On 12 June 2006, Sardar Singh, a farmer living in Sarasgaon village in Dhar district of western Madhya Pradesh, went to the local bank seeking a loan. The bank asked him for a 'No Dues and Search Report' of his land, a routine part of the lending procedure. But the report that came back was no routine one, and Sardar Singh got the shock of his life when the lawyer carrying out the search told him that his land had been sold off!

But Sardar Singh had not sold his land to anyone. Then how had this happened? This incident has led to unravelling of a unique scam in the resettlement program of the Sardar Sarovar Narmada project, the implications of which go far beyond the swindling of oustees of the Narmada project.

Diluting the land-for-land principle

The 1979 Award of the Narmada Water Disputes Tribunal (NWDT) included detailed orders on the resettlement of the oustees of the Sardar Sarovar project (SSP). Recognising that cash-based rehabilitation - a lump sum cash payment for house, land and other losses - in earlier projects had led to widespread destitution, the NWDT made land-based rehabilitation a cornerstone of its rehabilitation framework. In particular, it ordered that "Every displaced family from whom more than 25 per cent of its land holding is acquired shall be entitled to and be allotted irrigable land to the extent of land acquired from it ... and a minimum of 2 hectares (5 acres) per family, the irrigation facilities being provided by the State in whose territory the allotted land is situated. This land shall be transferred to the oustee family if it agrees to take it."

Of course, mere provision - progressive as it was - was not enough, and the oustees struggled valiantly to get their due, to some degree in Maharashtra and Gujarat. But Madhya Pradesh, the state with the largest number of affected families has demonstrated the biggest failure on the rehabilitation front. At root has been the complete lack of political will of the Government of MP (GoMP) to provide land to the oustees.

The poor quality of land being offered on the one hand, and the fear of imminent submergence on the other pushed the oustees to accept the SRP.

 •  No duty to rehabilitate
 •  Not just a place to live

From the early stages of the project, Madhya Pradesh was reluctant to locate land within its borders, and tried to push its oustees to go to Gujarat instead. It was only much later, on orders of the Supreme Court during the hearings of the case filed by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) that the state provided a list of lands available with it for rehabilitation. Even this list had been created from village lands that had earlier been set aside for grazing - the legal requirement that 5 per cent of village lands should be set aside in this manner was lowered to 2 per cent instead.

However, most of these lands were uncultivable or encroached upon. Thus, Madhya Pradesh was in a situation where it had failed in any meaningful way to provide for land to be given to the affected people. And this was holding up the raising of the dam, which the court had linked to progress on rehabilitation as well.

To overcome this, the state introduced, on 16 June 2005, a unique mechanism called the Special Rehabilitation Package (SRP). In this package, an oustee is offered cash in two instalments to buy land of his or her choice. The first instalment is paid upfront. The oustee is then required to purchase the land, register the sale deed, whereupon the second instalment could be claimed by presentating the registration certificate.

On the face of it, this seems to be a good scheme giving the oustees the chance of purchasing land of their choice. In reality, it amounted to an abdication of responsibility by the state, which, as per the NWDT orders, was supposed to identify and acquire the lands and give these to the people. The SRP violates the spirit and the letter of this by shifting the responsibility of locating and purchasing the land to the oustee. Additionally, the package opened the door to a huge scam.

Forced into SRPs

The SRP seemed to become hugely popular. According to the affidavit of GoMP in the Supreme Court dated 30 May 2007, out of 19004 Project Affected Families (PAFs) who have been rehabilitated in MP (at a dam height of 121.92 metres), 4304 were found eligible for allotment of land. Out of these an overwhelming 4044 opted for the SRP and 2496 had already purchased land by then. The GoMP claimed that this success of the SRP was due to its 'participatory' nature and the 'choice' it offered to the PAFs.

But things were not as they appeared. Buying land through the SRP presented many problems. As large number of oustees started looking for land, the prices shot up, and the SRP was not enough to buy the minimum 5 acres of irrigated land that the oustees had to buy as a part of the SRP's compliance to the NWDT. Even if individual oustees were successful in locating land, these were in scattered locations, leading to dispersal of the communities. Moreover, few sellers are willing to register the land sale deed without full payment, so it was difficult for oustees to buy land with only the part payment the the first instalment of the package.

If, in spite of these difficulties, 94 per cent of eligible PAFs refused Government land and preferred to purchase land on their own, there was an important reason - the GoMP did not leave them any other option. As noted above, the 'land bank' that MP had created from grazing lands was simply not good enough for the PAFs, who therefore naturally declined them. According to the Oversight Group for the Sardar Sarovar Project Relief and Rehabilitation set up by the Prime Minister in April 2006:

"It seems that the quality of land available in the Land Bank was by and large average; it was not irrigable and cultivable. Considerable efforts would be needed to bring it to standard of cultivable and irrigated land ... this would be a tedious process. ... the contrast between the category of land offered, generally grazing land from the Land Bank, and the alternative of expecting to purchase irrigated land of one's own choice seemed to tilt the balance in favour of the latter. [SRP]"

Picture: Oustees at a public hearing on SRPs in December 2007 (Photo by Shripad Dharmadhikary).

Refuting claims of the land being uncultivable, in May 2007, the GoMP in its affidavit to the Supreme Court said that the land included in the land bank is certified by the Director of Agriculture to be 'Arable'. The basis for this certification is not given. But in their affidavit of March 2008, they again support the findings of the OSG, and state that "generally, the development process to make the land cultivable and irrigable is undertaken by the Government only after (emphasis added) it is selected by the PAF". In other words, GoMP wants the oustees to accept the land first, and trust the Government that it will make the land cultivable later.

Given the record of the Government, it is not easy for the oustees to repose this trust. And while we're at it, we may also ask: if the land is already certified arable, why does it need to be made cultivable?

A scam unravels

However, there is more to the story. With large amounts of money being offered to the PAFs as the first installments of the SRP, a host of middlemen and touts operating in nexus with officials came up to swindle them out of it. Their modus operandi was simple - fake registries.

The oustees were finding it difficult to buy land using the SRP for all the reasons given above. The middlemen stepped in and added the lure of money, and suggested that the oustees collect the first instalment of the SRP from the Government. The middlemen would then help them get fake land sale registries - that is, documents that show purchase of lands where no transaction has taken place - and the oustees would submit these registries to collect the second instalment of the SRP. The oustee would get to keep most of the cash - the SRP offered about Rs.5.5 lakhs per PAF, and the middlemen would get their share.

In November 2007, the GoMP admitted that out of 2777 registries submitted by the PAFs and examined by the GoMP, 758 were found to be fake!

 •  No duty to rehabilitate
 •  Not just a place to live

Around December 2005, the NBA, based on the murmurs it was hearing from the ground, began raising this issue. The Government immediately denied any such instances of fake registries. In October 2006, the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) of the GoMP declared that only one case of fake registry had been detected.

The NBA persisted with its efforts to dig out the information. Being a people's organisation, it had access to lot of information on the ground; it also made extensive use of the Right to Information Act to get access to official documents. Ultimately, the matter could not be pushed under the carpet any longer, and in November 2007, the GoMP admitted that out of 2777 registries submitted by the PAFs and examined by the GoMP, 758 (27 per cent) were found to be fake! Sardar Singh, it seems, had plenty of company.

And even this figure may be too low; the NBA claims that this is a gross underestimate and the total fake registries could go up to 2000, a scam involving crores of rupees. As case after case was exposed, innovative swindling schemes came to light. Lands of people being sold off without their knowledge; non-existing lands being sold off; government lands being sold off, same lands being sold more than once. Clearly, none of this was possible without the involvement and connivance of the official machinery.

Failure of rehabilitation

The scam reveals a serious failure of the rehabilitation program of the SSP. According to the Chairperson of the Resettlement and Rehabilitation sub-Group of the Narmada Control Authority that monitors the resettlement and gives initial clearance for raising the dam height, SRP essentially was a means to ensure the basic obligation under the NWDT Award to make available agricultural land to the eligible PAF's. The permission to increase the height of the dam to 121.92 m was given based on the claim that all PAFs to this height had been resettled as per the NWDT directions. However, clearly at least 758 PAFs had not been resettled as the basic purpose of the SRP stood vitiated and along with it, the NWDT Award. In effect, the dam height had been raised without resettlement of significant number of oustees - a gross violation of the NWDT Award.

The reaction of GoMP was predictable - it blamed the PAFs! Also, out of 55 people arrested in this connection, 25 were PAFs, and only 4 middlemen and 2 government servants. It was only on 3 March 2008 that the High Court of Madhya Pradesh stayed the prosecution of the PAFs arrested in the fake registry cases on the basis of an interim application filed by NBA. The Andolan pointed out that PAFs are being harassed and booked while the officials and their agents are going scot free.

A rot that must be stemmed

The SRP scam is not just a matter of corruption but raises issues of structural importance that have implications far beyond the Narmada project. These issues are especially important given that the government is planning to enact a law to ensure rehabilitation of people affected by projects. The most important lesson from this scam is that cash compensation in lieu of land and means of livelihood becomes highly susceptible to abuse and corruption, and is fraught with grave risk of the failure of resettlement. This is especially so when the affected people are tribals, scheduled castes and other socially and economically weaker sections.

It may be mentioned that the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill introduced in the Parliament has only half-hearted measures of land-for-land. What is of concern is the provision in the Bill that: "affected families shall have the option to take a lump-sum amount, in lieu of one or more of the benefits specified in sections 35 to 47 (both inclusive), as may be determined by the appropriate Government in consultation with the requiring body."

In effect, cash can be substituted for each and every provision of rehabilitation. As the SRP scam shows this can have serious consequences. Further, as the SRP scam shows, provision to allow cash to substitute land and other benefits provides a easy way for governments to evade responsibility. In a country where political will to resettle project affected people is often very low, this provision is a loophole that needs to be removed. Indeed, what is needed is a clear and unambiguous assignment of the responsibility for provision of land for resettlement on the government/project authorities.

Given that Sardar Sarovar dam height still has to be raised by another 16 m, affecting many thousand families more, there is an urgent need to review and scrap the SRP and put the onus of making land available back on the Madhya Pradesh government. It is possibly even more urgent to draw lessons from the SRP scam and suitably amend the draft Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill.