How Many People Will We Continue to Displace In the Name of Development?

This reading list looks at why we need to conceptualise an inclusive model of development that does not shortchange marginalised communities.  

Though we have been hearing “sabka saath sabka vikas” (each one’s support, each one’s development) for a while now, it is perhaps fair to acknowledge that neither the current government nor preceding governments were seriously committed to this principle.

In the urgency to achieve “vikas” after independence, the Indian government had uncritically (and somewhat ironically) adopted western notions of development to make up for the “backwardness” that two-centuries of colonialism had left with us.

Seventy years since Independence, it is now acutely clear that we need to rethink this paradigm of development altogether since it has failed to balance economic interests with social costs. This model of development promises equality, but in reality, it privileges corporate interests. Displacement has been one of the major consequences of this process, particularly the displacement of tribals and other marginalised communities.

In the long history of displacement in India, a new chapter was opened on 13 February. Based on a petition challenging the validity of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 (FRA) the Supreme Court ordered the forced eviction of Adivasis whose claims under the FRA had been rejected. This could potentially displace 20 lakh people from their ancestral lands.

Here, we survey the extent of damage that development has done through displacement.

1) Displaced by Development

Why does displacement occur? In the paradigm of development that India has historically followed, vikas (growth/development/progress) has been synonymous with a transfer of resources from the weaker sections of society, to the more privileged ones. In the case of the tribals, it is usually land and rights to other natural resources. “Development,” a term that is commonly understood to mean beneficial for growth is actually one that is increasing disparities and inequalities. Biswaranjan Mohanty has pointed out how this is evident from the central government’s bias in favour of the ruling classes when undertaking large projects, like dams, mines among others. Tribal populations are the worst victims of development, he argues, because they have traditionally inhabited resource-rich regions which produce most of the country's coal, mica, and bauxite.

The consequence of the present pattern of development is the continuing powerlessness of the weaker sections due to displacement and without any benefits from these development projects. Since independence, development projects of the five- year plans have displaced about five lakh persons each year primarily as a consequence of land acquisition. This figure does not include displacement by non-plan projects. Changes in land use, acquisition for urban growth and loss of livelihood have also caused environmental degradation and pollution. Hydro-electrical and irrigation projects are the largest cause of displacement and destruction of habitat. The other major sources are mines, industrial complexes as well as military installations, parks and sanctuaries.

2) Displacement and the Law

The Constitution guarantees our rights as citizens. The judiciary is responsible for translating them into practical terms by trying cases in courts to ensure that these rights are not violated. But, a number of rights for marginalised communities seem to be lost in translation, because, as Usha Ramanathan found, despite constitutional guarantees, the law itself is biased against the protection of rights of the displaced. Statute law, she says, “determines the process by which the relationship between a community and its resources may be affected, even as it redefines rights.”

The power of the statute, however, goes further: it has a profound influence on judicial understanding of the problem of displacement. The statute, it will be seen, insidiously but definitely, determines judicial interpretation of constitutional mandates. It is to this that the lack of empathy may partially be attributed, when a court finds that 'preferential' treatment of displaced families would be against the equality promised in the Constitution - even while accepting the poverty of the displaced.1 Expediency, proferred as an argument by the state, has struck a responsive chord in the court. Judicial hands-off on matters of policy has given power to the state beyond legitimated challenge.

3) Displacement and Rehabilitation

As a society, we would like to achieve both economic prosperity and social justice. Yet, there seems to be an inherent contradiction in our pursuit of these goals. One possible way to bridge this gap would be to implement a comprehensive and fair rehabilitation policy for those who have been displaced by development. In one such incident in 1996, Coal India was seeking a large World Bank loan to upgrade its mines. Ratnakar Bhengara wrote about how displacement caused by coal mining goes unquestioned at the level of policy-making. Though Coal India had a rehabilitation policy that promised employment to those being displaced, Bhengara found that people were soon disillusioned with this.

Much of the claimed rehabilitation is actually not done. By the government's own admission, only a small proportion of those displaced are effectively rehabilitated. The coal sector has effectively rehabilitated less than 35 per cent of displaced people. [Govt of India: 1985]. The World Bank itself admits that in its former World Bank funded projects of India's coal sector, the process of rehabilitating project-affected people has not been completed. Finally, in the sense that this displacement is done against the will of the people, and in that it disrupts their social, cultural and economic institutions, it is nothing less than a form of structural violence against them.

4) Meaningful Rehabilitation

R N Sharma and Shashi R Singh analysed the large-scale displacement that had taken place in Singrauli because of the Gobind Sagar Reservoir and the Rihand Dam (in the 1960s) and later the mega thermal power projects by the NTPC (in the 1980s) and then coal mining projects by the Northern Coalfields Ltd (NCL). They examined the issues of resettlements and rehabilitation with a special focus on three phases of displacement and its consequences in Singrauli. They argued that the people affected by displacement have never been adequately rehabilitated because the process of rehabilitation does not take into account the fact that they are accustomed to traditional ways of earning their livelihoods, and may not have the means or the privilege to be able to pursue alternative livelihoods.

The displacement for the Gobind Reservoir and Rihand Dam started suddenly in 1960 (without adequate notice). This resulted in immense problems for the affected villagers. However, the population in the region was not very high and the government owned large tracts of deforested lands there. Accordingly, each displaced family was allotted five acres of land. However, almost 20% of the displaced families, a majority of them tribals, left the region, and their whereabouts remain unknown (Jan Lok Hit Samiti report; Kothari 1988). In the absence of a rehabilitation policy, people accepted the meagre amount of compensation which was not adequate even to construct a new house. Over 60% of these displaced families settled close to the reservoir site (mainly towards the northern stretch), only to be displaced again during the setting up of the super thermal power projects by the NTPC.

5) Relocation Does Not Mean Rehabilitation

In an effort to reintroduce the Asiatic lion to the Kuno wildlife sanctuary in 2003, 24 villages were relocated from the outskirts of the sanctuary which displaced over 5,000 people largely belonging to the Sahariya tribe. According to Asmita Kabra, the Sahariya had historically been completely dependent on forest lands for their livelihoods. She wrote that though there were efforts made to rehabilitate the Sahariya, the results were less than adequate. Consequently, the tribe remained alienated from their ancestral land.  

The most significant question that the present study tries to address relates to the impact of relocation on the living standards and livelihoods of the affected community. Our experience suggests that in the short run, there has been a very significant decline in livelihood security, directly attributable to displacement from a resource-rich forest, and disruption of a well-established livelihood pattern. While the rehabilitation package offered in this case, as well as the overall attitude of the agency that carried the relocation out seems to have been a significant improvement over previous recorded instances of such exercises, it emerges that displacement has nevertheless had a significant negative impact on the livelihood of the people, at least in the short run. Serious efforts would need to be undertaken by all relevant state agencies to address this issue urgently. It would require sustained investments by government and non-government agencies, in the medium to long run, for the displaced community to be able to reconstruct livelihoods and regain levels that prevailed inside the sanctuary (and perhaps even improve upon them).


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