Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Regional

Apex Court hearing rekindles hope of Pong Dam Oustees.

Y.S.Rana | December 29, 2020 11:14 PM

CHANDIGARH-Hopes rekindle on Himachal’s thousands of families displaced more than 50 years ago by the Pong Dam in district Kangra of Himachal Pradesh as in January 2021, the Supreme Court will hear a petition seeking the rehabilitation of oustees. First Prime Minister of India once said “you should suffer in the interest of the nation.’ Pong Dam oustees have been suffering in the interest of nation for more than 50 years. "We give up our lands for the nation but the nation did not look after us, "  said oustees.

The dam submerged homes, agricultural lands and commons in 339 Kangra villages covering 75, 268 acres, an area about half the size of Indore, the largest city in Madhya Pradesh. Of the 30, 000 families displaced, 16, 352 had lost more than one-third of their landholdings and were considered eligible for rehabilitation on
Of these, about 8, 000 families are still awaiting rehabilitation--they have either not been allotted land in Rajasthan or had their allotments cancelled by the state, the Himachal Pradesh government told its legislative assembly in December 2018.

The Pong Dam, completed in 1975, impounded the Beas River and channeled its water up to the Thar Desert in Rajasthan through India's longest canal network, the Indira Gandhi Canal.

The apex court on October 16 issued notices on the petition filed by a second-generation oustee to the states of Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh and the water resources department of the Ministry of Jal Shakti. The petition stated that the Rajasthan government has been violating the procedure of allotments by not convening meetings of a forum for grievances of displaced people set up under a Supreme Court order of 1996. The governments have to file responses by January 11. The hearing is scheduled for 20 January.

It is a story of the decades-long struggle of the Pong Dam oustees becomes relevant as India, in a bid to boost its renewable energy capacity, seeks to increase by at least 34 per cent the installed hydroelectric capacity of big dams, from 45 Giga watts (GW) at present to 60 GW in 2030. The central government in 2019 reclassified big dams as renewable energy projects, which assures financial incentives to existing and new dam projects.

But there are at least 60 ongoing land conflicts in India due to dams, according to Land Conflict Watch, a project that collects data on ongoing land conflicts in India. The Pong Dam is one among several large dams built in India in the decades after Independence, in which rehabilitation of displaced people is still not complete. The others are the Hirakud dam, Independent India's first large dam project, and the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River where rehabilitation is incomplete since over 30 years, as IndiaSpend reported in September 2019.

In 2013, India passed a new land acquisition law, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, which made rehabilitation legally mandatory for the first time. Yet, there are at least 13 cases of land conflicts in six states related to dams built after 2013, as per the Land Conflict Watch database.

The expansion of large dams is being proposed even as rehabilitation is yet to be completed for most of India's early dam projects, said Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams. The judiciary is the final hope for those seeking the completion of rehabilitation in legacy cases such as Pong Dam, he added.
A slew of factors have affected the rehabilitation of families ousted in Kangra--poor planning for resettlement, state apathy, red tape and long delays.

Each eligible oustee was allotted 15 acres, according to the rehabilitation package agreed upon by the governments of Rajasthan and Punjab, which governed Kangra before the state of Himachal Pradesh was created. The 1972 Rules required oustees to present to the Rajasthan government eligibility certificates obtained from the Himachal Pradesh government. The Rajasthan government would then allot land, and provide roads, electricity, water, schools and healthcare facilities. But it proved a lip service as the plots allotted were barren and there were no civic amenities, oustees alleged.

Eventually, number of rehabilitated oustees began to abandon their lands or sell them, which was illegal because the 1972 Rules prohibited the sale of allotted land for 20 years. The rules also required lands to be personally cultivated by the allottees and there were annual inspections to ensure this. As people began to leave, the Rajasthan government started cancelling allotments. Landless locals were then handed the cancelled or abandoned plots, Guleria said.

By 1980, the Rajasthan government had allotted land to only 9, 196 Kangra families (56 per cent) of those eligible. Of these allotments, 72 per cent were cancelled by the state for violating the 1972 Rules, according to an affidavit filed by the Himachal Pradesh government before the Supreme Court in 1993.

In 2008, the revenue ministers of Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh jointly created a 'standing committee' headed by Rajasthan's revenue secretary with representatives from among the displaced people. The standing committee was asked to meet bimonthly to resolve the grievances of oustees and monitor the allotment of land. It also created a 'sub-committee' with representatives from the two state governments and five representatives of oustees to select suitable land in the canal area for rehabilitation.

That year, the subcommittee visited the rehabilitation areas in Rajasthan and found that much of the land was non-irrigated and there was still no electricity, water or other services. Plots reserved for oustees were scattered and in one area, gypsum was being mined. The committee's report concluded that it did not believe there was enough irrigated land available in Rajasthan for all oustees.

Since 2018, the Rajasthan government has said it would give lands to the oustees, but along the Pakistan border in Jaisalmer and Bikaner districts. The Himachal Pradesh government protested this decision, saying that the land was uncultivable and went "without water for months".

Earlier, the Himachal Pradesh High Court also said that "for an agriculturist/villager of State of Himachal Pradesh, prima facie, it is difficult, if not impossible, to settle down in a remote area of District Jaislmer or Bikaner where the alternative land is being offered". The court suggested that land should be provided in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan should pay for it.

In September 2019, MLAs in Himachal Pradesh raised questions in the house over the pending rehabilitation of families displaced by the Bhakra Dam built in 1963. Several oustees do not have land or were settled in areas without adequate amenities. The Pong Dam rehabilitation relied on the judgment of the Apex Court for fair compensation in lieu of their fertile land despite elapse of five decades. ahead, not behind, " the report said.

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