India’s Refugees of Development

24 Jul 2014
24 July 2014

While lying the foundation of the MW Bhakra-Nangal project, Jawaharlal Nehru had said, “This dam has been built with the unrelenting toil of man for the benefit of mankind and therefore is worthy of worship. May you call it a temple or a gurdwara or a mosque, it inspires our admiration and reverence”. But ironically, 49 years after Nehru’s address, people who gave their lands for the construction of the dam are still running from pillar to post to get their dues.

Same is the condition of millions of people who were sacrificed at the altar of development and displaced in the process of building dams and hydro electricity projects (HEPs) elsewhere in the country. Far from being the places of worship, they are simply graveyards- a fact clearly visible in Uttarakhand that has total of 98 existing hydropower projects.

For about 10.1 million people in Uttarakhand, where about 69.5 % people live in villages, dams and HEPs are promoted as a means of providing jobs. But the projects end up usurping their livelihoods as they submerge vast amount of land, shake their homes and devastate their villages. This is furthered since traditional economy of Uttarakhand is largely dependent on natural resources- the very things that these dams and HEPs slowly destroy. Although per capita income in Uttarakhand was Rs. 52,125 (about $ 900) in 2011–12 was higher than the national level (Rs. 37,851 at the national level in the same period, it is the result of ‘money order’ economy as many people live and work outside the state and massive out-migration prevails, so much so that 1,065 villages have become ‘ghost villages’, as no one lives there any longer.

No precise data about the number of people displaced by the operational and under-construction HEPs in Uttarakhand is available, nor how much land is submerged. Assuming that a minimum of 2,000 villages and at least 100 persons in each village are affected, it’s about 20 million people or about 2% of the state’s current population. However, this numbers of displaced people are a very conservative estimate and the actual number will be much larger. The state government only considers those displaced or affected where villages lie in the vicinity of tunnels. But many villages lie above or below the length of these tunnels and people living there are also affected since their homes develop cracks and water sources dry up. Further, the mountain sides get weakened by the blasting and give rise to landsides. This becomes a permanent threat to people living below and above these dams and HEPs

If we talk about people displaced by all ‘developmental’ projects in India, some 60 million have been uprooted by forests and mining, special economic zonbes, expansion of urban areas and dams & HEPs since independence.

The resettlement procedure leaves much to be desired. Only 10 percent of the displaced people by the mega-Tehri Dam have been resettled in makeshift colonies in Haridwar, Rishikesh and Dehradun’s outskirts. The conditions in these colonies are mostly inhumane, as they live in shanty-towns clustered, devoid of basic amenities like toilets and running water and without any facilities like schools, dispensaries and ration shops.

Another project Dhauliganga that has been constructed in the Pithoragarh district on the border triangle between India, Nepal and China by the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation has displaced more than ten million people. Many of them were resettled in urban outer fringes in Dehradun, Haridwar and Rishikesh, deprived of their natural and social networks. These people are now reduced to menial and daily-wage labor as many have sold their land at throwaway prices.

Although, the 2013 disaster was triggered by massive rain, it was aggravated many folds because of these dams and HEPs. Uttarakhand has bumper-to-bumper dams every 18 km and the relentless blasting, throwing of muck and debris by the HEPs, wrong operation and the release of water by many HEPs when their reservoirs overflew showed the world how human activities could turn a natural disaster into an unfathomable destruction.

The aftermath of several of these projects has been brutal as residents have been left unattended after their homes have been destroyed and livelihoods snatched. Take the example of the village Chain in the Chamoli district. Here, Jai Prakash Construction Company established a 400 MW Vishnuprayag Hydroelectricity Project, under the slogan “No dream is too big.” But what society failed to comprehend is that the company’s big dream shattered the small dreams of all the villagers. It shattered their dreams of living in their own small and earthly houses; dream of cultivating their little fields and rearing their cattle; and dream of having their own temples, waterfalls and meadows.

The Chain village is now virtually extinct.  Its orchards and pastures are in ruins. Cows have been let loose in forests. Farms lie uncultivated. Almost all of its 136 households have become uninhabitable and people now live in temporary tin sheds in the nearby Railway Reservation Centre at Joshimath. Bereft of choice, a few continue staying in their dilapidated houses. Some villagers are even living in caves!

There are many more such villages in Uttarakhand like Sobla, Chirkila and Khet around Dhauliganga HEP in Pithoragarh district and Raithal and Bhatwari around Maneri Bhali-I & II in Uttarkashi district.

The people displaced by dams and HEPs in Uttarakhand have become refugees in their own state and can be classified as Internally Displaced People (IDPs). Unfortunately, there is not a single international agency or international treaty that focuses on internal displacement. As a result, the response to internal displacement has been selective, uneven and, in many cases, inadequate. Large numbers of IDPs receive no humanitarian assistance or protection whatsoever. Sovereignty and the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference in the internal affairs of states present significant challenges to the protection of IDPs and delivery of humanitarian assistance to them.

Women, children, elderly, physically and mentally challenged and sick people are more vulnerable and need special protection.

To address all these issues, the UPA Government passed the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy 2007 with much fanfare, but it fails to address the key issues relating to the booming development: forcible acquisition of lands. It upholds the sovereign power of the State to apply the concept of “eminent domain” to forcibly acquire any private property in any part of the country in the name of “public purpose”, provided under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894.

The policy falls short of protecting human rights of the displaced persons on several counts. First, small intensity displacement, i.e., smaller villages—of fewer than  400 households in plains and 200 in tribal and hill areas are uncovered. Thus, many villages in Uttarakhand that have less than 200 households are out of the previews of this Act. Secondly, people don’t have the right to say no to a project that is going to displace them. Thirdly, this Policy has no provision for the inclusion of the affected persons or their representatives in the preparation of the Social Impact Assessment report and/or the Environmental Impact Assessment report of the project. Lastly, there is no independent commissioner or regulator to assess the damage and everything has been left to the bureaucracy to define the ‘public purpose.’

The Policy is yet another facet of State failure to provide the conditions for sustainable development, address burgeoning conflict and its predictable human rights abuses.  Several human rights and civil society groups like National Alliance of People’s Movements, New Trade Union of India, All India Forest Workers Movement and Asian Centre for Human Rights severely criticized it and the government, predictably reacted in a knee-jerk manner and passed the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2013, in the wake of the upcoming general election in September 2013.

Under the new Land Acquisition law, farmers and landowners are entitled to get compensation of up to four times of the market value for land acquired in rural areas, and two times the market value in urban areas. While, the consent of 80 percent of land owners is mandatory for acquiring land for private projects and of 70 percent landowners for public-private projects, again the bureaucracy has the vast and unhindered power to decide the ‘public purpose,’

Now, even as 23 HEPs lie defunct from the 2013 disaster, the Uttarakhand Chief Minister, Harish Rawat wants to press ahead with more projects. Supported by the chairperson of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra- a pro-dam, mega NGO- Rawat is seeking the Central government’s nod to start all hydro-power projects that were stopped between Uttarkashi and Gangotri, the mouth of Bhagirathi River, a main branch of River Ganga, after the UPA Government has declared it an Eco-Sensitive Zone.

If it happens, thousands will once again be displaced. Several more villages will become defunct. The environment and ecology of this highly pristine region will be destroyed. And as 2013 taught us, the outcome of it all could be disastrous.

It’s high time for a serious rethink as protest against dams and HEPs grow louder in the state and danger of a massive disaster hitting the state looms large.