Resettled by registered mail
Last night in Badwani at the City Heart Hotel, Mahesh Patel came to see me. I was having vehicle problems. I hired a jeep in Indore, a great solid thing, but my driver does not like driving it on rough roads. He is a city driver. All roads which go anywhere I need to go are rough. Today we are going to Domkhedi, deep in the remote hills of the tribal belt. The road will be atrocious. And he wants to go home for Eid.
Badwani is in the Nimad plains, a town to be lapped by the reservoir behind the Sardar Sarovar 150 kilometres away. Mahesh Patel, in the Badwani scheme of things, is a local magnate. He is also an important figure in the Narmada struggle. Mahesh would find a jeep for me at midnight if he had to, and he does. He tells me how Narmada politics have been part of his life since he was a schoolboy. In 1979, when the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal agreed that Gujarat could build so high a dam that Nimad farmers would be submerged, they protested. But the protest leaders went into politics and when they got power they forgot about Sardar Sarovar. This was a terrible betrayal.
Medha Patkar first came to Badwani in 1986. She pointed out that the Nimad farmers had rights under the Tribunal Award. Her idea of a people’s movement across classes and castes up and down the Valley was new to them. They were sceptical. But after a year or so, Mahesh Patel began to think this might succeed. Since then he has given his full support. Through the Andolan, he stands for a better society. ‘In this country, development projects help the few and penalize the many. Because of the Andolan there is a change of heart, here and in the whole country.’ Mahesh Patel re-inspires my optimism.
As we rattle westwards towards Domkhedi, I read the minutes of the 48th meeting of the Resettlement and Rehabilitation Sub-Group of the Narmada Control Authority. The NCA is responsible for seeing that the conditions of the Tribunal Award for the Sardar Sarovar are met. This is a ‘last ditch’ body from the Andolan perspective. Since the Supreme Court insisted that the conditions of the Tribunal Award remain sacrosanct, the best hope for delaying construction is that the NCA will find that conditions are breached. The conditions governing resettlement undoubtedly have.
Indian bureaucratise is a special language. It assembles a labyrinth of words, figures and initials in which to bury meaning. If I understand correctly, the 7,040 families affected by the Sardar Sarovar dam at 90 metres have virtually all been re-settled. They have either moved or been allocated agricultural land and house-plots. The Sub-Group was advised that the letters had gone out by Registered Post Acknowledgement Due (RPAD). This appears to mean that if you are living in Domkhedi and such a letter arrives, you have been re-settled.
This technique of tidying people away by registered mail recalls a report Medha Patkar showed me in Mumbai. The Maharashtra Government set up a Tribunal to hear the grievances of oustees. The judge did just that. He listened to their stories of unpaid compensation, unusable land, undrinkable water and so on. Did he do anything about them? No. He ‘heard’ them. Perhaps India’s prowess in tidying away humanity by paper is part of the colonial inheritance. International experts are masters at it too.
Eventually we reach the road’s end and the river’s edge. Here at Hafeshwar is a temple whose history goes back 5,000 years. The Shiva lingam is exceptionally holy because it emerged naturally from the earth. In the coming rains this beautiful age-old shrine and its surrounding grove will be submerged.
Thank goodness we do not have to walk. We take the ferry – given by Arundhati Roy – for the rest of our journey. We set off up river. Or rather up reservoir, for that is what it has become. At this season the river should be a trickle. But they have closed the Sardar Sarovar gates. So the water is as high as it was last year after the rains. It has, incidentally, submerged all the usual planting in the river-bed. But since these people have all been re-settled, no matter.
Hafeshwar and its greenery disappear round a bend. The landscape now is lunar. The forest is deciduous, the trees leafless. Everything is brown; brown mud, brown dust, pale-brown water. The effect is of a landscape viewed through a pall of silt, and the dust invades remorselessly. I am told that I should see these hills in the rains, how green they are, what a paradise. Yes, I should. I am secretly appalled at the inhospitality of it all. If I received a letter by registered post telling me I had been given land and a house-plot elsewhere, I might even be grateful. We reach Domkhedi, but instead of the joy of arrival I feel a sense of desolation. However, it’s just me. The children are playing cricket and a young man is having a hair-cut.
Domkhedi is an iconic place in the Narmada struggle, the site of the annual satyagraha against the rising waters: ‘We will drown but we will not move.’ As the rains set in from mid-July, hundreds of people come here to face the submergence. A camp is set up and farmers from Nimad send sacks of food. In 1999 there was a real threat of drowning. This year, with the waters already at monsoon height, Domkhedi will surely go under long before the rains end. What will happen – to the people, to their livestock, to the satyagrahi?
‘The waters rose slowly, receded and rose. Suddenly they rose to chest height’
Shobha, an Andolan activist, tells me what happened in 1999. ‘The waters rose slowly, receded and rose. Suddenly, on 10 August, they rose to chest height.’ Medha Patkar and a group of satyagrahis were standing, hour upon hour, inside a thatched house. ‘The next day, the water went down to knee height.’ But it rose again, several times. ‘They kept arresting them. On the 16th, 17th and 19th of August, the same thing happened. On 21st September the backwaters came. The satyagrahis stood in the water up to their necks for 30 hours. But the police came in a boat. They arrested Medha with 386 others and put them in jail for 16 days.’ That’s how they stopped it. The state doesn’t want people to drown.
In Domkhedi, 50 families are left of the original 200. The reasons why people stay, or go, or get to be re-settled, or don’t, are extremely tangled. The right to ‘land for land’ is at the heart of things. The tribals here live off the forest and farm along the river. They have elaborate systems of knowing who owns and grazes what. But many don’t have title. They are the loose ends of land registration. In the 1980s the Government decided to sort this out. They started to survey. But then, with the Sardar Sarovar coming up, they realized that the surveys would create more ‘project-affected people’, or PAPs. Better to avoid this: no title, no PAPs, no ‘land for land’, no cost to the state. The outcome is the presence of hundreds of families dotted about these hills whose right to lands to be submerged has never been acknowledged. They have no right to be re-settled, even by registered mail.
After dark we go off in the boat. At 10 pm I am climbing a steep path up a hillside, skidding in the dust. If it were wet it would be worse. These are the villages to which Medha Patkar came at the beginning of the struggle and she walked everywhere. Up and down these paths for miles and miles to mobilize people. It must have been both terrifying and tiring. Several times, crossing the swollen Narmada River by boat, she was swept away and nearly drowned. For the umpteenth time I am lost in amazement at what she has done.
At high-up Nimgavhan they are practising their drums. The festival of holi is coming and there will be a huge celebration. We walk across to the jeevanshala (a school run by the Andolan because no government school ever functioned here) where the children are sleeping on mats in the open air. This too will be drowned. A conversation begins by candlelight about education, marriages, daughters, festivals. But we come back to the haunting refrain of resettlement. Keshav Vasave is the Mahesh Patel around here.
‘Nimgavhan began to break up in 1994 when the Government seduced a few people to act as their agents. One hamlet of 45 families left. They were given money and land, some good, some bad. But the money soon ran out. Where could they graze their cattle or find forest products? Half these families have now sold their land and work on other people’s. Many are alcoholics. Some are reduced to fighting each other because they have been given the same piece of land and none has title.’ Keshav could have easily struck a bargain with the Government and got out. But he stays because of the mass injustice.
I ask about the registered letters. ‘Some of us have received notices three times. The Government sent notices to 54 families to accept land. We went there and it was rocky and uncultivable. The same piece of land was shown to five or six families. Then they sent out the notices again, for the same land. No official would come with us to view it. On the third occasion we sat and fasted until someone paid attention.
‘Finally, on 29 January the Deputy Collector signed a letter to say there was no suitable land for resettlement.’ This letter seems to have escaped the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Sub-Group’s notice: perhaps copies could be sent by RPAD. What annoys Keshav is that in all these years when they have been struggling, fasting and facing submergence no-one did anything to sort out these problems. So today they are just where they were in 1994. ‘With this kind of nonsense going on, it is better to stay and fight things out.’
In the darkness later I lie on a string cot and think of these hills, and of other hills, the hills of affidavits filed by the Andolan at the Supreme Court. They recount stories like those I have been hearing. Such and such families from villages x, y and z received land, or did not, or it was stony or owned by other people, or there are other families in villages a and b who are eligible, or ineligible. It goes on and on.
If this were a service-delivery programme the stories would be irrelevant. There would be experts in some hotel conference room with their computer-generated graphs. So many beneficiary families, so many installations, that area under cultivation, this volume of harvest, all measured in percentages of targets. X proportion of benefits were realized for y per cent of the target population.
The Indian Constitution stipulates equal rights for all citizens. So here it is not a question of proportions of target populations or proportions of rights. It is everyone. All those in the affidavits and here in Nimgavhan and Domkhedi. To say that the few must sacrifice for the many is inconsistent with a commitment to human rights.
You wonder: is this resettlement failure a question of ‘can’t’ or ‘won’t’? Is the task beyond the bureaucracy or are they indifferent or corrupt? Whichever it is, it takes an Andolan to show that the authorities cannot deliver and that the promises are hollow. Usually with these huge projects, once the paperwork is tidy and the letters despatched, open season is declared and the victims are rarely heard from again. But here are victims who refused to be victims, and we will certainly hear from them again.
Keshav Vesave: ‘We know submergence and how it takes place. We know that this time if the rains are good we will lose everything. So now they must give us land. And if they do not we will show the world whether there were people here and whether resettlement was done.’
Dams: a world’s eye view
In 1998 a World Commission on Dams (WCD) was set up to resolve the bitter controversies surrounding large dam projects. Medha Patkar was one of 12 Commissioners. Last November it delivered its report, documenting many large-dam failings.
The strategy the WCD used to elaborate its ‘new decision-making framework’ was to try to keep all parties to controversy on board. Activists and NGOs mostly like it, industry and establishment mostly don’t.
The report sets out principles which, in most international policy contexts, sound anodyne: stakeholder participation and consent, proper weight to social and environmental impacts, accountability and transparency, ‘options assessment’ to review all means of reaching the same developmental goal. But the Indian Government has repudiated the report. According to Ramaswamy Iyer, an eminent ex-Secretary to the Ministry of Water Resources, it has consolidated diehard attitudes in the Ministry against a kinder, more reasoned dams regime.
The diehards, in India and elsewhere, think the procedures the report recommends are impracticable. Unfortunately, they are probably right. Its ‘new framework’ for negotiation is vague, its criteria and guidelines a bureaucratic morass. If you mentally transfer yourself to the Narmada Valley, you know that very little of this could happen. There is no capacity for it to happen, even if the will existed.
Shekhar Singh of the Indian Institute of Public Administration worked on the India country study for the WCD. He is disappointed. ‘I don’t think the report is very good – it is a weak report, wishy-washy. They bent over backwards to accommodate governments and it got them nowhere.’ The WCD even ignored the data in its own India country study because the Government might not like it, and used something less objective. ‘If you come up with a consensus report which nobody accepts, you might as well have come up with a hard-line report.’ He wants to get the India country study widely discussed. In ‘giving us a mandate’, the WCD report is little help.
Did any destructive dam get stopped or changed because of the WCD? Not yet. Certainly not in India. Let’s be fair. It yet might.
‘We will drown, but we will not move’
Facing the waters – by satyagraha or sit-in – has become the Andolan hallmark of organized defiance against submergence. At Bargi, there were satyagrahas at Bijasen village in 1993, 1994, and 1996 when people sat in the water en masse. Since 1999, annual satyagrahas have been held at Domkhedi and other villages in the Sardar Sarovar submergence area; earlier, satyagrahas were held downstream at Manibeli, now almost entirely submerged.
The most dramatic satyagraha was at Domkhedi in 1999. A ‘dedicated squad’ of activists– Medha Patkar, Sitaram Bhai and Davram Bhai – were committed to drown; those who could swim chained their feet. The waters, which carry snakes and other horrors, threatened their lives several times. Imagine standing in water for 30 hours without sleep, imagine what your skin is like. On 21 September water reached their necks. They were arrested by a police boat crashing through the flimsy wall of the satyagraha hut (above).