Ill-effects of displacement haunt riparian communities

Launch service from Holebagilu in Tumari to cross the backwaters; the fish market at Honnavar; farmers near Honnemaradu in the Sharavathi backwaters. dh photos/ Anitha Pailoor

“What does AB site stand for?”

SLN Swamy’s question came as a surprise for a group of people who were immersed in stories of displacement and migration that was necessitated by the construction of two dams in a gap of 30 years in Sagara taluk of Shivamogga district. They were attending a nature adventure camp organised by SLN Swamy and Nomito Kamdar at Honnemaradu, in the Sharavathi backwaters.

It is Ane Bailu, he said in a composed voice, adding that the region used to be an elephant corridor, allowing the free movement of the jumbos from this part of the Western Ghats to the Dandeli region. “Even now, there are instances of calves straying from Sakrebailu elephant camp and swimming till Linganamakki only to return from there. Their genetic memory is incredible,” he said.    

Nomito added, “The dams have submerged about 350 sq km of land amid dense forest which was home to innumerable wild beings. At the mention of Gerusoppa Dam, people here talk about the submergence of the habitat of butterflies on the river banks. When their abode vanished, the butterflies flew as high as possible and when there was no way left, people say, they drowned in the water. Is all of this only for us? We are assuming that water is a natural resource needed only by humans, and more importantly, meant for people who live in Bengaluru. What about the rest of the creatures?”

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Environmentalist and veteran journalist Nagesh Hegde explains how several endemic species on the river bank would have gone extinct after these projects, even before they were discovered. 

The submersion of lands, consequent resettlements and an influx of migrant population have led to the fragmentation of natural habitats, disruption of wildlife corridors, forest encroachments, wildlife poaching, excessive extraction of forest biomass, etc. Though it is difficult to quantify the tumultuous effects of power generation projects on the ecosystem, displacement has affected generations of people who are yet to come to terms with life. Linganamakki Dam resulted in the full or partial submergence of around 100 villages in Sagara taluk and around 80 villages in Hosanagara taluk. Many of the displaced people are yet to get rights of the land allotted to them.

“What moral right does the state government have to draw water from the Sharavathi? Some of our houses were submerged twice due to two consecutive dams. From basic amenities to better livelihood opportunities, none of our problems has been solved,” said G T Satyanarayana, president of Tumari Gram Panchayat. Sagara, the taluk centre, is around 40 km from Tumari, but after the village was covered on three sides by the backwaters, they now have to travel over 100 km to reach the place.

There are four launches that ferry people, animals and vehicles from Holebagilu in Tumari to the other side. Of them, only three are functional and they operate from 8 am to 6 pm. “If there is a medical emergency after 6 pm, life becomes hell. There is a health centre in Tumari that covers nearby villages too. But we don’t have an allopathic doctor. The only ambulance for the hobli takes time to reach from one place to another,” said Mamatha who runs a shop in Tumari.

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Mahesh, president of the Vehicle Owners and Drivers Association in Tumari, said that the promise of a bridge across the backwaters has not materialised yet. “The administration is yet to act upon our request to station one launch on this side of the river in the night,” he said.

S L Nagaraj of Byakodu, another affected village near Tumari felt that the children are forced to stay in the hostel from high school onwards as there are no schools nearby. “During monsoon, we live without electricity for days together at a stretch. This is the fate of the people who were displaced to provide light to the state,” he told DH.

In Honnavar, people of Mavinakurve island have to cover 35 km via land to come to Honnavara town which is just two kilometres away geographically. “Seeing the plight of students who go to school in Honnavar, I quit my job in the town and started ferrying them,” said Xavier Francis Odtha, a boatman. From a broken check dam built to stop the flooding of the fields to the salinity of water sources, the people here live with several challenges.

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