Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh: Nearly 3,000 Adivasis from the Sidhi and Singrauli districts of eastern Madhya Pradesh (MP) have staged an indefinite sit-in protest since 24 February to express their opposition to a proposed 26-metre tall earthen dam to be built across the Gopad river in Songarh village of Sidhi district.
The protesting villagers set up tents and makeshift houses on a plot of land near the proposed dam construction site, where they spent the days sloganeering, listening to speeches by their leaders and resolving not to back down. Others contributed groceries and cooked food for those participating in the demonstration, now well into its third month.
According to the Adivasis, a construction company began work even before the district administration served notices on the families of those affected, an estimated 10,000 people whose farmland will be submerged by the proposed dam.
Officials told Article 14 that the Fair Compensation And Transparency In Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Act, 2013 is to be applied for acquiring villagers’ land, but that a final decision is awaited.
Meanwhile, villagers feared that the proposed dam will partially or completely submerge six village panchayats in Sidhi and five in Singrauli. The dam requires 1,442 hectares of land in total.
As many as 44 village panchayats in Sidhi and five in Singrauli will be directly or indirectly affected by the dam. As per documents released by the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board in 2018, the catchment area of the dam will be 2,095 sq km, and it will submerge 1,263 hectares of land, much of which is currently under cultivation.
Despite Constitutional protection to the land rights of India’s scheduled tribes (STs), they remained vulnerable to development-induced displacement. While STs constitute only 8.6% of the total population, they constituted an estimated 40% of all displaced people.
Research by the Centre For Policy Research’s Land Rights Initiative showed in 2018 that 1,437 dams in the country were located in ‘scheduled areas’, the geographically demarcated Adivasi-dominated regions listed in the fifth and sixth schedules of the Constitution.
Two thirds of all dams within scheduled area districts were in two states, MP and Maharashtra. In MP, 51.8% of dams were located in scheduled areas.
Ashok Singh Paigam, Singrauli district president of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, which fights for the rights of tribals, farmers, and labourers across the state, said the region had witnessed previous bouts of displacement, mainly on account of coal mining, and people had now “lost trust on rehabilitation policies”.
Since 1954, an estimated 200,000 people have lost their homes in Singrauli district to coal mines, dams and industries.
Villagers Wary Of Proposed Rehabilitation Scheme
Songarh village is located on the border of Sidhi and Singrauli districts, on the banks of the Gopad, a tributary of the Son river. It originates from the plateau of Sonhat in north Chattisgarh's Sarguja district and mixes with the Son river in Madhya Pradesh's Singrauli district.
“Is poori garmi me tapan me baithe hue hain. (We are protesting in such hot weather),” said Mahendra Singh, a Gond adivasi who owns 2 acres of land in Songarh. He said the protestors have decided that they will even conduct scheduled wedding ceremonies at the protest site. He usually sows paddy and wheat on his small land-holding, and additionally works as a construction labourer during the non-farming season, he said.
In March 2022, Kunwar Singh Tekam, a Bharatiya Janata Party member of the legislative assembly from Dhauhani constituency in Sidhi district visited the protest site. Addressing the protestors, he promised that proper compensation would be paid to those displaced.
He said, “If your house, land, or any other property is taken, you will receive compensation.” He promised Rs 10 lakh to Rs 12 lakh for every acre of unirrigated land, Rs Rs 20 lakh to Rs 25 lakh per acre for irrigated land. In addition, he said, Rs 5 lakh and a plot of land measuring 0.1 acres would be provided to those affected by the project to build new houses on.
In addition, a member from each of the displaced families were to be given government jobs, while those over 60 years of age would be eligible for a pension programme. Tekam also promised a rehabilitation colony for displaced families, a layout that would be equipped with amenities including a school, hospital, water supply lines, etc.
Even as Tekam was addressing the protesters, a few women interrupted him. “Na chahi ( We don’t want it),” they said.
Frustrated, Tekam asked if they didn‘t trust him.
The women’s response was blunt. “Nahi hai aap pe bharosa (We don’t trust you.)”
Land For Land, No Other Demands
According to Paigam of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti, villagers have found that monetary compensation rarely lasts very long and, as most Adivasi people in the region are engaged in farming, the loss of their land indicates a loss of livelihood.
Paigam told Article 14: “Koi maang nahi hai (we have no demands). Just that as we are giving up our lands, we want land in return.” They would not permit the dam construction unless their agricultural livelihood was guaranteed, he said.
Jagdhari Singh Tekam, a resident of Dudhmania village, about 75 km west of the Singrauli district headquarters, said his entire landholding of 5 acres would be submerged by the proposed dam. He had constructed pucca houses in two different locations, both facing submergence. “Where will I go with my family after losing our lands?” he said.
Jagdhari Singh Tekam’s land, irrigated by a canal, well and borewell, is barely 1 km from the banks of the Gopad river.
He grows paddy, kodo (paspalum scrobiculatum, a kind of millet) and arhar (pigeon pea) in the kharif cropping season from June to September and wheat, gram and sesame in the rabi season (October to March). His income per season from sale of agricultural produce has hovered around the Rs 80,000-Rs 90,000 mark.
“Logon ka ghar-makaan, kuan, ped-paudha, sab grihasti barbaad ho jayega (People’s homes, wells, their trees, entire households will be destroyed),” he told Article 14.
‘The Dam Will Destroy An Adivasi Block’
Scheduled areas were intended to preserve tribal autonomy, culture and economic empowerment, along with social, economic and political justice. Under Article 244 (1) of the Constitution, the currently designated fifth schedule areas are in 10 states, including Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Odisha, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh. The sixth schedule areas are in the north-eastern states.
In December 2021, chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan announced the immediate implementation of the Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA, a law to ensure self-governance for people living in the state’s scheduled areas, through primacy of the gram sabhas. Under PESA, land acquisition, resettlement and rehabilitation of displaced persons are all subject to mandatory consultation with the gram sabha.
There are 20 districts, 89 Blocks, 5,211 panchayats and 11,784 villages in Madhya Pradesh where the PESA Act is applicable.
Hanslal Yadav, a farmer activist based in Singrauli, said Kusmi was an Adivasi block and in the fifth schedule area, and therefore covered under PESA. Yadav belonged to Bhuimand village of Kusmi block.
In Kusmi block of Sidhi, 6.62% of the total population belongs to scheduled caste (SC) groups and 61.4% belong to ST communities.
“Any kind of development project must be approved by the local gram sabha. A dam construction project has suddenly begun in Songarh, and we have not been informed about it by the local administration,” Yadav said. “It is unclear when or how much compensation money or rehabilitation will be given to us.”
In March, a delegation met chief minister Chouhan to discuss the villagers’ fears about the dam. Chouhan reportedly assured them that he would, after reviewing the matter of the villagers who would be displaced along with the MLA Tekam, find a solution acceptable to them.
According to the villagers, they did not hear back from the chief minister’s office later.
The Kisan Sangharsh Samiti urged the MP government to cancel the project. In a statement on 27 March, they said the affected area of Sidhi district falls under the fifth schedule of the Constitution, and is “being taken by force by the government administration without any proposal, notice, or information” to the gram sabha.
The farmers were unanimous in their opposition to the dam-building, it said. “By building the dam, the tribal block will be destroyed.”
R K Sinha, sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) of Kusmi, denied that work could have begun while procedures were still to be completed "It is a government project, so how can work start before approval, with many stages of procedure to follow?” he said “Now that section 11 of the LARR Act, pertaining to publication of preliminary notification and power of officers, has taken place, work will begin after the land acquisition process is complete."
Under the LARR Act, it is mandatory to obtain consent of 70% of the affected people in a gram panchayat for any public-private partnership project. The people of Songarh and nearby villages, however, claim that no notice has been served, either to the gram sabha or to any individual.
Before Songarh, The Dam Was To Be Built 20 Km Away
In September 2017, administrative approval was granted for the Gond Major Irrigation Project under which the Songarh dam is to be built. The project was designed with a capacity to irrigate 34,500 hectares, and approval for expenditure of Rs 1,097.57 crore was given.
In May 2019, the state government finalised tenders for the irrigation and drinking water project, worth Rs 750 crore.
According to Hanslal Yadav, this dam was to be built in Jalpani, located about 20 km away from Songarh. "Hundreds of workers worked there for a year,” Yadav said. “Nearly 3,000 trees were cut, including 2,000 mahua trees.” The loss of mahua trees directly impacted the livelihood of hundreds of tribals whose major source of income is from the collection of mahua flowers during the summer months.
The ground was levelled and in 2021, when construction work seemed set to begin, the dam site was abruptly relocated to Songarh, said villagers.
By then, various procedures for acquiring farmers’ land under the LARR Act had been completed. Project-affected people in 11 villages had already been compensated for land they were to lose.
While Kusmi is an Adivasi-dominated belt, there may soon be no tribal residents here in a few years if the government continued to evict Adivasi residents, Yadav said.
SM Tiwari, executive engineer of the state’s water resources department, said he was awaiting further instructions from higher authorities before other procedures for the dam construction could begin. Referring to the Songarh protests, he said the villagers were “creating a nuisance”.
He added, however, that while the Songarh dam would indeed displace a few villages, 147 villages will get water for irrigation. Those displaced would be compensated as per law, he said.
“The villagers are ready to accept compensation offers and move,” he claimed, “but they are not accepting it in groups because a few people indulge in politics.”
Kamleshwar Patel, a Congress member of the legislative assembly from Sihawal, 53 km north-east of Sidhi, said the people were opposing the project because it had discrepancies and because thousands of Adivasis would be rendered homeless.
The BJP government should stop exploiting poor tribals and forest dwellers, Patel said.
“If the government is building this dam for the people, why does it not seek their consent?" he asked.
(Anil Kumar Tiwari is an independent journalist based in Madhya Pradesh.)