With children gathering under the trees for their morning classes, a handful of men cooking food on the fire and other villagers farming in the fields behind the green tent in which I write, it is easy to forget that I am in the heart of a struggle. But I am.
Under this tent, for more than three weeks over 130 people have carried out the longest occupation of government-owned land ever registered in Madhya Pradesh (a state in central India). The occupiers are ‘oustees’, displaced from their land by the Sardar Sarovar and the Jobat dam projects. Mostly adivasis (indigenous people) associated with the NBA (Narmada Bachao Andolan) movement, they have never been compensated for the loss of their land. The demonstrators are demanding fair land-based rehabilitation for themselves, their families and all the oustees.
In the district of Alirajpur and Badwani, the overwhelming majority of the victims of displacement are adivasis. People belonging to different villages, from the hilly village of Bhadal and Jalsindhi to the villages in the plains around Jobat, have united in this satyagraha (non violent action).
Water scarcity has led the demonstrators to occupy cultivable and irrigable land held by the government. This represents a tangible and viable alternative to the land that was originally offered to them (which they claim was unsuitable for cultivation). It is striking that so far no representative of the state authorities has come onto the site; the protest is not receiving the attention it deserves.
How long will the protest last? The villagers claim they will hold on to this site until the state materially compensate them. A starting point would be the granting of rights to the land that they now occupy. Divided into lots it could accommodate between 15 and 17 families. The demonstrators will keep on sleeping under the tent, cooking on site and farming in the fields; if jailed, they are likely to go back to site.
In 2007, the NBA organized a similar occupation in Badwani, but on the 12th day of the protest, the villagers were assaulted and lathi-charged while they were having dinner and then conducted to jail. After the opening of a court case on this episode, the state was compelled to pay to 92 oustees a compensation of 10,000 rupees, 5,000 of which have been already disbursed under the Supreme Court’s directions.
Perhaps fearful of a repeat episode, the government has not undertaken any forcible vacation of the protest site, nor has it used violence against the people. Apart from the collector of the Alirajpur district, who has so far been sympathetic to the protesters’ requests, the authorities have not shown any interest.
There has been a less visible response: after the first week, water and electricity supplies were cut, leaving the site in darkness and endangering the cultivation of crops. In spite of this, life goes on. Disruption to farming has been kept to a minimum through the use of new technologies that require less water. Today all the villagers, 40 of which are children, eat, bathe and cultivate the land using a single, private water-pump. With the cold winter nights and the lack of electricity, the living conditions are not easy, but over 15 years of displacement and survival on hilltops are motivation enough to keep on struggling.
There is another precedent that fuels hope too. In Maharashtra, a similar occupation took place in 2003 for less than 20 days in a place called Somaval. After that, three resettlement sites were set up in Javdavadi, Vadchil and Chikli. The official process of allocation of the land to the oustees continues to this day. The oustees in Madhya Pradesh ask with reason why they cannot benefit from the same process.
For the protesters, this tent is far from being an illegal encroachment. It represents a legal right to peaceful protest, which they exercise as Indian citizens against the long-lasting silence of the authorities on the issue of rehabilitation and the corruption of this process; and against the abstract justice of court judgments that were never implemented.
Listening to the people’s demands, many questions arise over the relation between the state and the rights of citizenship, and the concepts of justice and legality. Given the continuing dispossession of adivasi people from their right to land, they live in a permanent state of exception; why should we, then, use legality as a key for interpreting the protest? Who or what is illegal here is hard to decide.