The decorations are up and the tree is full of colours. More than thirty children have adorned it with painted dried flowers and scraps of paper carrying their wishes for the future. The star does not appear on top, but hangs from one of the tallest branches of the small palm tree that was chosen as a Christmas insignia in the protest camp of Jobat. Here Christmas day marks the 31st day of occupation of government land by adivasis (indigenous people) associated with the NBA that were dispossessed by the Sardar Sarovar and Jobat dams in Madhya Pradesh. A massive project of damming the Narmada River, started in the 1980s, led to the displacement of people from the surrounding valley comprising the district of Alirajpur from 1994 onwards. For many villagers in Madhya Pradesh resettlement still has not taken place.
This indefinite non-violent demonstration for right to land (zaminhaqsatyagraha) began on 24 November 2011, when a tent was pitched on a piece of government land identified by the movement as complying with the basic characteristics set by the Supreme Court for the resettlement. The protest points the finger at the utter lack of implementation of the Narmada Tribunal Award (1979) and the Supreme Court’s judgments (from1999 onwards) granting cultivable, irrigable, unencroached land and house plots in resettlement sites with basic civic amenities. Despite various promises and ‘action’ plans from regional and national authorities, some of the claimants that now occupy government soil in Jobat have not been legally compensated for their loss.
In 2006, NBA activist Medha Patkar and other oustees undertook a 21 day fast, following which three Ministers from the Central Government were sent to the Narmada Valley by the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. As a consequence of their report, the Prime Minister gave a written assurance to the Supreme Court that he would ensure full compliance with the its judgments and will monitor and complete rehabilitation of all the oustees as per law. That promise too was left unattended.
The appointed institutions, including the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA), Narmada Control Authority (NCA) or the state government, all remain silent. Life in the protest goes on with its routine: children go to school after the morning prayerwhile adults cultivate the occupied land. Three weeks ago, the government deprived the site of water and power. With the winter getting colder, people are forced to gather by the fire very early in the morning. For all of them, particularly for the children that have been sleeping outdoors covered by thin blankets, Christmas was a chance to enjoy a few moments of pleasure in the hardship of struggle.
So it was in the evening that songs and dances reinvigorated a tired but relentless crowd of three generations. During the whole morning, the site was buzzing with journalists interested in the new actions undertaken by the protesters. On 24 December, representatives of the seven villages where the oustees come from, including Anjanvara, Bhadhal, Bhitada, Jhandana, Jalsindhi, Kakrana and Sugat, decided to divide the occupied allotment in seven equal parts. The identified portions will be managed commonly and will hopefully constitute a source of income for supporting the satyaghra.
After carrying out the division, the NBA sent a written request to the local tehsildar (revenue officer) to register this partition and allot the land to a group of representative oustees from each affected village. The request – written in the name of single citizens since the state does not recognize common land management but only private property – was denied and dismissed as illegal. The provocative choice of demanding the legal registration of ‘encroached’ land is itself an act questioning the language of the state. Nonetheless, the fact of entitling communal land to private people implicitly unveils the governing strategies of the state constructing citizens as private owners and discharging traditional joint methods of cultivation. This dismissal is not to be overlooked. One of the reasons why some of the dispossessed are not yet notified is inextricably linked to this ‘modern’ logic, since the official records keeping account of the holders of common fields often only list pater familias and their eldest sons.
The struggle of these citizens – deprived of the real actions of resettlement that they are legitimately entitled to – questions the legal framework of the state in unexpected ways. Their actions highlight the right to rehabilitation that the protest wants to place at the centre of the political agenda. They also question the principle of equality at the heart of the concept of democracy, when the ‘othering’ of a category considered as economically ‘backward’ and ethnically different is still taking place. In villages where for over twenty years no land register was updated, people find it hard to reconcile the special constitutional rights granted to adivasis with the lack of implementation.
While this initiative has attracted media attention, the state continues to ignore the demands of the adivasis gathered in Jobat from the districts of Barwani and Alirajpur. It is difficult to foresee for how long there will be no reaction, but there is a general feeling that if there will be any intervention it will be a dispossession of this land once it produces consumable goods. That would only confirm the problematic equation, promoted by the modern state, between citizens and economically productive subjects.