Combating displacement


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THE last couple of decades have witnessed intense resistance movements challenging large-scale displacement caused, among others, by mines, dams, national parks and sanctuaries, bomb and missile-testing ranges, industry and urban expansion. Since 1986, thousands of affected people have also united to struggle against the mammoth displacement being caused by construction of large dams in the Narmada valley. Adivasi women from the mountains, and women from other communities of the Nimad plains of the Narmada valley, have been at the forefront of this struggle.

Over the years, as the dams came up, hundreds, sometimes thousands of women marched in the tehsil or district towns of Alirajpur, Badwani, Kukshi, Jhabua, Dhar, Mandleshwar, Khandwa, Dewas, Harda, Jabalpur and Hoshangabad to protest their displacement. They demonstrated at Bhopal, Indore and Delhi to challenge the government and project authorities, and protested at the offices of the World Bank in New Delhi at a time when it was funding the Sardar Sarovar dam, and the US and German embassies in New Delhi whose companies were involved in the Maheshwar project.

Women took over the offices of Indian financial institutions at Mumbai, Delhi, Bhopal and Bangalore in protest against their involvement in the financing of the Maheshwar project, demanding accountability with regard to the projected benefits and questioning the terms of rehabilitation and resettlement.

From 1990, Kamludidi, Rukminikaki, Pinjaribai and many other women have braved the rising waters at Manibeli, Jalsindhi and Domkhedi in the Sardar Sarovar catchment. In 2005, at Indira Sagar, Krishnabai, a dalit woman leading other dalit and adivasi women of the area, refused to budge when the waters rose to engulf houses and lands, demanding rehabilitation entitlements. In 2007, under the leadership of Ramkuwar, activist with the movement and herself an adivasi displaced by the Man dam, the villagers affected by the Omkareshwar dam offered satyagraha at Gunjari village, when the Supreme Court permitted the state government to fill the Omkareshwar reservoir.

In 2002, it was the women and young teenage girls who first confronted police and government officials when they entered the villages affected by the Man dam. Armed with batons, guns and tear-gas shells, the police and the administration had broken down their homes, cut down trees, sealed hand-pumps, bulldozed schools or turned them into police camps, brutally evicting them from villages and unloading them in camps little better than jail. However, the women fought every inch of the way, finally returning to their villages to continue the fight for their rights.

It was the women more than the men who confronted the police at the barricades, preventing with their bodies the passage of trucks carrying consignments of cement, steel, and other materials that would go into making the dam, despite facing mass arrest, beatings and violence every week. They formed the backbone of the movement, its moral centre.


The leadership of women in the Maheshwar struggle against the private company S. Kumars, the state government, and US and German capital was substantive and full-bodied. Women were not only at the fore-front of demonstrations and protests, they were at the helm of the decision-making process as well.

The threat of complete dispossession served to submerge the usual patriarchal prohibition on women coming out of their homes and participating in politics. In many ways the struggle generated a new consciousness. Of course, there were objections, particularly to women using their bodies to barricade the dam, but these were ignored. Therefore, Mohanbhai’s advise when he told his wife Annapurna not to block the roads when the police and the company trucks arrived, and to sit in the buses and offer arrest with dignity, was brushed aside. Annapurna and the hundreds of other women who kept vigil for months, continued to link hands, to lie on the roads, and resist being picked up. They were dragged into buses, only to quickly get down again and lie under the wheels, facing lathi-charges and physical violence. Even as their clothes were torn off and jewellery stolen, they continued to peacefully resist.

Thus, it was only in the context of an impending and wholesale destruction of their areas that large numbers of women emerged from their homes and entered the arena of struggle as protagonists and agents. The intensity of their participation was linked not only to their being affected, but to their identity as women, hitherto subordinated, cloistered and deprived of any full-bodied participation in civic and political affairs. Participation in the struggle changed their lives as they came out of their homes for the first time, and the buoyancy of their un-caged aspirations gave strength, vitality and imagination to the movement.


The active participation of the women of Maheshwar in the decision-making process was equally the consequence of simultaneously building a separate women’s organization in the area – the Narmada Shakti Dal. In its periodic meetings and conferences they shared information, debated strategies and discussed questions with regard to the movement as also larger political and women’s issues, helping raise consciousness and build confidence.

True that even among the core group of village leaders it was not easy to ensure the participation of women at the beginning. Many meetings were cancelled because of the absence of women representatives. Slowly it became a norm, and later a fundamental requirement for the movement, one it could not have done without. As the villagers fought the physical construction of the dam on one hand, and confronted its foreign, and later its public financing on the other, quick decisions had to be made in response to new information, and a positive approach maintained in the face of great odds. It was the women who were responsible for quick and agile decisions and timely action, essential for a struggle against private capital.

The emergence of women as a combative force was not welcomed either by the private company or the administration. Predictably, they responded through sexual vilification and coercion – planting stories about condoms being found in jails where the villagers had been imprisoned, and asking caste leaders to prohibit the women from taking to the streets and control their ‘unseemly’ behaviour. The women were angry, but undaunted and unashamed at the scurrilous stories, and challenged newspaper editors and state officials until an apology was forthcoming. The caste leaders were also gently but firmly brushed off.


It was the women who first saw through the offer of cash compensation, insisting that no displacement was acceptable unless all villagers – landholders and landless alike – were provided alternate land. The men, at least the non-tribal men, their minds hegemonized by authority and the market, neither intrinsically questioned the power of the government to acquire their lands nor the cash compensation offered as a means of dispossessing them of their land and livelihoods.

Men somehow saw the cash compensation as a trophy or a windfall, not as something that was instrumental in taking away the land which had not only sustained them for generations but would continue to do so had it not been for the displacement. Despite resistance by the women, the cash compensation was often used by men to purchase motorcycles and other consumables. For example, once when the village women of Behgaon affected by the Maheshwar dam were away on a visit to Bargi dam, the men agreed to accept cash compensation. When the women came back, they were upset at what had transpired in their absence. As a result, Parvatibai, the wife of an influential village leader, began a fast against her husband. Finally, on the ninth day, her husband had to give in, breaking the consensus that had been created in the village in favour of cash compensation.


The implementation of the ‘land for land’ policy has clearly and repeatedly been articulated as a non-negotiable demand by the displaced women. When the displaced women of the Narmada valley organized public hearings and invited the National Commission for Women (NCW) to review the question of cash compensation and the systematic infringement of the rights of women, this was perceived as a threat by the state government and the project authorities.

Thus, in 2000, when such a public hearing was announced, a large number of protesting women from Maheshwar were brutally beaten up and arrested. The women were finally released on the directions of the NCW and the public hearing took place, but only after Syeda Hamid, a member of the NCW dodged state government vehicles that attempted to block her way. The next hearing of the NCW in 2004 against cash compensation was scuttled by the state government and Section 144 declared overnight. Nevertheless, hundreds of dam affected women met in violation of government orders.

The village women were not only clear about the consequences of accepting cash compensation, but took the protest forward when all possibilities seemed exhausted. For example, when the numerous dharnas at the dam site failed to elicit any response, the women persuaded the villagers not to leave the jails. As a result, hundreds of dam oustees placed in five different jails of Madhya Pradesh refused to leave until their questions were answered, greatly embarrassing the government.

A new politics of direct resistance gradually began to take shape – of challenge rather than supplication and patronage. This confidence of the women also spilled into many other issues, big and small – challenging power sector reforms, facing up to violent sand mafia elements seeking to control village riverine resources, and so on.


Soon after the evictions of Harsud, the NBA decided to extend support to the oustees of the Indira Sagar area. A rally was organized in New Harsud where several thousand people had been unceremoniously dumped during the middle of the monsoon without drinking water, no access roads, public transport or even levelled house-plots. It was the first time that people of the Indira Sagar dam raised their voice against the callousness meted out to them. At the rally we repeatedly emphasized that poor people, especially women, were the central focus of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. No wonder, the next day, at the first of the many camps that we held in New Harsud to help villagers communicate their grievances to the appropriate authorities, we found a majority were women – single, deserted, unmarried, divorced or widows.

We soon realized that what attracted them was not the pro-women slant of the NBA, but the systematic violation of the rights and entitlements of all categories of women oustees. Their need for an organization was not a response to our desire to work with women, but drew on the material context of the wholesale infringement of their rights by the project authorities. Of course, they were happy to find an organization where they could find voice.


We learnt that in cases where the head of the household was a widowed woman, the names of the mother and adult daughters living in the house were excluded from the ownership of the house, invariably shown only in the name of the adult sons. This was clearly against the law because after the death of a man his property devolves in the name of both his wife and adult children. However, as the titles of houses are not formally registered in the rural areas, the ownership rights were not documented. The house-owners, mostly non-literate, rarely objected since they did not know in what manner the project authorities were documenting their rights. In not showing the mothers as heads of the household and owners of property, they were not only denied their share of compensation, but were also shown as ‘dependants’ in the family list, and thereby denied all R&R grants and entitlements due to each displaced family.

The definition of ‘displaced family’ in the rehabilitation policy for the Narmada oustees includes husband, wife, minor children and other dependants, e.g., widowed mother, widowed sister, etc. As a result, all mothers, widows, deserted or separated women who had come back to live in the natal village, or women whose husbands live with them in their natal village, were treated as ‘dependants’, even if the reality was that each of these women worked for a living and could not depend on any relative, seeking only the familiarity of the natal village for shelter and work. The non-recognition as a separate family meant that they were denied the rights and entitlements due to each family. Since the number of such single-women headed households is very large, one can well imagine the scale of the problem, and the consequent distress of women forced to start their life afresh at a new place with absolutely nothing in hand. The distress of these women further increased if BPL ration cards or welfare pension or other entitlements they received in the earlier village were not renewed after dislocation.

Thus, even when women owned property, they were deliberately and wilfully denied property rights and concomitant rehabilitation entitlements. In the absence of property rights, women heading households, whether as widowed, deserted, or separated women, were denied the status of a separate family and all R&R entitlements by labelling them as ‘dependants’.


The same bias exists in the case of women mazdoors. An NBA survey of sand quarry workers in Maheshwar dam area yielded some 6000 workers. However, in the next detailed survey, the numbers were down to 4000 workers. On being asked the reason for the decline, the surveyors stated that wherever a married couple worked together, the woman was excluded in order to assess the number of displaced families. And this was our survey – of a people’s organization!

Thus it is clear that the provision of a R&R grant to enable purchase of productive assets for each landless displaced ‘family’ discriminates against landless workers whose individual labour and employment (and not family assets as in the case of land-holders) are affected by the submergence. Given the bias against women, this completely discriminates against women workers who are excluded from assistance in lieu of their lost employment.


In a majority of cases displacement has resulted in homelessness, loss of livelihood and pauperization. Land-holders who were able to support their families, or landless families who lived on the common resources of the village and worked on land as wage workers or artisans lost their employment. Even in the Narmada valley, despite the existence of a rehabilitation policy, the government data for the amount of land that landholders could purchase after displacement for both Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar dams is a mere 11%. If only 11% lands could be repurchased by the land-holders, the state of landless families can well be imagined.

Many families are unable to build a home and literally find themselves on the streets. A majority of the urban poor in India are those displaced from the rural areas, moving from place to place to earn a living. The impact of homelessness and pauperization on women who are food-providers in the present gender division of labour, and who also look after the children, can only be imagined. Violence in the family exacerbates in a situation of penury and in many cases women take recourse to prostitution to make ends meet. In New Harsud, after the people had built their homes, and the compensation amount was exhausted, with no livelihood and nothing to eat, people either migrated or faced the prospect of starvation. Seventy year old Parvatibai remarked that, ‘I’m too old, otherwise I would have sold myself.’ Similarly, after Harsud was broken down, girl children were taken out of schools. Family resources went into purchase of cycles for the sons, if possible, so they could attend the more distant schools.


The movements against displacement in India are characterized by the large-scale participation of women. In what is widely perceived as a struggle for survival, patriarchal norms are temporarily weakened, enabling women to come out of their homes and to raise their voices. Wherever there is repression, women are in the forefront, unfazed by the fear of authority and calculations of consequences. Women are also able to see the pittance of the package offered for what it is, and make the crucial distinction between natural resources necessary for dignified and productive livelihoods. They also recognize that any cash compensation will invariably be undervalued and structured to work against them.

In order that the participation of women in the struggle does not remain confined to facing police repression, forming the fearless but disciplined core of protests, or throwing up a few remarkable women as icons, it is important that they be made a meaningful part of the formal decision-making processes and organizations. This can happen only by repeated and conscious interventions by the leadership. This process of ideological development, information sharing and decision-making gains strength if there is a separate women’s organization.

The experience of displacement in India is homelessness and pauperization for the majority, with displaced families unable to replace either their homes or the resources they had for their livelihoods or employment. The burden of this homelessness and pauperization falls primarily on the women, in the present gender division of labour. Starvation, deprivation, disease, death of children and the psychological impact of not being able to cope, given the lack of resources, as also increased violence on women from members of the family, invariably follows displacement. Sometimes they are forced to commodify themselves in a variety of ways, from having to provide sexual favours in order to receive their entitlements to actual sex work, in the absence of any alterative livelihood.

Women face state repression not only when offering resistance to displacement but even more so later. In fact the state and its partners behave as an occupying force. The process of compulsory acquisition and the large-scale transfer of resources from the rural poor to the corporates is more like a war, based as it is on the colonial provision of eminent domain. The rulers appear clear that the resource transfer is essential for the success of the programme, even if it leaves the victims financially, physically and morally defeated. Where people are united, and especially where women are at the forefront, the attempt of the state to crush the people in spirit as well as in body, is severely challenged. This aspect is central to the success of the resistance. That is also why women and their bodies are special targets of violence and the appropriation of their lands is most often accompanied by rape/sexual violence.


The women of the Narmada valley also initiated and participated in the struggle against power sector reforms in Madhya Pradesh resulting in increased power tariffs to satisfy the loan conditionalities imposed by the ADB and DFID. When people outside the displaced zone asked the Narmada struggle for support to combat anti-farmer measures, the Nimad Malwa Kisan Mazdoor Sanghatan gave the slogan of Videshi gulami nahi sahenge, Bill nahi jail bharenge. The resistance soon spread to as many as 800 villages.

The initial mobilization in the non-submergence zone villages on the issue of the power sector were spearheaded by the Maheshwar dam affected women. Naturally, during their tours, they spoke to the women. On their advice, the women collectively resisted the removal of the DPs and so were able to retain their electricity connections. Nobody felt the need to consult men whether in the submergence or non-submergence villages. Similarly, when the first farmer’s suicides took place in Nimad, women took the lead in investigating and publicizing the issue.


The need to look at all the issues of injustice together rather than in isolation was best expressed by Kamlabai of the Maheshwar area, who said, ‘Can the displacement issue be resolved in exclusion of the farmer’s issues and other issues? In the struggle for freedom it was mostly men who were sent to the gallows. It is my dream that this time it will be us women who will be at the forefront and face the gallows.’

At a women’s meeting on the WTO, the crisis of farming and farmer’s suicides, a landless woman pointed out that: ‘Today we are talking about kisani, and we must do something about it. But remember, we must also do something about mazdoors and mazdoori. I’m not saying that it should be done today, but the issue has to be addressed.’

The different aspirations of women jostle with each other for time and space – the aspiration of the woman qua woman, of the woman farmer facing power sector reforms, adverse terms of credit and adverse terms of trade in agriculture, and the aspiration of the woman worker whose expectations are with regard to shelter, dignity, and availability and adequacy of mazdoori. The struggles for displacement need to respond to each aspiration.

With the intensification of resource alienation, and large-scale land acquisition and displacement, millions of women and men are likely to be uprooted from their homes, lands and villages. Narmada, Baliapal, Netarhat, and many other sites where the struggles began more than two decades ago, as also Nandigram, Kalinganagar, Posco and Singur more recently, show that this displacement will be actively resisted. Thus, in the coming years, large numbers of women will take to the streets, braving police repression, rape and violence. The women’s movement will have to respond to this.


Both individual women and feminist groups have been an important source of support to struggles against displacement all over India, especially in the Narmada valley. However, the coordination has been sporadic, based more on the immediate needs of the local struggle. If only it is understood that the movement of women against displacement is the women’s movement, or a significant part of it, then the coming together will be more meaningful and enrich the displacement virodhi movement-building in feminist theory and practice, as well as strengthen and broaden its the sweep.

The task of generating theory and practice and movement building – whether relating to imperialism, issues of the landless, or addressing patriarchy and women’s rights – has acquired a new urgency. Displacement movements, often single issue movements, find it hard to cope with these tasks. It will require the coming together of all these various struggles/movements if we are to resist the continuing dispossession of the majority.