ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Death Knell in the Narmada Valley

For over two decades now, rehabilitation of those displaced by the Indira Sagar dam continues to remain a difficult exercise. At the heart of the flawed acquisition process lies a basic conflict of interest: the very beneficiary of the process, Narmada Hydro-Development Corporation, is itself responsible for deciding matters of compensation for affected villagers.

Death Knell in the Narmada Valley

For over two decades now, rehabilitation of those displaced by the Indira Sagar dam continues to remain a difficult exercise. At the heart of the flawed acquisition process lies a basic conflict of interest: the very beneficiary of the process, Narmada Hydro-Development Corporation, is itself responsible for deciding matters of compensation for affected villagers.

BETWA SHARMA

T
he Indira Sagar dam is being constructed under the Narmada Valley Development Project in Madhya Pradesh. For two decades this dam has caused ruthless displacement in the Narmada valley. Rehabilitation remains a difficult exercise. Rural distress is at its peak. The acquisition of land, valuation of property and settlement of compensation has been wrought with error. At the heart of all the mayhem lies a basic conflict of interest – a profit driven company, Narmada Hydro-Development Corporation (NHDC), executing sovereign functions. The NHDC qualifies as a government company under the Companies Act. The law mandates government officials to perform sovereign functions for the government company but not the company officials themselves. In 2003, the NHDC was designated the sole authority for land acquisition, assessment of damages and payment of compensation. This set the stage for undervaluation and corruption defeating the rehabilitation programme.

It is an oddity to delegate the substantive functions of a welfare state to a profit-driven company. The legitimacy of this arrangement is subject to judicial scrutiny at the Jabalpur high court as violating principles of fairness and equity. The rehabilitation programme as carried out by the NHDC officials has become a cause of death and destruction in the valley. Displaced residents, often exploited and shortchanged, combat these officials with limited resources and incomplete information. Fresh incidents, which have passed fleetingly through the public eye, encapsulate the desperation of the oustees. These need to be emphasised.

Harsud, a 700-year-old town was destroyed and evacuated in 2004. All except three wards 9, 12 and 13 were resettled in New Harsud, given compensation and new plots in the rehabilitation site. No concrete reason was provided by the authorities for the exclusion of these three wards, except that in the 2001 survey they were found to be on the higher ground. However, in a 1984 survey, the three wards were included in the eviction scheme. The living conditions of the people left behind in Harsud became pitiable. After the destruction of Harsud, they lived in a ghost town without infrastructure, schools, electricity, hospitals and no means of earning a livelihood. No real ground can be established for leaving them out and it was clearly erroneous because in 2005 the authorities decided to evacuate these three wards. By the time the change was made, people had migrated while others lived very poorly.

This was followed by miscalculations in the distribution of compensation, after which payment was entirely stopped within a month. These irregularities while routine, causing untold damage, remain inexplicable. The district magistrate’s inquiry found no grounds for the stoppage and the Jabalpur High Court directed that compensation to be paid immediately. Severe delays have rendered enforcement of the court order dismal. No reason was offered for the exclusion of wards 9, 12 and 13, stoppage in payment and no accountability was placed for these imprudent decisions.

Since the residents of ward number 9, 12 and 13 were not included during the original allotment of plots in the rehabilitation site; they now find themselves without a plot. Some have made temporary arrangements to stay with relatives while others continue to live in broken down Harsud. It must be noted that these people were not in want before but had homes and a comfortable living. This dire alteration in lifestyle has led to grave consequences.

Santosh Paliwal, a grain dealer of Harsud, living with his wife and mother-in-law, became a victim of this callousness. In April this year Paliwal, resident of an excluded ward checked his wife’s bank account in anticipation of compensation. The account had not been credited. Neither was his name on the list to get new plots in New Harsud. Homeless and in debt, the following day Santosh Paliwal ended his life on the railway tracks. He carried with him a notice stating that his house had been acquired. He left a note stating that he held the NHDC responsible for his death. This system of advanced possession and delayed payments violates the

Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006

Supreme Court order that every displaced person must be rehabilitated six months prior to the destruction of their homes. Besides the contested nature of a system where the beneficiary NHDC is making payments, defections like stoppage of payment or delay in payments by the beneficiary should be deemed a violation of Article 21.

Flawed Rehabilitation

The programme of acquisition and compensation, fashioned under the NHDC, is flawed at in very many levels. There are instances where people have been displaced up to three times, but excluded from compensation for any subsequent displacement. “Exclusion” is based on either a technicality or they are accused of deliberately settling in areas of potential submergence. This argument is baseless as Section 24 (7) of the Land Acquisition Act implies that for anything pre-existing, notification has to be issued to be acquired and hence compensated. Intent, which is difficult to establish or duration of settlement are not prerequisites for acquisition or compensation.

Ignorance, not mala fide intent of the oustee, causes her to settle in a submergence zone. To prevent this kind of conflict, information dissemination is crucial. Since these areas are acquired in fragments, land selected for acquisition must be clearly indicated through demarcation with stones, bold signs, in local newspapers, widely distributed notices and intimating panchayats in advance. Although prescribed under the Land Acquisition Act, these steps are an exception than the norm. The effort has to exceed the formal. Amra Bai, a resident originally of Bedia village, relocated three times and was compensated once. Earlier this year she committed suicide. Residents of her village believe the exclusion and depreciated means were central to her ill-fated resolve. Today, approximately 5,000 houses stand excluded.

The displaced in the Narmada valley are running out of survival options as their living conditions swiftly deteriorate. They are in a state of migration, with no source of income, disrupted family and community life and little hope for their situation to better. Court orders, protests and rallies come and go unheeded, and lives such as those of Santosh Paliwal and Amra Bai are expendable. There must be deep-seated change to keep the death knell from ringing.

EPW

Email: betwa_sharma@rediffmail.com

Economic and Political Weekly December 23, 2006

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