When the government wants your house

CIVIL SOCIETY ONLINE, MAY 12, 2006
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For all the negative vibes that Medha Patkar attracts she is probably the best the thing that could have happened to a country caught up in the complex processes of economic and social reform.
Most businessmen bristle at the mention of her name. Some journalists do likewise, perhaps because they think it is a good idea to bristle in step with big business. Among NGOs you may occasionally hear her ridiculed for being too shrill. Politicians and bureaucrats can’t stand her because she has a way of stripping them of their self-importance.
But for all the negative vibes that Medha Patkar attracts she is probably the best the thing that could have happened to a country caught up in the complex processes of economic and social reform. By camping on hunger-strike at Jantar Mantar in the heart of Delhi to get justice for the people being thrown out of their homes and lands for the Sardar Sarovar Dam in Madhya Pradesh, she has forced the country to face the problems of eviction and rehabilitation, which could finally undermine all economic progress.
So, for all the vehemence with which Medha opposes liberalisation and privatisation, she has done the reforms process a good turn by making its more fickle champions look at issues they have insisted on ignoring. If those who want the economy to grow faster are truly serious about their mission, they will listen to Medha and people like her. And then perhaps reforms can be saved from tunnel vision and the tyranny of an influential few.
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Balgaon village
There are 35,000 families who will be pushed out by raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. As things stand, they will get nothing even though the Supreme Court had decreed that work on the dam could only proceed if people were rehabilitated. The Congress-led UPA government has not done anything to implement this order. The Prime Minister himself has tried to ignore the report by a team of Central ministers – Saifuddin Soz, Prithviraj Chauhan and Meira Kumar – who said that people had not been resettled.
On paper, people have been rehabilitated. But in reality the Madhya Pradesh government’s claims are fake and have been incorrectly endorsed by the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA). The ministerial team was sent after Medha’s fast. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose to keep the team’s report under wraps. The government was more interested in the votes it would get in Gujarat.
So secretive was Manmohan Singh’s office that Aruna Roy of the MKSS had to file a right to information petition asking for the report to be made public. Similarly, respected environmentalist Anupam Mishra of the Gandhi Peace Foundation and others wrote to the Prime Minister wanting to know why he was sitting on the report.
Medha’s strident campaign and her fast unto death at Jantar Mantar under the UPA government’s nose brought national attention to the Sardar Sarovar Dam and the true lies of official records.
But the dam is just the tip of the problem. India is seeking rapid economic growth with investments in manufacturing, power, housing, roads and so on. Industry’s appetite for land is going to keep growing. With it will come eviction and the need for rehabilitation on a scale which dwarfs the experience in the Narmada Valley.
Industry is seeking tens of thousands of acres and expecting to get the land in a rush. There are steel, cement and automobile plants coming up. Mining projects are taking companies into forests. Airports, roads and power plants have to be built. Reliance’s special economic zones (SEZs) have made headlines in business papers. Mahindra and Mahindra is not far behind. Software companies want to expand their campuses.
Much of this investment is long over due. It is needed to broaden and deepen the economy. The question is, however, at whose cost. If it leads to widespread alienation from the land without commensurate benefits will this model of growth cause instability and tumult? Will it undermine the very progress being sought to be achieved?
Acquisition of land is merely part of the story. Environmental damage is the rest of it. Indian industry’s record in this department has been indifferent. Indian businessmen have been slow in learning from the global experience.
Organisations like CII and FICCI show little newness in approach. They have become forums in which industry talks to industry and hears what it wants to hear. Much like NGOs who want to confirm the obvious to each other without trying to listen to the other side. CII and FICCI have come to be known for their lunches, dinners, junkets. There is little evidence of a national perspective, of a sense of mission in which industry can take the country forward.
Little time seems to get spent on how industry can be more inclusive, on how it can be a catalyst for prosperity through employment, skill-building and education. Resettlement of people evicted for projects, be they in the countryside or the cities, doesn’t figure at all.
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An important reason for the problem is the absence of governance. Public institutions don’t have credibility. Industry knows how to cynically use them. The popular perception is that when politicians and businessmen come together, it is only to get richer, rip the common man off a little more. There is little faith in the system. The dam height being raised despite the Supreme Court’s earlier directives on rehabilitation and the Prime Minister’s unwillingness to act is cited as further proof of the breakdown.
So far development and investment across sectors has resulted in surges in the numbers of the homeless. The evidence is there in all our cities.
Invariably people in rural areas have been affected and left to fend for themselves. Among them there have been those who have been reasonably well off. But the really big numbers are made up by the poor, particularly tribals and scheduled castes.
If the migration to cities, as seen in the multiplicity of slums, in not evidence enough, perhaps the growing Naxalite movement in a swathe of territory across the country should be cause for concern. Alienation from the land and the absence of a working criminal justice system are the reasons for the Naxalite influence. The government has all but lost the right to administer this territory, which could account for as much as 20 per cent of the Indian landmass. The Naxal movement itself is getting more complex with it being controlled by gun-runners, drug-smugglers and other varieties of brigands.
But even as these alarm bells toll, industry and the government withdraw to an enclave of their own. A separate world, so to speak, which lives in denial of realities that may require the rewriting of some business plans.
As people protested on the streets in Delhi against the illegalities of the Narmada project and survivors of the Bhopal gas disaster at the Union Carbide plant sought justice after all of 20 years, CII held a two-day meeting on development and sustainability at the Taj Palace. Here industry spoke to industry. Industry patted industry on the back. The Prime Minister found the time to make an inaugural address. He spoke of rehabilitation and affirmative action in the manner of an academic pondering on some remote problem.
The fact is that Medha Patkar’s agitation and life-threatening fast had brought the problem of rehabilitation to the door of the Prime Minister’s Office in Delhi. It had to be so because the government had not found out the facts on the ground in the Narmada Valley. And when it sent three ministers there it did not want to hear what they had to say.
By hiding the report of its own ministerial team, the PMO was doing what governments have always done on the question of rehabilitation: tried to seal it in official files. Worse still, work on raising the dam height was undertaken after the NVDA’s sub-committee certified that the rehabilitation had been done. Was the sub-committee lying? Or did it compose its report without visiting the affected areas to check the claims of the Madhya Pradesh government.
The Supreme Court now needs to ask the sub-committee on rehabilitation on what basis it said that people had been compensated and resettled. It perhaps needs to investigate the entire system of supervision at the Sardar Sarovar Dam.
For years now the environment sub-committee of the NVDA has never visited the areas it has reported on. Each time Shekhar Singh, the only independent member of the sub-committee, has put up notes of dissent. On one occasion, the minutes were drafted even before the meeting had been held and Singh had to protest.
It would be simplistic to point to corruption or the inefficiency of the system. Anupam Mishra of the Gandhi Peace Foundation, one of the earliest campaigners against the Sardar Sarovar Dam, makes the point, “The same state has no problems constructing dams with the required efficiency. And it is not as if there is not ample scope for corruption in the course of such construction. The problem is more basic, the state lacks sensitivity to the problems of its people.’’
The controversy at Kalinga Nagar in Orissa, where the largely tribal displaced population has launched an agitation, illustrates the problem. The state awarded land for projects, in much the same way as land is being given in Chhatisgarh and Jharkhand, but it again failed to handle the rehabilitation responsibilities in an adequate manner.
Interestingly, in Kalingar Nagar, the Tatas, known to be serious about social commitments and with sound rehabilitation work done in Gopalpur, have been caught in a crossfire that is not of their making.
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Hapeshwar temple, drowned in the rising waters
“No one is saying the dam should not be built. But people must be compensated if they are being asked to give up their land,” says Nasser Munjee, an experienced funder of big ticket projects. He is now Chairman of DCB and used to head the Infrastructure Development and Finance Company (IDFC). Munjee worries about the impact of taking land away. “When people are evicted from their land it results in instability which lasts over generations. The impact of evictions should not be underestimated.”
Says Arun Maira, Chairman of the Boston Consulting Group: “I think the first ‘rehabilitation’ that is required is in the minds of those promoting industry and growth. They should not make their case in abstract terms–of ‘national growth’, ‘increasing the size of the overall pie’, etc. What do these abstract, larger benefits to society matter to the poor, hopeless people who lose their toeholds of livelihood? Their needs have to be understood in their simple terms and dealt with directly and fairly.”
Maira adds: “Industrialists whose plans will disrupt the lives of people have to deal with issues of rehabilitation fairly, even generously–and they must be seen to be doing so. Even a few who fail to do this, will destroy society’s confidence in industrialists generally and make it more difficult and more costly for industry to get its projects going, thus affecting their viability.”
Many of the big projects such as steel plants will be based in the largely tribal areas of the country because of the availability of raw material. This work will go hand in hand with an increase in mining activity, further contributing to large-scale displacement. Quite apart from the question of justice, even from a pragmatic viewpoint both government and industry need to realise that if rehabilitation is not better handled the very economic growth they aim to foster and benefit from will come into question.
Both in Kalinga Nagar and in the case of the Sardar Sarovar Dam this is one aspect that is overlooked. The delay and disruption in such projects because of inadequate rehabilitation only serves to add to cost overruns that call into question the very economic feasibility of such projects. Clearly then, a sane and efficient rehabilitation policy is in the interests not just of the displaced or the NGOs espousing their cause but also of industry and a government that seeks faster economic growth.
Unfortunately, no such policy exists. The reason why separate procedures have to be put in place for every major project is because there are no policy guidelines. In many of the dam projects after Independence, the land to be submerged was simply acquired from the owners under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894. Leave alone the merits of giving cash for land, the Act itself was created by a colonial state to ensure it ran into no trouble in acquiring land for its needs. It is heavily weighted in favour of the State. Legal challenges in the courts have brought a level of equity to the cost compensation but a land acquisition act can hardly be the basis for a fair relief and rehabilitation policy.
While the Prime Minister mentioned rehabilitation to his audience at CII, what he did not tell industry was that his office has with it a draft of policy for rehabilitation. This has been put together after national consultation among public-spirited groups with an experience of dealing with displacement. Sadly the government has initiated no discussion on the policy and continues to treat it like some kind of incendiary device which has unfortunately reached its door.
The draft policy was first brought to the National Advisory Council, till recently chaired by Congress President Sonia Gandhi. It went from there to the PMO.
The Draft National Development, Displacement and Rehabilitation Policy (see civilsocietyonline.com) is based on a few key premises – 1) Displacement must be considered as a last alternative. 2.) The displaced must be better off after displacement than they were earlier. 3.) There must be consensus among those about to be displaced, a clear majority (the draft says 75 per cent) of those who are to be displaced must agree to the displacement. 4.) There has to be a clear monitoring principle and perhaps a national authority that monitors such projects.
A rehabilitation policy is far too important an issue to be left in abeyance. Not only will this avoid the ad hoc responses which have marked the entire Sardar Sarovar controversy from the very beginning, such a policy is in fact be a necessity as private industry steps into key infrastructural areas.
It is to Medha Patkar that the credit must go for bringing the need for rehabilitation into sharp national focus. Her agitation is the best tonic for reforms. What we now need are the reformers who can see that.

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