Sitting on the bank of Madhya Pradesh’s Bargi reservoir one cloudy evening in July, 47-year-old Punaram Yadav had some words of advice for the residents of the 192 villages, approximately 700 km away, which face submergence as the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river is raised. “Do not trust the promises of the authorities,” said Yadav.

In 1990, Yadav’s village of Kathotiya was one of 162 villages in Jabalpur, Mandla and Seoni districts of Madhya Pradesh that were submerged by the Bargi Dam, also on the Narmada. About 114,000 people were displaced. According to records, the government informed only 70,000 people from 101 villages that they would be displaced. However, when the reservoir filled up, even sites identified to relocate displaced families were submerged.

The residents of Kathotiya took refuge on a nearby hill and constructed houses on forest land. Twenty-seven years later, the new village, also named Kathotiya, still does not have a road of its own. “The nearest road on the other side [of the reservoir] is eight kilometers away,” said Yadav. “We have to walk through the slopes and the forests to catch a vehicle.”

Yadav and a few more residents of the village had come to the weekly market centre at Bargi Nagar, near the dam, by rowing a boat across the reservoir. The water levels were high because of the good early monsoon. Yadav and two women, already in the boat, were waiting for their fellow villagers to finish shopping so that they could return home. The women were getting restless. The journey to their village takes two hours, and it is not safe to row the boat late in the evening during the monsoon. “There have been accidents in the past,” said Yadav. “But this is the most convenient way to travel to and from our village.”

It is not just roads. Kathotiya village is also not supplied with electricity. Neither do the neighbouring villages of Milki and Badhaiya Khera, whose residents were also displaced by the dam. “Poles were erected in our village in the previous tenure of the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government,” said Yadav. “But there has been no supply even for testing the wires on the poles.”

In fact, Kathotiya, Milki and Badhaiya Khera, and eight more villages where those displaced by the dam settled, were included in the revenue records of the Madhya Pradesh government only in December, when Chouhan visited the dam as part of his much-advertised Narmada Yatra. This means, that for nearly three decades, these villages were not included in many government welfare schemes, such as agriculture subsidies or crop compensation, that are routed through the state revenue department.

A dilapidated boat near the Bargi Dam.( Photo credit: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava).

Forgotten villages

Completed in 1990, the Bargi Dam, also known as the Rani Avanti Bai Sagar Irrigation Project was the first major reservoir to be built on the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh. It was expected to irrigate 4.37 lakh hectares of land and produce 105 megawatt of hydropower. Unlike the Sardar Sarovar Dam, which is finally being raised to the maximum height after decades of legal battles, the construction of the Bargi Dam was quick.

Government records and testimonies of the residents of the relocated villages, however, show that the government not only ignored the rehabilitation of people at the time of their displacement, but also virtually forgot about them for 27 years.

“India did not have a policy of rehabilitation then,” said Rajesh Tiwari, a resident of Chaurai village, one of those affected by the dam, who has been working with the displaced families. “Shoddy compensation was paid to people after which they were left to fend themselves. The rehabilitation policies have evolved over the years but families displaced by the Bargi Dam are still living forsaken lives.”

Shoddy rehabilitation

A total of 26,797 hectares of land were submerged by the dam. Government files have contradictory records of whether authorities considered resettling and rehabilitating the people who had been displaced by the dam.

A 1987 report by Jabalpur commissioner KC Dubey on the displacement caused by the project said, “the state had a clear-cut policy for the rehabilitation and resettlement of persons whose lands come under submergence in irrigation projects”. It said that the policy included the provision of a job for one person from each displaced family. It said a draft legislation to implement it was also prepared.

However, the Narmada Valley Development Authority, which executed the project, said in a 1994 report that,

“No specific resettlement and rehabilitation policy regarding the project affected people was existing when the [Bargi Dam] project was taken up for construction in 1971. There was, at that period of time, only provision for payment of compensation for land and property coming under submergence”.

In reality, what most displaced families got was a meagre compensation of Rs 500 to Rs 9,940 per acre, as fixed by the government. For many displaced families whose only source of income was land, the paltry compensation was of little help as they struggled to rebuild their lives after displacement.

Prosperity to poverty

The family of Narayan Gond, an Adivasi from Magardha village, about 50 km south of Jabalpur, was one of them.

Before the dam submerged their village, Gond’s family was well-off by local standards. His father owned 10 acres of land. “The soil in the Narmada valley was very rich,” said Gond, clad in a short white dhoti, a cream kurta and an orange gamchha. “We used to take three crops in a year. We had a four-room house and a separate shelter for cattle. Our four buffaloes and four cows gave 20 litres milk every day. I used to sell it in the nearby market.”

But their land was acquired as it fell in the area of the Bargi reservoir. The family got Rs 33,000 as compensation for their land and the house. “We went to buy new land in nearby areas with the compensation money but land prices in the region had suddenly shot up,” said Gond. “While we got Rs 2,500 per acre as compensation, land in the region was being sold at Rs 10,000 per acre.”

So, like many others from his village, Gond built a house for his family by clearing the forest in a nearby hilly area. The family’s cattle died after they got trapped in the mud of the dam’s water. To make ends meet, Gond worked as a labourer in construction work related to the dam. “I worked really hard,” he said. “I used to lift huge boulders on my head. It was a question of survival.”

Narayan Gond lived a life of encroacher on forestland after his family lost 10 acres of land to the Bargi Dam. (Photo credit: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava).

In the first few years of their displacement, the family spent most of the compensation money they had received to support themselves. “After the dam construction work was completed, my father was left with Rs 10,000 from the compensation money,” said Gond. “He gave Rs 5,000 each to me and my brother. I bought a boat for Rs 2,500 and a fishing net for Rs 2,500. I survived on fishing for three years till the boat and the net were in good shape. Then I did not have money to repair the boat or buy a new net.”

Gond sent his two sons to work as daily-wage labourers in Jabalpur. He and his wife survived by cultivating small patches of forestland for which they faced the wrath of the forest department. “Forest officials would call us encroachers and demolish our houses every now and then,” recalled Gond. “I had to build five houses in the past 25 years.”

Gond got some relief in 2015 when he got a title over 4.5 acres of forestland under the Forest Rights Act, which recognises the traditional rights of tribals over forestland they traditionally used. However, the provisions of this Act are not applicable to non-tribal families.

Gond regrets that the displacement not only upturned his family’s fortunes, it also ruined the lives of the younger generation. His younger son is illiterate. “We had a primary school at our original village,” he said. “After the village got submerged, we did not have a school or a panchayat building for 10 years. The kids who grew at that time are illiterate now.”

Gond is not alone. Before their village of Magaradha was submerged, 80-year-old Rukmani Devi Patel’s late husband was elected sarpanch unopposed for 20 years, and her family possessed 50 acres of land. Now, her son fishes for a living.

Patel’s family was given Rs 1,30,000 as compensation for their land and house. “We used to have at least six permanent workers to take care of our farms,” she recalled. “We bought a couple of acres of land from the compensation money but it was not fertile enough to sustain the family. Now we feel ashamed to tell our relatives that we survive on fishing.”

Rukmani Devi Patel's family lost 50 acres of land to the Bargi Dam. (Photo credit: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava).

Jamman Patel, one of the elderly men in Magaradha village, recalled how the lives of everyone in the village took a turn for the worse after they were displaced. “Magardha used to sustain people from the nearby four to five villages by providing them employment in its farms,” he said. “We were all self-sufficient. [But] for the past 35 years, the only way for our children to earn money is to migrate to nearby towns and work as labourers.”

In a report submitted to the state government in 1990, BK Minz, who was the Regional Additional Commissioner of Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in Jabalpur at that time, pointed out that the authorities had promised five acres of agricultural land to every family before their displacement. The report said:

“But forget the agriculture land, they were not even provided with the alternative livelihoods. This was sheer injustice with the tribals. They have been duped. For their survival, they have now been cultivating on forestland which has also been stopped by the forest department. This will lead to deaths from hunger.”

Bargi, the first major dam to be completed on the Narmada River in Madhya Pradesh displaced more than one lakh people from 162 villages. (Photo credit: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava).

Bureaucratic apathy

The callous attitude of authorities towards families displaced by the Bargi Dam led to several protests in the region in the 1990s. Fisherfolk in the area organised boat rallies, carried out mass fishing in defiance of the law, and stopped government auctions of fishing rights to contractors in order to assert the rights of the displaced families on fishing. Narmada Bachao Andolan leader Medha Patkar and bureaucrat-turned-tribal-rights-activist late BD Sharma led the protests. The youth in many villages boycotted the 1991 Lok Sabha elections.

Under pressure, the government allocated funds to rehabilitate the displaced families. However, the money was shoddily spent and brought only cosmetic changes on the ground.

Said a report by the erstwhile Planning Commission on the displacement caused by irrigation dams:

“In Bargi, five ‘model villages’ were established at considerable cost, but because no cultivable land was made available and there were no livelihood prospects in the vicinity, people migrated in droves, reducing the model villages almost to ghost towns. Starvation deaths were alleged in the ‘model’ village of Gorakhpur.”

Several other independent evaluations of the rehabilitation work showed that the government spent a chunk of the allocated funds on constructing buildings and creating infrastructure at places where there were no displaced families, including at the district headquarters.

A major outcome of the mass protests was that in 1994, the state government gave the federation of cooperative fishing societies – which comprised displaced families – exclusive rights over fishing in the Bargi Dam, as well as over the sale of fish. However, in 1998, the Madhya Pradesh Fisheries Federation, which auctions fishing rights in lakes or reservoirs to contractors for the state government, got a stay from the Madhya Pradesh High Court on the fishing rights of the displaced families’ cooperatives on the Bargi Dam.

It levelled charges of financial irregularities against the cooperatives’ federation. “It was a conspiracy by the bureaucracy that wanted contractors to take over fishing,” said Munna Bhai Burman, a fisherman whose family was displaced by the dam and who headed the federation. “They did not want the resources of the Bargi Dam to be decentralised in people’s hands.”

Munna Bhai Burman. (Photo credit: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava).

Callous government

Another scheme that the state government initiated but subsequently abandoned was to provide, on lease, displaced families with patches of land that came out of submergence in the dry season. Between 1997 and 2007, many families earned a livelihood by growing rabi crops on such land. However, the Bharatiya Janata Party government, after coming into power in 2001, cancelled the leases, arguing that the cultivation would cause siltation in the dam.

Rajkumar Sinha, president of the Bargi Bandh Visthapit Avam Prabhavit Sangh, an organisation of the Bargi Dam displaced families, recalled that the government formed rehabilitation committees at the state, division and district levels to evaluate the status of displaced families and suggest rehabilitation measures.

“We were also among the members of these committees,” he said. “We worked hard to conduct a survey in the region and recommend actions. But the committees just kept meeting for years and no actions were taken.”

He added: “All governments have shown a callous attitude towards the displaced families. While the previous Congress government kept making schemes only on paper, the current BJP government discontinued most of the schemes.”

Half-dug wells at the Zero Tanki village. (Photo credit: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava).

The government apathy is striking.

Bargi Nagar, where the dam is constructed, was declared an adarsh village (model village) by the state government in 1989. The plan was to develop it from the rehabilitation money. It also has a settlement of fisherfolk families that were displaced by the dam, called Zero Tanki, adjacent to the dam wall.

When visted Zero Tanki in July, its residents complained of the lack of basic amenities, including drinking water. Chief Minister Chouhan had visited the village in December during his Narmada Yatra. “That was the only day that the water was supplied into the pipeline in our village,” said Deepchand Burman, a resident of the village. “[Otherwise] every day our women walk 2 km to fetch water from Bargi Nagar.” Apart from the dry pipeline, the model village also has two half-dug wells and an incomplete aanganwadi building.

Back at the dam site, Yadav was emphatic. “Do not vacate the land till you are given same facilities outside,” he said. “You don’t want your families to suffer like us.”

Punaram Yadav about to board the boat back home. (Photo credit: Kumar Sambhav Shrivastava.)