The majority of the population that is to be resettled belongs to marginalized and low-income communities
Although awareness about serious economic consequences of displacement has kept increasing, the study of the impact of resettlement has still been lagging in case of many medium- to large-scale hydropower projects in Nepal. Involuntary resettlements are a prerequisite for such projects and they exact multiple undesirable costs on affected populations. But most of our planners and policymakers pay little attention to the economic and social costs of such resettlements. This reminds me of the words of James D. Wolfensohn, the former president of the World Bank, who wrote: “We must act so that poverty will be alleviated, our environment protected, social justice extended and human rights strengthened”. He said this because he believed “social injustice can destroy economic and political advances.” The message is still relevant for development practitioners and policymakers around the world.
In this context, I hereby try to defend the right of families/populations affected by the Budi Gandaki hydroelectric project. The proposed project is a storage type project on the Budhi Gandaki River, approximately 2km upstream from its confluence with Trishuli River at Benighat, Dhading. The project, which plans to produce 4,250 Gwh of energy each year, will have a dam with a height of 263m and length of 760m. The proposed reservoir will inundate 6,637.24 ha of land, of which 3,260.27 ha is currently used for agriculture and settlement purposes, which comes to 49 percent of the inundated area. The dam will affect 14 VDCs of Gorkha district and 13 VDCs of Dhading district. Except the settlements of Arughat in Aaruchanuate VDC and Bisal Bazar in Salyantar VDC, the rest of the other settlements in the reservoir area all have land-based livelihoods.
Even though the precise estimate of ‘displace population’ is yet to be announced, my calculation suggests it will displace more than 45,000 people. Among the infrastructures that will be affected include 23 schools; 64 other service institutions such as health posts, post offices, police posts, and other community halls; 59 temples and shrines; and 44 cremation sites. It will also destroy 132 km of motorable roads, six motorable bridges and 30 suspension bridges.
As the project’s environmental impact assessment (EIA) report has not been made public yet, it is hard for this author to arrive at a firm conclusion about the size of the impact on both social and natural environments. But based on the previous experiences in this field, I can imagine the potential impact of involuntary resettlement of such mega projects on poor and underdeveloped societies spread across the Budi Gandaki River basin. I would therefore like to suggest some measures for better management and sustainable development of Budi Gandaki project.
The impoverishment of a considerable number of people is the most common effect of involuntary displacement. Let us start from a bad experience in our neighborhood. India’s development programs have caused an aggregate displacement of more than 20 million people in the past 40 years and 75 percent of these people have not been rehabilitated.
Their livelihoods have not been restored; in fact, the vast majority of development resettlers in India have become even more impoverished. This bitter experience in our neighborhood should not be reproduced in our development endeavors.
In the case of Budi Gandaki project, the majority of the population that is to be resettled belongs to marginalized or low-income groups, such as ethnic minorities, indigenous nationalities and Dalits. They are especially vulnerable to impoverishment if they are displaced. Thus there must be adequate measures to address the risks associated with impoverishment. These risks include landlessness, homelessness, joblessness, marginalization, food insecurity, increased morbidity, loss of access to common property resources, and community disarticulation (tearing of the social fabric).
To avoid this pitfall, the Budi Gandaki Hydroelectric Project Development Committee, instead of rushing to determine and distribute compensation for land acquisition, should instead be focusing on two other things. First, in getting the EIA report approved by line ministries second, in preparing good (bankable) planning documents for resettlement and rehabilitation, including a detailed Resettlement Action Plan (RAP).
This should be done at the earliest. The goal is to classify affected populations by caste and ethnicity, by household income, and by the size and type of land holdings. For instance, if the household income is less than World Bank’s poverty threshold, or it’s a Dalit household, they can be treated as marginalized people. That information can be used to determine the risks and to design preventive measures. For this the RAP must also identify possible relocation sites, and have a simple rehabilitation plan. This is not an easy task as resettlement of 45,000 people will create huge pressure on new host communities, for instance in sharing of resources such as schools, hospitals, health posts, drinking water, grazing land, farm lands and forests. That might lead conflicts. To avoid them, project management must plan ahead.
In the development of such mega projects, there are other hidden costs as well. For instance, the opportunity costs of involuntary resettlement are generally missing in the estimation of project costs. Those costs might include (but are not limited to) added travel costs, cost accrued due to accidents and losses, market loss for small vendors, employment loss, productivity loss in agriculture, and the cost of disturbance in child’s education.
In the case of Budi Gandaki project, a few of the people who were protesting against it were arrested and kept in jail for almost a week. Some were even injured in police crackdown. This is just one example of the unforeseeable costs associated with such projects that can have a devastating impact on the affected families.
So in the end, I would like to suggest that the issue of financial compensations be explored only after preparation of a detailed Resettlement Action Plan of Budi Gandaki project. That is the right sequence. If this happens, it will also set a wonderful precedent for future development projects that involve mass displacements.
The author is assistant professor of economics at University of Minnesota-Morris