Unkept promises

EVEN WHEN there was opposition to the Narmada dam, it was primarily because of the uprooting of lakhs of people from their homes and villages where they had lived for ages. Narmada water at Rajkot is a welcome sight. But the Gujarat Government has not kept its promise to those who had to abandon their lands to make the Sardar Sarovar reservoir possible. The beneficiaries of the Narmada waters must now pressure the Narendra Modi Government to see that the oustees have the life which was mapped out for them before they were thrown out.

The decision by the Narmada Control Authority (NCA) to raise the dam's height from 95 to 100 metres does not make sense. It means the destruction of another 12,000 families. Already there are thousands waiting for proper rehabilitation. It seems the Maharashtra Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, and the Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, could not have been a party to the decision. It violates the very legal basis and norms of human justice. Both the Chief Ministers have to abide by the directive of the Supreme Court and the award of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal: arranging for alternative rehabilitation facilities, land, house and the like six months before people are uprooted.

Not only that. The two Chief Ministers had given an undertaking that they would consult those working in the field. Apparently, they have not done so because Medha Patkar, who has given voice to the thousands of the uprooted following the construction of the Narmada dam, sent me a moving message before her arrest: Even after 18 years, the struggle for truth and justice has to be on. Have we indeed failed in depicting the reality before the world — even those of us concerned about rehabilitation?

A few days ago, the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, assured me in a letter that "both the Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh Governments are fully committed to these objectives... I would like to assure you there is no likelihood of our Congress Governments undertaking any steps that are not in the interest of their people, under pressure from the Gujarat Chief Minister". In the face of such categorical words, I doubt if Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh are on board on the new height. Only a week ago, the Maharashtra Government showed the Narmada Bachao Andolan, headed by Medha Patkar, some land in a hilly region. In Madhya Pradesh, a few landless people have been shifted to house-plots.

The distressing part is that the talk of alternative sites is more or less over because all the three States — Gujarat, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh — have come to realise that there is no vacant land. But this runs counter to the Narmada Tribunal's award of "land for land". Even Ms. Gandhi said in her letter that the Congress-ruled States would make a provision "for compensation of land wherever possible". Cash compensation is understandable in rare cases. But hundreds of families face the prospect of getting no land.

It is not difficult to understand why the NCA chairman, also the Water Resources Secretary, agreed to the decision. He works under the Central Government run by the BJP-led NDA. But how did the Secretary, Social Justice and Empowerment, ditto the decision?

True, he too is a Central Government employee. But he heads the Rehabilitation and Resettlement sub-group and knows about the sufferings of the oustees. How could he agree to throw several more into a well of pain and suffering?

It is indeed comical that the NCA should direct the State Governments concerned to make contingency arrangements to safeguard "the project-affected families" against any "untoward incident" during the flood season. How can you avoid the prospect when thousands of people are under the threat of being rendered landless?

Ms. Patkar is understandably angry when she says that the decision will spell "disaster, destruction and human tragedy". Even supporters of the dam should realise that those who were opposed to it knew that the three Governments would one day say that there is no land for rehabilitation.

No one is opposing the dam. What is being demanded is that the State Governments concerned resettle the people as per the Narmada award and the Supreme Court's directive. Additional height will only make more people miserable and further expose the charade of rehabilitation.

This shows that people from socially and economically marginalised sections of society continue to suffer. There is no way they can escape the hardships increasing by the day. Rights defenders do agitate. But they are only a few and increasingly feel lonely. The `haves' are so busy in appropriating gains that they have no time to entertain even complaints, let alone provide any redress.

Take Punjab. Thousands of families are still waiting to know the fate of their relatives who "disappeared" while in police custody during the militancy period in the State. Many are said to have been extra-judicially executed and illegally cremated. A Punjab group has submitted a report to the National Human Rights Commission. The police are not sorry about what they have done.

As Amnesty International said in a report: "The culture of impunity which developed within the criminal justice system in the State during the militancy period continues". The Amnesty believes that until the process is reversed and the procedures and attitudes which facilitated abuse during that period are changed, human rights violations will continue in Punjab.

In Kashmir, the story is no different. The NHRC, exasperated over the lack of information from the State Government, has given it six weeks to submit a report on missing persons. The number is not known but some put it at 8,000.

The Association of the Parents of Disappeared Persons has given a list of 364 names, which the NHRC has forwarded to the Union Home Ministry. The State Government has given information only on 93 cases. What about the rest?

The Mufti Mohammed Sayeed Government, which talks about the "healing touch" , promised to investigate all the reported cases of custodial killing and violation of human rights. It also promised to identify and punish those found responsible.

But the latest stand of the Chief Minister is that the members of the Special Operations Group, accused of human rights violations, would simply be "re-oriented", implying that wide-scale allegations of rights violation made against them in the past would not be investigated. He reportedly went on to say that an amnesty would be available to those who had perpetrated the abuses. This must be part of "healing touch."

Sushobha Barve of the Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation, Haryana, has done a tremendous job. She visited 15 villages and towns of rural Srinagar, Pulwama, Anantnag and Baramulla to meet Kashmiri pandits living in far-flung areas.

In her report, she says: "The brutality displayed in Nadimarg killings has shaken them. They are asking questions about their future and trying to decide what they should do next. They would like a collective decision taken about their future rather than each family deciding its own course of action for its future".

Today, there are 1,765 pandit families in the Valley. Of these, 200 to 300 families spend six months in the Valley and the other six months out of it. Not all of those who have stayed behind have lands from which they make a living. Many have government jobs and are either about to retire or have already retired. Some of them told Ms. Barve that there has not been a single fresh recruitment in Government jobs in the past 14 years from among the Kashmiri Pandits.

Ms. Barve's conclusion is poignant and prophetic: "Let us not forget this tiny minority hanging on to a slender thread in the complex conflict zone that is Kashmir today. As this minority's future hangs in the balance, it may well decide the larger political future of India".

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