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Struggling for rehab, Pong Dam evictees have not received justice after 50 years


By Bharat Dogra
It was over 50 years back that over 20,000 families living in villages of Kangra region were asked to leave their beautiful settlements to make way for Pong Dam constructed on Beas river in Himachal Pradesh. The land here was so fertile that it produced bountiful diverse crops without using any chemical fertilizers and pesticides. So people were very, very reluctant to leave their villages.
What made their predicament worse was that resettlement offered to them was in distant Rajasthan. A lot of promises were made that they will get irrigated land and all facilities. Finally they left, sadly and slowly.
Now more than 50 years have passed and the second generation of the displaced people is still struggling for rehabilitation!
On March 4 a delegation of their organization, the Pong Bandh Visthapit Samiti (the Pong Dam Evictees Committee) met the Union Minister of State for Water Resources at the time of his Himachal visit. Later they told reporters that they still did not get a satisfactory response for resolving their problems. A press note issued by them subsequently explained that 20,772 families were displaced while only 16,352 were found eligible for the allotment of land. However only about 5000 had been rehabilitated properly till date.
This data is slightly different in some other reports but what is common in most of the reports on the plight of these displaced people is that a very significant percentage of them have not been rehabilitated yet.
Although the original idea was that the irrigation water of the canals of this project will bring under cultivation land in Ganganagar region of Rajasthan which will be given to these displaced families. However with the availability of water land values shot up and there were encroachments by powerful persons. In these conditions it was difficult for newcomers from hilly areas to occupy and cultivate land. Several of them were reduced to merely complaining about encroachments, while others were allotted land instead in the more remote desert areas of Jaisalmer which were devoid of the most basic facilities. What is more how could people used to the cold weather of Himachal Pradesh survive in the extreme heat of the Thar desert? The net result was that many families were unable to settle down at new places or to cultivate the land allotted to them or both.
This situation in turn led to prolonged legal cases and one can imagine to what extent those who had been evicted from their land and livelihoods could fight legal cases. After some time this took the form of a Himachal versus Rajasthan dispute as Rajasthan was alleged to have not fulfilled its part of the dam and canal related agreement in terms of satisfactory rehabilitation of people. Another strong view emerged that if the Rajasthan government is unable to settle the displaced households in a satisfactory way, then it should pay the costs of the satisfactory rehabilitation within Himachal. News of committee meetings and legal cases still appear from time to time even though over five decades have passed since the people were displaced. Ideally satisfactory rehabilitation should have been completed in about five years.
What is even more surprising is that as per news appearing from time to time, even the satisfactory rehabilitation of the people displaced by the most publicized Bhakra Dam project has not been completed yet, even though this displacement took place a few years before the Pong dam displacement. Elsewhere in the Hirakund dam project in Odisha, the land acquisition had started even earlier and yet there are still complaints of the rehabilitation being very unsatisfactory.
Hence there is a strong need for a well-coordinated nationwide effort to complete the delayed and inadequate rehabilitation efforts of all dam projects. In the case of longest pending cases like Pong , Bhakra and Hirakund the need for speeding up the long delayed justice to evictees is all the more acute.

The writer is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include 'Man Over Machine' and 'India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food'

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