New Delhi: In January 2021, the Supreme Court will hear a petition seeking the rehabilitation of thousands of families displaced more than five decades ago by the Pong Dam in Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh. The dam had submerged the lands of over 30,000 families who were promised rehabilitation in Rajasthan, in areas irrigated by the dam's waters.

About 8,000 families are still awaiting rehabilitation--they have either not been allotted land in Rajasthan or had their allotments cancelled by the state, the Himachal Pradesh government told its legislative assembly in December 2018.

The apex court on October 16 issued notices on the petition to the states of Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh and the water resources department of the Ministry of Jal Shakti. Filed by a second-generation oustee, the petition said the Rajasthan government is violating the procedure of allotments by not convening meetings of a forum for grievances of displaced people set up under a Supreme Court order of 1996. The governments have to file responses by January 11. The hearing is scheduled for 20 January.

The story of the decades-long struggle of the Pong Dam oustees becomes relevant as India, in a bid to boost its renewable energy capacity, seeks to increase by at least 34% the installed hydroelectric capacity of big dams, from 45 gigawatts (GW) at present to 60 GW in 2030. The central government in 2019 reclassified big dams as renewable energy projects, which assures financial incentives to existing and new dam projects.

But there are at least 60 ongoing land conflicts in India due to dams, according to Land Conflict Watch, a project that collects data on ongoing land conflicts in India. The Pong Dam is one among several large dams built in India in the decades after Independence, in which rehabilitation of displaced people is still not complete. The others are the Hirakud dam, Independent India's first large dam project, and the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River where rehabilitation is incomplete since over 30 years, as IndiaSpend reported in September 2019.

In 2013, India passed a new land acquisition law, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, which made rehabilitation legally mandatory for the first time. Yet, there are at least 13 cases of land conflicts in six states related to dams built after 2013, as per the Land Conflict Watch database. (Read here, here and here.)

The expansion of large dams is being proposed even as rehabilitation is yet to be completed for most of India's early dam projects, said Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, a non-profit critical of large dams. The judiciary is the final hope for those seeking the completion of rehabilitation in legacy cases such as Pong Dam, he added.

A slew of factors have affected the rehabilitation of families ousted in Kangra--poor planning for resettlement, state apathy, red tape and long delays, as we detail later. The Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan governments and the Ministry of Jal Shakti did not respond to calls and emails from IndiaSpend for responses.

From fertile hills to desertland

The Pong Dam, completed in 1975, impounded the Beas river and channeled its water up to the Thar desert in Rajasthan through India's longest canal network, the Indira Gandhi Canal.

The dam submerged homes, agricultural lands and commons in 339 Kangra villages covering 75,268 acres, an area about half the size of Indore, the largest city in Madhya Pradesh. Of the 30,000 families displaced, 16,352 had lost more than one-third of their landholdings and were considered eligible for rehabilitation on alternative plots of land in Rajasthan that would be irrigated by the canal network, as per the Rajasthan Colonisation (Allotment of Government land to Pong Dam Oustees in the Rajasthan Canal Colony) Rules, 1972.

Each eligible oustee was allotted 15 acres, according to the rehabilitation package agreed upon by the governments of Rajasthan and Punjab, which governed Kangra before the state of Himachal Pradesh was created.

"It was difficult. People from Kangra are used to temperatures of 15-25 degrees Celsius while in Rajasthan, the temperature is above 40 degrees," said Ashok Guleria, whose father was allotted land in western Rajasthan's Sriganganagar district.

When Guleria's family first went to see their land, it took them a week to get there--first by bus to Pathankot, from there by train to Bhatinda and finally by bus to Bikaner where the office of the Colonisation Commissioner of the Rajasthan government was making the allotments.

The 1972 Rules required oustees to present to the Rajasthan government eligibility certificates obtained from the Himachal Pradesh government. The Rajasthan government would then allot land, and provide roads, electricity, water, schools and healthcare facilities.

But the plots allotted were barren and there were no civic amenities, oustees alleged. They had to walk for hours to get to the land they were allotted in Sriganganagar because there were no roads; there was no drinking water or electricity either. "We were in the desert with no drinking water facilities," Guleria pointed out.

The irrigation infrastructure was in a state of disrepair, said Vinod Sharma, another oustee whose father's allotment had been cancelled by the Rajasthan government. Kangra's fertile farmlands were irrigated by perennial Himalayan streams, and the water scarcity and broken irrigation system came as a shock to the migrant families.

"Our region used to feed all of Kangra. It was common to harvest large cauliflowers each weighing 4 kg--that too without fertilisers or pesticides," Sharma said.

Eventually, the rehabilitated oustees began to abandon their lands or sell them, which was illegal because the 1972 Rules prohibited the sale of allotted land for 20 years. The rules also required lands to be personally cultivated by the allottees and there were annual inspections to ensure this. As people began to leave, the Rajasthan government started cancelling allotments. Landless locals were then handed the cancelled or abandoned plots, Guleria said.

By 1980, the Rajasthan government had allotted land to only 9,196 Kangra families or 56% of those eligible. Of these allotments, 72% were cancelled by the state for violating the 1972 Rules, according to an affidavit filed by the Himachal Pradesh government before the Supreme Court in 1993.

'Small wonder allotments deserted'

The Supreme Court was hearing a petition filed by 'Pradesh Pong Bandh Visthapit Samiti, Rajasthan' demanding the Rajasthan government reverse the cancellations and look into complaints of inadequate rehabilitation. The petition also questioned a change made in 1992 to the rules regularising encroachments.

The court, in its 1996 judgement, sympathised with the oustees: "Irrigable land, water, roads, schools and dispensaries are not available to all oustees … Small wonder that some may have deserted their allotments..."

The court directed the chief justice of the Rajasthan High Court to appoint a district judge to verify every cancellation made after 1992. With reference to the need to investigate allegations of coercion and intimidation of oustees, the court said, "Having regard to their track record, the revenue authorities of Rajasthan cannot be entrusted with the task". It struck down the 1992 amendment and said that a cancelled allotment could only be handed to another oustee. It also took away Rajasthan's powers to allot land, handing over the charge to a committee headed by the secretary to the Union water resources ministry and consisting of state representatives from Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh.

The court ordered all non-oustees to be evicted from the allotted lands, rejecting the Rajasthan government's objections that such an eviction would lead to a "hue and cry".

Poor implementation

The committee has met at least 17 times since 1996, the latest being December 14, three days after the Supreme Court's initial deadline to the governments on responding to the petition. On December 11, the court granted an additional time of four weeks.

In 2008, the revenue ministers of Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh jointly created a 'standing committee' headed by Rajasthan's revenue secretary with representatives from among the displaced people. The standing committee was asked to meet bimonthly to resolve the grievances of oustees and monitor the allotment of land. It also created a 'sub-committee' with representatives from the two state governments and five representatives of oustees to select suitable land in the canal area for rehabilitation.

That year, the subcommittee visited the rehabilitation areas in Rajasthan and found that much of the land was unirrigated and there was still no electricity, water or other services. Plots reserved for oustees were scattered and in one area, gypsum was being mined. The committee's report concluded that it did not believe there was enough irrigated land available in Rajasthan for all oustees.

Since 2018, the Rajasthan government has said it would give lands to the oustees, but along the Pakistan border in Jaisalmer and Bikaner districts. The Himachal Pradesh government protested this decision, saying that the land was uncultivable and went "without water for months".

That year, the Himachal Pradesh High Court also said that "for an agriculturist/villager of State of Himachal Pradesh, prima facie, it is difficult, if not impossible, to settle down in a remote area of District Jaislmer or Bikaner where the alternative land is being offered". The court suggested that land should be provided in Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan should pay for it. In 2019, Rajasthan chief secretary DB Gupta said the state did not have "such a huge amount" of funds to do so, and will provide land "in Rajasthan only". "The land they are offering is where even animals and birds cannot survive," Sharma said. Many oustees like him returned to Kangra to look for jobs or buy smaller pieces of land, he said.

The petition argued that Rajasthan cannot legally grant land to oustees without the consent of the committee, as per the 1996 Supreme Court order. It also said that the Rajasthan government has not convened the standing committee's meeting since 2008 despite reminders.

"The standing committee was the one forum where oustees could speak about their issues and have them resolved," said Kritika Agrawal, the advocate for the petitioner. "Without it, where else would the people go?"

After the Supreme Court issued notices on the petition on October 25, the state government convened a meeting of the standing committee via videoconferencing on December 10, one day before the deadline to respond to the petition, said Sharma, who is an oustee representative on the standing committee. All five oustee members decided to not attend the meeting, Sharma said. "We will wait for the Supreme Court to decide our case," he said.

Future plans for large dams

India has 45 GW of installed electricity generation capacity from large dams. The government plans to take this to 60 GW, renewable energy minister Raj Kumar Singh said at a webinar in March 2020.

In March 2019, the Union cabinet decided to promote large dams by classifying them as renewable energy projects (such as small hydro projects with electricity generation capacity below 25 megawatts), provide budgetary support to new dams to reduce the power tariffs, and make it mandatory for states to purchase power from dams. "India is endowed with large hydropower potential of 1,45,320 MW of which only about 45,400 MW has been utilized so far," the government's statement read. It said large hydro was "environment friendly", ideal for grid stability, and provides water security, irrigation, flood moderation and "socio-economic development of the entire region". The Centre and state governments have proposed a number of large dam projects in the last few years including the Etalin project in Arunachal Pradesh, Polavaram in Andhra Pradesh, and Bodhghat in Chhattisgarh.

But several projects from the post-Independence years have yet to settle oustees successfully. These include independent India's first dam Hirakud (Odisha), Damodar (Jharkhand), Bhakhra (Himachal Pradesh), Sardar Sarovar Dam (Gujarat), Srisailam (Andhra Pradesh), Krishnaraj sagar (Karnataka), Tehri (Uttarakhand), Rengali (Odisha), Upper Kolab (Odisha), Dimna (Jharkhand), Upper Krishna (Karnataka), Machhan (Gujarat), Karanja (Karnataka) and Dimna (Jharkhand).

In 2019, the Sardar Sarovar Dam over the Narmada River was filled to its full capacity even as thousands still lived in its submergence area waiting for the rehabilitation to complete, IndiaSpend reported in September 2019.

In September 2019, MLAs in Himachal Pradesh raised questions in the house over the pending rehabilitation of families displaced by the Bhakra Dam built in 1963. Several oustees do not have land or were settled in areas without adequate amenities, MLA Ram Lal Thakur has alleged.

In October, the National Human Rights Commission asked the Odisha chief secretary to submit a report on the pending rehabilitation of people displaced by Hirakud dam, for which land acquisition began in 1946.

Under the colonial Land Acquisition Act, 1894, under which land for these dams was acquired, there was no provision for rehabilitation of people whose lands were acquired. Each project followed its own mechanism and policies for rehabilitation.

The Pong rehabilitation relied on a Memorandum of Understanding between Rajasthan and Himachal Pradesh. The memorandum is not legally enforceable, said a former senior officer in the Himachal Pradesh government, who did not wish to be quoted as he is no longer with the state government. The rehabilitation rules were framed by Rajasthan, and Himachal Pradesh cannot force it to implement those rules, he said.

'Looking ahead but not behind'

As we said earlier, in 2013, India introduced the new Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act to replace the 1894 law. The new law made rehabilitation legally mandatory and disbarred projects from being commissioned unless every displaced person was rehabilitated. It mandated the setting up of a rehabilitation authority in each state to monitor all rehabilitation arising out of land acquisition under the law, including dams.

But even after the new law was passed, there have been land conflicts over the issue of rehabilitation, as we said earlier. These include the Kondapochamma reservoir in Telangana, where the state government moved people out of their homes without completing the process of rehabilitation.

In the case of Pong Dam, only the Supreme Court can put pressure on Rajasthan to complete the rehabilitation, and for that the oustees have to pursue the case, the former Himachal Pradesh officer quoted above said.

"Just rehabilitation is an eminently justiciable issue. Indian judiciary is so highly regarded. So why can't they step in and ask why rehabilitation is not happening?" asked Thakkar.

A report submitted to the World Commission on Dams recommended the creation of an international fund to help trace the "victims of 50 years of big dams" and resettle them either in the dams' irrigation areas, as members of fishing cooperatives operating in the dam, or be given land rights to where they were living. "It is unconscionable that we only look ahead, not behind," the report said.

"We gave up our lands for the nation but the nation did not look after us," Guleria said.