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Forgotten and damned
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Wednesday, November 1, 2000

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Forgotten and damned
Pamela Philipose

Displacement is an ugly word. Rehabilitation, in contrast, has a nice, euphemistic ring to it. While we wouldn't want to ``displace'' people, there doesn't seem to be much harm in ``rehabilitating'' them. Who knows, they may even emerge from the experience with new and improved lives -- like a relaunched brand of washing powder.

This, at least, was the hope expressed in the recent Supreme Court judgement granting clearance to the Sardar Sarovar project: ``A properly drafted R&R (relief&rehalibitation) plan would improve living standards of displaced persons. For example, the residents of villages near the Bhakra Nangal Dam, the Nagarjun Sagar Dam, Tehri...and numerous other developmental sites are better off than people living in villages in whose vicinity no development project came in.'' The judgement is a simple demonstration of the power of positive thinking: Displacement becomes synonymous with development. Their Lordships, being sensitive individuals, would like to believe in this perfect picture of neat homesteads and happy children. Going by the picture painted, people should actually be picketing block development offices, demanding that flood waters invade their fields!

But such things don't happen in the real world. What is happening in reality is this: The Madhya Pradesh chief minister has taken great pains to point out that the state had no land to resettle all the affected people -- and, remember, the entire project means the displacement of an estimated 41,450 families. Even at the height of 85 metres (m), not to speak of the 90 m and 138 m levels, the arrangements for the oustees after 13 years of planning are inadequate, incomplete and, in some cases, impossible. This is why even the most ardent advocates of the Narmada project, including Gujarat's voluble water resources minister, have to clear their throats mid-sentence, when the topic veers towards rehabilitation.

It would, of course, have been far simpler if we had no pretensions to being a democracy. In China, ``development relocation'' has become an article of faith. Consider this promulgation of the State Council in 1993, entitled, `Regulation governing migration under the construction of the Three Gorges Project': `` consider the national interest, to obey the arrangement of the state... Those asked to be relocated according to the migration resettlement plan should not decline or postpone moving. (And) in the processes of resettlement, those who violate the law or regulations and disturb the public order as well as defer production, if not a criminal offence, will be punished by the public security authorities.'' The world is in the dark about how ordinary Chinese responded to such threats. Officially,the Chinese government claimed that ``the people are willing to sacrifice for the sake of the construction of the Three Gorges dam''. A remarkable instance of popular consent being manufactured in ``national interest''.

In India, however, things are more complicated. For starters, we have a Constitution that confers on the citizen the fundamental right ``to move freely throughout the territory of India'' (Article 19). There is, besides, Article 21 that privileges the right to a life of dignity. The State then, as the final arbiter of people's constitutional rights, must necessarily strive to protect the common person against the abuse of such rights.

This is where we come up against one of the biggest contradictions of modern governance in this country. The State has, under the doctrine of eminent domain, control over who has access to land, as well as the use and ownership of it. It can, therefore, in the cause of ``national interest'', exercise its unbridled powers of land acquisition. So while, like Lord Vishnu, the State has to preserve its citizen' rights, it can also like Lord Shiva enact the dance of death if ``national interest'' so demands.

It is this duality that makes it absolutely incumbent on the State to approach the issue of displacement/rehabilitation with great circumspection and sensitivity, something it has not done these last 50 years and more. Indeed, if the Narmada Bachao Andolan had not laboured so long in highlighting it, the issue may never have figured on the national agenda and the out-of-sight, out-of-mind people would never have disturbed the sleep of the decision makers.

This, of course, is not to argue against all projects. It is an argument for a rational, legitimate and just approach towards achieving them. There are certain principles involved here that are inviolable. First, there is the question of what constitutes ``national interest'' and the ``public good''? Too often has the definition of ``public good'' been arbitrary, or been seen as coterminous with the interests of powerful lobbies. The question of who constitutes the ``public'' and what constitutes the ``good'' is seldom rigorously examined. Never does a cost-benefit analysis of a project properly reflect its social costs along with the direct economic costs entailed. Never are the least-displacing alternatives adequately assessed, or the tendency for over-acquisition checked.

Land acquisition, if it is to be a fair process, has to include all this, as well as the meaningful involvement of affected communities. This cannothappen unless their right to information is simultaneously acknowledged. As Justice Sabyasachi Mukherji had pronounced in a 1989 Supreme Court judgement: ``The people at large have a right to know in order to be able to take part in a participatory development in the industrial life and democracy...'' They surely have a even greater right to know if they are victims of this process. It follows then that a just compensation should include within its ambit not just tangibles like loss of livelihood and shelter, but intangibles such as the loss of community. It follows then that it is not the principle of ``market value'' of a piece of land that should be upheld but that of the ``replacement value'' of life lived upon it.

In the past, it is the voiceless and the faceless that have subsidised ``the temples of modern India'', just by virtue of getting no compensation worth the name. They did this, not because they wanted to but because they knew no better, or had no choice. Their children are still paying the price for the man-made disaster that once struck the lives of their parents and grandparents. South Africans, in a document on just compensation for development projects, put it this way, ``We must ensure we do not insult those who are being asked to pay the price of ``development'' or ``progress'' preying on their low bargaining power or lack of awareness of their `rights'. It is this principle that must find its way into our policies and laws.

So while, like Lord Vishnu, the State has to preserve its citizen' rights, it can also like Lord Shiva enact the dance of death if circumstances so demand

Copyright © 2000 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.


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