A travesty of justice

The new rehabilitation policy for project displaced persons is official jargon mongering

By Walter Fernandes
Published: Friday 30 April 2004

A travesty of justice

-- The Government of India has finally promulgated a rehabilitation policy for project displaced persons (dp). This policy has been in the making since 1985. That year it was found that tribals, who are around 8 per cent of the country's, population constituted 40 per cent of those displaced by development projects. A committee was appointed by the ministry of tribal affairs; it suggested in a draft that a legally binding policy be prepared for all the DPs and Project Affected People (pap) -- not merely tribals.

After the 1985 draft one had to wait till 1993 for the next draft on rehabilitation, prepared by the ministry of rural development. It was an improvement over the previous draft. It acknowledged that injustice had been done to millions displaced in the name of national development. But fifteen departments of the government of India got together to revise the draft and that took away most of its good points. So thousands of dps, social activists and researchers formed an alliance to reformulate the draft from their perspective. They presented the alternative to the secretary, rural development in October 1995. But there was silence again till a new draft got ready in 1998. This accepted 50 per cent of the alternative proposal. So the framers of this proposal decided to have a dialogue with the ministry once again.

Many principles evolved out of this interaction but the final product ignores all this. Even the ministries that prepared the earlier drafts had agreed that rehabilitation should ensure improvement in the lifestyles of the displaced and the project affected. The principle is actually based on Article 21 of the Constitution that protects every citizen's right to life. The Supreme Court has interpreted it to mean life with dignity. But the benefits suggested in the new policy can at best keep project victims poor and at worst push them below the poverty line.

The policy applies to projects that displace 500 or more families in the plains and 250 in the hills. The drafts had made no such distinction. In fact, a large number of projects displace fewer families because the recent trend -- even in large projects -- is to acquire land that is the source of people's livelihood while leaving their houses untouched. For example, according to official count the Lower Subansiri dam in Arunachal Pradesh will displace only 38 families. The new policy will be meaningless for those affected by the dam. Many projects -- such as the Kashipur mining project in Orissa -- take over only common land that is the livelihood of many thousands. Such people will not get the benefits of the new policy. Besides, one can expect the state to get round the policy by acquiring land in bits even for large projects. For example, one has seen the states splitting land acquisition in small bits for the massive Golden Quadrangle or for huge mines to be owned by private companies. Each acquisition that displaces fewer than 500 families can then be called a project.

The 1998 draft had said that land for land was mandatory for tribal families and that the others would get it "as far as possible." The final policy ignores the provision for tribals and says that those who lose their land will get some land, "If it is available with the government." So the state has found a bigger escape route. One can be certain that some bureaucrat will use this clause to sabotage this scheme .

Without saying it in so many words, the 1998 draft had accepted the right of the displaced persons to resettlement. Besides every dp and pap was entitled to rehabilitation -- a much longer process than one time resettlement. It had stated that the affected people should be involved in the identification of the assets to be lost and in planning rehabilitation. It had also stated the need to minimise displacement.

But the new rehabilitation policy has ignored all this. There is hardly anything left to review in it other than the process of pushing thousands of families below the poverty line.

Walter Fernandes is director, North Eastern Social Research Centre, Guwahati

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