Behind the Scenes

A new government has taken charge. It was interesting to read that climate change has been added to the portfolio of the Minister in charge of the Department of Environment and Forests. Quite essential as climate change is not only very much in the news today but also very important from the Indian perspective in terms of food security. Probably among the most important here is the impact of climate change on the water sector. It is forecast that there is likely to be short periods of intense rainfall. This means that we need to have better water harvesting and storage facilities to ensure that the rain that falls does not go down the drain but is allowed to steadily percolate into the ground. Focus on catchment areas thus becomes essential. Afforestation in these areas will help not only to prevent soil being washed away but also control landslides. When we talk of food security, we naturally think in terms of better irrigation and automatically, of large dams. Those of us who have grown up in cities and towns are not directly aware of the complexities of building a dam except that villages may go under water so that the region benefits. We wonder why there are protests about acquiring land for large industrial complexes, SEZs and so on. Few of us are prepared to read through thick reports full of statistics. After all there are policies on resettlement and providing employment to those who have been displaced. It is only when one reads a work, supposedly of fiction that one can get a feel of what happens to those displaced by a dam or due to land acquisition for a port or a power plant. There is Kamala Markandaya’s “The Coffer Dams”, for example, that I read as a student many years ago. “A Dirge for the Dammed” by Vishwas Patil and translated from the original Marathi by Keerti Ramachandra is a relatively recent work that portrays the construction in recent times of a larger irrigation project. Villagers who have built up their farms over generations are suddenly uprooted from their fertile land. Oustees with promises of rehabilitation, they have to run from pillar to post and become nomads. Still life goes on, marriages, births, deaths. There is a guruji who tries to help them. He pleads that the dam need not be built:

“But guruji, someone has to pay the price for progress.”

“We are not unwilling to make the sacrifice, sahib. We are only saying you can have development without the dam.” “How?” ”Why evacuate nine villages? Why disturb the wadis on the mountain sides? Build three smaller dams instead of this one. Let us remain where we are. These people will get water without having to bear the burden of our resettlement. They will benefit, we will prosper, there will be development all around.”

But then who wants to listen to this? There are the usual wily officials who know how to disable such activists, pretending to be all help and siding with them and then suddenly turning over to the enemy. There are plenty of people ready to cheat the illiterate of their rights. Why there is even a woman who has been declared dead by her corrupt step son, who gets a copy of her death certificate but is unable to prove that she is alive!

When facilities are built for the rehabilitated people, the cheating that goes on is sad to read about. Guruji points out at a resettlement site about the poor quality of roads and other structures. The official who walks with him is unable to comprehend the issue. Guruji points out that the gravel has not been pressed down properly and the job has not been done according to the contract.

The official says, “Never mind Guruji, If two baskets less gravel is used, what difference will it make?”

“Saheb, a couple of baskets here, a couple there… and a truckload gets swallowed”.

It is a battle between the corrupt grabbers who have built powerful local empires and the villagers and a few honest government staff who try to help:

“It is all a game between the officials and leaders, sahib. You pretend to cry, I’ll pretend to laugh!”

A tale that hurts the reader, an emotional churner because you know what you are reading is true and it should not be happening. It makes us question – are such huge dams worth it? Is it more sustainable to have smaller water harvesting systems that can be maintained locally? Does it not make more sense to allow villagers to live productive lives, growing much needed food and fruit using simpler traditional organic methods and using honed skills rather than empty promises of ‘jobs’ knowing full well that the villagers do not have these skills while their traditional skills are wasted away? “

A dirge for the dammed” by Vishwas Patil. Translated by Keerti Ramachandra, Hatchette India, 2014


Ahana Lakshmi