In his article, “Why many tribals don’t mind being ousted by dams”, in The Times of India on September 10, Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar examined the condition of some of the people displaced by the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada. He followed up two days later with a blog post titled “Most of the ousted tribals are flourishing and loving it.”

What does one make of these claims by the leading economic journalist?

The first article is a classic case of misinterpreting data, hiding the more important issues, and drawing conclusions not supported by research findings. Indeed, Aiyar’s own figures show that the Adivasis do mind being ousted. As for the second post, can the ousted people who are “loving it” expect a large helping of fries on the side? Does it taste great what Aiyer is writing but is really junk?

Selective reading

Aiyar’s articles are based on surveys that he and a colleague did among some of the Adivasis ousted by the Sardar Sarovar dam, comparing their situation with the people left behind in the hilly areas near the river and others in the hilly areas but near a mining project. Aiyar claims their “surveys showed, unambiguously, the resettled villagers were better off than their former neighbours in semi-evacuated villages”. Comparing the resettled villagers with their former neighbours who have stayed behind, access to drinking water was 45% against 33%, to Primary Health Centres 37% against 12%, to hospitals 14% against 3%.

Given that the oustees were resettled 25-30 years ago and that the Sardar Sarovar project has poured in hundreds of crores of rupees for resettlement, these figures don’t speak of the oustees being better off. In fact, they point to their pathetic condition. After 30 years and a huge amount of money being spent, 55% of the resettled people have no access to drinking water, 63% to Primary Health Centres and 86% to hospitals. This when the oustees live close to cities while their former neighbours remain in remote hilly areas. True the oustees owned more cycles and motorcycles, but that may be simply because they are less useful in hilly areas. In any case, cycles and motorcycles are less crucial than drinking water and access to healthcare services.

Aiyar claims that the “resettled villagers said they adjusted to new conditions…within two years”. As former activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan who have lived with the oustees for years, we find this unbelievable. Still, when Aiyar asked whether they would “prefer returning to their old villages, with the same land they had earlier? Around 54% said yes, 30% said no.” This response, after 30 years of resettlement, speaks volumes. Aiyar justifies this by saying that “for a majority, nostalgia for ancestral land and access to forests mattered more than greater material possessions”. But it’s not just nostalgia.

People displaced by the Sardar Sarovar project take out a protest rally. Photo credit: Nandini Oza

The forests, the river also provided the Adivasis with substantial economic and livelihood resources, including fodder, fruit and fish. In their new settlements, the majority of the oustees have to cope with bad quality land, lack of basic amenities and hostility from the original residents. Many promises made to them remain unfulfilled. (Were they jumlas to get them to move?) That is why the villages they were uprooted from still appear a better proposition to them.

This is substantiated by Aiyar himself. “If given the oustee compensation package, they would like to be ousted. In semi-evacuated villages, 31% wanted to move, 53% wanted to stay, in interior villages, 52% wanted to move, 35% wanted to stay”. Clearly the majority of the former neighbours of the oustees are not sold on the rehabilitation package, but Aiyar uses the response of the “interior villages” to make the astounding conclusion that the majority of all the Adivasis want to leave the forests. Only, the “interior villages” are close to mines of the Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation. The mining has affected them badly, polluting their water and harming their health, even as it has helped improve infrastructure such as roads.

Overall, Aiyar employs his data to draw sweeping but unwarranted generalisations: “it’s entirely possible to implement resettlement packages making tribals materially better off. It also explodes the claim of some activists that modernisation is disastrous for tribals, who cannot cope with the change.”

Aiyar’s concluding line is the most revealing: “Many tribals want to leave the forest for a better life.” Saying this, he does not explain why the Adivasis must leave their villages for a better life. Why can’t they get access to roads, drinking water, healthcare facilities in their own lands? By ignoring this fundamental issue and making generalisations, Aiyar betrays a haste to give a clean chit to the rehabilitation project, the reality of which is far more dismal.

But why?

Could it be because the Sardar Sarovar dam is a pet project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is expected to dedicate it to the nation on September 17.

The Adivasis use motorboats to navigate partially submerged villages. Photo credit: Nandini Oza

Forced development?

In his blog post, Aiyar tries to discredit activists who have fought for the Adivasis affected by the dam, and argues that displacement has led to modernisation of the Adivasis, that they are flourishing, and, of course, “loving it”.

To do this, he firstly sets up a strawman: “Some activists say economic development and modernisation are disastrous for tribals.” This statement is of course easy to attack. But activists, least of all activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, which has worked with the Sardar Sarovar oustees for years, have never taken such a position. We have argued that modernisation, development, and social and economic change is important for the Adivasis, but it should be their choice, be gradual, be on their terms as much as possible, and happen in a way they can handle. Yet, displacement for the dam was involuntary, it wasn’t done on the Adivasis’ terms, it wasn’t gradual and wasn’t carried out in a manner they could handle. Much of our struggle, in fact, was about the Adivasis getting a say in what happens to them. Aiyar is not concerned with this detail.

As for the “modernisation” that displacement has brought about, Aiyar writes, “Cellphone ownership, the epitome of modernisation, was 88% for oustees versus 59% in the semi-evacuated forest villages.”

That cell phone ownership is the epitome of modernity is, at best, a questionable proposition. That the Adivasis have taken to this new technology simply shows that they are open to and quite capable of learning new things, like other human beings.

Aiyar also implies that such “modernisation” is possible only when the Adivasis leave their forests, which the Sardar Sarovar project has made possible.

Both assertions are flawed. The Adivasis have adopted modern technology even in their ancestral villages. With the help of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, two Adivasi villages in the submergence zone of the dam had set up micro-hydel power projects. Also, once partial submergence made travel virtually impossible without motorised boats, the Adivasis quickly bought and started operating used boats from Gujarat’s Alang shipyard.

A micro-hydel project being built in an Adivasi village. Photo courtesy: Narmada Bachao Andolan

Aiyar also talks about how, generally in India, some Adivasis have become affluent and foreign-educated, and how their kin left behind in forests “can catch up, given empowerment and access to modern facilities”. There is no disputing this. But what “catching up” means should be defined by the Adivasis themselves, not by others for them. And certainly, it should not require them to be forcibly uprooted from their lands, cultures and communities. Aiyar himself notes: “Tribals in hill states earn well above the national average. Education and infrastructure have enabled hill tribals…to leapfrog into modernity with minimal trauma.” But he conveniently ignores that all this hasn’t required displacement by a mega project. Maybe displacement is not a necessary condition for modernisation and development?

Let’s then make this the aim: that the Adivasis themselves decide what “modernity” and “development” mean for them, that it be done with their involvement and control where they are located, that any migration be voluntary and with minimal trauma. That the Sardar Sarovar project ticks none of these points is clear. And that the Adivasis reject this as “development” is obvious from the fact that most of them still want to return to their ancestral lands, even after so many years.

They are certainly not lovin’ it.

Shripad Dharmadhikary and Nandini Oza were full-time activists with the Narmada Bachao Andolan for 12 years.

A version of this article first appeared in two parts on Manthan blog.