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Last Updated: Tuesday, 3 April 2007, 23:08 GMT 00:08 UK
Land reclaim dispute over drying dam
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Tripura

site of the Gumti hydel project in Tripura
The land emerged after a drop in the reservoir's water level Pics: Debiprasad Bhowmik

Hundreds of indigenous tribes people in India's north-eastern state of Tripura have been flocking to reclaim lands emerging from a dam's reservoir after a sharp drop in the water level there.

But they are being chased away by the police.

The state's Communist-led coalition government says it will not to let anybody settle down on the lands emerging from the reservoir of the 10 MW Gumti hydroelectric (hydel) project.

But Tripura's power minister Manik Dey admits production of electricity from the project has completely stopped since mid-March.

"There is hardly any water in the dam's reservoir to generate power but we are not saying goodbye to the project as yet," Mr Dey said.

A rise in the reservoir's bed due to heavy silting caused by soil loss from the hills around the Gumti hydel project is believed to be responsible for the crisis.

The Gumti hydel project was commissioned in 1974, despite fierce protests by nearly 40,000 indigenous tribes people whose fertile lands went under water.

Not even one-fifth of the people who were forced to give up their land were compensated because most tribesmen had no land records to prove ownership.

'Historical injustice'

"There's heavy deforestation in the hills caused by the primitive agricultural practices in the hills around Gumti by the tribesmen who lost their lands to the hydel project," says environmentalist Abhijit Bhattacharya.

"There's also rampant illegal logging by timber smugglers. That's badly affected rainfall levels and led to heavy silting in the Gumti reservoir."

people building homes at the site of the reservoir
Tribals are taking over the land that has emerged from the reservoir

This has prompted demands for scrapping the Gumti dam, so that the dam lands can be redistributed amongst Tripura's landless tribal population.

Rabindra Debbarma, general secretary of the opposition Indigenous Nationalist Party of Tripura (INPT), wants the Gumti dam to be scrapped to "undo a historical injustice" against the indigenous tribes people of Tripura, who have been marginalised in their own state by ceaseless influx of Bengali settlers from what is now Bangladesh.

Tribals now account for less than 30% of Tripura's population, Bengali settlers account for the rest.

Most tribals have lost their lands to the settlers and that has fuelled a violent insurgency with young men and women from landless families joining the state's two major rebel groups.

"The Left coalition government that rules Tripura has an historic opportunity to undo the injustice by restoring lands to tribals who don't have them. That can kick-start a process of ethnic reconciliation in our violence-scarred state," said Mr Debbarma.

But few tribes people have high expectations from the government.

"These pro-tribal leftists opposed the dam in 1970s, but now they want the dam to continue even though it has become a white elephant, " said Dhirendra Tripura, a tribal leader in Raisyabari on the southern extreme of the dam reservoir.

'Free-for-all'

The Reang tribes people were the worst affected by the dam. And most of those rushing to takeover the lands emerging in the Gumti reservoir are Reangs - many of them displaced from the neighbouring state of Mizoram.

Tripura map
"The government should not allow a mad rush, a free-for-all grab. It should scrap the dam, reclaim lands systematically and redistribute it equally amongst the tribal families," says Rabindra Debbarma.

"The entire landless tribal population of Tripura can be gainfully resettled here."

The total area of the Gumti hydel project is 64.68 sq km. Tripura has nearly 25,000 landless tribal families, the recruiting ground for the state's insurgent groups.

'Conspiracy'

But Tripura chief minister Manik Sarkar smells a "conspiracy" behind the demands to scrap the Gumti hydel project, though lack of power generation and opposition demands has led him to promise the formation of an expert committee to look into the problem.

"Hydel power is still cheaper, much cheaper than power from plants run by natural gas," said Mr Sarkar. "So we cannot just bring down this hydel project just because some want it."

Sanjib Baruah of the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research has been questioning the Indian government's plans to build more than 150 large and medium dams in India's northeast to exploit the region's estimated hydel power potential of more than 30000 MW.

Authorities admit that the existing seven hydel power plants in northeast India are underperforming (current production 319 MW against an installed capacity of 875 MW) due to reasons similar to those faced by the Gumti hydel project.

Mr Baruah not only wants "useless projects" to go but also a "serious rethink" about the new hydel projects - not the least because the northeast Indian states are rich in natural gas reserves and several large power plants based on them are on the anvil.




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