INDIA: Drowned by a dam; disowned by a democracy
With dejection written large on her face, Leela Bai stood submerged neck deep in water, as she had been for the last 11 days. So were about 50 other people from the east Nimaar region of Madhya Pradesh in India, and 200 others who stood submerged for shorter stints in solidarity with Leela Bai and her comrades. Ask her why she chose this unique and dangerous form of protest and the anger simmering within her explodes out. She was protesting against the submergence of her lands to build a hydroelectric power project and being given nothing in return, despite promises of a rehabilitation package assuring land for land and monetary compensation. She would not move out until her demands for the same are met, she added nonchalantly. I would drown, is what she said. Ram Bharti, standing next to her, agreed. No one from the government had come to talk to them as they continued to suffer in water for six more days.
The sword of submergence has been looming large for the protesters since last May, when the Supreme Court of India decreed in favour of filling the reservoir. The government has decided to start the process now, making it real.
Standing submerged in neck-deep water must have been a tough choice to make for these villagers, but they did not have many choices in any case. The government has seldom responded to their more-than-decade long protest against the injustices done to them in the course of the development of the Omkareshwar Project (520 megawatt). The dam has been completed already and will submerge thousands of acres of prime agricultural land in its catchment area once it starts operating to capacity.
That would mean the loss of all livelihood and employment opportunities for the people of the area as the government has thoroughly failed in its promise of making the dam operational only after the complete rehabilitation of those displaced by the dam. Forget giving the oustees (official term denoting those displaced by the dam) land for land, it has not even properly identified many persons whom the project would affect. Needless to say, the indigenous people (not having any land title documents) and the landless labours (mostly Dalits) are the worst sufferers of this 'identification failure'.
They have another reason to doubt the seriousness of the state in delivering on its promise of rehabilitating and resettling them, and that is the fate of those displaced by the Indira Sagar Project in the same area. The oustees of that project waged a gallant struggle for their rights, but it was all in vain. With many villages and a whole mofussil town submerged in the catchment area of that dam, the government is nowhere close to successfully identifying and rehabilitating them.
It is not merely the government that has failed these people. They have been shortchanged even by the judiciary, which otherwise has a glorious track record of stepping into cases where the executive falters. The judiciary started on a very positive note. Way back in 2000, the Supreme Court of India ordered that after the initial 90 meters, the raising of the dam should only proceed after full compliance with the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R), as mandated in the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award.
The same Supreme Court, however, went back on its own view and allowed further construction of the dam, even while acknowledging that thousands of families have not been rehabilitated or resettled by the Madhya Pradesh government. The acknowledgement was not surprising as a public hearing conducted in the area by The Indian People’s Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights (IPT), a reputed civil society group, has brought these facts into the public discourse a full two years before the judgment. Similar were the findings of the Group of Ministers appointed by the Prime Minister to look into the issue.
What was surprising was the fact that the court ignored all this evidence and not only allowed the further increase of the height of the dam, but also referred the question of resettlement and rehabilitation of those affected to the Prime Minister of India. Denied with livelihood and employment opportunities, living conditions of the Indira Sagar oustees have worsened ever since. Protesting villagers know that if they let the government submerge the area without rehabilitating and resettling them, their fate would not be much different, and this explains their desperation.
This is also why their method of protest did not emanate from the cultural heritage of employing personal suffering as a weapon of political protest, which has a long history in India. Gautam, the Buddha, understood the strength intrinsic to such suffering, which not only cleanses one's heart but also clears the conscience of the enemy and forces him to correct his follies. More than a millennium later, Gandhi was to turn the idea of inflicting pain unto oneself into a fierce tool of political action, more powerful than violent opposition to colonial rule. The case of these protesting villagers, however, is markedly different from the idea.
They were not dealing with an enemy but their own state, which claims to have the status of parens patriae, or the parent of the citizens. The decades of struggle have told them in no uncertain terms that unlike enemies Gandhi encountered, this one is most unlikely to show any remorse and correct its follies. They knew that it had decided to sacrifice them on the altar of 'development' and they have already ceased to exist for it for all practical purposes. They knew that the executive treats them as dispensable dehumanised beings for the benefit of the neoliberal idea of growth, and they have been fighting against this politics of development. Having lost all faith in the executive, they had all their hopes pinned on judicial intervention to get redress, but the final order of the Supreme Course has crushed all such dreams.
All this, while the same government had no qualms about 'ordering' district collectors to identify and acquire 26000 hectares of lands before the forthcoming investors' meet so that it does not fall short on providing land to them. The protesters had realised both the priorities and the game plan of the government. It was same government, after all, which had 'failed' to find any land to rehabilitate them. They knew, almost instinctively, that it was paving for evicting them by drowning and then telling the courts that it did not find any oustees. They knew that the government that was obligated by the constitution to rehabilitate those displaced from such projects completely was, instead, making all efforts to snatch their rights. They grasped the hard truth that they were faced with a government that was not protecting the rule of law, but was working against it.
Their protest, thus, emanated from this definite desperation of knowing that the only way to live on was saving their lands and livelihood, even at the cost of death. This is what they had been doing for the last 11 days. Their legs were giving way, their skin was peeling off, and they were getting sick. Yet they stood tall while no one from either the provincial or central government has bothered to do even as much as come to meet them and take stock of the ground reality. No minister, never mind the Chief Minister, had visited the area while water level was continuously going up. It had reached their chins now. The hardships did not affect their resolve, though. This one was a do or die battle for them and they were holding their ground firmly.
Girijabai, an elderly protester, asserted that she would not leave. "Now we are in water. The water has come to our necks. We will not move out even if we die... We are not bothered about that anymore." The effect of being under water for 11 days in a row have started showing on her, and the rest of us. The situation looked grim but for the resoluteness of the protesters and the wider social support to their cause. They had yet not resigned to their fate.
The groundswell of support for them, and the outrage against the apathy and inaction of Madhya Pradesh government, finally yielded results with the government agreeing to accept all their demands on seventeenth day of the protest. The story, however, is far from over for they are not the only people protesting at the cost of their lives. A similar Jal Satyagraha is being held in Harda in the same province where a similar protest is going on for the last 13 days with more than 50 villagers sitting there in neck-deep water. Their demands are the same as those who have emerged victorious in Omkareshwar protest, that is bringing down the water level in the Indira Sagar Dam be brought down to 260 metres and rehabilitation of those who would be displaced from 19 villages threatened with inundation.
The government has not listened to them. It did not even take notice of them. They are the abandoned ones now. They are forced to live under water for 13 days in a row and no one knows how many more. The question is whether a democracy, the one that claims to be the 'largest' as well, can usurp the land and livelihood of its own citizens with such impunity? Can it afford, then, to ignore them till they threaten to kill themselves? And even if it does, can we let that happen?
Mr. Pandey, alias Samar is Programme Coordinator, Right to Food Programme, AHRC.