The issue of a viable resettlement, particularly for the Bhils, a Scheduled Tribe group displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Dam Project on the Narmada river, has been the focus of an acrimonious debate for nearly four decades.

Early in September, columnist Swaminathan SA Aiyar wrote two articles in The Times of India claiming that Adivasis displaced by the project, which spans Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, became “crorepatis” due to their generous resettlement packages. This outrageous claim is at complete variance with the situation on the ground.

Nevertheless, it affords the opportunity to take a fresh look at the long-running squabble on development-induced displacement as a political process. The mass struggle for a viable resettlement, first in terms of getting policies made and then to have it implemented, strengthens democracy at the margins of society.

The struggle also highlights how India’s flawed development process and imperfect democracy do not include the cost of restoring the lives and livelihoods of the displaced communities, often the society’s weakest, while planning projects.

Lives and livelihoods

I am drawing here on over two decades of study since 2001 focused on Maharashtra, where I lived in the resettlement and hill villages for over six years, besides time spent in rural Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

As per the laws of the state governments of Gujarat and Maharashtra, the agricultural land given as compensation for the people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar Project cannot be sold.

Until 2012 in Maharashtra, that land could not even be mortgaged for bank loans as per their title deed – Forms 7/12 or sat-bara as it is known in Marathi. This provision was included to prevent Advisasis of being dispossessed of the land under pressure from the dominant local groups in areas where the Bhils got resettled.

Aiyar fails to note this point. He claims that land prices in these areas have touched Rs 30 lakh per acre – but that is meaningless. Given that land is the primary asset that farmers possess, selling it would render them landless.

A protest in Maharashtra's Nandurbar. Credit: Nnnamaharashtra, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

If his point is that they are crorepatis by virtue of cultivating cotton, the traditional cash crop in western India, on plots that vary in size from two and a half to five acres, then Maharashtra (or even Gujarat) should have had a per-capita income exceeding that of Switzerland.

In Ground Down by Growth, a book of which I am a co-author, I note that access to formal education has improved in the hill villages over the last two decades due to functional government schools and the Jeevan Shalas in Maharashtra run by the Narmada Bachao Andolan – whose leader Medha Patkar has been roundly and unfairly criticised by Aiyer in his articles.

But I also found that in the plains’ resettlement villages, a resettled generation of Bhil youth with college degrees are stuck in agriculture due to negligible government hirings and the absence of white-collared jobs.

The cost of development

The principle of resettlement was explicitly contained in the Narmada Award of 1979 by the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal, formed to adjudicate on the division of water between Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. These riparian states had been squabbling about their share of water ever since the Sardar Sarovar Project’s launch in 1961.

It allowed Gujarat to construct a 138-meter dam while stipulating that all those whose farms would be submerged by the project would receive other plots as compensation. This provision was quite radical for a time when cash compensation on an ad hoc basis was the norm.

The Indian government, despite having displaced or disrupted the livelihood of over thirty million people in its first 50 years since independence till the year 2000 due to various development projects according to some studies, does not maintain any comprehensive record of displacement figures.

The various Scheduled Tribe groups comprise 8% of India’s population but 40% of those displaced. India did not even have a resettlement policy till 2013. Maharashtra was an exception with its resettlement act of 1976 offering land compensation but it did not apply to the inter-state Sardar Sarovar venture.

However, most of the Bhils in the three states, inhabiting the hill villages around the Narmada, did not have land titles. Their habitations were deemed to be encroachments on Forest Department land due to the iniquitous colonial forestry laws. The Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal too did not offer them anything.

The resettlement effort is largely a failure in Madhya Pradesh, which as per government records has the largest number of displaced people – over 23,000 families.

Shoddy resettlement efforts

For years, the state government made no effort at finding land for resettlement, offered cash compensation in breach of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award or encouraged the displaced people to accept land in Gujarat, a different state with a different language. Recent efforts to build resettlement colonies have resulted in uninhabitable complexes and huge corruption scandals.

The long and chequered history of resettlement of those displaced by the project began, as Aiyar correctly points out, through the pioneering efforts of ARCH Vahini, an NGO of middle-class youth with professional degrees who chose to live and work among the Bhils of Gujarat even before the Sardar Sarovar dam controversy arose.

Protesters during an agitation against the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam, in Bhopal in September 2000. Credit: Reuters.

In 1984, ARCH led a protest march of Bhils facing displacement. If the Bhils did not receive agricultural plots in compensation for being displaced, they would oppose the project, they said.

Patkar, who became active only later, in the Maharashtra portion of the project, was comparatively sedate with a request in 1986 for resettlement in forest department land in the nearby plains through the Narmada Dharangrast Samiti.

It was only in 1988, when her team of urban activists mobilised the Bhils and farmers in the prosperous Nimari plains of Madhya Pradesh as well under the new banner of the Narmada Bachao Andolan that the no-dam stand was taken. The failure of the Madhya Pradesh government partially vindicated the Andolan’s argument about resettlement being impossible.

Policy changes

The ARCH ensured major policy changes in Gujarat through a mix of dharna protests by the affected Bhils, court cases and tough negotiations with the government. Even more crucial was their direct involvement with the resettlement process by working with the Chimanbhai Patel-led Congress government. They ensured that the Bhils from all the three states got fertile agricultural plots and the resettlement colonies, initially uninhabitable, improved over time.

The organisation withdrew from the resettlement process both in Gujarat and Maharashtra in 1995 when the BJP replaced the Congress in power.

The World Bank, during its truncated involvement with the Sardar Sarovar Project till 1993, had pressed the state and central governments to work on resettlement. It pushed Gujarat to take resettlement seriously.

In July 1990, the central government released degraded forest department land in Maharashtra for resettlement, as the Narmada Dharangrast Samiti had demanded. Maharashtra saw several state legislations on resettlement and a dedicated official team to implement it due to direct intervention by Chief Minister Sharad Pawar.

The biggest gain for the displaced Bhils was they became united and politically vocal because of the initial mobilistion by the ARCH, the Narmada Bachao Andolan and other groups. From a life in the remote hills where government meant only terrifying visits from the forest department’s beat guard, they learned about the democratic state and ways to push for their rights as citizens.

In Maharashtra, Bhil youth leaders broke away from the Narmada Bachao Andolan to accept resettlement for 12 villages in 1991. They faced several problems such as two people being allotted the same plot and names being missed on the government resettlement roster.

In 1995, the youth leaders allied with local activists, Pratibha Shinde and Sanjay Mahajan to form the Punarwasan Sangharsh Samiti. Over two decades, the samiti mobilised the relocated Bhils through dharnas and worked with the government to ensure the implementation of the resettlement process.

Resettlement for most Bhils in Gujarat and Maharashtra has become a viable experience. While those who relocated as children prefer it to life in the hills, many who were above 30 when they relocated miss their submerged villages. From 2001, as the dam neared completion, the Narmada Bachao Andolan shifted from its anti-dam stand to working on resettlement.

While most of its old time-members have left except for Patkar, its strident anti-state tone persists even as it has worked with the government on resettlement and health challenges in Maharashtra.

Politics in India, as elsewhere, is about optics.

This is the second of a two-part series. Read the first part here.

Vikramaditya Thakur is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Delaware.