Vinoba's village is among areas which will be partially submerged; escalating cost, lack of rehabilitation mar the project

It is the opposite of the Bhoodan movement and would have made its architect Vinoba Bhave cringe. His birthplace, Gagode (budruk) village in Raigad district, is among the places which will be partially submerged by the Balganga river project nearby, meant to supply water to the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Despite stiff opposition, 70 per cent of the work on the earthen dam is complete while land acquisition notices have been issued for the second time in December 2011.

Gagode (budruk) is one of the 19 ‘gramdan' villages in Maharashtra where people have given up their individual rights to land and cultivate it as a community. The 150-year-old house where Vinoba Bhave was born is intact and looked after by Vijay Diwan, a follower. Some years ago, at the government's request, people allotted half an acre for a memorial for the freedom fighter near his house. However, the State is yet to build a memorial but the government wanted to acquire this very piece of land for the godown and colony of the Balganga dam. People's protests put paid to that but Gagode will not be spared the loss of 15 hectares of paddy fields, according to Sandeep Patil, activist of Shramik Kranti Sanghatana. Gram sabhas have opposed the dam to no avail.

The Balganga dam will supply 350 million litres of water a day (MLD) to Navi Mumbai and surrounding areas and its construction is nearing completion even as the fate of the people it will displace hangs in the balance. Worse, it is riddled by huge cost escalations and lack of proper clearances as in the cases of Kondhane dam in Karjat and Kalu dam in Murbad where work has stopped after cases of violations were filed in the Bombay High Court. The irony is that among the settlements which will be submerged is Dawdani and Moreshwar wadi, where over 300 families of the displaced people from the Koyna project in Satara district found a home over 30 years ago.

The project is executed by the Konkan Irrigation Development Corporation (KIDC) and funded by the City and Industrial Development Corporation (CIDCO). Based on the 1994-95 estimates, the cost was Rs. 102.89 crore, according to documents obtained under the Right to Information Act by activist Surekha Dalvi and others. The work order was issued in May 2009, and according to RTI documents, CIDCO approved Rs. 488.34 crore as the project cost and Rs. 412 crore as the cost of rehabilitation. But the cost kept increasing to Rs. 589 crore and now the rehabilitation cost is pegged at Rs. 512 crore.

At a board meeting on March 14, a revised cost of Rs. 960 crore for the project was discussed. KIDC officials confirmed a further increase above Rs. 1,000 crore for the project and said a three-member committee of retired secretaries was looking into the cost and had submitted a report to CIDCO. However, CIDCO officials — from the public relations officer, the chief engineer to the principal secretary, urban development, T.C. Benjamin, who is holding additional charge as CIDCO Managing Director — refused to speak to The Hindu on the Balganga project.

Thirteen villages affected by the project were issued land acquisition notices in January 2010 on the pretext of a drinking water crisis in Mumbai and other areas, Ms. Dalvi said. However, this was challenged in the Bombay High Court, which in November 2011, held that the process of acquisition had lapsed. Yet work on the dam continued and Ms. Dalvi said government records showed work on canals was executed up to 95 per cent.

However, the project submerges 306.74 hectares of forest land, for which no clearance had been obtained. KIDC said the clearance was in the final stage. Many people in the affected villages, which have a 50 per cent tribal population, are tenant farmers and don't own the land or cultivate plots, which have to be regularised under the Forest Rights Act. Niphad village, where the dam is located, suffers from chronic water shortage and along the river on the way to the dam site, one can see women digging out water from the banks and filtering it into steel and plastic vessels.   

Over 3,000 families will be affected by the Balganga project and the government has a resettlement plan on paper on which people don't know much about. There is no provision for land for land and in Varsai village with a population of 1,200 people, former sarpanch Gajanan Surve says, “The government has given no information about the project and we have only heard we may get Rs. 15 lakh per hectare plus other costs.” 

“Why this pittance?”

Dr. Vinay Bhave, another resident, says, “When the government is paying Rs. 50 lakh per hectare for expanding the Mumbai-Goa highway, why this pittance for us? The dam is almost complete but we are still here and we know nothing.” People have been protesting against the dam and its rising cost and lack of information on their future. A retired engineer Waman Tilak of Varsai says his ancestral house is 110-year-old. “The government will give me a pittance for my house and land. I took voluntary retirement to come and live here. None of us want to leave,” he says.

While large land owners like Tilak are worried, smaller farmers like Madhu Rama Hatge have already suffered from their land being grabbed for a nearby floriculture enterprise.

With the dam set for completion by 2014, the people here are worried they will be flooded out.