confiscated.

"We had a forest near our village with mango and tamarind trees. The Government promised us food, help to build our homes, but these have remained promises. We had flimsy huts at first and we also had to face hostility from the local population," he says bitterly.

People now trudge to Koraput for casual labour. Some like Chandra, go to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh for work. Chandra says, "I get Rs. 200-300 for bamboo cutting in eight days."

There are three tubewells in this camp. The water is foul and in summer, there is no supply. Women walk for three km to a village nearby for water. If there is a serious illness, people walk 15 km to Kotpad as the nearest village only offers treatment against malaria. About 57 villages where the people did not lose homesteads, are marooned in the reservoir with boats being the only way to get to Koraput. People here have had to learn how to manoeuvre boats, an unfamiliar skill for them. No public transport links these villages and after the boatride, people have to walk for several hours to reach the district marketplace. Closer to Koraput district headquarters, a narrow unpaved road winds down to Upper Kolab reservoir. A boat is seen approaching. These are villagers from Narjiput who are making the weekly excursion to Koraput to collect their rice rations. They are cut off by the reservoir and have to walk four km for a boat, which drops them about 14 km away from Koraput.

In a month they do it four or five times, to collect rice rations for those below the poverty line. Villagers say they are paid Rs. 250 per acre as they own uplands while low land is worth Rs. 1,500 per acre. "Most of the time we do nothing as our agricultural land is submerged and only our homes are intact. Sometimes we get a week's work with great difficulty. We also have to walk over eight km for firewood," says Somnath Guntha.

A 45-minute boat ride takes you to Semla village which has 76 houses. The homes are left as the land has been submerged. People who lost six or seven acres received Rs. 6,000 or Rs. 7,000 as compensation. One man had 25 acres for which he received only Rs. 10,000. The Government's money did not even last for a year, laments a displaced person. There is a school but the Government appointed teacher does not deign to visit it.

The people are forced to carry out shifting cultivation and if the monsoon is favourable, they get three quintals each. The produce does not last beyond six months and villagers are forced to sell wood. Here too, people go to Cuttack, Berhampur or Jeypore, as casual labourers.

"We have to walk 12 km across several mountains to collect firewood. When people die there is not enough firewood to burn them. We have to collect it from house to house," says Pitu Dani from Semla village whose family once owned 80 acres.

"We live like monkeys in a forest, cut off from the world. We have no irrigation facility or access to health care. We rely on the disari or the village doctor. Otherwise, we have to make the long journey to Koraput. The Government uses the dam to generate electricity and water. We do not get both. We have been left to die here," says Padu Sukiya. "Even our women have to go out looking for coolie work. No girls study here and only one boy has made it to plus two from this panchayat which comprises 13 villages."

The SOVA study says the Mali community, which specialised in growing vegetables, has been affected and they are now reduced to daily wage labour.

Food habits have changed drastically and people are compelled to buy vegetables which they once grew. Another study says that the nutritional status of the displaced persons deteriorated considerably after displacement.

Fifty-one per cent of Koraput district's population is tribal and 13 per cent are SCs. Tribals form a large percentage of those displaced from major projects like the National Aluminium Company (NALCO), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the Indravati hydel project and now Kolab, which are all located here.

Studies indicate that between 1965-1990, the highest loss of forests in Orissa was in Koraput - 55 per cent.

The SOVA study reveals that boys above 18 years are not treated as a separate family and widows, old destitute persons are among those who were not treated as displaced persons.

As the lands distributed to the people were unirrigated, about 68 per cent of the men and 45 per cent of the women are engaged in daily work. Child labour is on the rise in neighbouring towns, it notes.

For the Parajas and dalits, these are the wages of development.

(The research for this article is supported by the National Tree Growers' Cooperative Press Fellowship Programme).

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