Displaced through development

TUESDAY, MAY 02, 2006
Medha Patkar’s fast unto death over the rehabilitation of the Narmada oustees, dramatised by the television networks, appears to have brought back to centre stage the debate on how to deal with displacement caused by rapid development. This question will haunt successive governments in the years to come as India sets a scorching pace of GDP growth — at 8% plus.
Materialist progress and development certainly bring with it the initial pain of displacement. But managing this within a democratic framework is the real test of good politics. The prime minister has spoken of evolving a new brand of liberal politics and economics which widens the area of consensus and not polarises opinions sharply. This requires a lot of sincerity in the way the State and its institutions approach the problem. One example will illustrate this point.
When Medha Patkar went on fast unto death simply on the question of whether the oustees had been rehabilitated before the height of the dam was increased, almost everyone, including the government, was aware that resettlement had been given short shrift. There was a lack of sincerity on the part of the state agencies which refused to acknowledge that rehabilitation efforts had been very poor. Instead, all sorts of technical arguments were being made to make sure that it fell on the judiciary to pronounce on the issue. The Supreme Court, of course, threw the ball right back in the prime minister’s court.
Now, it is indeed worrying that state agencies might end up giving development a bad name by not managing rehabilitation and resettlement in the right spirit. In many ways the onus is on the state and its institutions to give new meaning to liberal politics that the PM has rightly espoused.
There is a tendency on the part of the state agencies to ignore the voices of the displaced minority simply because they might be politically unorganised. The Narmada oustees have succeeded in delivering the message of rehabilitation because Medha Patkar has provided the leadership to carry their issue to the political mainstream. The cause of displaced farmers has now been espoused by Bollywood celebrities who are freshly campaigning for the resettlement of the submerged villages.
It is not insignificant that even the organised Left, traditionally very suspicious of NGO-led grass-roots movements, is now fully backing the campaign for rehabilitation. Since left parties such as CPI(M) and CPI are part of the UPA there will be more pressure on the government to deal with the rehabilitation issue squarely.
The Narmada issue is symbolic of a larger problem of displacement caused by much-needed development which needs a balanced solution. For instance, it is not so widely recognised that the national highway project — the golden quadrilateral — has also caused large scale displacement of villages that fell en route. The Agra to Dhanbad (980 kms) stretch adversely affected about 40,000 households. Of these, some 12,800 families were totally displaced. Also, about 40% of the affected households did not have proper title to the land they have been living on or tilling for years. This has complicated matters.
You don’t hear about national highway oustees partly because they are scattered across the country. A total of 13,000 kms of North-South and East-West highway project could easily impact several lakh households. The World Bank, in general, keeps aside about 5% of the project cost for land acquisition, rehabilitation and resettlement.
In the absence of any ground level survey, one does not know how adequate such rehabilitation efforts are. However, for the highway projects implemented by the government under NHAI, the compensation for rehabilitation is next to nothing. In the prime minister’s gram sadak yojna, the state governments are paying no compensation to households displaced in villages.
The larger point is that state agencies show a natural callousness when it comes to compensating the poor. A telling survey done by IAS probationers some years ago showed that about 2.3 million acres of land declared as surplus under the Land Ceiling Act have actually not been distributed by state agencies. If such land had indeed been distributed, overall development might have been more even, and the growing influence of the Naxalites in about 150 districts would have been stemmed.
Today, global steel majors like Posco, Mittal Steel and others are promising to pour up to $50 billion to harness the rich mineral resources in Orissa, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, all Naxalite affected areas. We are already seeing violent protest from tribals and others under Naxalite influence in these states. So the key to achieving a sustained GDP growth of 8% plus lies partly in the way the government deals with the tribal and indigenous populations in this region.

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