How Jharkhand’s Mandal dam could destroy the environment, livelihoods, and 3.4 lakh trees

18 February 2020
Sushmita

On 5 January 2019, the prime minister Narendra Modi arrived in Jharkhand to lay the foundation stone for the Kutku Mandal dam project. The same day, thousands of villagers, marched from the site of the dam toward the airstrip where Modi was to land, in protest against the project. The locals were protesting their likely displacement from their villages as a result of the dam, and demanding proper resettlement, compensation and jobs. Their rally was stopped before they could reach the airstrip.

First proposed in the early 1970s, the Kutku Mandal dam project, also known as the North Koel dam project, is located inside the Palamu Tiger Reserve, which spans Jharkhand’s Latehar and Palamu districts. The dam in the PTR had been lying defunct since the 1990s when work on the project was stopped after local protests. In 2015, Prakash Javadekar, who is now in his second term as the minister for environment, forest and climate change announced the creation of a task force to “expedite” the forest, environment and wildlife clearances for the project.

The PTR is part of the Betla National Park, which was constituted as a protected forest under the Indian Forest Act, in 1947. Betla was declared a wildlife sanctuary in 1973 and a national park in 1986. It was one of the first national parks to become a tiger reserve under Project Tiger, a government initiative to maintain a viable tiger population in India. Apart from being home to tigers, the reserve is also inhabited by wild boars, elephants, barking deer, golden jackals and bears. It is also home to forest-dwelling Adivasi communities, such as the Khervars, Chero, Oraon, Munda, Birjiya, Korva.

However, when the Mandal dam becomes operational, it will submerge parts of the PTR. In November 2018, the environment ministry gave the final approval and environmental clearance for the dam, allowing the Jharkhand government to divert more than one thousand hectares of forest land for the project. This land falls in the dam’s submergence area. MoEFCC documents also show that approximately 3.4 lakh trees are to be felled for this project. Environmental activists say that the dam threatens the environment, wildlife and ecosystem of the region. It will also displace hundreds of Adivasis living in the area. According to figures in a government-commissioned Site Specific Wildlife Management plan—a document that assesses the impact of the dam on the surrounding biodiversity, wildlife and people in the area—atleast eight villages will be submerged by the waters of the North Koel river.

In October 2019, I visited the PTR and met residents of two villages that will be impacted by the dam—Meral and Chemo. The Adivasis I spoke to were angry over the revival of the dam. Several villagers told me they were protesting the project because it would forcibly displace them and impact their livelihood. They said that the dam would submerge the land they have been living on for generations. They added that they will also lose crucial forest land on which they depend for their survival. Several villagers also said that they had not been offered alternative land for rehabilitation. Others had been shown alternative barren land that was not fit for cultivation.

“When officials from irrigation department came and surveyed the area, we weren't informed what was it about,” Ranjay Oraon, a resident of Meral village, told me. “The officials claimed that each one of us will get Rs 15 lakh in our accounts. But we didn’t believe them. Whenever the officials came they simply asked for our PAN and Aadhar cards, they didn’t inform us that they had come because our village lies in the submergence area. Once our villages are submerged, where will we go? There have been no discussions.”

Jerome Gerald Kujur, a local activist and author, has been opposing the project since the news of its revival reached the villages in 2017. He said the number of villages that will be affected is higher than what the official figures stated. Kujur estimated that at least twenty five villages will be impacted by the dam. He noted that villages will be affected in two ways—by the direct submergence because of the dam waters, and due to change in wildlife movement patterns, when wildlife forest areas are also submerged by the dam, causing a change in the landscape of the PTR.

Kujur emphasised that the project was going ahead despite not having received the consent of the forest-dwellers, which is a violation of the Forests Rights Act, 2006.  The FRA recognises the “historical injustice” done to forest dwelling communities who have lived on forest land for decades. The act gives Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers ownership of the forest land they have lived on, by allowing them to claim rights. The act mandates that their consent is needed for their removal from forest land over which they have rights. It stipulates that forest-dwelling communities cannot be moved without the “free and informed consent” of the local gram sabhas—or village assemblies. The project authorities need to obtain prior approval of the gram sabha after explaining to them the implications of the project on their lands and livelihoods in their vernacular language. After this detailed process at the district level, the district collector or state authorities need to produce a letter certifying that all the steps have been taken to settle the rights of the communities under the FRA, before forest land can be diverted for non-forest use. The act adds that no resettlement of forest dwellers can take place until the facilities and land allocation at the resettlement location are “complete as per the promised package.”

 

According to Kujur, the gram sabhas of the impacted villages had not consented to being resettled for the dam. “Eight villages received a letter in 2017 which informed the villagers that their village was in the core area and asked them whether they are agreeable to move,” Kujur said. “The letter didn’t have any mention of an alternative settlement or any outline for the future. After the gram sabha meeting, the villagers sent their opposition to the department.” Yet, in a 2017 letter sent to the Jharkhand water resources department, Pramod Kumar Gupta, then the deputy commissioner of Latehar, said that all claims within the FRA have been settled and the concerned gram sabhas have consented to the project.

Villagers told me that not only were their rights under the FRA not recognised, but also that no proper surveys were conducted to assess the rehabilitation situation. Kujur said that residents of Kujrum village, a project-affected area, were shown barren lands as their relocation site and told that they will receive Rs 10 lakh as compensation. “On seeing the barren and infertile lands, the villagers asked the officials, but ‘how will we and our future generations live here?’” he said. According to Kujur, the officials told the villagers to figure that out themselves.

 

Kujur added that local officials have instead filed criminal cases against the villagers. “We have filed many community forest-rights claims,” he said. “Post 2010, for the same land which we had claimed, the claimants had been considered criminals and were accused of cutting and destroying forests.”

The Mandal dam was initially proposed as a solution to the drought crisis in Palamu. In a 1990 report on “agrarian conflict” in the region, the People’s Union for Democratic Rights, a civil-society organisation noted, “People of Palamau recount their births and lives, compute their loans and interests, recall their marriages and deaths with famines and droughts as the reference point.” Before the creation of Jharkhand in 2000, the dam fell under the jurisdiction of Bihar. The Bihar government claimed that a network of canals would irrigate Palamu—currently in Jharkhand—and the adjoining Aurangabad and Gaya districts.

“I don’t think the government claims of irrigation are true,” Kujur said.  “The state of Jharkhand will only get 20 percent of the water, and that too will not come to the Adivasis or farmers.” Kujur added, “Even if the dam starts functioning, it will not have a life span of more than 15–20 years because the water that will be flowing through the dam carries a lot of sand. Heavy flow of water laden with sand will weaken the dam merely in the span of a couple of years.”

The government’s claims that the dam will help in irrigation have also been widely contested by activists, who point out that most of the rivers in the area are rain-fed. Damodar Turi is the convener of Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, a people’s movement against displacement. “It’s a good thing that a source of irrigation should be made available. But does it make sense to submerge villages in order to provide for irrigation?” Turi said. “Moreover, people don’t trust that it will be for us, what is the assurance that it won’t be diverted to bigger industries?” Turi added, “If we pay the most price, then should we not benefit from it?”

Construction first began on the Mandal dam in 1975. In a book titled Conservation from the Margins, the environmentalist Raza Kazmi wrote a chapter on the Mandal dam. He noted that in 1980, with the passing of the Forest (Conservation) Act and several other notifications by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, or MoEF, the role of the union government became essential. The MoEF became the nodal agency for granting forest and environment clearances. The MoEF granted the first environmental clearance in 1984, subject to eight conditions. Key among them was the rehabilitation of villages that would be impacted by the dam. “While all this paper work was on, project work, in gross violation of the law, continued unabated,” Kazmi wrote.

In 1997, water was released for the first time through the incomplete dam, Scroll, an online news portal, reported. Scroll quoted a report by the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisations—or CDRO­— a coalition of civil-rights groups, which said that a dam engineer shut the temporary sluice gates of the dam and released water in order to quell the local protests against the project.

“In order to silence the villagers’ protests the dam engineer Baijnath Mishra shut the temporary sluice gate of the dam in August 1997,” the CDRO report said. “Thirty two nearby villages were submerged overnight in the resulting floods, and approximately 1100 families were affected. A large number of animals died and a lot of people’s property and goods were destroyed. The elderly people in the village reported that pans for carrying cement and rubble were used as boats to rescue people. Twenty one people drowned. … On 16 August the Maoists assassinated dam engineer Baijnath Mishra. Since then the project has been shut down.”

Recalling the 1997 floods, Turi said, “Our several requests to give us trucks and other arrangements so that we could move out as soon as possible fell on deaf ears.” After Mishra’s death, the Mandal dam project was put on the back burner. The project got a new impetus when Javedkar decided to form a task force in 2015 to expedite the clearance process. Fresh clearances were now required because in the period when the construction of the dam was largely stalled—between 1997 and 2015—several new laws to regulate development projects had come into being. These included the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and amendments to the Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. 

The MoEFCC provided “In-Principle” or Stage-I approval to the Mandal dam on 23 February 2018, with several conditions for compliance. According to a report in Down to Earth, an environmental magazine, one of the conditions was that settlement of the project-impacted families should take place before further construction on the project. However, the Jharkhand government requested the MoEFCC to modify this condition through a letter in May 2018.

The Forest Advisory Committee, a statutory body which considers questions on the diversion of forest land for non-forest use, deliberated on the Jharkhand government’s request. As reported in Down to Earth, the minutes of the FAC meeting show that it acceded to the request. “The state government has stated that this condition would not allow the execution of the work without prior settlement of submergence villages,” the minutes of the FAC meeting noted. “In view to this, the condition … be amended to state that the state government will ensure time bound settlement plan for settling the submergence villages before closing the sluice gates of the dam.”  In November 2018, the MoEFCC granted the final approval or Stage II clearance for the Kutku Mandal dam project. Between the Stage I and Stage II approvals, the government did not resettle the villagers that stand to be impacted by the dam.

As part of the of the clearance process, the Jharkhand government hired the Nature Conservation Society—or NCS—an organisation working in the area since 1976 to protect biodiversity, to prepare a Site-Specific Wildlife Management Plan to fulfil the statutory conditions under the Forest Conservation Act and the Wildlife Protection Act.   The government-commissioned NCS report shows that, contrary to the government’s claims that villagers have been resettled, they continue to live in the project-affected areas.

The NCS report references a letter by the rehabilitation officer of the North Koel Project, dated 25 January 2017. According to this letter, 634 families from 15 affected villages were relocated and rehabilitated. Of these, 83 families were allotted land and 551 families were given compensation in lieu of land. The letter added that all 634 families were paid for transport. The NCS report said, “There is no mention of relocation places for these families except 83 who got rehabilitation land.” It is pertinent to note that even as per the official version, only 83 families have been given alternative land.

Contradicting the government’s version in the letter, the NCS report noted, “Our socio-economic survey of submergence area reveals that 670 households in 8 village are still occupying the villages and cultivating their land.” It added, “It is important to know that Water Resource Department is contemplating that all 8 villages under submergence area had been paid compensation and rehabilitated. But the ground reality suggests that these villages are still there with their local administration of Panchayat and Mukhiya”—or local government heads—“elections. The Mukhiyas of the affected villages are still demanding suitable compensation and rehabilitation package.” This claim was substantiated in my conversations with people still residing in these areas. 

According to the NCS report, 46 villages fall in the “10 km impact zone from submergence,” and “will also be greatly affected for their livelihood and extreme movement of wildlife.” These consists of 5,852 households. In addition, it notes that alteast 10 other villages will be impacted by the “change of movement pattern of wildlife particularly elephant.” This includes 1,138 households.

“The submergence area has tribal villages including most primitive tribes who will be displaced on the name of development,” the NCS report said. The government designates certain numerically small and physically isolated Adivasi communities as Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups, previously referred to as “primitive tribes,” for whom it has to give additional protections. The NCS report added, “The forest and wildlife will also be impacted and dam may change the ecology of entire area.”

One of the conditions of the final environmental clearance requires the Jharkhand government to compensate for the destruction of trees by undertaking compensatory afforestation. The government has claimed that the planting of 12,09,89,185 saplings since 2015 has resulted in an increase of the forest cover to 33.21 percent of the state’s total area and that it has achieved the target set in the National Forest Policy.

However, locals disagreed. “We have not seen plantations taking place in the area,” Turi said. “Nor do we believe that the forest cover has increased. It is truly audacious to claim that the forest cover increased soon as trees were planted as sometimes it can take decades before full forests are created. Does the government know how many years it takes to grow one Sal tree?”

I also spoke to Sonal Tiwary, an advocate at the Human Rights Law Network, who is working on legal violations in the Mandal dam project. “Compensatory afforestation process needs to be challenged as this process doesn’t talk about the loss to biodiversity,” he said. Refering to a controversy regarding the felling of trees in Aarey, an urban forest in Mumbai, Sonal added, “Unlike Aarey, here there is no question about whether this is a forest or not. While felling of 200–300 trees in the cities generates a lot of uproar and interest, what we see in Jharkhand is an ecological catastrophe of paramount proportion, a threat to biodiversity, the scale of which is unimaginable, and yet there is not so much as a whimper.” The MoEFCC and the Jharkhand government did not respond to a request for comment.

A report by IndiaSpend, a news website, noted that according to government data, 14,000 square kilometres of forests in India have been lost to 23,716 industrial projects over the past 30 years. The report added that as per data from the MoEFCC, of the 14,000 square kilometres of forests, the largest areas have been given over to mining, followed by defence projects and hydroelectric projects—4,947 square kilometres, 1,549 square kilometres and 1,351 square kilometres, respectively.

In response to a question in the Rajya Sabha in 2016, the central government acknowledged that artificial forests cannot replace natural forests, the report cited. While answering a question on whether artificial afforestation can be considered to help with degraded forests, the Javadekar had said, “It is true that artificial afforestation carried out under compensatory afforestation provisions of FCA, 1980 can’t substitute natural forests, yet, keeping in view the imperatives of development, and the crucial role played by development projects including highways in the process of development, permission for diversion of forest land is granted under the FCA only in cases where diversion of forest land is inevitable. Compensatory afforestation is undertaken to minimize the loss of impact of forest diversion in due course of time.”

The environment ministry and the office of the Latehar district collector did not respond to questions sent to them. In addition to the ecological dangers of the dam, there is another stark contradiction in the government’s push for the project. The local authorities have long threatened Adivasis residing in the core areas of the PTR with displacement on the grounds that they are in a “protected” tiger reserve area and that their stay could destroy the tiger habitat. Yet, while claiming to protect tigers at the cost of humans, the authorities have no hestitation in letting large parts of the same tiger reserve be submerged by the dam.

“In the 1970s when the dam was coming up, many people weren’t aware of large-scale projects such as these which will have such a catastrophic impact on the environment,” Kujur told me. “They used to think dams are good for people. But experiences have shown how dams have caused havoc. PTR is home to thousands of Adivasis who stand at a huge risk today. We will not only lose the lands but it will cause an irreversible impact on the environment.” He said that the Mandal project should be abandoned. “Instead, there is need to take immediate measures to implement protective legislations such as the FRA, 2006 in letter and spirit. That only can ensure environmental and social justice.”

 

 

 

 

Sushmita is a researcher, journalist and a multimedia artist. She works on issues related to the rights of indigenous people, environment, climate change, violence against women, governance and more. She is part of an ongoing assessment on the impact of COVID-19 on Adivasis and forest communities.