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
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 lanzan) and 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.
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
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.
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, MoEFCC, saying 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 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,
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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