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Resettlement and rehabilitation: Moving from an inadequate policy to a bad one'

By Manju Menon

The new National Policy on Resettlement and Rehabilitation for Projected Affected Families is a regression from the earlier draft. While the earlier one believed in 'total rehabilitation', the new policy does not even give a timeframe for rehabilitation! Conservative estimates put the number of families displaced by development projects at over 20 million up to 1991

The National Policy on Resettlement and Rehabilitation for Projected Affected Families, 2003, was gazetted on February 17, 2004, by the National Democratic Alliance's (NDA's) ministry of rural development. The first draft of this policy was brought out in 1993; it was subsequently revised a number of times.

Although the policy marks a watershed for community activists, groups and social movements working with issues relating to development-induced displacement, who have demanded sensitive and just resettlement, the policy promises a bleak future for many communities that will inevitably be displaced from their homes and livelihoods in the face of India's run to economic advancement. On the development agenda are a huge number of dams, highways, ports and mines -- all of which will add to the list of families uprooted.

Tribal and rural communities are increasingly facing the wrath of land acquisition for developmental projects, as they occupy areas rich in natural resources. Recent examples include the use of violence to forcefully acquire lands in Orissa and Maharashtra for bauxite mining by Sterlite Industries, and the Sahara Group's Amby Valley Lake City Project. Also, the submergence of human settlements presently taking place in the Narmada valley.

For many years, groups such as the Shramjivi Sanghatana in Maharashtra, Vistapit Mukti Morcha, Jamshedpur, the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, and Samaj Parivartana Samudaya in Karnataka have strongly urged the drastic amendment of the Land Acquisition Act, which addresses the issue of effective and timely rehabilitation. This, however, remains a distant dream.

A policy for whom?

Conservative estimates put the number of families displaced by development projects alone (displacement due to processes such as urbanisation are not included) at over 20 million up to 1991. Various studies have put the figure between 2 million and 56 million). Of them, 75% of families (as per government records) are awaiting rehabilitation. The new policy simply ignores this huge section of people, whose basic human and constitutional rights have been violated, by refusing to address ways of granting them much-delayed justice.

There is still no statement placing a moratorium on multiple displacement. Studies such as the India Country Study on Large Dams, for the World Commission on Dams, have indicated that a significant number of people have been displaced more than once by dam projects such as Rihand, Koyna and Sardar Sarovar. Many of them still have to be rehabilitated. The number would be much larger had a comprehensive study of all infrastructure and developmental projects and processes been undertaken.

The name of the policy gives the misleading impression that it is aimed at all 'project-affected families'. Actually, it only addresses those who face direct displacement from the 'affected area'. 'Affected area', according to the policy's definition, includes only areas taken over from the owner(s) through any of the land acquisition acts, and, in the case of dam projects, areas that will be submerged due to the creation of reservoirs. The policy leaves out areas whose landscape and land-use are impacted by the project, like downstream areas of dams or canals, land transferred to the forest department to compensate for loss of forests due to the project, and the catchment areas of dam projects brought under plantation and regeneration schemes. All these 'affect' communities living in the region as they all involve the curtailment of existing privileges of access and use, and often result in impoverishment and displacement.

The examples of proposed dams in the northeast region offer some serious lessons in this matter. The Tuivai Hydel Project in Mizoram was cleared with the condition that a new protected area (wildlife sanctuary) be created and that jhum (shifting cultivation) land of old-growth (at least six-seven years), with five times the number of trees lost in the submergence, would be handed over to the forest department. Both these measures were taken to compensate the loss of forests due to the project.

The project therefore affected local communities on account of submergence and also the compensatory measures. However, it identifies only the first as a 'negative impact', for any form of compensation. Partial compensation is even justified in statements in the project report such as, "our discussions with the local residents indicate readiness on the part of the village councils to give away the land in lieu of electricity".

The Human dam proposed to come up in Chandrapur district in Maharashtra was given environmental clearance last year. The project has taken over forest areas where conservation efforts were taking place jointly between the forest department and local communities under the Joint Forest Management Scheme. Clearance of this project has therefore adversely affected the community's future benefits in line with the efforts it put into this joint partnership for conservation.

Communities living downstream of dam projects are still not considered 'project affected' although they face the risk of dam-induced floods and changes in river hydrology caused by the impounding and diversion of water. The Siang Valley Bachao Committee, in west Siang district of Arunachal Pradesh, seeks the insurance of people in Along town, located downstream of the proposed Middle Siang Project. The wet rice fields and fish catch of the people of Along are likely to face the impact of this 1,000 MW project, which will create a 169-metre-high dam 60 km upstream of the town. Unless the policy recognises downstream communities also as 'project affected', and ensures their security, scores of families run the risk of being subject to disasters resulting from dams being planned in geologically fragile areas.

The new policy defines 'requiring body' as any company, corporate body or institution for whom land is to be acquired by the appropriate government. It also includes the appropriate government if the acquisition is for its own use or for subsequent allotment to an organisation, institution or company 'in the public interest'. This clause will continue to be grossly unfair until an acceptable definition is arrived at for the term 'public purpose'. Lack of such a definition will result in productive, resource-rich, ecologically sensitive and culturally and historically important public access lands moving into the hands of private, profit-making bodies through the state government.

Parks, riversides, beaches, hill stations and picnic spots are fast disappearing from the list of public spaces. Such spaces that were accessible to all, irrespective of class, are now owned and enjoyed by the privileged minority.

Will the new policy address issues on the ground?

The policy is relevant only for projects displacing more than 500 families in plain-land, and 250 families in hilly areas. For a policy to establish a lower limit is absurd. The clause may also be misused, as project authorities could under-report the number of affected families to avoid the responsibility of rehabilitation.

The policy makes a cursory mention that 'options' would be looked into in its list of objectives. But it gives no indication as to how and at what stage this will be done. Voluntary organisations and people who responded to the earlier draft had suggested that a development policy was needed which contained perspective plans for regions by looking into the needs, availability of resources and technological and management options in order to minimise displacement by developmental processes.

The policy mentions compensation for loss of agricultural land and related livelihoods. A large number of special economic zones and proposed port projects are slated to displace fishing communities. There is no indication in the policy about where and how they and other such communities engaged in traditional livelihoods will be rehabilitated.

The policy allows the allocation of a maximum of one hectare of irrigated land and two hectares of non-irrigated/cultivable wasteland to each project-affected family that owns agricultural land in the affected zone, and whose entire land has been acquired. This, again, is biased against communities that are involved in farming in hilly terrain, like the northeast and Eastern Ghats. The policy must make a distinction while deciding compensation to displaced communities on the basis of land-use patterns rather than apply blanket upper limits. The Lower Subansiri Project on the Assam-Arunachal Pradesh border will submerge the land of 38 families that practice jhum cultivation, terrace rice cultivation and wet rice cultivation near the riverbed. This clause of a maximum compensation of one hectare (a demonstration of the policy maker's plain-land bias) has resulted in communities getting 38 hectares of land as compensation for 960 hectares of their land taken over by the project! These communities have been summarily stripped of their jhum culture, which had ensured their food security for generations.

Although the policy pays special attention to the cause of scheduled tribes -- which is commendable -- some issues remain inadequately addressed. One is compensation in monetary terms for the loss of customary rights and use of forest produce, and for those settled outside the district/taluka. Money cannot compensate for loss of livelihood or access to forest produce.

A regression from the earlier draft

On some counts, this policy is a regression from the earlier draft. The 1994 draft did not state that the policy would be applicable only in the case of a certain number of displaced persons. It believed in 'total rehabilitation' and stated that rehabilitation measures would synchronise with project implementation. This was not seen as adequate, and groups sought rehabilitation prior to project implementation. The new policy does not refer to any timeframe for rehabilitation!

The earlier draft had stated that displaced communities should be compensated, individually and collectively, for losses including land, trees, houses, wages, livelihoods CPRs, community amenities and services. This policy only talks of providing 'basic amenities' such as water, schools, dispensaries, etc.

No space for people's participation

It's ironical that a policy about an issue that is likely to affect the lives of a large section of people, most of whom are already marginalised, and which was debated and discussed actively in the early '90s by NGOs, academics and grassroots organisations, was finalised without any public participation. No suggestions were sought, no notices put up, no public hearings held...

The policy lays down a National Monitoring Committee, comprising only government officials from various ministries, to review and monitor the progress of implementation of the resettlement and rehabilitation plan relating to all projects to which the policy applies. There are no representatives from social movements, NGOs, academics, or those displaced by past projects.

With the new policy finalised, we've moved from a situation of 'no policy' on R and R to a 'bad policy'. The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has committed to "putting in place more effective systems of relief and rehabilitation for tribal and other groups displaced by development projects," in its Common Minimum Programme. Unless the UPA reviews this policy and makes some significant changes in it, we will be left worse off than we were.

(Manju Menon is a member of the Kalpavriksh environmental action group)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2004