For humane rehabilitation

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Updated: Oct 30 2007, 04:51am hrs
The UPA governments Relief & Rehabilitation (R&R) policy was a smart thing to do. Way back in 1987, Hiten Bhaya had written a note bringing out the costs of delayed projects, running into thousands of crore, and the so-called land acquisition problem was the major cause. Last week, at a meeting of the International Water Management Institute, a field study by Dr Madar Samad showed a failure and a success. The success was the Sardar Sarovar Project in Gujarat in terms of a relatively fast bounce-back of oustees. The point was made that civil society had contributed to the outcome. I agreed with it, and reminisced on having met Anil Patel, who runs Arch Vahini in Rajpipla and has a solid following among the states Adivasis, in 1982. I was back from Delhi and running the Narmada Planning Group on an honorary basis. Anil brought out the excesses of engineers. He wanted a humane Rehabilitation Agency. A professional rehab body was set up. In those days, it was estimated it would cost us Rs 400 crore in a Rs 10,000 crore project, which was a small price for doing the right thing. Anil was asked if he would work as the chairman of the body, but like all solid civil society types, he wouldnt bite and said he would rather monitor projects from the outside. He later told me that he was taken aback because someone had told him that I would get him jailed.

We worked out a land-for-land structure, and it would work because Gujarat was developing fast, and land was available since non-agricultural work was attracting many. Also, with a strong Gandhian heritage, the late Jina Bhai Darji, an Adivasi leader himself, agreed to chair the Land Purchase Committee, so that Adivasis wont be cheated. Five years later, I went to the first rehab villages and they were growing Shankar 6, which was one of the most advanced technologies in agriculture in the world then. I knew that the activists outside Gujarat opposing the project had lost out, and it would go through, which it did, and every independent evaluation has shown that in spite of hiccups, the process was relatively smooth.

But this was a difficult process. Years later, I found to my horror that the Tehri Project didnt have a rehab policy of any sensible kind. My senior, Hanumantha Rao Garu agreed to head a committee on this, and he did one of his thorough jobs. But he did not provide land-for-land and I asked him why. He said that unlike in south central Gujarat, land was not easily available in the Gangetic Plain, and there would be secondary displacement. I have always wondered, though, that if an investment cant afford to buy land for those who are dispossessed, does it follow market principles of viability Logically, it seems one should go back to the drawing board. Jean Dreze made the point in a review of the revised cost benefits of Sardar Sarovar that instead of saying that there are no benefits, the more logical stand would be to see how market mechanisms can be used to share the benefits with those who are displaced. This was put to Jaswant Singh when he was chairing the Parliamentary Committee on Environment in the Narasimha Rao period, and he diplomatically said it should be examined.

The R&R policy follows that dictum. It does provide for a lot of fine-tuning for changed conditions and we should all do what Anil Patel did in 1983.

I am not quite clear that using fractions of the growth in land prices as part of the benefits-sharing deal for the displaced is a good idea, for such numbers are arbitrary and market rates for land are sometimes hard to estimate, but these are small problems. Land is now really scarce. Earlier, irrigation was increasing agricultural output on the same area by allowing double cropping. All this stopped in the 1990s. Irrigated area is falling, and now Tushar Shah brings out the horrible fact that groundwater irrigation by small farmers in East India is declining in a big way on account of the rising price of diesel in relation to grain price. It will take time for all this to reverse. Meanwhile, the farmer must be allowed to share the benefits of rising land prices.

The more serious problem is that the bureaucracy will have to be trained to be non-arbitraryfor the tradition of land acquisition will weigh heavily with them. The residual powers they have could be used to meddle with the processes and even try to improve the results. At that point, they will have to desist and see the policy implemented with all the fairness it demands. Indias steelframe will need to learn to bend to the market for the larger good in this case.

The author is a former Union minister for power, planning and science, and was vice-chancellor of JNU. Email: alagh@icenet.net