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PRATIBHA SHINDE

India,

In recent years, India’s government has built many dam projects, blocking rivers to create massive reservoirs, in the hope that this will solve the country’s water and electricity problems. The people who live in areas flooded by the swelling reservoirs, however, are all but ignored. Policies for helping refugees differ markedly across state borders, making it easy to fall through the cracks. In addition, when refugees do receive assistance, it is rarely anything beyond being assigned to new land. Pratibha Shinde campaigns for a uniform national rehabilitation policy to provide actual practical assistance to displaced people. She wants the government to do more than just give official permission to people to settle on some random new piece of land; she wants the government to ensure that these people have the opportunity to prosper in their new homes.

This profile below was prepared when Pratibha Shinde was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2005.

INTRODUCTION

In recent years, India’s government has built many dam projects, blocking rivers to create massive reservoirs, in the hope that this will solve the country’s water and electricity problems. The people who live in areas flooded by the swelling reservoirs, however, are all but ignored. Policies for helping refugees differ markedly across state borders, making it easy to fall through the cracks. In addition, when refugees do receive assistance, it is rarely anything beyond being assigned to new land. Pratibha Shinde campaigns for a uniform national rehabilitation policy to provide actual practical assistance to displaced people. She wants the government to do more than just give official permission to people to settle on some random new piece of land; she wants the government to ensure that these people have the opportunity to prosper in their new homes.




THE NEW IDEA

There are 30 large, 135 medium, and 3,000 small dams planned under the government’s Narmada Valley Development Project. The construction and flooding will leave millions homeless, but the government has only given minimal thought to what must be done to help these ‘refugees.’ Rehabilitation packages stop at arbitrary land allocations, and simply don’t provide enough to meet the needs of all the displaced. Though the effects of displacement spill over state borders, there is no coordination between states and no uniform policy for dealing with the problem.

Pratibha realizes that rehabilitation cannot be piecemeal. Unlike other activists, Pratibha is organizing the people to participate in local self-governance through tribal self-rule councils and village committees. She arms them with the power to negotiate suitable land use, map livelihood options after relocation, and demand functional amenities like education, health care, and basic infrastructure and access to government employment schemes.

Much of the land set aside for the displaced citizens is actually already inhabited. The original inhabitants of those areas are usually small minority tribes, deemed ‘encroachers’ by the government and denied any rights to this land under the Forest Conservation Act. The government feels that, since these people have no legal right to the land, it is free to reallocate the land as it sees fit. Despite what the laws say, these tribes feel a strong connection to the land and resent the sudden influx of refugees, whom they consider to be trespassers. Pratibha knows that the key to getting the whole plan to work is to get tribals and refugees to get along. She is working out guidelines in partnership with the government to resolve inter-community conflicts.

Pratibha works in the state of Maharashtra, and her efforts have yielded stunning results. She and her organization, Punarvasan Sangharsh Samiti (The Struggle for Rehabilitation Group) have made Maharashtra the first state in India to announce a comprehensive rehabilitation policy that takes into account all the people, both refugees and tribals, affected by dam projects. Now Pratibha is expanding her model into the state of Gujarat, where no rehabilitation policy exists. She is also in the process of drafting a national rehabilitation policy for the government that would monitor six Indian states affected by dam displacement—Chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Punjab, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat. With a national policy in place, it would make it mandatory for rehabilitation to precede displacement. She is instigating at the grassroots level to effectively reach state and national ears.

Her vision goes beyond just people displaced by dams. She hopes that in future, the national model she is promoting will be applicable to people displaced by other major public works projects, such as the government’s grand river-linking project.




THE PROBLEM

The central government has issued some guidelines for the benefit of displaced people, but, because states are not compelled to adopt them, enforcement varies dramatically from state to state. (The state of Gujarat, for instance, does not have a rehabilitation policy at all.) The guidelines hold that submergence cannot precede rehabilitation, that agricultural land must be made available for rehabilitation one year in advance, and that refugees should receive complete compensation for lost agricultural lands and personal property, but the situation on the ground is totally different.

The most basic problem is that there is not enough land to go around, so the government resorts to sending refugees to land that is already occupied. This gives rise to severe and sometimes violent inter-community conflicts between the original tribal inhabitants and the newly arrived ‘refugees.’

The shortsightedness of the government is strikingly evident in that the costs of resettlement are not calculated when formulating rehabilitation packages. Often, relocated communities find themselves in remote areas without roads or transport, no access to health care, schools, or even drinking water. Resettling leads to the breakdown of the traditional economic structure as well, since many people find that the jobs they have been doing their whole lives are no longer possible in their new homes. (For example, a cattleherd may be moved to barren land unsuitable for grazing, or a farmer to unplantable forest.) The problems are compounded by the fact that the government does very little besides allocating the new land—the people themselves are forced to bear the costs of relocating and also those of setting up basic infrastructure in their new location. They even have to build their own houses when they arrive.




THE STRATEGY

Pratibha works in the Nandurbar area of Maharashtra, where 40,000 displaced families live. She employs a two-pronged strategy to achieve a just rehabilitation policy for these people. First, her organization collects data to find how many people have actually been affected by the dam project and what they need to begin a prosperous new life, including the cost of relocating, rebuilding, and finding new jobs. Second, she assesses the suitability of government-identified resettlement sites and the implications of resettlement on pre-existing ‘encroachers.’ The data is then presented to the government as evidence of the need for national policies to protect these people. She has drawn up a comprehensive list of 23 different kinds of compensatory packages. Maharashtra believes that, to truly make the relocation equitable, the government must bear all costs associated with relocation and rebuilding.

Pratibha is concerned for the rights of encroachers as well as refugees, and works hard to find solutions that benefit both sides. She pushed the government to pass legislation granting encroachers rights to their traditional lands before relocating the settlers. This makes encroachers equal partners and beneficiaries in the resettlement process.

To achieve all of the above, Pratibha is reactivating communities’ traditional self-rule systems, so that they themselves can negotiate their future with the government. Pratibha founded the Loksamanway Pratishthan (United People’s Platform) to initiate capacity building programs among the project-affected families.

The Pratishthan builds up self-help groups for economic security and self-reliance, as well as grain banks and women’s councils for health, hygiene and education. The village-level committees she organizes help resolve intra-community conflicts and act as a leverage point for all people affected by dam projects to pressure the government. Her income-generation activities are ensuring economic security after relocation and the women’s councils are taking on the important issues of basic facilities and infrastructure, health, and education as fundamental human rights.

Simultaneously, it continuously spreads information about existing government schemes and packages for the displaced so that the communities stay informed and are better equipped to negotiate with the government. Pratibha is now networking with other state organizations to replicate her model, as well as build a coalition to lobby for a national policy.




THE PERSON

Born in a small farming village of Maharashtra, Pratibha was the only girl in her immediate family and the first woman in her extended family to graduate from school. Encouraged by her strong-willed mother, Pratibha never backed down from a challenge. She was determined that, despite its poverty, her village should not lack for basic amenities; she organized a group of five girls to work in the local community to improve health, hygiene, and cleanliness. Years later, this small group of six was to become the core of Pratibha’s activist organization.

Pratibha drew her inspiration from the great Indian social activist Baba Amte and his Bharat Jodo Andolan (Rejuvenate India Movement). At the age of 14, she decided the time was right for her to help the outside world as she had helped her village, and she and her five companions ran away from home to join their hero. Amte was surprised to see this group of eager young girls appear at his doorstep. Although he was impressed with their spunk, he knew they still had much to learn. He sent them home with some good advice: Finish your educations first.

Even after that, Pratibha wasn’t content to sit back at school and learn things passively. At 16, she joined the local arm of the student’s organization Chhatra Bharati and, while in college, rose to become the state-level secretary. As secretary, she successfully campaigned for discounted year-long bus passes for rural students and a separate merit list for students studying in night schools.

In 1992, she met Medha Patkar, founder of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). This was around the time that the government was building the first of its major dam projects—and the first of the villages was about to be submerged. Medha and her team wanted to investigate the project’s impact on locals, but government officials had banned them from entering the area. Medha realized that she needed someone with a quick mind and unrelenting zeal to investigate in her place; she chose Pratibha to lead the new mission. Pratibha’s findings forced the government for the first time to take notice of how villagers were affected.

Even so, Pratibha was dissatisfied with NBA’s ability to adequately address the people’s rehabilitation needs, so she and her original group from the Chhatra Bharati days broke away from the movement to set up their own organization, Punarvasan Sangharsh Samiti (The Struggle for Rehabilitation Group).

She lives in Nandurbar with her husband and son.




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