Must a few always suffer for the greater good? And how to deal with displacement when it becomes inevitable?
Let us take a hard look at some numbers. Between 1951 and 1990, some 16.4 million people were displaced by dams and irrigation projects in India. Of these, only 4.1 million were resettled, and even that poorly. Fully 12.3 million people were thrown to the winds. Of the total 16.4 million displaced, 6.4 million were tribals, of whom only 1.6 million were given some kind of resettlement package. The rest, 4.8 million tribals (for comparison´s sake, 0.6 million more than Norway´s 1991 population of 4.2 million, or more than half of Sweden´s population), were rendered homeless and destitute.
Various solutions have been sought to address the problem of displacement caused by dams and reservoirs. Some call for smaller projects, which minimise the number of ´oustees´. Others propose reducing the dam height or relocating dam sites so that fewer people are displaced by the rising waters. These efforts at minimising displacement represent a kind of band-aid treatment.
After the alternatives have been tried, there still remains the population that will be dislocated. As far as these unfortunate people are concerned, the oft-heard defence of the technocrats and politicians pushing mega projects is, “A few must sacrifice for the greater good of the many.”
This need not be so. The few who would be affected by a project must be magnanimously recompensed through proper rehabilitation and resettlement because they are making possible the greater good of so many.
Rehab before anything
What is to be done in cases where displacement becomes inevitable, irrespective of the numbers involved? Addressing this matter is not to accept the inevitability of displacement or to accept the logic of the development process which displaces in such large numbers and so haphazardly. Rather, it is to seek solutions in cases where through public debate it has been decided that a dam (or another project) is necessary for some reason or the other, and the least displacing design has been chosen. What is the next logical step?
The very conceptualisation of projects that displace people has to be based on the fact that proper resettlement and total rehabilitation is a basic right of those affected. This right can not be compromised. Rehabilitation is not a concession that flows from the project authorities to the affected, nor is it a gesture of mercy or benevolence. If a project cannot adequately resettle and rehabilitate those who have necessarily to be displaced, it should not be undertaken at all.
Of course, piomises of resettlement or rehabilitation are easy to make. It is at the implementation stage that the South Asian record has been dismal. The solution, therefore, is to build dams, reservoirs or whatever only after the promised resettlement and rehabilitation is complete to the oustees´ satisfaction. Let no earth mover lift its claws before this requirement is satisfied.
Cash compensation, which is seen as the easy way out in the rehabilitation package, is not the answer, especially because the recipients by and large tend to come from nonmonetised communities. While cash may be made part of the package, it should never be the only element of a rehabilitation deal.
The responsibility for compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation, is to rest squarely on the project authorities and the concerned government department. Satisfactory already-executed resettlement and rehabilitation must be made a precondition for project approval and clearance.
The principle behind the recognition of the oustees´ right to proper and satisfactory resettlement and rehabilitation is that those paying the price for development, or those few sacrificing for the many, should have the first claims to the benefits of a project. This can be actualised at a general level by providing oustees with jobs generated by the project, or by setting aside a percentage of, say, electricity produced for small industries to be run by the oustees, or by helping set up cooperatives to supply provisions to the new townships formed under the project, and so on.
In the case of irrigation projects, however, the actualising can take more direct forms. For example, cultivable land should be provided to the displaced in the “command area´” of the project, that is, the area which would benefit the most from the irrigation waters.
The history of irrigation in India, where 75 percent of agriculture is dry farming, has been that canals of large projects invariably fill the pockets of a few, not the stomachs of the majority. Surely, those areas which expect the greatest economic boost from a canal network can afford to share a portion of their gains with those who have paid the sacrifice of displacement in some remote upland catchment area. The appropriate, and affordable way of recompense is to set aside space for the oustees in the command area. If they have sacrificed for the well-being of the majority, why does the majority grudge them this little payback?
The argument is compelling. Yet, by all available evidence, not a single multi-purpose hydel project anywhere in India has given land to its displaced in its command area. Even where the demand has been made, various pretexts and ruses have been used to keep the oustees away from prime beneficiary land. It is said, for examplev that the displaced would not be able to adapt to modern agriculture, or that tribals should not be torn from their “roots” that are in the upper catchment area.
Pay up, or shut up
Often, the difficult times arrive even before the beginning of displacement. In the catchment areas of most mega projects, all development works, such as building roads, schools and dispensaries, grind to a halt the moment a project is announced. Forests are hacked and sold almost immediately. All this despite the fact that the actual resettlement may only happen decades later.
The donor agencies, notably the World Bank, insist that the displaced population be given a package which is at least as good as their standard of living prior to displacement. By ridding the hillsides of forests and otherwise ensuring the pauperisation of the locals, the project actually reduces its rehabilitation burden. Presently, many non-governmental and community-based organisations all over India are lobbying for a two-hectare compensation package per each displaced family. The immediate reaction to this is: Where is there so much land?! The land is there of course, not in the hilly catchment regions but in the command areas.
If the government cannot acquire land for the oustees through effective land reform in the command area, or even under the Land Acquisition Act (Why not? it is used effectively enough to evict people during project construction.), it could purchase the land in the open market. The costs of such purchases can be internalised in the project and recovered through various taxes from the beneficiaries over time. If the government and the project promoters insist that there is no land to resettle the oustees, there is only one response: “In that case, cancel the project.”
There is one other important aspect of oustee compensation which tends to be ignored during rehabilitation exercises. This is the compensation for the common property resources (CPRs) that are lost when land is submerged. In every project, apart from the private land holdings and dwelling sites, large amounts of CPRs are destroyed forever, but there is never any talk of compensation for this lost wealth.
The CPRs are the capital of the communities which have nurtured and used them. Instead of compensating communities with cash, the CPRs can be converted into share capital in the project that is being built. This share capital will then become the displaced community´s permanent source of income, in a way replacing the physical community resource, he it a rivulet, a grove, or pasture land. This mechanism would also help in maintaining a kind of community spirit among the oustees who have been uprooted and relocated from their ancestral lands.
Seeing rehabilitation complete before a project begins, providing land to the oustees in command areas, and being mindful of community property rights – all this require tremendous political will. But then, if the government and project developers are convinced that large dam and reservoir projects are required to fulfil the mass public´s need for water and energy, then they should be able to generate the required political will. After all, the trouble and costs involved are entirely commensurate with the benefit being derived.
If the government does not want to cheat the poorest of the poor, surely it must develop a National Rehabilitation Policy, to be adopted as an Act of Parliament. This policy has to begin with the recognition that when displacement is unavoidable, the oustees have a fundamental right to be rehabilitated, the affected have to be the first beneficiaries of the project and all the costs of the total rehabilitation package should be internalised in a project. The time has come to recognise that the place of the victims of development is at the centre of the development process. No more cheating.