Narmada Samachar: 29 May 2001

Headlines


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SSP and Maan dams

Press Releases

Dharna of people affected by Narmada dams starts in Bhopal;
Maan and Sardar Sarovar affected people will submerge without rehabilitation this monsoon;
"Not cash compensation but land can be the basis of sustaining life"
;
NBA Press Release - May 18

Press Clippings

Narmada bonds fetch Rs 500 cr ; Economic Times - May 29
Patkar flays Centre, Gujarat for raising dam height; The Hindu - May 26
Gujarat starts raising dam height ; The Hindu - May 26
Police foil NBA bid to meet CM ; Central Chronicle - May 24
Agitation for Narmada hump put off ; Times of India - May 22
AG clears building of hump on Narmada dam ; Indian Express - May 19
Resettled families still await Narmada water ; Times of India - May 19
The Narmada Issue ; The Hindu - May 15
Political parties and people's power ; Surendra Mohan; The Hindu - May 18


The water issue

Cong. warns of water-riots in Saurashtra ; The Hindu - May 24
Row over who'll foot the bill for Narmada water ; The Indian Express - May 17
Water Board to remove pumps from dam site ; Times of India - May 22


WCD Report

Govt fritters chances of a dialogue on big dams ; Times of India - May 29
Govt. flayed for ignoring dams panel report ; The Hindu - May 27
Patkar flays Centre, Gujarat for raising dam height ; Times of India - May 26


Other News

'Damming, drainage claim marshlands in south Iraq' ; Times of India - May 20
Shall we leave it to the Experts? ; Arundhati Roy; Hampshire College, Amherst - Feb 15


Feature Article: At loggerheads over resources - C.Rammanohar Reddy

The Hindu - May 27

Cases where adivasis are at the receiving end when in conflict with the
State are becoming uncomfortably common. Always about control over natural
resources, these occurrences highlight the basic problems tribals face
everyday. In one such happening in April, C. RAMMANOHAR REDDY details the
sequence of events at Mehndikheda, Madhya Pradesh, where four persons were
killed after a move to recover timber went out of control. It was no
one-off incident, he says.

Kashipur, Orissa (Three killed in police firing in December 2000),
Koel-Karo, Jharkhand (Ten shot dead in February 2001) and now Mehndikheda,
Madhya Pradesh (Four killed in April).

THE list of events where adivasis are being killed when in conflict with
the State is becoming uncomfortably long. The conflicts are always about
control over resources - minerals (Kashipur), water (Koel-Karo) and
forests (Mehndikheda). It is perhaps Mehndikheda that encapsulates in most
detail the tussles and tensions of adivasi livelihoods today.

The sequence of events at Mehndikheda was clear enough. Beginning on March
28 the district administration organised a drive to recover timber that it
said the tribals had collected from reserved forests. The
adivasi-inhabited villages in Bagli Tehsil of Dewas district are located
in the dry decidious forests of the Narmada valley. The "task force", as
it was called, moved through villages that had been deserted by its
inhabitants who had fled into the forests. "We recovered new wood worth
Rs. 56 lakhs," says Mr. Ashok Varnwal, District Collector of Dewas. But
the task force also appears to have selectively destroyed homes, engaged
in looting and most horrifying, allegedly mixed some chemicals in the
grain and flour in homes. While Government officials deny such
allegations, on a visit to the area a fortnight later the signs of
destruction can still be seen. "They took away the wood that held up my
home for more than two years because I had collected it from the forests,"
said Jaam Singh as he stood in a pile of rubble that used to be his house
in Katukiya village.

On April 2 the Government team of a few hundred was met by equally
numerous adivasis protestors at Mehndikheda. The district administration
says the adivasis were armed. Some of them perhaps were - with gophans
(stone slings) and tir kamti (bows and arrows). But in the event it was
the local people who died in the face-off. Three adivasis and a non-tribal
living in the area were killed by police bullets.

Mehnikheda was not a one-off incident. It was part of a larger story that
has been building up over the years and is perhaps taking place all over
the country. The Bhils, Bhilalas and Barelas in the area are not the
stereotypical tribals whose livelihoods are derived from collections from
the forest. They are mainly settled agriculturists who, over the past
century or so, have cleared land to grow jowar, cotton and some wheat.
Farm incomes are low because crop yields in these dry tracts are
themselves very low. And from the clothes that people wear and the houses
they live in, more than half of the population seems to live below the
poverty line. There are poorer areas in the country but the material
deprivation here is acute. The nearest hospital for the 90-odd adivasi
villages in this tribal pocket is some 50 km away, the villages that do
have schools have "single classes" and the occasional hamlet does not even
have electricity.

The material deprivation is not the only thing that the adivasis have to
suffer as they are looked down upon by the non-tribals in the area.
Besides, "the law here is an instrument of expropriation", says an
activist in the area. The forest officials are the biggest symbols of
oppression. "The forest guards demand bribes for everything - Rs. 1,500
for every span of a home we want to build, Rs. 50 for every head of cattle
that we want to graze and even to collect firewood," said Jaam Singh. It
is no wonder then that when the Adivasi Mukti Sangathan began mobilising
the tribals in Bagli tehsil in 1998 it quickly received support in many,
though not all, villages. An offshoot of an organisation which had
acquired considerable influence in the mid-1990s in the neighbouring
Khandwa and Badwani districts, the AMS, in one of its first charter of
demands, appeared to initially raise "social" demands like no to alcohol
and equality for men and women. But top of the agenda was exclusive
adivasi control of forest resources. Since the ground conditions favoured
the campaigns of the AMS the tribals in a number of villages were able to
successfully resist the depredations of the forest officials.

Outside Katukiya village is a samadhi erected by the villagers in
rememberance to Roop Singh, who was shot dead by forest officials in
August 1999. The district administration claims that Roop Singh was killed
when he and other members of the AMS tried to prevent the confiscation of
"stolen" wood. The villagers insist that it was an unprovoked killing
meant to instil fear in this "Sangathan" village. The result was the
opposite. No forest guard or ranger was able to visit Katukiya and others
like it after late 1999. "A complete defiance of the law", is how the
Collector of Dewas describes the villages becoming off-limits to the
forest department. The Government tried to counter the AMS with the
State-sponsored van samitis (forest committees), but this only had partial
success in a few villages. Confiscation of wood in March was the only
explicit reason for the Government's action. The motive was more to
recover control over the tribal tracts of Bagli Tehsil. The divisional
forest officer was reported in the media to have said somewhat too
candidly: "The demolitions (of homes) were symbolic and meant to create
fear among people". (Free Press Journal, April 18, 2001).

Weeks later, Mr. Digvijay Singh, Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, visited
the area and saw for himself what had happened. Compensation for the
families of those killed was announced. Reconstruction of old houses that
were destroyed would be financed. And a new enquiry into the Government
action was initiated. In addition, the Government-sponsored forest
committees were abolished in the State and plans were announced to
constitute new groups which would be directly under the control of the
villages. And to counter corruption, all forest officials of M.P. who were
in their position for more than five years were to be transferred.

But there is the larger issue of forest protection and adivasi
livelihoods. All - the adivasis included - agree that in recent years the
forests in this stretch of the Narmada valley have been substantially
thinned out. The forest department is supposed to be scientific in its
periodic coupe (commercial) felling of the forest. The villagers, however,
say that the felling is indiscriminate. And there is the work of the
timber contractor- forest official mafia. On more than one occasion the
AMS and the villagers have been able to surround trucks moving out with
stolen timber. But it is also a fact that the villagers in Bagli have not
conformed to romantic notions of adivasis as natural guardians of forests.
Their contribution to deforestation may be smaller but homes have been
repaired with wood from felled trees, new ones have been built and a
considerable amount of reserved forests has been cleared for cultivation.
Even the sacred Mahua tree has not been spared the axe. There is
occasionally an element of cynicism too behind the support for the AMS.
"We joined the Sangathan because we could get wood easily," said
Nooraaditya in Katukiya.

The leaders of the AMS say that they never encouraged the adivasis to fell
trees. Indeed one of their current campaigns is forest protection. But
they do also admit that there was a time - after the forest guards were in
effect driven out - when they could not and did not say no to felling
because, they said, the adivasis had a basic need for wood and land. There
are local tribal practices going back decades that keep pushing back the
forest border. The notion of Nevad, which can be loosely translated as
"new agricultural land", militates against everything that
conservationists believe in. It means in essence that the forest is there
to be brought under the plough and the adivasis have a right to do so. But
there is a context to the present-day urge to clear the forest for
agriculture. With crop productivity so low and few livelihood
opportunities other than agriculture available, an expansion of cultivable
land offers the only hope of fighting deprivation. Likewise, when the
State makes no provision to provide wood for homes or to make agricultural
implements, the tribals become criminals when they fell trees to meet
these needs.

In Bagli as in many other parts of the country the struggle for survival
always generates pressures to draw down the natural resources. Relieving
such pressure requires constructive efforts on several fronts. First and
foremost, without alternative livelihood opportunities or higher incomes
from agriculture, conservation will be a doomed effort. Water harvesting,
soil conservation and land development are some options that could raise
farm incomes so that nevad can recede. A local NGO, the Samaj Pragati
Sahayog, has suggested a programme of many such components for Bagli.
Second, democratic structures, which unlike the forest department's forest
committees make the tribals the centre of resource management, are crucial
for conservation to work alongside the exercise of natural rights by the
adivasis. Armed with sufficient powers, these local committees should be
able to check corruption and the smuggling out of wood. Third, alternative
building materials could lessen the demand for wood for homes and
alternative fuels (bio-gas for instance) reduce the need for firewood.
Fourth, there will still be a demand for wood for homes, fuel and
agricultural implements. Local committees and the forest department have
to be able to provide this wood without criminalising the adivasis.

The adivasis of Bagli are not controlled by "extremists", as the district
administration would like to argue. But corruption in the forest
department and deprivation on the ground will keep creating the conditions
for organised resistance by the adivasis. They will succeed briefly, as
they did in Bagli under the AMS, but the State will always be able to
strike back. And when it does, in the manner that it did at Mehndikheda,
the people are indeed pushed one step closer to "extremism".

Postscript: The State never provides much hope that it can listen to the
people. On May 2, exactly a month after the killings at Mehndikheda, the
district administration did everything it could to sabotage an AMS rally
in Dewas town. Buses were not allowed to ply from the tribal tracts to
Dewas, periodic checks were made of vehicles on the roads and in the
summer sun hundreds of the adivasis walked part of the 110 km distance to
the district headquarters. They finally made it to the rally late in the
night. But the State it appears will never learn from its mistakes. And a
month after the police firing, the destroyed homes still wait for
Government support for reconstruction.