‘Why do weak people always have to pay the price of development?’

‘Why do weak people always have to pay the price of development?’

‘Why do weak people always have to pay the price of development?’

The people in 31 villages of Mandla and Dindori districts are yet to figure out an answer as the proposed Basania dam on the Narmada set to submerge cultivable lands and forests that help them survive

Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh: Its mighty roar down to a warble, the Narmada flows tepidly through the quaint village of Odhari in Mohgaon block of Mandla district. On its banks, protests simmer over the looming threats to land, livelihood and biodiversity.

The Gonds and Baigas mostly occupy Odhari, the proposed site of Basania dam under the Narmada Valley Project (NVP). Once completed, the dam will flood 31 villages 18 in Mandla and the rest in Dindori and dislocate 2,735 families.

Naval Singh Maravi is already troubled visualising that fateful day when he would have to leave. Hailing from Rampuri in Mohgaon, Maravi got five-and-a-half-acre ancestral property when his father partitioned 22 acres among his four sons. Income from his urad dal (black gram) crop is minimal, so the family depends on the village forest for a living. Armed with community and individual rights under the FRA, they collect tendu leaves, harra (Terminalia chebula), behda (Terminalia bellirica), chironji (Buchanania lanzanand amla, besides firewood.

“I am more worried about losing the forest income than the land. We do not have to seek permission or pay up for accessing this resource. How will I feed my family if we are moved out?” says Maravi, who belongs to the Backward Class.

Titra Singh of Odhari is annoyed the moment you ask why villagers are protesting when they are eligible for compensation. “I have three acres of land abutting the forest. How much compensation will I get? Maybe, Rs 2 to 4 lakh per acre? If we calculate based on the maximum price of Rs 4 lakh, I will get Rs 12 lakh. Is this money enough to buy land elsewhere, run the household and conduct the marriages of my two children?” he rues.

Titra says he will lose Rs 50,000 to one lakh annually as there will be no forest, wherever he goes and settles. His calculations are based on the amount provided during previous instances of land acquisition. So far, the government has neither announced the project launch nor the compensation.

In response to a question from Dr Ashok Marskole, the MLA of Niwas Assembly constituency in Mandla district, Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had said in a written reply on March 3, 2016, that the Basania dam project will be nixed. “It was announced in the Assembly that Basania dam and six similar projects were cancelled after considering the vast submergence area, the forestland involved and other reasons,” Marskole told 101Reporters. When the MLA inquired about it in December 2022, he learnt that permission had been granted.

Last November, when the government entered into an agreement with Afcons Infrastructure Limited for dam construction, huge protests erupted in both Mandla and Dindori districts. In January, villagers submitted a memorandum addressed to Governor Mangubhai Patel and CM Chouhan to Mandla Collector Harshika Singh, with an appeal to convert the hydropower project that would possibly submerge 2,437 hectares of land, including 2,107 hectares of forest, into a micro-irrigation scheme. 

On January 29, the local struggle committees in all 31 villages jointly organised a massive public meeting at Dhangaon in Mandla. They claimed the area of submergence will increase once the authorities get down to field surveys and reiterated their demand.  

(Above) Naval Singh, President of the Basania Odhari Baandh Virodh Sangharsh Samiti (protest organisation against Basania dam), reading the application submitted by the protestors; (Below) A joint rally from Mandla and Dindori districts by people living in submergence areas from Narayanganj to Jabalpur (Photos - Pooja Yadav, 101Reporters)

PESA over troubled waters

The NVP involves construction of 29 dams for the purpose of irrigation and hydropower generation. So far, work on 10 reservoirs are over, while six are under construction. Of the rest 13, nine have received administrative approval.

As per the Narmada Valley Development Authority's Annual Administrative Report 2009-2010, Basania dam will irrigate 8,780 hectares of land in 42 villages and generate 100 MW hydropower. The estimated cost of construction was Rs 2,884.88 crore at that time. However, preliminary information suggests that 6,343 hectares, including 2,443 hectares of private lands, 2,107 hectares of forestland and 1,793 hectares of government land, will be submerged.

Mandla is a designated Scheduled Area under the Fifth Schedule of the Constitution. The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, which gives village councils absolute powers on many fronts, including land acquisition and development plans, is applicable in the district starting November 15, 2022, the day Madhya Pradesh implemented the PESA Act.

Permission should be taken at the gram sabha meetings of the affected villages with regard to the dam project, but Titra claims the NVP officials have not even visited his village, which falls under Badjhar gram panchayat. It is rumoured that some NVD officials visited the villages surrounding Odhari on December 30, 2022, but the villagers besieged them and made them write a letter saying no official would enter their premises to conduct any survey without prior permission.

“People have not been informed about the dam work. This is in complete violation of the constitutional rights bestowed on the tribals under the PESA Act. I learnt about the plan from a local daily’s report on the pact that the NVP signed with a Mumbai-based company. Our gram sabha will never approve this construction,” Titra says defiantly.

A letter written by the officials of Narmada Valley Development Authority on 30 December 2022 to the villagers of Odhari which says that no officer will enter the village to conduct any survey related to the dam without the explicit permission of the gram sabha. Earlier that month some company and government officials had come to several nearby villages including Odhari but were sent back by the villagers, forcing the Authority to issue this letter (Photo - Pooja Yadav, 101Reporters)

According to Rajkumar Sinha, the convener of Bargi Dam Displaced and Affected Association, the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) has postponed the conditional permission for an environmental impact assessment of Basania dam project and has suggested submitting an Alternative Site Analysis. At the same time, it has not rejected the project as demanded by lakhs of affected families. “It is clear that the dam will be proposed again after the upcoming elections [likely in November],” he adds.

But he is also optimistic about the awareness among the people and the strength of their collective resistance, despite the sordid history of governments faking gram sabha resolutions to push projects through. "PESA will play a key role in Basania Project," he said. In the rules formulated and implemented last year, it is clearly stated that the gram sabha is empowered to oppose the handover of lands for the project and they will also have to be consulted regarding its social impact. The FRA too gives gram sabhas the right to protect their water sources and their resolutions are binding."

In a joint letter dated January 25, social activist and Narmada Bachao Andolan founder member Medha Patkar and other social activists/organisations including Sinha wrote to Dr K Gopakumar, Chairman, Expert Appraisal Committee for River Valley Projects, MoEFCCsaying a combined environmental assessment of all the projects was required if many dams were planned in a river valley like Narmada. However, the water planning of the Narmada is hardly visible and the information about its detailed plan is not publicly available. It claimed that imposing a project on the villagers and withholding information from them will go against the very spirit of the PESA Act and will prove that the Madhya Pradesh government's claim of implementing the PESA law is false.  

The proposed hydropower project could possibly submerge 2,437 hectares of land, including 2,107 hectares of forest (Photo - Pooja Yadav, 101Reporters)

The loss of forest cover and fertile land, decreased water in the Narmada due to serial dam construction and the dwindling fish stock apart, the villagers are worried about the project’s social impact. To date, tribals have collectively worshipped bada dev, celebrated nava khai, hal sudum and janjatiya gaurav divas, and participated in shaila dance.

“All of us will not be settling in one place after displacement. Our social and cultural identities will be broken. Moreover, we will have to remain silent spectators as the forests that house our deity, saaj ((Indian Laurel) trees, drown. No amount of money can compensate for our losses,” laments Titra.

As we take leave, Maravi signs off with a pertinent question: “Why do weak people always have to pay the price of development?” 

Cover photo - Narmada river passing through Odhari village where Basania dam is being proposed (Photo - Pooja Yadav, 101Reporters)

Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli

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