Dammed Temple

The thousands dammed by DVC, still float in a zone of no hope
Aritra Bhattacharya Burdwan (West Bengal)

Sixty-five years is a long time for promises to turn sour; it is also a long time for hope to die many a death, and return in another form, at another time. That is perhaps the reason why Habib Ansary of Brindaboni village in West Bengal's Burdwan
district is neither too enthused nor too dampened with events of the last
few months.

Ansary is among thousands who lost their land for the first 'Temple of Modern India' – the Damodar Valley Project (DVC) – which came into being on July 7, 1948 on the strength of a Constituent Assembly Act. In October this year, he was among the oustees of the project who sat on a hunger strike in New Delhi, demanding that the government fulfil its promise of jobs to project-affected families.

The strike was called off on a promise from Union Power Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, who, on October 17, 2011, stated that the DVC would start the recruitment process within a month. Many months later, nothing of that kind has happened. Ansary says this betrayal is nothing new; in the course of the last 30 years, they have struggled many times, and have come away with similar promises, but there was no official action on almost every occasion.

The DVC, comprising four dams spread across West Bengal and Jharkhand, had flood control, irrigation, generation, transmission and distribution of electricity, as well as job creation for people residing around the dams as its initial focus. In the 65 years of its existence, the focus seems to have shifted to power generation – it was one of the power suppliers for the Commonwealth Games in 2010.

"We have demonstrated across all the affected districts over the last 30 years. We have held dharnas in front of the collector's office, taken out processions to district headquarters and Kolkata," says Ansary. "Each time we met top officials or politicians, we were assured that things would kick-start within a month or so. And then, our leader would mysteriously back out," he says.

Locals attribute this backing out of leaders – from local MLAs to heavyweights like Shibu Soren – to "big money changing hands". In 2008, in response to allegations of bribery, the Central Information Commission had pulled up the corporation for its failure to rehabilitate oustees, saying that the company had failed in
fulfilling its "corporate social responsibility", and had marginalized the displaced persons.

The search for someone who could lead the movement has, over the years, worked to the detriment of the cause of the displaced of the country's first big dam. But why this search for leaders from outside, when the people who are part of the movement claim that 12,000 families (71,000 people) lost their land to the project?

"Working from 7 to 5 left us with no time to agitate," says Ansary. "Besides, we can't fight on our own," says his son Rejaul, who is doing a computer networking course in the nearby town. "We are not educated enough to take on the babus," he says, perhaps reflecting the belittling, derogatory attitude that tourists from the neighbourhood cities of Asansol and Durgapur have for the 'villagers'.

In 2008, in response to allegations of bribery, the Central Information Commission had pulled up the corporation for its failure to rehabilitate oustees, saying that the company had failed in fulfilling its 'corporate social responsibility' and had marginalized the displaced persons.

These picnickers descend in hordes in the summer and winter months, to enjoy the scenery, cool waters, warm sunshine and boat rides in the Maithon and Panchet dams; they are blissfully unaware that while they continue to reap the benefits, the ones who paid with their land to make it possible continue to live in penury, often created by the State. Take the case of Rafique Ansari in Pakdih village in Jharkhand's Jamtara district – his family once owned over 20 acres of land, but is now categorized as BPL.

"We can see that in families that were provided jobs, the sons and daughters have gone on to become engineers and doctors," says Rejaul, still struggling to find a job. He refers to the 350 families whose
members did get jobs in the DVC way back in the 1970s.

What seems to give them hope now is the fact that Ramashray Singh is leading the struggle. Singh is the founder of Ghatwar Adivasi Mahasabha, and has been working with DVC oustees since 2006, after the people asked him to lead the struggle. He has been working with volunteers in different districts, organizing locals, mobilizing resistance, taking out torchlight processions in the night. "The movement is raising awareness in the region," he says, "Many students from schools and colleges join our agitations now."

He talks of worker-peasant unity, but one wonders how much of this unity will be possible since the basis of the agitation is a demand for jobs, or for a stake in the 'progress' that thrives on creating 'have-nots'. He knows that 12,000 people cannot get jobs in DVC all of a sudden, so state governments in West Bengal and Jharkhand will have to chip in with many jobs for the displaced families. They met Mamata Banerjee in August last year, but as always, nothing has moved on the ground. Since the project affected people – mostly adivasis and Muslims – are spread across a large area divided between two states, neither do they comprise a well-defined vote-bank, nor does rehabilitation become a major election issue at the assembly level. In such a scenario, will any politician really take interest in the case?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2012