Displaced and deprived

THEY ARE not refugees. They are oustees of one project or the other, a dam, a powerhouse or a mining pithead. They have no home or hearth and live on the periphery. But their number is large, as many as 10 millions, moving from one place to another and clinging to the hope that one day the Government or society will wake up to their misery and help them carve out a niche in the country.

So many commissions and committees have looked into the circumstances which displaced people from the places they were tethered to for years. NGOs have articulated their demand for alternative accommodation but to no avail. Politicians and bureaucrats too have promised them resettlement. But they have gone back on their word.

At times when their cup of misery - and patience - overflows, the oustees protest and stage demonstrations. Only a few days ago, people in Tehri Garhwal in northern Uttar Pradesh squatted on a hilly road to draw attention to their plight. They had been driven from their homes to level the catchment area of the Tehri Dam. They had written to the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister and had drawn a blank.

The work on the dam stops off and on but the victims' sufferings do not. At one time these people showed sturdy resistance to the dam on the ground that it was located in the seismic zone. They pointed out how the impounded water could wash away every habitat up to Meerut, 50 km from Delhi, if ever an earthquake damaged the dam. But the authorities were determined to build the dam.

The oustees have somewhat reconciled themselves to the situation. But they want new homes to replace those which were flattened to prepare the ground for the dam's basin. They were assured full rehabilitation. But they cannot get an appointment with the officers concerned, much less Ministers, to remind the Government of its obligation. Once well off, they now feel humiliated when they have to queue up before a petty official who gives them arguments about how the nation would benefit after the dam was completed.

The Narmada project oustees are a bit more fortunate. They were also moved from their homes, lock, stock and barrel. But the spotlight on their plight by Ms. Medha Patkar and some world organisations made Gujarat put together a better package. To their rescue has come the Narmada Tribunal Award, which makes it incumbent on Gujarat to give land - and a rehabilitation grant - to the affected, even if they are from outside Gujarat, whether in Maharashtra or in M.P.

Some resettlement colonies have also come up for the Narmada oustees. But many more are required for rehabilitation. The State simply does not have that much land. The Gujarat Government has been making false promises and getting away with them. Now the situation has worsened because thousands of earthquake victims await resettlement. Whatever the State's claims, it has no resources to rehabilitate both the earthquake victims and the Narmada project oustees.

Ms. Medha Patkar's workers have given Gujarat unstinted support to help the earthquake victims. But what about the Narmada people? The monsoon is only a few months away. The proposal is to catch more water because of the added height that the Supreme Court has permitted. What will people whose land is submerged then do? The earlier lot is far from happy. In fact, all of them face a piquant situation. If they raise their voice, Gujarat considers them ``an unnecessary digression'' from the work it is doing - helping the earthquake victims restart their life. If the Narmada oustees keep quiet, they evoke less attention than they did in the past.

Jawaharlal Nehru hailed dams and mega projects as new temples. He did not live to see the plight of those who gave their homes and lands for the temples to come up and received little. In fact, over the years, many among them have turned into atheists because of the endless privations they have gone through. They have found the deity unhelpful even when they did all to propitiate it.

The attitude of Governments, whether at the Centre or in the States, is cold and cruel. They have not implemented the recommendations made by the high-power committees on rehabilitation. The tendency of authorities is to run away from their responsibilities. There is no feeling, much less sympathy. The bureaucracy is lost in the effort to convert a human problem into an item on the Government's agenda. It has coined a phrase for refugees, ``Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs).''

The oustees from different projects have been clubbed together with those who are victims of political, religious or other persecutions. Ethnic conflicts have generated hundreds of thousands of IDPs in the North-East, Assam, Tripura, Manipur, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram and Jammu and Kashmir. The Government has put all victims on a par because the criterion to assess pain, according to it, is suffering and all have gone through it. What makes the whole approach inhuman is the absence of real understanding. Political refugees want their identity recognised. But oustees want land in exchange for land. An ILO convention, to which New Delhi is a signatory, provides for the protection of rights of indigenous and tribal people.

The National Human Rights Commission may not have done the job of protecting human rights properly or adequately. But it has at least taken up with the Central Government the question of persons displaced by dams and mega projects. The Commission wants New Delhi to amend the Land Acquisition Act in such a way that the rehabilitation of displaced persons becomes an integral part of the project. There can be no uprooting until the project makes arrangements for resettlement of the oustees. This is precisely what voluntary organisations have demanded relentlessly. Some among them have come together to even prepare model legislation, the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill, 2000, to incorporate the principle of settling before uprooting.

In fact the Commission has woken up late: only after some voluntary organisations petitioned it that the Land Acquisition Act, 1994, was being amended without making any provision for resettlement and rehabilitation of the people affected. Since then the Commission has taken up the job in right earnest. It has told the Government that it was desirable to incorporate the rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) packages in the Land Acquisition Act itself.

In addition, R&R packages in the law will ensure relief and rehabilitation to the project-affected people in a systematic manner. The provision for R&R in the law will help avoid litigation and consequent delays and prevent cost overruns of the projects. Once the R&R package is provided for in the law, there will be uniformity in dealing with the cases by the courts.

It is strange that the Government does not even look after the interests of tribal people. The Constitution makes it obligatory that the Government protect tribal land. They cannot be thrown out of their land. The President has expressed his anguish. But the authorities are not bothered. Vested interests continue to have their way. The Commission should take up the issue.

In its monthly letter, the Commission has done well to point out that in a number of cases, land was acquired by the authorities in excess of what was required for a project. It adversely affected land-holders on the one hand and wasted the resources of the State on the other. The excess land, as the Commission found out, was not put to use by the project authorities. ``A properly drawn project document,'' says the Commission, ``would curb this tendency.''

One advice by the Commission is worth pursuing. The authorities should have detailed consultations with the affected people before the land is acquired. Had such a step been taken, the highhandedness of authorities would have decreased. And so would have the woes of the victims of progress.

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