ByÂ Meenal Tatpati:
In the latest minutes of the Forest Advisory Committee a small paragraph titled Agenda Item No. 4 highlights a dam on the river Kalu in Murbad Taluka of Thane District. It talks about the submergence of 18 villages, a “comprehensive” rehabilitation package of 68.75 crore being sanctioned and goes on to recommend the project for clearance. What the paragraph does not reveal however, is, the huge socio-economic and cultural impact that a dam diverting 999.328 ha of forest land has already had on the ecology and the people, close to 18,000, who stand to lose their land, forests and livelihood.
The Forests and its people
Murbad is a part of the ecologically sensitive Western Ghats. Many threatened species of fauna and flora and a rich biodiversity have made ecologists recommend it as an Ecologically Sensitive Area. It is also home to the Thakar, Mahadeo Koli and Katkari tribal communities, known for their dependence and intricate links with the forests. The forest here provides shelter, livelihood and sustenance. Produce from Mahua, Tendu, Palas, Mango and Jamun trees is bartered and sold in weekly markets. The forests have a dense cover of Aain, Khair, Kandhol and Khevada trees. Several medicinal plants and wild edible vegetables are also sourced. The streams and rivers provide fish and crabs and water to drink throughout the year. Bibi Pandurang Wakh of Pejwadi hamlet says, “The jungle here provides everything. Even during droughts its bitter tubers sustained us. If the dam comes, our rightful land will go. How will we survive? Where will we take our children and go?”
The tribal communities have made utmost use of the village land having planted trees like Mango, Jackfruit, Banana, and Cashew. On their small farmlands, they grow pulses and vegetables, selling them at the local markets.
Besides being a rich resource base, the forests have tremendous socio-cultural significance. At Chasole, a village close to the Dam site, is an ancient temple, complete with hero stones. This temple will submerge under the dam waters. TheÂ archaeologicalÂ significance will be lost. So will several sacred groves in villages that are slated to lose their forests.
Illegal and unscrupulous attempts of the project proponents
The locals found about the project when JPC’s and dumpers arrived at the dam site, cut thousands of trees and excavated huge quantities of soil to begin building the dam wall. After repeated pleas to the contractors to stop the work failed, the local villagers sought the help of Shramik Mukti Sanghatna, a local organization working for tribal welfare in the region. An RTI filed by the Sanghatna revealed a tangled web of manipulation of laws and unethical tactics being used by the project proponents to further this project.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dweller’s (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006; an Act enacted to “redress historical injustice” meted out to tribals and forest dependent communities has not been implemented in the area. The Act provides that no forest dependent community can be evicted from forest land under their occupation till their rights under the Act are recognized and verified. It also provides for rights to be recognized over community forests and resources. These rights have not been recognized.
The locals had not been given prior information about the proposed dam. Being a tribal area, consultations with the gram sabha regarding the project as stated under PESA were conveniently sidelined by the project proponents. The construction of the dam began in late 2010, without forest clearance. The project proponents also engaged in direct land deals with some tribal families which is illegal under the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code. This was done with total secrecy, and the soil required to build the dam was excavated from this land.
In June 2011, the Sanghatna filed a PIL in the Mumbai High Court against the project proponent on the basis of the issue of forest clearance. Meanwhile, the construction of the dam continued, amidst protests and dharnas by the project affected. The proposal was sent for FAC clearance only in August 2011. The project proponents used various tactics of coercion and threats to break the strong opposition to the dam, offering money to the landless and creating chasms within the community. However, people continued to oppose the dam, and in March 2012, the Mumbai High Court stayed the construction of the dam. By this time, 20% construction of the dam wall was already complete.
These life-giving forests stand to disappear if the project is eventually completed. Also slated to disappear is the tribal whose identity is intricately linked with this forest. They will be lost, as statistics, a displaced population.
The rehabilitation plan announced by the district authorities provides about Rs 6 lakh to each affected family. The official figure of affected people is pegged at about 3000. This has been calculated without conducting either an EIA or a Social Impact Assessment (made mandatory by the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, 2007). Sangathan activists and locals say that about 40-42 hamlets will be affected, some whose land will submerge, some whose forests. Only 50% of the people in the affected villages own land, which means that half the population depends on the forests for sustenance. If the forests disappear, so do the people who depend on it. The actual figure of affected individuals is about 18,000! This is only the backwash effect of the actual dam. The water will be supplied to Navi Mumbai, about a 100 km away, in canals and piplelines, affecting thousands of villages downstream as well. But the proposal has no comments on this.
12 gram sabhas passed resolutions rejecting the project. They neither want the dam, nor the rehabilitation money.
Nausa Shiva Waghe of Shisewadi revealed the flaw in the way rehabilitation packages in our country are planned. When asked why they do not want to take the money offered and leave, he said, “What will we do with the money? It is never enough. Money comes, alcohol enters, vehicles enter and then the money goes!”
A rehabilitation package that only provides money completely misses the point. The displaced population is completely alienated, not just from their material source of livelihood but also from cultural and knowledge. Monetary assessment of these values is dehumanizing. The locals here will face loss of identity which money will not be able to restore.
After rejecting the proposal in April 2012, the FAC in its latest meeting on 4th April has recommended the project for clearance with certain “conditions”. The Chief Minister of Maharashtra has repeatedly stated in his letters to the Ministry of Environment and Forests that the project is of vital importance to Mumbai’s water supply needs. As it expands in size and population, land, water and resources from surrounding areas will continue to be absorbed into this metropolis to feed and shelter its increasing population. Thousands of people along the banks of the rivers that are slated to provide water to Mumbai and other cities stand threatened to be dispossessed, stripped off their land and livelihood, their forests and their rivers. They do not figure in the decision making process making this a short-sighted and incomplete attempt at providing the need of one section of the society without taking into consideration the needs of the other. The Kalu Project is just one of 8 projects slated to come up in this area. On the Kalu itself, a hydroelectricity project is under construction upstream in Malsejh Ghat in Pune District. The geological sensitive nature of the Kalu basin being coupled with absolute disregard of the provisions of cumulative impact assessments of dams in this region will prove dangerous to the ecological and geological stability of the area. A complete socio-cultural and economic impact assessment of such projects, coupled with a biodiversity assessment done by independent agencies is a requirement that cannot be sidelined in such projects.
Meanwhile in Murbad, the people’s struggle will continue.
–The Kalu Dam is being proposed by the Government of Maharashtra (GoM), Raigad Irrigation Division No.2 (Kokan Irrigation Development Corporation), the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (MMRDA). The contract to build the dam has been given to F.A. Enterprises, Mumbai. It is slated to provide drinking water to Navi Mumbai and Thane submerging about 2300 ha land out of which about a 1000 ha is forest land.
-Meenal Tatpati with inputs from Shiba Desor, Kalpavriksh, Pune.
(Based on a visit to 8 villages that will be affected by the Kalu Dam Project)