Mukta Jhodia

NEW DELHI, India (WOMENSENEWS)–Streaks of gray hair fall untidily over her lined frail face.

Padua Sahoo is only 26 years old but looks double her age.

She walks several miles every day to distant villages in search of work. Whether it is to wash clothes, dishes or even pick garbage, Sahoo is ready to do anything to earn some money. Often she eats nothing so her four children can have food.

After farm land in her village was taken over by the government in 2000 to develop a coal mine, Sahoo and her late husband, like many others who worked in the privately owned local paddy fields, lost their livelihoods. Government officials had assured Sahoo that the farmer for whom she worked would receive new land equivalent to what was lost, so all she would have to do was to move to a new field and thus, would not lose her her ability to earn wages.

The coal mine, she was told, would give her family an opportunity to improve their income as it would create more jobs.

The farmer, however, wound up opting for cash compensation, not land exchange. When Sahoo sought work in the coal mine, it did not employ her.

“We believed the government when it assured us our lives would improve once the development project began,” Sahoo told Women’s eNews. “But instead of gaining employment, better health services and education for our children, we have lost our home and source of income. Is this what development means?”

20 Million Displaced People

Approximately 20 million Indian people have been displaced by development activities such as dams, mining and construction of infrastructure since India’s independence in 1947, according to estimates made by several independent Indian research organizations.

A two-year research project that looked at development projects in four parts of the country that have witnessed large-scale projects–Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Orissa, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh–finds that women suffer disproportionately due to systemic inequities, such as women being denied land rights and sons being given preference over daughters when it comes to schooling.

The National Commission for Women, a government body in New Delhi, collaborated with the Institute for Socioeconomic Development, a research group based in Orissa, and produced results released in January.

“The travails of displaced women stem from the existing gender inequalities within Indian society and family,” said Poornima Advani, chair of the National Commission for Women. “The linkages between gender and displacement have not been given adequate attention by the government. We wanted to highlight this gender injustice.”

The harmful effects of development were found to be particularly acute for females such as Sahoo, who work in the country’s agricultural sector, which employs about 72 percent of India’s female work force.

Many of these female food providers, investigators found, have too little to eat. Not only are they, by tradition, the last members of the family to eat at meal times, they also skip meals in times of food crisis to feed others.

2004 National Policy Set

In 2004, the government promulgated a national rehabilitation policy designed to help displaced people–or so-called project affected persons–rise above the poverty line and achieve a better standard of living.

Critics, however, contend that despite the optimistic sounding policy, many people, such as Sahoo, are left much worse off by development projects.

They say affected people are not consulted and that government administrators are not required to hold public hearings, provide information about the project or publicly justify the displacement. Meanwhile, development policies, they say, vary from state to state, project to project and authority to authority. In addition, the critics say, the projectes are badly planned or badly executed, which often means that displaced people suffer unnecessarily.

They also charge that the provision of basic amenities–safe drinking water, educational facilities, electricity and dispensaries–are left up to the discretion of individual administrators. This ad-hoc, approach, they say, illustrates how the government overlooks women, since they are the ones most responsible for cooking, cleaning and fetching drinking water.

“It is not development which is wrong,” says Kumud Sharma, professor at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, a research organization working on gender issues and based in New Delhi. “It is the approach adopted that is causing loss of livelihood, increase in domestic violence and deterioration in the status of women.”

Development has become a dreaded word for displaced women, contends Vidhya Das, director with Agragamee, a nongovernmental organization that has been fighting for the rights and rehabilitation of those displaced in Orissa, one of the states studied in the report.

“When livelihood resources are destroyed due to displacement, women are forced to look outside their homes and villages for employment. This makes them more vulnerable to sexual and other forms of exploitation,” points out Das.

Echoing Inheritance Laws

N.C. Saxena, former member of India’s Planning Commission, believes the policy is grossly unjust to women because it echoes inheritance laws in many states that do not permit daughters to own land if they have male siblings.

The resettlement package announced in 2000 for over 41,000 persons displaced due to the Sardar Sarovar Mega Dam project on the Narmada river and affecting the three adjoining states of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat, was considered one of the best. Yet it was biased against women contends Saxena.

This resettlement policy, which was made before the promulgation of the national relief and rehabilitation policy, Saxena says, entitles every son of 18 years and more, be compensated as a separate family. Widows or deserted wives, by contrast, are non-entities, with no resettlement rights.

Saxena notes that this inequity has not been corrected in the present national policy, where the definition of “family” for purposes of relief and rehabilitation includes unmarried daughters and unmarried sisters.

This, Saxena says, means that single male adults are able to claim status as separate units, but adult unmarried women receive no benefits and are treated as dependents on a male relative.

Although the National Commission for Women report has been sent to the Planning Commission, the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s Department of Women and Child Development, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the Ministry of Coal, the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of Rural Development, none has responded.

Calls by Women’s eNews to these ministries were not returned. However, Sayeeda Hamid, a member of the Planning Commission, which is responsible for resettlement programs, responded to Women’s Enews. She acknowledges that there is big gap between policies and their implementation.

“Our main emphasis should not be to see how many dams or mines have been constructed,” says Hamid, a former member of the National Commission for Women and an advocate for women displaced by development. “It should be to see what has been the outcome of these projects on the people. Therefore, it is essential that we monitor the implementation of the policies more vigorously. Only then can we minimize the negative impact of development.”

Swapna Majumdar is a journalist based in New Delhi writing on politics, gender and development issues.

For more information:

National Commission for Women:

Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.