Monirul Hussain | Sage Publications 180 pages Rs270
The subject of displacement in North-East India is very pertinent today and will remain so in the coming decades. The author, Monirul Hussain, a professor of political science at Gauhati Univerity, is quite familiar with the subject and has been involved in the related issues for over a decade. The book itself, a well-researched effort, based on field visits and a lot of data, is an attempt to document the displacement caused by the various developmental and other projects in the North East, and the responses from the various quarters to such displacement. Hussain achieves this purpose quite well.
The story of displacement has mostly gone “unnoticed, unattended and unaddressed” and even “undocumented”. The story of displacement is not just about alienation from land, but also from livelihood, culture and community. And what is most revealing is that so far there has been no example of just resettlement or rehabilitation for a single project in India. In fact, the government has the legal power to displace people, that too through the colonial legislation known as the Land Acquisition Act (the current proposal to amend it could make it worse), but no legal obligation to resettle or rehabilitate them.
But Hussain does not stop at displacement and lack of rehabilitation. He shows that most such ‘mega’ projects fail to perform the task they were built for. Hence he rightly says that it may be more beneficial to decommission projects like the Dumbur
Hydropower project in Tripura since it is generating very little power, and distribute the land thus freed up, among the tribals who were displaced due to the project. Another very pertinent issue raised by the author is that while the local people face adverse consequences in every case, they almost never get any benefits from the projects.
Secondly, he has shown through figures how an overwhelming proportion of the cost of displacement is paid by the tribals.
Similarly, he shows how wrong operation of hydropower projects leads to flood disasters in the downstream areas, which are completely avoidable. This is very relevant this year when the flood disaster was brought about in the Lakhimpur district in Assam in June, in which the sudden release of water from the Ranganadi dam played a significant role, as highlighted by the Chief Minister of Assam. Similarly, the author shows how embankment as a flood control measure has failed in the North East, as it did in the case of the Kosi basin in Bihar, causing a national catastrophe.
The story of how 45,000 Mizo tribals were forcibly displaced in the 1950s in the name of fighting insurgency reminds one of the Salwa Judum campaign going on in Chhattisgarh today, which has been a disaster from every angle.
The author sees some hope in the action of the Arunachal Pradesh government, which at one stage declared that it will not allow any big storage-based hydropower projects, despite the contrary wishes of the Centre. He notes that the Arunachal government had to go back on this decision, and it started signing a slew of MOUs (Memorandums of Understanding) for a large number of big hydro projects. More recently, the chief minister and Governor of Assam, chastened by the flood fury that the downstream Assam faced in June 2008 due to the sudden release of large quantities of water from the Ranganadi Hydro project, have declared their opposition to big hydro projects in Arunachal Pradesh. However, it may be noted that water is a state subject in India’s Constitution. Power is a concurrent subject, but as far as hydropower projects are concerned, the state can decide which projects to take and which not to. If the Centre is getting away with imposing its wishes on unwilling states despite this Constitutional arrangement, then that is another big failing of our democracy.
The author is hopeful that the “popular politics of New Social Movements will eventually lead to de-ethnicisation of politics of identity in the North East”. That hope seems a bit far fetched though. On the issue of democracy in development, he notes, “There exists a significant deficit in the popular participation of citizens in Indian democracy”. It must go down as one of the grand understatements of the book. This volume is recommended reading for all who are concerned about the costs of development, particularly government officials and politicians at all levels.
The writer is a commentator on developmental issues.