The Village Under the Lake


In the Indian state of Orissa, dams are very big and people are very small. The smallest of these people are the original inhabitants of the land, the Adivasi or Tribals.

According to the Indian social Institute, between 1951 and 1995 about 1.4 million people were displaced and affected by dam building projects in the region. The vast majority were Tribals.

The first of these huge hydroelectric dams in Orissa was built in Machkund.

The work was first proposed in 1929 on the suggestion of the King of Jaipur and started in 1946. In late 1956, when the project was completed, 69 villages were totally submerged by the waters and on the periphery 80-90 villages were affected and lost land. In their desperation, after initially being driven from their homes many tribals returned and settled on what were once hilltops that now poked out of the waters.

In 1973, the Orissan government passed the “Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act” which gave compensation to those displaced. However, this compensation was based on the value of each acre of land that was lost. Tribals, who were landless, received nothing.

Wood smoke fills Nuaput Village in Machkund. It is early morning and Buduri Nariya, a woman in her 50s is watching her neighbour, Tula Mata, sift rice grains: the rhythmic sounds seem to soothe her as she speaks.

“My family were not totally displaced (by the Machkund dam) but they lost the majority of their land. My father had no papers so they went to a neighbouring district to live.”

“They stayed there for ten or twelve years and I was born there, I think. But then another dam came (Balimela) and we had to come back to this place”.

“I don’t know how much land we lost both times but I know that it was land to grow food”.

“Today the food production is less. We get two bags both of padi and ragi from it. It is not enough for the year and so sometimes we have to work as labourers to make more money. These days I am too old to work like this but my son is going to Visakhapatnam for labouring”.

“We can earn about Rs 70 a day and my son and his wife must stay in Visakhapatnam for a month and a half before they have enough to come back.”

The dams promised much - electricity, progress and especially after Independence - a showcase for Indian progress. However, these enormous projects by and large have not delivered on their promises and have exacerbated social inequalities in an already divided society. Indeed as the Indian Social Institute reported in 1997:

“… displacement caused by large dams has actually resulted in the transfer of resources form the weaker sections of society to the more privileged (and)… aggravate the already skewed social structure in favour of the politically powerful”.

Tellingly, none of the local villages near the Machkund dam have electricity.

None of this means much to Buduri. She is much more succinct:

“We do not get any benefit out of the dam. It hurts our bellies”

Orissa is one of the largest dam building states in India. There are 163 dams here and according to the state government’s website, another 40 are planned. Until 1973, when protests from all castes delayed work on the Rengali dam, there was no uniform policy on resettlement and rehabilitation for the displaced. To all intents and purposes, the tribals were, and to a large sense remain, shadows moving across their own land. The state’s legal framework is based on the concept of ‘Public Purpose’, a Colonial remnant that gives the Centre authority over all property if it is in ‘the greater good’.

Bidyut Mohanty the Secretary of SPREAD a local NGO that has been instrumental in campaigning for Tribal’s land rights says that the problems are historical as well as political.

“Before the Mughals came to power, Rajahs came from the coastal regions and brought Brahminical culture with them. They constructed temples and this resulted in land ownership where there had been none before. The priests and the soldiers who came with them claimed the land as empty and theirs. It has left us with a situation now where 69% of the people have only 34% of the land… ”.

According to Mohanty, SPREAD provides training to the tribal people, and the women in particular, “because they are more responsible than the men… ”.

“We have currently 38 community volunteers in this area that work with the women. The Indian bureaucracy is very complicated. We show them how to fill out the forms and how to communicate with the District Collector and his office. When they deal frequently with the Administration, they grow in confidence”.

Moreover, SPREAD have done a good deal of work on gender inequality and the rights of Tribals through women’s groups making sure that, as Mohanty says, “They fully understand their rights as women”. In this way, the women, although formally uneducated, are able to affect decisions at the local village level, at the Gran Panchayat and even through women’s groups at the district level. Fundamentally, the women have to understand their inequality as it relates to the land issue.

The tribal people themselves seldom recognise individual ownership preferring rather to organise collectively and share their resources. Land however is a powerful symbol for them both in terms of power and status and ‘land rights’ are therefore crucial in determining how wealth and status are distributed within the society and household. An idea outside the traditional tribal mindset has had to become increasingly important in their struggle to survive.

As the tribes have no proof of ownership of the land that they have occupied for generations, there is no legal impediment to outsiders taking their land and certainly no question of compensation. For women like Buduri Nariya, these rights are doubly important. Not only do they give women like her a stake in society but also at a time of the fracturing of the traditional ways of life they give women a security against abandonment, a means to credit and a symbolic sense of identity.

NGOs like SPREAD have been instrumental in fighting on the women’s behalf to obtain for them ‘Records of Rights’ (ROR’s) especially over the crops that they grow, like cashew nuts. These rights were hard won as many businesses, including the state itself, stood to lose a great deal of money from ceding such rights. In the 1960s the government, under schemes such as the grandly named ‘Economic Rehabilitation of the Rural Poor’, sought to use the tribals to tend cashew nut plants that would, on harvest after about six years, be theirs. In practice the government would very often simply renege on their promises and sell off the farms to the highest bidder.

In 2004, Padma Tangul, a widow of about 50 years old who lives in Mariput village on Mariput Island - once a hill top above a valley - remembers hired men demanding access to collect the cashews trees that they had been promised.

“… we said ‘no’. We forcibly occupied the land that year. The Cashew Corporation people went to the Police who sent a message saying you must give these men the fruits but still we said ’no’. Then the Police came and told us to move, but still we said ‘no’. So, we all went to the police station… we stayed there until midnight - just sitting. After that the police never came back and we have never heard from anybody else”.

She has trouble finding it, but from her dark, smoky house, she produces (upside down because she cannot read the squirly Orissan script) a ‘Patta’ - the legal document that gives her the right to harvest cashew nuts. It matters not at all to her that the government doesn’t recognise the ‘island’ on which her home now stands. She has ’the paper’.

“Life is better now with the rights… all the 17 households are holding the rights in common… that is our tradition. When we see the nuts we share the profits and also put money into our village fund. Last year we made Rs12000 from our sales but that was not a good harvest. The flowers came late. This year the flowers are here now. In a good year we can make Rs 1 lakh… we hope this year will be a good year.”

“I have been a widow for twenty years and I have only one daughter. I don’t even have a ration card (a ‘Below Poverty Line’ card that entitles the owner to very cheap rice each month).”

“It took two years to do it and we went many times to the Revenue office to see the Officer… once he asked me for money to do all the work… I said I have nothing at all… ” She laughs at the impossibility of a bribe, her fragile shoulders rise and fall under her dusty red shawl.

“Now the cashews are ours from our work”.

The ‘Patta’s’ in other places have been signed in joint names - both husband and wives have signed. At first, there was great reluctance on the part of the men to do this. In fact all across India, 70% of the female workforce is engaged in agriculture yet only 10% of female farmers own land.

As Kamala Matan, a woman from Nuapot village with a big round face, said,

“Other people can learn from us… When we get the ‘Patta’ we can claim land and after us, our children will inherit”.

“This ‘Patta’ (their application is ongoing but will apparently be granted shortly) … gives us strength. We don’t fear the men now: they can’t threaten us with throwing us out (of the home) now.”

“We convinced the men to sign the Patta application in joint names… At the women’s group, we told our husbands that we also have daughters as well as sons. If in-laws divorce them then they have the same problems as all women. If we all sign the Patta application, this will help them. So they signed.”

To his credit, Puda Khorna a man of about 50-55 years old who has been listening and drawing deeply on tobacco in rolled up leaves nods in agreement:

“We signed the Patta application jointly. We want no division between sons and daughters in law so there will be no future conflict and this is a good thing”.

Buduri Nariya says:

“When we get the Patta, it will be like eating good things” And her face lights up.

“It will be like getting shade after being in the sun… I think every day - ‘when will it come, when will it come?’ ”.

For Raila, an old woman perhaps in her mid 80s who remembers the dam being built, there is an irony when she remembers her family help construct the thing. “We didn’t know what it was for though… ”

“(It ended) so badly for us - some family had to leave - there is nothing good about it.”


“Part of our God was submerged under the water - Nandi Devi (the village deity) was not happy… ”.

Kamala says;

“God is everywhere in the land and the trees: we have Ghatana Khaia festival where we worship… we sacrifice hens and goats and worship the ‘mati’ - literally the mother".

For the Animist Tribals, their deities are the sun and the very soil they walk on.

“The Tribals are in a peculiar position: there are four sides pulling at them. Firstly, the Hindu fundamentalists who claim that they are Hindu and must reconvert; the Christian missionaries who want to save their souls: The Naxalites (armed Maoist rebels who control large swathes of the country) and the Police who allege that the Tribals are hiding the insurgents. The BJP and the Christians want to claim the Tribals for themselves and a bloody civil war is coming over the Tribals’ land”.

The village Shaman from Haradagamba village is an old man called Sukura Sisa. He has the look of a man who is very tired. He used to ‘dream’ the Goddess here, and says:

“We stayed in this place because our Goddess lives here… ”.

Suddenly a young man comes forward with a Calvin Klein t-shirt, two sizes to small, streaked with his sweat. It makes him look like a large child, but what he says is not innocent:

“When the dam was built, people didn’t protest because they were not aware and they lost so much… now we have so little that if anybody tries to take what is ours, we will fight… This land is our father and mother and we will have to battle with those who want it… ”.

“If the police have one hundred bullets, we have so many stones for our slingshots… ”. And he looks around in triumph at the mud floor full of ammunition.

Perhaps Sonu Majhi, 20, has joined the Naxalites or perhaps he is just another angry young man. It matters little to the Shaman, who looks disconsolate at his outburst. Red eyed and clearly exhausted he says;

“The Goddess doesn’t come into my dreams anymore… she hasn’t for a long time now”.

© Stuart Freedman