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The Hindu on indiaserver.com : Development or displacement?

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on indiaserver.com
Wednesday, September 13, 2000


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Development or displacement?

By Rajindar Sachar

THE BOMBAY Police Act (Section 68) was conveniently but illegally invoked by the Gujarat Government for detaining for a whole day (August 24 last) human rights activists and preventing them from leaving Baroda to reach Maharashtra's Domkhedi (which is in imminent danger of being submerged), and to show their solidarity with tribals and oustees of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) at a public hearing.

The Narmada Valley Development Project consists of 30 large dams. Two of these are big ones including the Sardar Sarovar (Gujarat). The SSP will submerge 92,500 acres of land in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Conservative estimates place the number of displaced persons at 1,52,000. In addition 1,90,000, farmers are likely to be affected by the canal and irrigation system in a major way.

The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (1979) specifically directed that ``In no event shall any areas in M.P. and Maharashtra be submerged under the Sardar Sarovar unless all arrangements for the rehabilitation of oustees therefrom are made in accordance with directions.''

The World Bank, one of the sponsors of the SSP, was criticised internationally for defying the general comment no. 2 (1990) of the committee constituted under the International Covenant of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights: ``International agencies should scrupulously avoid largescale evictions or displacement of persons without the provision of all appropriate protection and compensation.''

Consequently, in 1991, the World Bank set up an Independent Review, Morse Commission. Its report (1992) says, ``We think that the Sardar Sarovar Projects as they stand are flawed, that resettlement and rehabilitation of all those displaced by the projects is not possible under the prevailing circumstances and that the environmental impacts of the projects have not been properly considered or adequately addressed. As a result, we think that the wisest course would be for the Bank to step back from the projects and consider them afresh. The failure of the Bank's incremental policy should be acknowledged.''

Similarly Maharashtra appointed the Tata Institute of Social Sciences to conduct a study of the SSP. That report summarised the findings reached in 1987-93. It clarified that the report presented the team's perspectives on rehabilitation of the displaced based on an analysis of their own data (and was not influenced by the opinions of the Narmada Bachao Andolan or the Government).

It summed up its conclusion: The implementation of the award is far from satisfactory, across both the States (Gujarat and Maharashtra). ``The SSP has highlighted one point very clearly: largescale displacement of people from land cannot be sustained. The time has come to look for alternatives to large dams, in order to minimise submergence of land and displacement of people. The Narmada Bachao Andolan has sown the seeds of assertiveness and it has taken firm root in the minds of the affected people.''

One would have expected any State Government with even little sympathy for the poor to ponder the continuation of the project without first completing the precondition of resettlement. But such are the vested interests in Gujarat that a near-mania has been created so as to stifle any dissent, calling it anti- national. All kinds of falsehoods continue to be spread. All these actions of the Gujarat Government run counter to the human rights law settled by various international covenants and U.N. resolutions.

The U.N. Sub-Commission on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities (1993) reaffirmed that forced eviction constituted a gross violation of the right to adequate housing.

In my report - as a U.N. Special Rapporteur (1995) - it has been emphasised that specific attention be paid to any project involving involuntary resettlement of persons from their homes and/or land. This report was accepted by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Further, the U.N. Human Rights Guidelines on Development-based Displacement (1997) reaffirms: ``All persons, groups and communities have the right to suitable resettlement which includes the right to alternative land or housing which is safe, secure, accessible, affordable and habitable.'' The same principle was reiterated in the general comment no. 7 (1997) made by the committee under ICESCR Rights: ``Evictions should not result in rendering individuals homeless or vulnerable to the violation of other human rights. Where those affected are unable to provide for themselves, the state party must take all appropriate measures, to the maximum of its available resources, to ensure that adequate alternative housing, resettlement or access to productive land, as the case may be, is available''.

But the Gujarat Government, instead of being shaken into taking a fresh look at the project, is persisting with its illegal policy, resulting in vast displacement. A large number of people who will be affected by the project - losing their means of survival - are not counted as displaced or affected, and they do not have the benefit of any rehabilitation policy. For, the definition of displacement considers only those affected by submergence, though other categories may also be losing land.

In Gujarat, resettlement land is being obtained by private purchase of land. In many cases, these lands are held by absentee landlords and are being cultivated by tenant farmers or sharecroppers. Also, many local landless labourers get employment. When these lands are sold for resettlement and occupied by the oustees, the tenant farmers/sharecroppers will be thrown away. The oustee families also normally do not require labour. This situation has resulted in a wave of secondary displacement involving hundreds/thousands of families, and also led to conflicts in many places. In Maharashtra too, the allocation of forest land for resettlement has displaced many tribals who were cultivating there earlier.

The irrigation benefits of the SSP are going mainly to water-rich areas of Gujarat (which are also politically powerful), though the rationale of the project is to address the needs of the drought-prone areas of Saurashtra and the Kutch.

As per the Gujarat Government, about 8.45 per cent of cultivable lands in Saurashtra are under SSP command. It is 2.4 per cent in the Kutch. Similarly only 20 per cent of the cultivable area of north Gujarat is under the SSP command. Thus, even if all claimed benefits are fully realised, the really water scarce areas will benefit only marginally. Even in the areas where water is supplied, it will be utilised fully only by rich landlords, sugarcane farmers, big industries and elite users for golf courses, five-star tourist centres, etc.

The NBA has brought to the notice of various authorities that the Government does not even have land to offer for community resettlement, and so further work on the dam cannot be justified until reparations are provided to all the affected.

In this context, the Union Government's suggestion, which is supported by experts, that even if the height of the dam is kept at 90 metres, with the construction of an irrigation by-pass tunnel, the same benefits can be obtained by diverting water into the canals already partly constructed, needs favouratable consideration. This plan will drastically reduce submergence and displacement. But the Gujarat Government is indifferent to the misery of the oustees.

Our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, who was for big dams, himself regretted in 1958 that we are suffering from ``the disease of gigantism'' and expressed himself in favour of small irrigation projects. He recognised the human cost of people moving out and their rehabilitation associated with big projects. This change of thinking was an acceptance of the consistent position taken by Dr. Rammanohar Lohia and the Socialist Party that in an intensively-populated country small dams and small irrigation projects are the only correct alternatives. Nehru wished he could ``replace the balance in our thinking, which has shifted too much towards gigantic schemes''.

Yet, ironically, the Gujarat Government goes on misusing its machinery to thwart peaceful and constitutional efforts at highlighting this issue.

(The writer is a retired Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court.)

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