SC clears way for dam oustees to get land in Narmada Valley

But landless will not get it

By Bharat Lal Seth
Published: Tuesday 09 August 2011

The Supreme Court has delivered an important judgement for people displaced by dams in the Narmada Valley. It has cleared way for displaced families to receive minimum two hectares (ha) of land under the Resettlement and Rehabilitation (R&R) Policy of Madhya Pradesh government. The oustees had already got a cash compensation in lieu of the land. But it rejected a plea seeking two ha of land for the landless.

The apex court ruled that a 1991 amendment to the state R&R policy is “inconsequential” as far as entitlement of agricultural land to oustees was concerned. The amendment allowed an oustee to claim cash compensation instead of land. This option, as per the amendment, once exercised would be final, and no claim for allotment of land could be made afterwards.

But Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) activists say the oustees were made landless, denied their rights by the state and forcibly paid cash compensation. The judgement was delivered on July 26 on an appeal against a Madhya Pradesh High Court order in December 2010 on the rights of those affected by the Upper Beda dam.

The 40-metre high dam, built across the river Beda, a tributary of the Narmada, was conceived in 1972 to provide water to irrigate 9,900 ha of cultivable land, thereby benefitting more than 7,000 families in Khargone district of Madhya Pradesh. The dam would cause submergence of 1,258.9 ha of land, of which more than 80 per cent is private land, displacing nearly 1,500 families.

In 2002, the project was given environmental and forest clearance. The cabinet of ministers in the Madhya Pradesh government, in the same year approved a rehabilitation grant to be paid to oustees, providing cash rather than land in lieu of land acquired. Activists of the NBA approached the High Court in 2009 claiming various reliefs to stop further construction which may cause submergence. They sought resettlement and rehabilitation within six months before the submergence. They also sought to provide irrigated agricultural land to eligible oustees including encroachers and landless labourers.

In December 2010, the Madhya Pradesh High Court  directed the state government ensuring that the oustees be given benefits to which they are entitled under the state's R&R policy. The state authorities opposed the 2009 petition contending that landless labourers were not entitled to allotment of agricultural land and that the petition was filed at a belated stage. The construction of the dam began in 2004 and the special rehabilitation grant had already been given to the ousteess by December 2002, argued P S Patwalia, counsel for the state of Madhya Pradesh.

NBA argued that the amendment of the R&R policy was unconstitutional. Hence the appeal was accepted by the apex court. “This judgment will strengthen the case, of not just those displaced by the Upper Beda dam reservoir, but of 55,000 families in the Naramada Valley whose land entitlement has been obstructed by the amendment,” says Chittaroopa Palit, activist with NBA.

The judgement, however, rejected the contention that landless labourers, displaced by reservoir of the Upper Beda dam be entitled to two ha of agricultural land. According to the judgement: “the policy makes it clear that there was no provision for allotment of agricultural land to the landless labourers”. According to Palit, the project was placed before the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, which granted clearance on May 1997, providing for allotment of minimum two ha for landless labourers. The state authorities argue that grant of land to landless labourers was denied and the state has no such policy; it finds no mention in the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal nor in the National R&R policy of 2007.

The Supreme Court judgement states that the NBA activists “mistakenly relied on the clearance letter by the welfare ministry to say that granting land to landless labourers was in and by itself a precondition for granting clearance to the project”. As per the state policy, a landless oustee family is entitled to a special income support in the second, third and fourth year of displacement. The judgement goes on to say that the ministry of welfare's clearance was not statutory, such as the clearance granted by the environment and forests ministry, and that there is nothing in that clearance as to what would be the consequence for non-compliance with those conditions.

The court did not accept the submission that landless labourers are entitled for allotment of agricultural land to the extent of two ha. “Neither it had ever been contemplated nor it is compatible with the R&R policy,” ruled the court. The NBA activists say they will file a review petition within a month.

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