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The ifs and buts of R&R

By Himanshu Upadhyaya

What does all the verbiage in the draft Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill 2007 amount to if there are conditionalities even in recognising a project-affected person as project-affected, and when the displaced cannot be guaranteed alternative land for rehabilitation?



It’s with a sense of amusement that you pick up a copy of the draft Resettlement and Rehabilitation Bill 2007 (which has been overshadowed by its awe-inspiring siblings, the Land Acquisition [Amendment] Bill 2007 and the new National Resettlement Policy) and try hard to search for the definition of “public purpose” and “involuntary displacement”, since it’s avowed objective is “to provide for the rehabilitation and resettlement of persons affected by the acquisition of land for public purpose or involuntary displacement due to any other reasons”.

As you read on, the wonderful world of R&R administration, R&R commissioner, social impact analysis and ombudsmen opens up to you. It doesn’t matter if after creating this top-heavy bureaucracy -- that itself appears to be a rehabilitation project for the staff of a recently privatised public utility -- the only tangible rehabilitation or alternative livelihood promised to an affected person losing her/his agricultural land is “land, if government land is available in rehabilitation area (emphasis added)”.

You give the draft another reading and examine Section 27 of Chapter 5, which reads: “The Administrator for rehabilitation and resettlement may, on behalf of appropriate government, enter into an agreement with any person for the purchase or exchange of any land required for the purposes of rehabilitation and resettlement scheme or plan.” So, on the one hand, those who lose land are promised alternative land subject to availability of government land, and for the “rehabilitation plan”, the administrator may purchase or exchange land by way of an agreement. Now, if the administrator exercises this for the “rehabilitation plan”, why shouldn’t the same mechanism be applied when it comes to “alternative land”?

You learn your first lesson from this inconsistency. Forget land-based rehabilitation; aspire only for the “rehabilitation plan”. But then, what would qualify you to nurture that aspiration? Your status as “an affected person” itself hinges on your community’s statistical strength, for, an area facing displacement won’t qualify for a “rehabilitation plan” unless there are “400 and more families en masse in plains areas or 200 and more families en masse in tribal or hilly areas, DDP blocks or areas mentioned in Fifth and Sixth Schedule to the Constitution”. It’s as absurd as the State saying that a vanishing tribe/language can be allowed to be wiped out if it has less than 200 members/speakers. But then, haven’t we witnessed large hydroelectric projects being pushed in the Dzongu reserve, the holy land of Lepcha in Sikkim, using the numerical argument while overlooking the threat of extinction and the urgent need for conservation?

So what we may expect is alternative land for agricultural land lost, if government land is available; a “rehabilitation plan” (read: alternative housing with civic amenities) if the number of families facing displacement is higher than 200/400.

What about employment in the development project? Only if the land is acquired for a requiring body (read: private corporate), Section 4 of Chapter VI provides “preference to affected families, at least one person from a family, be given subject to availability of the vacancies and suitability of the affected person for employment”. So learn the lesson -- if your land is acquired for government, forget even employment.

Having elaborated on rehabilitation facilities for affected families in such conditional clauses from Section 35 to 47 of Chapter VI, Section 48 stumps you suddenly when you are told: “The affected families shall have option to take a lumpsum amount in lieu of one or more benefits specified in Sections 35 to 47 (both inclusive) as may be determined by the appropriate government in consultation with the requiring body.”

Surreal, you think, as memories of what happened to Narmada oustees flood your mind. Whilst a framework that came out of the Tribunal -- whose primary brief was to resolve inter-state disputes on sharing the waters of the Narmada -- made land-based rehabilitation for families losing agricultural land due to submergence binding on all three states, Madhya Pradesh tried to finish off “rehabilitation” by making oustees surrender their rehabilitation entitlements in the glare and lure of cash. Let’s take another look at how this happened.

On May 15, 2001, the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) proposed to wash its hands of compliance with land-for-land rehabilitation, as stipulated in the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal Award (NWDTA), by proposing what even in the words of its document it was referred to as an amendment. The “special rehabilitation package” (SRP) that lured oustees to give up their legal entitlement to alternative land by opting for cash with which to ‘purchase’ the land had no legal sanctity, as a Supreme Court judgment had ruled out any ‘review/amendment’ of the NWDTA till the passage of 45 years, ie 2024.

However, the Narmada Valley development department of Madhya Pradesh unilaterally approved the SRP by carefully avoiding the word amendment and instead referring to it as “additional liberalised” rehabilitation package and financial assistance, in its letter dated November 27/December 4, 2001.

Similarly, the NVDA also took the unilateral decision of diluting its responsibility of providing house plots to project-affected families (PAFs) with civic amenities, at R&R sites, according to the NWDTA’s rehabilitation clauses in its 117th meeting held on September 27, 2004, by declaring cash compensation of Rs 50,000 in case the PAF opts to avail of the same, so that it could wriggle out of bearing the cost of providing civic amenities as mandated for “rehabilitation villages” by the NWDTA.

When the National Resettlement Policy was approved on October 11, 2007, several commentators voiced their concern and advised citizens to be cautious. Writing an opinion piece in India Together, Shripad Dharmadhikari called it a “promising start and a let-down”. He underlined two important “progressive” provisions: “land acquired for public purpose cannot be transferred to any other purpose but a public purpose,” and “if acquired land remains unutilised for more than five years, it shall revert back to the government”. However the fact is that from its metamorphosis from a policy to a bill, these two provisions have disappeared into thin air.

It’s time ongoing struggles deciphered the linguistic and statistical tyranny of this “progressive” legislation and conveyed to the framers of such legislation in straight terms that what we seek is not impact studies and bureaucratic fallacies but rehabilitation in real terms. And it’s not too much to ask from a government that was voted to power voicing the concerns of the common people to at least arrange for the rescue of the discourse on rehabilitation, if not a complete halt on those rowdy twins, displacement and development.

(Himanshu Upadhyaya is a researcher working on public finance and accountability issues.)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008