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The Hindu on indiaserver.com : New victories for dam evictees

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Thursday, January 11, 2001


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New victories for dam evictees

By Gail Omvedt

WHILE EVICTEES of the Sardar Sarovar Project in Madhya Pradesh are facing an uncertain future, those in southern Maharashtra are winning new victories. Here, the Krishna Valley Water Movement has organised both drought-stricken farmers and dam evictees in five districts, with struggles over dams centered in two, Satara and Kolhapur. The last few months have seen intensified struggles and resettlement programmes proceeding for several dams in progress, with the staunch fighters of villages affected by the Urmodi dam, a large dam in Satara district, taking the lead. They have also seen a ten-day dharna staged on the prohibited area on top of the Chandoli dam, which provides water for the sugarcane- rich fields of Kolhapur and Sangli districts. Over 1,000 men and women, whose homes and lands were lost to the reserved forest in the catchment area, spent bitterly cold nights and days under a blazing sun on top of the dam itself, suspending their movement only when Rs. 17.5 lakhs were distributed as initial payments on their demands.

There are several features of the Krishna Valley Water Movement which deserve emphasis. First, it arises out of a long tradition in Maharashtra of dam evictees' movements which have not opposed dams, but have demanded first, justice for the evictees and second, the widest possible distribution of water of the dam. The spirit behind these movements has its roots in the ``Satyashodhak'' tradition of the 19th century social radical Jotirao Phule, who criticised the irrigation bureaucracy of his time for neglecting the water needs of farmers. Phule's approach was to unite traditional methods of biofertilizers and water harvesting with the building of large and small reservoirs with fine-tuned distribution systems that would deliver water in measured amounts of farmers' fields. The demand was thus for better-performing dams, not opposition to them.

In the post-Independence period, struggles of dam evictees began in the 1970s under the left leadership of the Maharashtra Dam and Project- Affected Farmers' Conference which had as its slogan ``first rehabilitation, then the dam.'' A similar movement under the same leadership - notably Datta Deshmukh of the Lal Nishan party, himself a farmer and engineer as well as a trade union organiser - argued for extending irrigation water to the widest possible number of farmers in Maharashtra. Krishna valley organising of dam evictees began in the 1980s under independent marxists, including an old freedom fighter, Naganath Naikaudi, and Bharat Patankar, with the main umbrella organisation, the Shetmajur Kashtakari Shetkari Sanghatana, formed in 1993. From the very beginning it sought to unite the concerns of farmers in drought areas who had been excluded from Krishna valley irrigation planning with those of dam evictees. It also took up campaigns on the issue of communalism, including a march of 25,000 farmers in Kolhapur on December 6 of that year protesting the smashing of the Babri Masjid.

The forms of action of the movement, in contrast to those of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, have relied not so much on national and international publicity and pressure as on local militant struggles. Krishna Valley Water Movement activists have never gone to court, but they have gone on strike. Along with marches and dharnas in the major cities of the region, there have been numerous occasions of work stoppages. Like striking workers in factories, villagers have gone onto dam sites again and again and forced stoppage of the work until their demands are met. When promises have not been fulfilled, the work has been stopped again. In the last year there have over a dozen such work stoppages, one lasting up to eight months. From just a few dams - the Urmodi evictees have been in the lead - the struggles have spread to wider and wider groups, encompassing most of the dams on the Krishna and its tributaries in Maharasthra. They have also won a favourable image among farmers throughout the region, since they have never opposed the projects as such. While a few ruling party politicians have attempted to rally farmers expecting irrigation water against work stoppages, accusing the leaders of the movement of obstruction, they have not succeeded.

The movement has drawn in radical engineers. It argues that irrigation projects can and should be reconstructed so that every farmer in every village in the Krishna valley can have access to water - and backs this up with the calculations that show that there is sufficient water available in Maharashtra's share of Krishna waters according to the Bachawat Award to provide water for basic needs (and the existing sugarcane needs) for every village in the Krishna valley, when combined with local rainwater. Just as the movement in general calls for restructuring irrigation projects, not junking ``big dams'' as such, so these alternative proposals combine largescale projects and local rainwater harvesting, small storages and occasional distribution from big storage. Finally, the movement has taken shape as a broad left coalition. Activists have been mostly independent marxists or from small communist organisations such as the Lal Nishan Party or Shramik Mukti Dal, but there has also been endorsement from trade unions in the region.

This balanced approach has not had the same kind of romantic resonance that has made the Narmada Bachao Andolan famous throughout the world as the champion of displaced ``tribals'', but it has possibly won more significant victories. Maharashtra was the first State to give concrete legal embodiment to the demand to give dam evictees rehabilitation in the command areas of irrigation projects, so that they could also benefit from the greater productivity and income made possible by the provided water.

In southern Maharashtra, the movements have resulted in a new gain: until the irrigation water actually is provided for these new lands, the oustees will get Rs. 600 a month as compensation money. The Government as usual has been slow about paying this, and the result has been in many cases renewed struggle - but both rehabilitation and the new ``water allowance'' are now accepted gains of the struggle. The Government has also accepted in principle some of the demands for restructuring water on a basis of equitable distribution, and will take drought-prone Atpadi taluka in Sangli district as a pilot project for this.

Perhaps it is time that activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan took a closer look at the Krishna valley struggle. So far they have maintained their opposition to all ``big dams'', which now means an opposition to the decision of the Supreme Court. It is an opposition that sounds romantic and revolutionary, but it has meant an opposition in practice to the kind of alternative provided by the Paranjape-Joy proposal to restructure the Sardar Sarovar project along the same principles that southern Maharashtra farmers are fighting for. In the process of all of this, the real needs of farmers in drought-prone regions who long for, and fight for, irrigation water have been neglected, and the interests of the dam evictees themselves have not been served.

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