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Chetan and his Camera: Bringing Power to the People

One man and his camera are changing things for the Narmada oustees in Nandurbar in Maharashtra.

Land use and ownership are intrinsically linked to poverty, access to clean potable water and access to education, healthcare and other basic amenities meant to improve quality of life. Landlessness remains the key cause of rural deprivation, and it is the marginalized communities across the country that bear the brunt of this.

Most new development projects in India claim to be aimed at improving the lives of local populations. However, the reality for communities living at or near a project often belies these promises. Development projects usually mean forcible evictions, lack of adequate rehabilitation and compensation, and a destruction of livelihood. Each year an estimated 15 million people across the globe are forcibly uprooted from their homes, farmlands, fishing areas and forests to make way for dam reservoirs, irrigation projects, mines, plantations, highways, and tourist resorts. Urban slums are bulldozed to make way for luxury condominiums, sporting facilities and shopping centres. Human rights abuses do not end after a forced eviction. A community may not be formally resettled and often find themselves living without adequate housing and without access to water, work, schools and hospitals. Forced eviction exacerbates poverty, social unrest, environmental degradation and loss of cultural identity. Its effect continues long after the last home is demolished.

Most forcible evictions in India are due to state-endorsed development projects which require massive tracts of land. Other than the state, corporations, industries, thermal power plants, mining, hydropower and dams, public projects like highways and roadways, flyovers and bridges also have displaced large numbers of people. Public Private Partnerships or straightforward private corporations launch projects, and cross-violations of these projects include land acquisition without prior and informed consent from communities residing there, inadequate or no rehabilitation, lack of or inadequate compensation and acquisition of land which is ultimately neither used for the purpose of the project, nor returned to communities it was acquired from. Despite several Constitutional guarantees and changes in the law in an attempt to bring equality in land ownership, the state itself fails to uphold these laws and guarantees, and instead, facilitates easy land acquisition for privately owned corporations and industries.

Video Volunteers recognizes lack of access to land and forced eviction to be a human rights violation. A majority of our network of community correspondents works in areas most affected by poverty, lack of access to land and areas most severely affected by forced evictions. One such example is Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA)– Save Narmada Campaign: a social movement formed in 1989, to protest the 138 metres high Sardar Sarovar Dam. NBA comprises of some of India’s most marginalized communities – Dalits, Adivasis and farmers–who have been or are being displaced by the huge dam and are fighting for rehabilitation and resettlement.

Slated to provide water for millions of people across Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra, the Narmada Dam Project was initiated soon after India’s independence. In 1979, approval was granted for the construction of 30 major, 135 medium and 3000 small dams. This included raising the height of the Sardar Sarovar Dam. While the dam was meant to be for the ‘greater common good’, authorities failed to implement and fulfil crucial assessments prior to starting the project. The project not only violated basic environmental conditions but failed to consider post project problems affecting the citizens which it would displace. Villagers weren’t consulted, nor informed, and were only offered rehabilitation, a false promise given that land records hadn’t been verified or updated! When construction began on the Sardar Sarovar Dam in April 1987, the flaws in the government’s relocation and rehabilitation plan was exposed – there wasn’t enough land to redistribute, the infrastructure was next to non-existent, and the displaced people had a hard time acclimatizing to the different environmental conditions.

Working closely with on-ground activists, and aided by activists, academics, scientists and cultural leaders, both in India and internationally, the NBA has been demanding different development alternatives to dam constructions. NBA supports local villagers, and people displaced by the dam project in demanding their right to land, compensation and rehabilitation. One of India’s largest social movements, the NBA has re-defined the terms of democracy and people’s participation with their demands for accountability and transparency in development projects. The Sardar Sarovar Dam was inaugurated as recently as September 2017. However, Narmada oustees are yet to receive full compensation and proper rehabilitation, and Chetan Salve, a key member of NBA, was trained by Video Volunteers in 2014 to document the demands of his community to ensure justice as promised.

Imagining barely 70,000 people would be displaced, the Supreme Court showed support to the Narmada project in a ruling in 2000, suggesting the ratio of beneficiaries vs. project affected lies at 100:1, a price local populations must be willing to pay for the ‘greater common good’. However, over 3,00,000 people have been displaced, and millions have been affected by related issues of ecology, infrastructure and lack of amenities.

As construction continues, and protests persist, Chetan carefully notes every complaint coming his way. He documents the loss of livelihoods, miserable living conditions, lack of roads and infrastructure, access to clean drinking water, adequate food and the injustice faced by the people from his community, every single day of their lives.

Over the last two years, Chetan has successfully documented, how oustees from the dam site have been forced to live in inhumane, unsanitary conditions, a far cry from the grandiose promises made by the government. He uses his camera, smartphone and the social media to bring the demands of his people to the attention of the local administration. The videos are powerful and have compelled several officials to personally oversee and ensure justice for the people affected by the Narmada Project. Today, with state governments shrugging off responsibility to rehabilitate the oustees, NBA continues both direct agitation as well as legal action. And in this, they are supported by true champions of the cause: Chetan and his camera.

Video by VV Community Correspondents

Article by Radhika Bijoyini

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