Upper Krishna: displaced people in deep water

A breached canal in Yadgir taluk. DH photo

Rajesab Amarsab Ramapur has the unenviable job of supplying water to about 3,000 residents of Ballur rehabilitation centre with a single borewell and a leaking overhead tank.  The government stopped the salary of this waterman in March 2017, he nevertheless puts his task above the requirements of his home. All this because he feels he should stand up for his community.

“It’s a cruel irony,” remarks Sumitra Ramesh Biradar, 60, explaining how they gave away hundreds of acres of wetland for building Almatti Dam only to be thrown into a place where water was a luxury.

The original Ballur village Sumitra refers to lies several feet beneath the backwaters of the dam. She heads a 14-member women’s association ‘pestering’ men to get the authorities to fulfil their demands: water and a place to defecate. There are no toilets in the current Ballur.

Nearly 20 years since shifting to the rehabilitation centre (RC), there is anything but the feeling of ‘home’ among the villagers. Even their children, the second generation of project displaced families (PDF) do not see any connection with the new Ballur of broken roads and clogged drains.

In July 2001, Karnataka proudly declared the completion of work of stage 1 and 2 of the Upper Krishna Project and celebrated its achievements in the coming months when the water reached full reservoir level of (FRL) 519.6 metres at Almatti Dam. In Narayanpur, another dam with a live storage capacity of 44.79 TMC water was ready.


Almatti Dam

About 70,176 families (4.68 lakh people) from 187 villages lost their homes and 2.73 lakh acres of land, including 2.3 lakh acres of arable land, to make way for the backwater area. They were moved to 136 RCs spread across five districts, often located far from their villages.

From the time when large-scale land acquisition began in 1974 to the present day, the government has made no attempt to assess the socio-economic condition of those who were forcefully displaced for the success of the project. The issue was flagged by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) four years ago but both politicians and officials seem to have moved on.

Senior officials at the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Department in Navanagar, Bagalkot, said the condition of most of the 136 RCs “is not as bad as” Ballur RC. “We have handed over 124 RCs to respective gram panchayat or the town municipal councils. Ballur is among 12 RCs we are struggling to handover as the village panchayats and municipal councils are rejecting the proposal citing limited resources,” a senior official said.

Basanagowda Shivanagowda Biradar, who along with his three brothers lost 70 acres of wetland, asked how can the government have its departments point fingers at each other when a village with 3,000 people is staring at a harsh summer with a single borewell. Temperatures in Bagalkot hit 44 degrees Celsius in summer and residents dread the prospect of the last borewell running dry.

Basanagowda is one of the few lucky persons who owned more than 10 acres in the submerged area. Most of the displaced were marginal farmers and farm labourers, who spent the compensation within weeks. “I myself procured seven acres only. But most of the villagers spent it for clearing loans, the marriage of daughter or buying a bike. We had no idea of the consequences as most of us believed that water would not reach our villages,” he said. Till 1995, the compensation for land acquisition was decided on the basis of highest transaction value in the revenue zones. In the absence of a rehabilitation policy, a series of government orders were passed to fix compensation for land.

“The government knew that farmers enter a lower value in transaction papers to reduce stamp duty but the limited allocation of project forced us to stick to the rules. Most of them (PDFs) got pittance with which they could not have bought land elsewhere,” a retired officer who monitored land acquisition explained what is called as ‘general award’.

Magnitude of dispossession

Gundapa Muttaladinni, returned to Benala, a village now in backwaters, in 1979 after finishing graduation and was “shocked at the magnitude of dispossession”. In the years following, he and several like-minded individuals formed forums to fight for those losing land.

Sitting under the shade of a tree in Benal RC, Hanumappa B K and Mahadevappa C Honnal, both aged above 70, tried hard to remember the name of the lawyer who delivered the compensation. “Most of the villagers were illiterate and had no idea of compensation. Lawyers acted as intermediaries and deducted a good portion of compensation as their cut,” said Neelesh Benal, a freelance journalist.

Muttaladinni said several teams from the World Bank, which financed Rs 635.26 crore for the project, expressed concern over displacement. “We also wrote letters complaining about the poor compensation. The World Bank suspended the aid and told the government to streamline rehabilitation,” he said.

Documents prepared by Krishna Bhagya Jala Nigam Limited (KBJNL), the agency which took over project implementation in 1994, show that the World Bank suspended the aid twice over poor rehabilitation works.

In its 1998 report, the World Bank noted that resettlers were upset at the compensation process. “They believe that it is rife with corruption, with officials, lawyers, and even nongovernmental organisations taking a portion — usually 10 to 40% — of the compensation for themselves in exchange for assistance in processing claims,” it noted.

Retired IAS officer and former commissioner for rehabilitation and resettlement, S M Jamdar, admitted that there were problems but said they were fixed once the ‘consent award’ came into effect. The new rule enhanced the compensation amount and the solatium so that the average compensation for an acre of dry land jumped from about Rs 18,000 in the previous system to Rs 70,200. Those who lost irrigated land received Rs 1.48 lakh per acre, a substantial raise from Rs 28,000 per acre.

Irregularities in the project

However, they do not stand the test of the CAG whose report for the year 2015 slammed the government for executing R&R work through government orders by overlooking the Karnataka Resettlement of Project Displaced Persons Act, 1987. “The GoK had not adopted the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy 2007 either. But, continued to implement the orders issued during 1989-95 even for the R&R implemented after the policy was notified,” the report notes.

Moreover, these programmes were introduced as late as 1998 and there was no difference between delay and denial for at least one-third of the PDFs. Even today, there is no system for local employment generation, which drives youth to nearby districts in search of jobs.

“Their sacrifice is nothing less than that of a soldier on the borders,” said MLC S R Patil and added that he has raised the issue in the Upper House several times. “A survey should be done to map the needy families and necessary benefits should be extended,” he said. Ramu Managuli is a senior journalist covering the region for 40 years. Asked how the project changed the lives of people, he said an entire generation suffered as the state hurried to build the dam for utilisation of water awarded by the Krishna Water Dispute Tribunals.

“Nobody asked whether it was right to submerge nearly 1 lakh hectare of wetland to water 6 lakh hectares of arid land. Hardly anyone worried about the acquisition of land splitting joint families or leading to consumerism among a populace which lived a life of self-sufficiency,” he said.

As the state government seeks to acquire 76,357 acres to raise the height of Almatti’s full reservoir level from 519.60 to 524.256 metres, there is a palpable anger and disappointment among a majority of the 4.68 lakh displaced people who live in a condition far from any definition of rehabilitation. 

 

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