The site of the Kanhar dam project near Amwar village. (Vipin Kumar/ HT Photo)

At Sugwaman village in Uttar Pradesh‘s Sonbhadra district, villagers watch quietly as the yellow arms of earth movers dig into the grassy knoll beside the river bed and dumpers collect the excavated soil. The machines arrived in the village in December last year and have been digging since, uprooting trees and reducing hillocks to nothing.

In the past five months, the metal excavators have reached the doorstep of Ram Parmesh’s small mud house. 25-year-old Parmesh was born in the house, just like the many generations of his family before him. Now, his family is staring at imminent eviction as machines rampage over his farmland preparing for the dam coming up next door.

Parmesh’s story is no different from that of thousands of others unfortunate enough to live on land that the state wants. In this case, the land is being sought for the Kanhar Sinchai Pariyojna, an irrigation project located downstream of the confluence of the rivers Pagan and Kanhar. It was hoped that the dam would irrigate the drought-prone farms of the Duddhi and Robertsganj tehsils of Sonbhadra. (See graphic at the end of the story)

What makes this project particularly absurd is that it was passed almost 40 years ago in 1976 when the first foundation stone was laid by ND Tiwari, the then chief minister of UP. The project soon ran into difficulties, primarily because of a lack of funds. By 1984, construction was entirely stalled, and for two decades, the project was forgotten. Former UP chief minister Mayawati’s attempt to revive construction in 2011 was strongly opposed by about 5,000 villagers.

The issue cropped up again when the state’s irrigation minister, Shiv Pal Yadav, laid yet another foundation stone in 2012. Events took a serious turn when, on April 15 this year, the police guarding the dam site opened fire on protesting villagers injuring over 35.
Aklu Chero, a tribal leader protesting the construction of the dam, was shot at by the police on April 15. (Vipin Kumar/ HT Photos)

Since then, a fence has come up around the site near Amwar village and a large UP Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) contingent has been blocking the main road, forcing villagers to take a dirt track around the fence to reach their villages. Parmesh’s house is now inside the fenced area and to get there, you have to crawl through an opening cut into the wire fence. A few pigs, cows and hens roam around in the yard unfazed by the noise of the digging machines. “Policemen come here often and abuse us; they ask us to the leave this house soon,” says Parmesh. “We have a big family, where do I take them? What should we do with our animals?”

Getting to the village is not easy. We had to sneak in through a circuitous route to avoid trouble. A fact-finding team that had visited the site a week before were trailed by police and briefly detained. Once in the village, we made our way to the house of the president of the Kanhar Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti, Gambhira Prasad. The administration has arrested Gambhira, who led the sit-in protests.

“We had been protesting peacefully for over four months but no one listened. So our leaders decided to protest by stopping the construction work. But even before we reached the site, the PAC started beating us and fired on us,” said Gambhira’s brother Rajendra Prasad. Gambhira’s wife described how the police hadn’t spared the women and had dragged them by the hair and beaten them with lathis. The fact-finding team found that many were injured badly and bore marks of the blows.

“People are so scared now that they are willing to take whatever compensation they can get and leave,” says Aklu Chero, a local tribal leader from Sundari village. The police shot Chero during the protest. The administration claims Chero was shot when a group of about 500 protestors attacked the policemen and tried to snatch the inspector’s revolver.

Frightened villagers were reluctant to talk to or even be seen with us. Their fear isn’t baseless. After the two protests in April that turned violent, the police registered cases against 16 people, and about 500 nameless cases too, giving them the power to arrest anyone anywhere.
Tehsil officials take down names of villagers eligible for compensation package as determined by the state government.

“It took us years to create awareness among villagers and to encourage them to demand their rights. One wrong step and it’s all gone. It’ll be really difficult now to bring them back again,” says Maheshanand of Gram Swaraj Samiti, which fights for the rights of the villagers.

The dam’s reservoir will submerge several villages in UP, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. According to the initial estimate  in 1976, 11 villages in UP and four villages each in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand would have been submerged. Civil society groups, however, claim that more than 80 villages will be submerged. This means the UP government will be destroying 80 villages in one region to benefit 108 villages in another.

Meanwhile, in Chhattisgarh, the water resources department has revised the number of affected villages to 19 but a concrete survey is yet to be carried out. Most villagers are unclear about whether the dam will affect their houses and farmlands. In Chhattisgarh’s villages, locals  speak of how the state’s former irrigation minister Ramvichar Netam had assured them that not even a single acre of his state would go under water. Netam’s village Sanawal is likely to be submerged.

Amid all this confusion, on April 30, Chhattisgarh finally decided to withdraw its support for the dam until ‘a detailed survey is conducted of the villages that are likely to be marooned and compensation is paid’. “Apart from the pending survey of affected villages and compensation disbursement, the Chhattisgarh government gave a go ahead to UP government in 2010 without even obtaining a consent from gram sabhas as required before land acquisition in the Fifth Schedule areas,” said Alok Shukla of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan.

Sonbhadra, which is the second largest district of UP,  is rich in minerals and has nine power stations, which together should generate over 10,000 MW of electricity. Many of the villages nearby are still waiting for electricity. The story of exploitation and insensitivity playing out in the district is an old one.

When inaugurating the Rihand dam near Renukoot – about 40 km from Sugwaman – Jawaharlal Nehru had famously said that he would convert the region into the Switzerland of India. The construction of the dam eventually resulted in the forced relocation of nearly 100,000 people from 146 villages. The families received meagre compensation. Ironically, today, Sonbhadra is one of the 250 most backward districts in the country. It is a drought-prone area with farmers practising subsistence farming supported by off-season work like collecting mahua flowers and tendu leaves.

Kanhar dam is yet another example of the government’s indifference towards locals, but what makes the case unique, apart from its long gestation period, can be gleaned from the three cases being fought in different courts. The UP government claims to have acquired most of the land between 1978 and 1982.

A petition in the Allahabad High Court contests the validity of such acquisition when the work has remained suspended since 1984. As per the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, if the land acquired has not been used for five years, the process should start afresh.

The other case before the National Green Tribunal (NGT) questions the validity of the environmental clearance taken three decades ago without taking into account the significant environmental changes since then. “Under the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) Notification of 2006 by MoEF, any project which has not started project activities at the site should not proceed without obtaining a fresh environmental clearance,” said Debadityo Sinha of Vindhya Bachao, who filed the petition in NGT.

On May 7, the NGT bench gave a green signal to the construction already underway but stayed any new construction. The NGT also set up a committee to assess the impact prior to any new construction. The state had responded by saying that the work was never stopped, arguing that it has been underway since 1984 in the form of technical research. This is an absurd claim as actual work only began last December when the earth movers rolled in.

Displacement and rehabilitation have become problem areas for ‘development’ projects. In response to queries on the dam, the Sonbhadra District Magistrate office handed over a six-page document enlisting the benefits of the dam and detailing the benevolent steps undertaken by the state. The document states that land for the dam was acquired under the 1894 Land Acquisition act and so doesn’t need to adhere to the 2013 amendment.

Despite that, the document continues, the state government is ready to compensate three generations of the initially-surveyed 1044 families with Rs 7.11 lakh each along with a 150sqm plot a small distance from the dam site.

People like Parmesh, who have no choice, have agreed to take the compensation. The DM’s office claims to have distributed a part of the relief to 529 families. But many are sceptical. Ainul Haq from Sundari village regrets calling his son Moin back home from Surat. Moin’s left arm is bandaged; he has three stitches on his head and marks of lathis on his body. The police also broke his shoulder at the protest.

“Is this is what we get for demanding our rights?” asks Haq. His neighbour Seraj Ahmed chips in: “Our granaries are as big as the plots they are offering us and so are our cowsheds. How will we survive if they take away our lands? It’ll be better if they just dig our graves in those plots and we’ll go lie there on our own.”