Displacing a livelihood

How do we rehabilitate development project oustees?

By L C Jain
Published: Saturday 31 August 2002

(Credit: Illustration: Kumar)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

B G VERGHESESolutions unbound

Besides being largely impractical, the ‘land for land’ approach to the rehabilitation debate is patronising to say the least

Debate on the right rehabilitation policy for those displaced by dams has been on for years. Folklore has it that the only fair and proper compensation lies in rehabilitation on the land. How did this theory develop? Multipurpose river valley projects, like Bhakra, Hirakud and the Damodar Valley Corporation were the mainstay of the early five-year plans. In an era of development and political innocence, displaced persons were given cash compensation on the basis of the most recent land sale nearby.

The money was paid and, more often than not, simple villagers, especially tribals, unaccustomed to big money, would be inveigled into running through it on liquor and high living within a few years without any semblance of rehabilitation. Invariably, by the time these projects were commissioned, the ‘oustees’ would have become paupers. Wiser for the experience, compensation payments were sometimes paid out in fixed term bonds or placed in trust with community elders and administrative guardians to ensure that it was carefully used for the purchase of income-generating assets and for education and training. The preferred alternative, however, came to be compensation in kind, namely, land for land and even ‘soil for soil’ to ensure continuity in their way of life. Refinements were added. Resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) were ordained in village clusters so that social and cultural networks were least disturbed.

imageMajor sons, dependent daughters, coparceners, indirectly affected encroachers, landless labourers, fisherfolk, boatpersons and others should also be entitled to ‘land for land’ apart from homestead plots. This became the Narmada package, with the blessing of the World Bank. The objective was that displaced persons should enjoy a better quality of life, if possible, but should at least not be any worse off than before. The 1985 Forest Conservation Act intervened and barred the diversion of degraded forestland (as in the vicinity of Sardar Sarovar) for R&R. The only question left unanswered was where all this land was to be found. The Sardar Sarovar minimum land grant is two hectares per displaced person so defined (sometimes adding up to four, six, eight, ten or more hectares per extended displaced unit, in lieu of the two hectares lost) versus the median farm holding of one hectare in Gujarat. In populous regions, finding land for land on this exceedingly generous pattern is clearly a false promise. Much of the argument is fallacious.

Land-human ratios are steadily declining, and push and pull factors are leading to increasing rural-urban migration. Villagers are moving off the land in favour of off-farm urban employment. Tribal villagers constitute a substantial cohort of distress migrants from the Narmada Valley, not because of dams but because of lack of opportunity in a degrading environment. Why oppose cash compensation to Farmer A, if this is what s/he wants, in order to ensure ‘land for land’ by purchasing a field from distant Farmer B in the command area, who then gets the cash. It can be argued that Farmer B is likely to be more mature than the less worldly wise ‘oustee’ from the ‘interior’.

But why assume that a hill person or a tribal person is incapable of determining his/her own best interest with appropriate counselling, and therefore be denied freedom of choice? ‘Land’ is today a synonym for employment or job-security. While this may well be close to the truth, it is not necessarily the only means of R&R. An a la carte approach would clearly be more viable and socially rewarding. Another great opportunity lies in using dams in remote hill areas as a trigger for area development and poverty alleviation. Most upper catchments are backward and neglected because they are inaccessible. An access road and infrastructure (townships, electricity, water supply, communications) being prerequisites for building dams, their very construction (well before any displacement caused by submergence) opens up these sequestered areas and provides market access.

This in itself could facilitate socio-economic development, better land use and cropping patterns, watershed management, employment generation and ecotourism. Suitably packaged, these can and must increasingly become the basis of in-situ R&R. This is the real answer to future dam-related R&R. Land for land may be offered as and when conditions permit such rehabilitation. Others may prefer urban or suburban resettlement or even cash compensation to finance plans of their own. Clearly, opposing such alternatives is puerile.

B G Verghese is a columnist, and visiting professor at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi


N C SAXENALaw is the answer

Livelihood and the right to continue a way of life is as much a part of rehabilitation and resettlement as land or cash compensation

That compulsory acquisition of land by government towards development projects displaces people is the harsh reality we are faced with. However, growing discontent and militant protests among project-affected persons has caused the present government to take a definite steps towards preparing a resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) policy for displaced persons in consultation with civil society. The draft policy thus drafted (Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation Policy: Issues and Perspectives, National Centre for Advocacy Studies, Pune, 1999) is aimed at ensuring that displaced persons share in the benefits of the development project. A few guiding principles that follow from these aims:

  • In all irrigation projects, displaced families primarily dependent on agriculture ought to have primary claim to land in the command area. Allotment of agricultural land ought to be mandatory for tribals in all projects, and for all those dependent on agriculture in the case of irrigation projects.


  • In the case of non-irrigation projects, the new settlement must be as close to the factory site and new township as possible, so as to ensure maximum access to newly-created economic opportunities. In the time lag between the decision to acquire a land and displacement of persons, the government ought to ensure that vocational training and education programmes are initiated. This ensures that the project will not require a huge inflow of employees from outside.


  • If employment, for unskilled or semi-skilled work, is available, it should always go to the displaced person. Those with appropriate skills and qualifications should be considered preferentially for skilled positions as well. State governments should undertake various employment generation schemes, both in the wage-employment and the selfemployment sectors.


  • All families that have not been provided agricultural land or a regular job in the project shall be entitled to a rehabilitation grant equivalent to 750 days of minimum agricultural wages (approximately Rs 45,000). This is in addition to compensation that the family is entitled to under the land acquisition law.


  • Tribals should be resettled close to their natural habitats ensuring continuation of their traditional rights on minor forest produce and common property resources. In case the new site does not allow this, they ought to be compensated for the loss of such rights. Such compensation should be equal to 450 days of minimum agricultural wages (Rs 27,000 approximately). It is also essential that these communities, when displaced, are resettled in a compact block so that they can retain their ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural identity.


  • All benefits to persons or families who are further displaced within a period of 20 years should be doubled. These guidelines, would, however fall flat without sufficient backing from the Land Acquisition Act, which is essentially a colonial legislation aimed at protecting the interests of the state and the powerful. Therefore, there are moves towards amendment of this act as well.

    imageThe first step that the ministry of rural development proposes in this direction is that no land will be acquired under the act unless it is accompanied by rehabilitation of affected persons. ‘Rehabilitation’, in this context, will be achieved when the income of the affected person is brought above poverty line, and above their previous income. A minimum of 10 per cent of the cost of the project should be spent on R&R, not including compensation. The proposed Land Acquisition Bill should provide not only for loss of land, but also loss of livelihood. Therefore, landless labourers, artisans and encroachers on government land should all be provided a compensation of at least two years of minimum wages.

    Additionally, all oustees ought to be made shareholders in the project or commercial venture. The need for land acquisition itself, in fact, could be obviated if projects take land on lease from farmers, by paying an annual lease that is twice the gross annual produce. Clearly, these changes in policy and law will be effective only if accompanied by a change in the mindset of the implementing authorities. Therefore, participation, cooperation and involvement of non-governmental organisations, social activists and the project-affected persons ought to be ensured.

    The suggested amendments in the law and the draft policy described above have been languishing in the ministry for the past three years. There has been no consultation with civil society either since February 1999. Have the decisions taken in January 1999 been reversed? If so, why has there been no consultation with civil society? Only the new minister for rural development and the government of India can answer these questions.

    N C Saxena, retired recently as secretary, Planning Commission, was the author of the R&R policy described in this paper

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