Resettlement of Narmada oustees: Example of unfulfilled promise by state machinery which should protect marginalised tribals

Narmada dam oustees of Madhya Pradesh

The high level Government of India committee, set up under the chairmanship of Prof Virginius Xaxa in 2013 – which submitted its report to the Government of India on socio-economic, health and educational status of tribal communities in May 2014 – says it would be wrong to say that those displaced due to projects like Narmada have gained economically. Before displacement, displaced persons were poor, but it is due to deprival of their livelihood that they experience deterioration of their economic status. “This dispossession is accompanied with environmental degradation, which is a basic additional factor causing impoverishment”, it adds. Excerpts:

The traditional livelihood systems of tribal people based on shifting cultivation and collection of non-timber forest produce was rendered sustainable, by a level and pattern of utilization of land and forest resources, which ensured their self-generating capacity. Later, they took to settled agriculture and their livelihood system provided for a nutritionally balanced food consumption basket that was rooted in both subsistence and conservation ethics. The traditional livelihood system was based on customary rights of tribal communities over land and forests, which was also an ‘extensive’ system of production. The ‘common pool’ of resources supported customary rights and prevented the intensification of production, in the interest of conserving and sustaining the long-term productivity of livelihood resources.

The customary rights of tribal people over livelihood resources and their territorial sovereignty (in so far as land was territory, not property) came in to conflict with the forces of ‘modernisation’ and the development process in which they were not participants. In keeping with the politico-economic policies of the country, large projects, which came up in tribal areas rich in hydro and mineral resources, encroached on tribal people’s ancestral lands and thereby displaced them.

In order to take measures against the socio-economic deterioration of displaced tribal people, it is important to understand the extent of displacement-induced impoverishment. Displacement is marginalisation, not merely economic deprival. Therefore, in defining impoverishment, it is necessary to go beyond the economic factor and it is incorrect to calculate losses and gains on the basis of monetary income alone or to conclude that the status of the displaced persons (DPs) improves after displacement, because their monetary income rises. In making an assessment, it would not be right to ignore the fact that before displacement, most DPs/PAPs (project affected persons) belonged to the non-monetised informal economy and often depended on the common property resources (CPRs) or services to the village as a community.

Before displacement, the DPs/PAPs were poor, but it is due to deprival of their livelihood that they experience deterioration of their economic status. This dispossession is accompanied with environmental degradation, which is a basic additional factor causing impoverishment. The decision to alienate their resources is without their consent; they are not compensated and rehabilitated, resulting in their subordination. This marginalization leads to low self-esteem. The sustainable tribal culture that had ensured renewal and equal distribution of resources is weakened, leading to shortage of resources. The tragedy is that for sheer survival, the tribal DPs/PAPs are forced to ‘make a transition from constructive to destructive dependence on the same resources’. This causes great psychological stress.
Researchers have identified certain characteristics of tribal society that aggravate the impact of involuntary displacement, they are:

 Land for tribes is a source of livelihood and source of identity, ethnicity and cultural distinction. Thus, the loss of land plays havoc with the lives of the displaced tribal communities. Under R&R programmes, land is not replaced and there is no reconstitution of livelihoods. Loss of their cultural space and identity leads to cultural impoverishment, which is not addressed.

 Dependence on forests for food in the form of shifting cultivation, fruits and flowers, small game, tubers; for medicines, fodder, material for house building; raw material for traditional art and crafts; income by selling firewood, leaf-plates, fruits etc.191 This loss, due to displacement is not compensated and affects food security.

 Lack of proper legal recognition of tribes over the forest land and hill tracts compounds the problem, when it comes to the question of compensation.

 Lack of social relations outside the closely-knit kin-centered society. Displacement leads to disruption in family life and to loss of social network.

 The land rights structure in tribal societies is altogether different from what it is in other societies. Tribal communities do not confer any individual rights in a legal sense. The community rights they confer are the utilitarian rights on nature but not the proprietary rights which attract the provisions of  compensatory measures. Many a time, displaced tribal people were deprived of compensation and rehabilitation benefits as per the Land Acquisition Act (LLA), 1894 because they did not possess any legal documents to prove their ownership right on the land they occupy and earn their livelihood from.

Case of Narmada oustees

A case study of displacement caused by the Sardar Sarovar dam in Madhya Pradesh focused on problems faced by the Project Affected Families of the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) in Madhya Pradesh, after the dam height was raised to 119 metres by June 2006. Out of a total of 245 villages in the Submergence Zone, 193 villages are in Madhya Pradesh, 33 in Maharashtra and 19 in Gujarat.203 The study emphasises that India is a signatory to ILO Conventions 107 and 169 on the rights of indigenous and tribal peoples. Article 16 of ILO 169 states: “Where the relocation of these peoples is considered necessary as an exceptional measure, such relocation shall take place only with their free and informed consent.”

Where a return to the traditional lands is not possible in the future, Governments must provide “lands of quality and legal status at least equal to that of the lands previously occupied by them.” However, the finding of the field study was that Gram Sabhas had not been formally consulted before notifications under the LAA, 1894, were issued; few attempts were made to inform the largely illiterate tribal populations about their rights as stated in the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) Award; and the option of ‘land for land’ within Madhya Pradesh was never formally communicated to the Gram Sabhas.

The survey based on 20 rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) sites indicated that only 344 families were actually living in the R&R sites prepared for them. The survey found almost all the sites to be “very poor”. The Government apparently bought 1636.9 hectares (4141.4 acres) of mainly black cotton soil for 86 R&R sites, most of which are totally unsuitable for building houses. The study recommended that all the adult sons, unmarried adult daughters, widows, divorcees and abandoned wives be treated as separate PAPs.

The study found that most Gram Sabhas in the 171 villages had held meetings and written letters to the Madhya Pradesh Government, but received no response. Only when writ petitions were filed in the Supreme Court for villages like Picchodi and Jalsindhi, were judgments made in their favour.

Another study of R&R in Gujarat of the Narmada Project reveals that the reason for defective R&R programme and policies was because implementation of R&R depends on a bureaucracy who has prejudices and biases against tribal people and lack of understanding of their society.

The findings were that there was no consultation with displaced and project affected people, lack of  communication, cultural differences were disregarded, faulty land–compensation procedures that did not take into consideration rights of tribal DPs/PAPs and added to this fraud and corruption. The study also found cases of coercion and human rights violations, where people were forced to leave and stay at resettlement locations. False promises were made but once the tribal people shifted, Government officials avoided them and there was absence of a system to address grievances and complaints.


The above case studies are examples of R&R which failed to provide alternative land and sustainable livelihood, leading to pauperisation of tribal DPs/PAPs. Further, these are examples of tardy implementation, of unfulfilled promises and violation of laws and rules by the very machinery expected to protect the interest of marginalised displaced such as tribals. The studies also highlight the lack of managerial capacity in the State to implement R&R and incapability to plan imaginative rehabilitation plans. It reflects the lack of commitment on the part of R&R machinery, which did not recognise the fact that rehabilitation is a continuous process and after taking possession of acquired land, they left the tribal DPs/PAPs to fend for themselves.

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