Last month, a line of houses and shops along the Teesta River were demolished by the district administration in the Indian state of West Bengal. The structures set riverside of the 29th Mile village were at risk of being inundated by the fast rising backwaters of a 32.5-meter high barrage. The owners of all but two properties, owned by Meena Sherpa and her family, accepted the cash compensation offered by NHPC, the Government of India enterprise that operates the Teesta Low Dam III project a few kilometers downstream.
The 132-megawatt hydropower project was commissioned in March 2013, but Sherpa and her family did not accept the compensation maintaining that it was too meager. The rest readily accepted Rs 6-14 lakhs ($9,000-$21,000). She shared the company’s agreement with a schoolteacher who straightaway advised her against signing the document. The company has gradually revised their offer over the past two years. Others now see the value in her resolve.
“Hydropower project proponents often offer contracts or jobs to influential people in the village, in the hope that they will take the rest of the community along with them. Some are threatened and the word is spread that compensation will not be offered to them if they don’t sign,” says Himanshu Thakker, convenor of the South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers and People. “In many cases people are harassed in to agreeing to the poor terms offered” he adds.
Sherpa and her family are demanding Rs 32 lakhs ($48,000) for her two properties; the company most recently upped their offer to Rs 18 lakhs ($27,000). Earlier, says Sherpa, the company pressured all other landowners to get her to accept the compensation on the pretext that no one would get the money. Officials would come at night holding private conversations with individual owners, playing on their collective fears.
Vimal Bhai, an activist who has interacted with many dam-affected communities over the past two decades says that state governments and dam companies propaganda mislead people in to believing dams are the best pathway to progress and development. “Village heads are often bought, and attempts are made to silence those opposing the project or the meager compensation on offer”.
Sherpa remembers a forest patch that they’d negotiate as children before they got to the water line. The big flood of 1968 carried with it boulders, rocks and silt that raised the level of the riverbed. The commissioning of the barrage then brought the water perilously near their homes, where cracks began to appear. A 2002 survey identified the 13 affected families, but the survey showed the structures as temporary. Sherpa argued that they’d been living there for more than two generations. She refused to accept what she believes is an inadequate sum for her ancestral property. The officials attempted to placate and allay her concerns, but all their promises were made verbally; nothing official was put down on paper. Given her conversations with the schoolteacher, Sherpa has since been wary of any spoken promises made by officials of the dam company or the district administration.
What is clear is that there is no defined mechanism for people such as Sherpa to engage with the district administration, or collectively as a community to discuss and resolve differences. Public hearings are mere formalities, while strong-arm tactics are common complaints among those whose lives are altered by large infrastructure projects. Far too often people attest to dirty tricks employed in order to divide communities and expedite project interests.
At the 29th Mile village, some now fear for the properties on the hillside of the road, where some of the displaced either own or rent shops and small homes. Little cracks have begun to appear in the foundations here too.