Tribals don’t mind being ousted? An unsupported clean chit to Sardar Sarovar rehabilitation

A rally by the oustees of Sardar Sarovar. Photo: Nandini Oza

By Shripad Dharmadhikary and Nandini Oza*

Swaminathan S Anklesaria Aiyar’s piece in the Times of India dated September 10, 2017, “Why many tribals don’t mind being ousted by dams”, examining the condition of some of the oustees of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada dam is a classic case of misinterpretation of data, hiding the more important issues, and conclusions not supported by research findings. Indeed, a proper reading of the article itself shows that unlike Aiyar’s assertion, his own figures show that tribals do mind being ousted. Some important points are given below.

Referring to the survey conducted by Prof Neeraj Kaushal of Columbia University and him, undertaken as a research project supported by the International Growth Centre, Aiyar claims that their “surveys showed, unambiguously, the resettled villagers were better off than their former neighbours in semi-evacuated villages.” In support, among the figures given from their survey, they point out that comparing the resettled with their former neighbours, who remain in the original areas, the access to drinking water was 45% against 33%, to PHCs was 37% versus 12% and to hospitals 14% versus 3%.

Given that the oustees were resettled between 25-30 years ago, and that the Sardar Sardar project has poured in hundreds of crores of rupees for resettlement, these figures don’t speak of oustees being better off, but indeed, point to the pathetic case of the oustees. After 30 years and massive money being spent, 55% of the rehabilitated people had no access to drinking water, 63% no access to a PHC and 86% no access to hospital.

And this is when the oustees have been settled in areas closer to the cities and the former neighbours continue to remain in remote hilly areas. True, cycle and motorcycle ownership was more favourably distributed towards the oustees, but that may be simply because in the hilly areas, these are less useful. In any case, they are less crucial than drinking water, access to health services etc.

While Aiyar claims that “resettled villagers said they adjusted to new conditions… within two years” (something which we, as former activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan, who have lived for years with them, find completely unbelievable), Aiyar also finds that in response to the question, “Would they 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, itself 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.  The forests and the river also provided the tribals with substantial economic and livelihoods resources including fodder, fruits and fish.

The fact is that the majority of the oustees at the resettlement sites continue to face multitude of problems like bad quality of land, lack of basic amenities, hostility from original residents etc.; many promises made to them remain unfulfilled. (May be they were just jumlas to get the oustees to move?) That is why to them the original village would still appear a better proposition from even an economic point of view.

This is further substantiated by the response to the question “…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, a majority (52%) wanted to move, 35% wanted to stay…”

While clearly a majority of the former neighbours of the oustees indicated their lack of confidence in the rehabilitation package, the response of the “interior villages” is used by Aiyar to make astounding conclusions about majority of tribals wanting to leave the forests. But the “interior villages” are those living near the mines of the Gujarat Mineral Development Corporation (GMDC), where mining has impacted them badly, even as it has brought them some access to infrastructure like roads.

Overall, Aiyar uses his data to draw some highly unwarranted and astounding generalisations, that “it’s entirely possible to implement resettlement packages making tribals materially better off … explodes the claim of some activists that modernisation is disastrous for tribals…”

Last but not the least, his concluding line is most revealing. “Many tribals want to leave the forest for a better life.” In saying this, Aiyar never raises the fundamental question as to why the tribals have to be evicted from their original village in case they want to have a better life, why is it that they cannot have access roads, drinking water, health facilities etc. unless they leave their original lands, homes and forests?

If they did have many of these facilities in their original homes, even the limited advantages which Aiyar’s study shows the oustees got, would have vanished.   In deliberately ignoring this fundamental issue, in not articulating what his own survey reveals, and in making sweeping generalisations, Aiyar betrays a haste to give an unsupported clean chit to the project’s rehabilitation, the reality of which is far more dismal.

*Formerly fulltime activists with the Narmada Bachao Andolan for close to 12 years

This article was first published in

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