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How do we rehabilitate development project oustees?
As we begin, we must remind ourselves that of the 25 million persons displaced on account of development projects, less than 50 per cent have been rehabilitated. The rest have been 'pauperised' by the development process, and 40 per cent of all such persons are tribals. Speaking of the profound implications of displacement due to the present-day development process, the Supreme Court in its majority judgment in the Narmada case (Narmada Bachao Andolan v Union of India; October 18, 2000) said, "Displacement of these persons would disconnect them from their past, culture, customs and traditions."
It was with this criterion in mind, in fact, that the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (nwdt) had laid down a 'ruling principle' that should govern resettlement in the Sardar Sarovar Project (ssp). The nwdt had said that resettlement should be "in a group, in accordance with the oustees' preference". This, however, held no water with the Supreme Court, which had laid down that a 'group' need not be homogenous, or a community having an identity. The court was of the opinion that it is more important to ensure that the displaced persons improved or regained their standard of living. And what better way to ensure this than rehabilitate them in the command area -- so went the reasoning of the apex court. However, the court overlooks an important aspect here. The fact is, and those who went through the horrors of Partition in 1947 will definitely vouch for this, displacement 'disconnects'. Dispensaries, schools, approach roads and ration cards -- all important facilities, and possibly an improvement on the original conditions the displaced persons were living in -- are in no way a substitute for resettlement as a 'group'.
The nwdt had dealt at length with another important criterion. The displaced had to be "better off" than they were before displacement, and they had to be provided "land for land", the tribunal said. However, 'land for land' is not the definitive solution to the ills of displacement. If anything, it is a cynical stratagem used by the authorities to make people leave their earth and home. The authorities knew only too well that the volume of acreage required to replace the vast areas acquired would not be available. Then came the 'cash for land' option. With cash fast evaporating through mind-boggling fiscal deficits, and via non-performing assets, we might as well work on a 'sky for land' option. In any case, who determines the adequacy of cash, and what guarantee do we have that delay and corruption will not eat into most of it?
Thus 'land for land' or 'cash for land' are mirages for the poor, if not outright fraud. What the poor need is 'livelihood for livelihood'. The poor live, and want to live, by the sweat of their brow. It is important that before a population is displaced, there is serious study into sources and levels of livelihood, how it can be replaced, and in what time. These alternative livelihoods must then be put before the people who are to be uprooted. Consent obtained from the affected persons ought to be informed, and obtained prior to displacement.
To ensure that the tribunal's criteria are met with, and especially ensure that the displaced are 'better off', one can visualise at least three vital preliminary steps essential to ensure that their livelihood, cultural life, and particularly their resource base, is protected:
• Survey and set goals on what is 'better off', aimed at protecting their social, cultural and traditional wisdom, while also ensuring healthcare, education and livelihood.
• Ensure that the displaced are resettled as a 'group' and resettled within the command area of the dam. This will ensure that they will share some of the benefits accruing from the project.
• Present the plan in all its details to the affected persons, and gather their 'preference' before proceeding.
The Gujarat rehabilitation package in the ssp is often touted as the 'best ever'. But anything would be an improvement on the miserable deals in the past. What needs to be stressed is that rehabilitation is not a panacea. It is the height of disregard for human dignity to ask a person or community to disconnect and exchange all known ways of life for what is atrociously called 'compensation'. Any satisfactory rehabilitation endeavour, therefore, has to be necessarily transparent, consultative and compassionate.
L C Jain is former member, Planning Commission