By Thangkhanlal Ngaihte
It was after noon on December 20, 2006 and we were inside an apparently hurriedly-assembled hut at the Phaibem Grouping Centre. The hut–in which a husband and wife and two children lives – was no bigger than a single-seater university hostel room, and streams of soft sunlight penetrated through the matted bamboo walls. Being winter, the ground-which is the floor-was dry.
The house-lady, whose name is Vungpi, was busy preparing the family’s evening meal. A pot of rice sat atop the fireplace and there was a big pumpkin–sliced into two–on a plate alongside a 20-litre coconut oil can half-filled with water. Her son, who could not be more than eight years old, gaped at us from the doorway. Her husband, she told us, had gone to find some charcoal and will be back only at dusk.
I asked her if they had obtained any compensation from the government so far for their resettlement.Vungpi said that their family, together with another 12 households in her village (which have since been submerged by the water), obtained Rs 1500 each from the government so far. The promised amount was Rs. 3000 for one household. But while there were 13 houses in their village, the government’s records show only eight houses. So, the amount meant for eight households had to be divided among 13 households. Each of them ultimately ended up with Rs. 1500. (The government records were compiled way back in 1992. The villagers also said that while the government still uses records taken in 1992 according to which there are 720 households facing displacement, the actual numbers are now much more than 1000). This was part of the package the Chief Minister and party promised during their visit last year. Each family was to get Rs. 3000 in cash, one bag of rice and five bundles of CGI sheets. Most people we talked to said that they were yet to get the same even though the promise was to have them delivered to all households before the end of December. While very few people have obtained the package, the government has now said that payments will be made to the remaining households only after the Dam Action Committee (DAC), which is imposing a ban on dam-related activities, unilaterally withdrew their agitations. There is thus no knowing when these people will actually get what was promised. The Government’s position, in the midst of scarcity all around, has now pitted some villagers (who wanted to get whatever they can get from the government quickly) against other villagers (who supported the DAC agitations) and there is a danger of hostility breaking out between the two camps. What about the Rs 25,000 compensation paid to each household earlier, along with other compensations for kitchen gardens and paddy fields?
People like Vungpi did not know about earlier payments. She said her parents may have obtained it, but it meant nothing to them now. After all, more than 15 years have passed since then. So, what are the major problems they are facing here now?
Vungpi wrung her hands and managed a helpless laugh. There is shortage of everything. Every thing has to start from scratch. They have nothing but the tiny huts that clustered together here in a heap. There are no kitchen gardens to run to for vegetables and fruits; sheds for cattle and fowls has yet to be built. There is no playground for children, no Church to hold service and no village community hall to assemble.
We went off to take a look at the source of drinking water for this new settlement. It consisted of two depressions inside a sort of a tunnel, dark and long. There were two women filling up their pots. The two shallow depressions, between them generated about two bucketful of water per hour. Under the present rationing system in force, each of the 40-odd households in this new village was entitled to one bucketful for one round rotation.
What about earning their living in general? Most ordinary people here seemed to be stoical; it is difficult to think how else they will manage. Most of them were daily wagers. The paddy fields where they used to work for a wage have all been submerged; the same happened to all those places where they burn charcoal from tree-roots. Worse, the mass of water is blocking them from reaching the opposite hills. To cross over to the other side by makeshift boats costs Rs 10 for a one-way trip. How will they afford that when their average earning from charcoal trade even in normal times is Rs 200 per week? While it is true that most of the people readily accepted whatever compensation or largesse from the government, it is also true that they had done so without comprehending the extent of their loss. It is said that when the government paid compensations for the first time in 1993–which consisted of Rs 25,000 in cash for each family apart from separate payments for land, fruits and vegetation, many of them simply wasted it on buying vehicles etc. It simply had not occurred to them that their dwelling places will one day be submerged, and that they will soon forfeit not just their homes, but also cemeteries and schools and churches and the memories that come with them.
According to Ginzamang of Geljang Centre, the government had promised to build for each centre, new Church buildings, community halls and schools. Among the promises was also Rs 5 Lac each for building water supply. The villagers also demanded money for erecting new gravestones for their loved ones. Most of these promises and demands are yet to materialize. According to him, since most of the villagers were now deprived of the means to earn their living, the real crisis will start once they finish their meagre stocks of food grain.
For a long time now, the Affected Area Committee (AAC), formed by a group of people in the area had been fighting for equal compensation with affected people in other dams like the Thoubal dam. Recently, the Guwahati High Court upheld the appeal and ordered the government to pay compensations equal to what was paid for the Thoubal project. Under this, about 200 acres of patta land will get enhanced compensations. A small victory, shall we say? For Vungpi and hundreds of others who huddled inside these slum clusters though, it means nothing. For they never have pucca patta land. They are just there, thinking only of the present, toiling away at daytime, and trying to keep warm at night and get some sleep inside the jhuggis which are as dark and as dreary as the future that lay ahead of them."