Banharpalli, is a non-descript hamlet in the district of Jharsuguda in the state of Odisha, which shelters around 150 families that depend on agriculture, livestock rearing and forest produce for daily survival.
‘Unannounced for’ displacement and the miseries that come with it are nothing new to many of the villagers. They first encountered this ‘mishap of growth’ when a local dam was coming up in the 50’s. Towards the fag end of that decade, many of them lost their ancestral lands to Hirakud Dam that came up in the area. It was indeed a cruel jolt to a community that has always learnt to live in harmony with the nature, which provides them their livelihood and has been central to their cultural and social lives. But then, those were the days when we declared Dams as the temples of modern India. (Only to retract it a few years later!)
However, despite the odds, the community was slowly and steadily finding their feet. A whole new generation was brought up in the ensuing four dacades, and they were learning to adjust to the newer surroundings. Just as they thought they were getting over this painful alienation and would survive on odd jobs, another harassment came knocking. By now the year was 1992. This time, it was devastating.
The land that they were residing on, as part of the initial rehabilitation, was identified as a major coal source. They were asked to relocate at the earliest, so that a coal based power plant could come up in the area. Similar promises of good jobs, better lands etc were being offered again. The cycle of displacement was returning once again offering no solace to an already distressed community. But having burnt their fingers once, the community was not ready to accept all this. They decided to raise their voices and register their protest against this decision. Soon, women, children and men in the area rallied together and a movement to preserve their land was taking shape.
However the efforts of a handful of protestors fighting for their rights could not resist the combined forces of the powers that be. The movement was swept aside before it even took off. One early morning in July that year, when the farmers were getting ready to plough their lands, the bulldozers came in and razed down their houses. They were herded like cattles and transported by trucks to a temporary shelter where they are camped even now, after all these years! The villagers who were accustomed to a life of freedom amidst nature, suddenly found themselves living within the boundaries of makeshift tents. They were promised jobs in the power plant but several of them, who were employed as contract workers, were later terminated under flimsy excuses.
A visibly aggrieved Gurubaru Dharua, a 55 year old tribal, who used to sustain his family by cultivating on the two and a half acres of land tells me, “It has been 22 years since the Government acquired my land. I am yet to receive any compensation“
Another young generation has come up ever since and they have born the brunt of this onslaught.
“After the displacement, lime many others, I too had received an employment letter, which was later cancelled“
A man, who once owned an arable land, find himself as a daily wage labourer. These days, in addition to minnow jobs, Gurubaru also collects forest produces from the forests. There are days now when he does not get any work and his family of six have to go hungry.
Eighty year old Shankar Kalo is brutally honest when he tells me; “It is very apparent who matters more for the Government; those employed within the compound of the plant, not those who are forced to lose everything so that it can be set up”
He questions the very rationale about displacing people for setting up industries. He also points out that with the destruction of the forests the women have lost the freedom they used to have earlier.
“They used to contribute to family earnings by collecting produce from the forests . Is there nobody to think about us whose sacrifice was instrumental for achieving this? Is the Government not answerable?,” he echoes almost to himself in dejection.
The village is witnessing change in several ways in the form of increasing number of wine shops, rampant alcoholism and industrial pollution that is destroying crops, polluting the water, while also causing complicated diseases like tuberculosis, silicosis, and cancers. None of these members are able to meet the steep health related expenses. Meanwhile, the power plant is producing electricity for people living far away, while those who have been rendered homeless because of it are living a wretched life.
“More than 26,500 families were displaced by the dam. About 11,000 have resettled around the periphery of the dam and 3000 are still missing,” rues Basudeb Bhoi, as he points towards the hills overlooking the waters of the Hirakud Dam trying to locate their original village.
“After the displacement we have lost our identity. After the resettlement the peoples love has made me Sarpanch Zilla Parisad member, but I still carry the stigma of displacement and that saddens me”, he adds.
The word ‘development’ has come to acquire different meanings depending on which end of the stick one is left holding. To some it has provided water and electricity. However for many it has robbed them of exactly that and everything else.
ActionAid and the local organisations that we support are conducting a leadership training module for activists, journalists and community members in the area on the issues of displacement and promotion of sustainable development. I am part of this wider group of civil society members who have come together to understand the human cost of unbridled growth and the progressive role that participatory planning can play in this scenario. As part of this exercise, 200 people identified from within the area where ActionAid and its partner works are undergoing a leadership building and sensitisation program initiated by ActionAid Bhubaneswar Regional office and were visiting Banharpalli. It is a heart-wrenching tale of alienation and rights violation. The training includes class room transition and hosts eminent thematic experts and activists. It also includes field visits like these, which could help us build a socio-cultural understanding of the issue.
However, all of these, though important and necessary, also take time. What needs an immediate attention is this community’s access to a dignified rehabilitation package. That’s not all. It is also important to develop a participatory model in all future discussions around growth. The recent Supreme Court verdict on the importance of including the Gram Sabhas in decisions that directly affect the villagers is a great step forward. We need more progressive steps like these.
(You can contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org)