Rajghat dam swallows fertile land in central India

Two researchers who walked along a 270-km stretch of the Betwa river found that, despite promises of rehabilitation, nearby villagers have lost agricultural livelihood due to the construction of dams
<p>Rajghat reservoir inundates fields at Bandar Gouda [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]</p>

Rajghat reservoir inundates fields at Bandar Gouda [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]

Frail and bent over his walking stick, Raja Ram squatted by the bushes of the denuded forest-scape around his village. His buffalo, whom he lovingly named Chandgaya, grazed on the hillock dominated by the invasive Prosopis juliflora shrubs. Behind the hillock and abutting Gendora village lay the Rajghat reservoir, where a dam shackled the monsoon-bloated Betwa river and submerged nearby land.

“Our old village is under these waters. I had 17 acres of land there where we used to grow makka (maize), jowar and red wheat. We used to be independent,” the 80-year-old said.

The Rajghat dam on the Betwa river, a tributary of the Yamuna, is an inter-state project of the Indian states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Despite numerous small and medium irrigation schemes, by the 1970s, India’s hilly Bundelkhand region continued to remain one of the most backward in the country. Drought was a perennial problem in an area where agriculture was mostly rain-fed. The Rajghat dam on the Betwa was envisioned to be a multi-purpose, multi-state venture to bring irrigation, food and water security to the region.

A network of crisscrossing canals was to provide water for winter cultivation in 2,600 square kilometres of erstwhile rain-fed agricultural land and powerhouses at the dam were to generate 45 MW.

“We couldn’t afford to buy agricultural land, and the land we could buy was mostly barren and with low yield.”

There was considerable excitement when the project was announced. A villager recounts hundreds of thousands of people gathering to hear the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at the launch ceremony.

Construction of the dam started in the mid-1970s, with the second phase built at the start of the millennium. By then, Raja Ram had been reduced to a life of destitution. He received just INR 17,000 (USD 223) in compensation for his land, but the rush for agricultural land in non-submerged parts pushed up land prices beyond his reach, while medical expenses saw his savings diminish. Once a farmer, now Raja Ram can only make a living through daily wages. “Even now, I try to do some work because my sons also do not have land. Our lives have been made difficult for generations because of the dam,” he said.

Raja Ram and Chandan Singh at Gendora village [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]. Rajghat dam lies just behind the village.
Raja Ram and Chandan Singh at Gendora village [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]

Raja Ram’s story is similar to the experiences of villagers along reservoirs of the Betwa, which illustrate the social upheavals of half-baked rehabilitation schemes and ecological consequences of damming a river.

Over the last century, seven major dams have been constructed on the Betwa, in addition to numerous minor barrages and small check dams that divert water for industrial, household or agricultural purposes.

As part of the Moving Upstream fellowship by the Veditum India Foundation, we walked along a 270-kilometre stretch of the Betwa between Orchha and Bina, where residents along four major dams and two minor barrages revealed different but far-reaching consequences of reservoir-induced displacements.

The Betwa’s flow will be subject to more man-made manipulations through the INR 180 billion (USD 2.37 billion) Ken-Betwa River diversion plan. Five barrages and dams will be constructed on the Betwa and its tributaries under Phase 2 of the project, which will submerge 60.17 square kilometres of forest land and displace people in over 4,000 villages.

Socioeconomic surveys for the proposed barrages state that the displaced persons will be settled in colonies close to where they are currently staying. Housing, civic amenities and “adequate” compensation, too, have been promised.

Yet the experiences of the villagers who have witnessed Phase 1 are starkly different, as they report soil erosion, the loss of agricultural land, fishing opportunities and cultural identities and find it difficult to access drinking water.

Lessons from the Betwa

Similar promises were also made to the villagers of Prem Nagar Kata in 1980, when they became one of the first to be displaced for the construction of the Rajghat dam. The village was shifted up to one of the hills that flank the Rajghat reservoir. The compensation offered back then was just INR 700 (about USD 90 at the exchange rate then) per acre and INR 1,000 (around USD 120 at that point) per house, which were far lower as compared to the last-to-be-acquired villages, which were offered INR 100,000 (approximately USD 2,200 at 2000 exchange rate) per acre by the turn of the millennium.

“We couldn’t afford to buy agricultural land, and the land we could buy was mostly barren and with low yield,” said Neeraj, a resident.

Rajghat reservoir inundates fields at Bandar Gouda [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]
Rajghat reservoir inundates fields at Bandar Gouda [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]

With their primary means of livelihood under metres of water, they rely on work from a stone quarry nearby or employment in other cities. Of the 3,000 people in the village, at least 1,000 have migrated to Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad and other places for work. Those who remain wait, ironically, for a drought to get back to agriculture. “During a drought year, the water levels recede drastically and we can cultivate on our old, submerged farmlands,” said Ramlal, a villager.

The village, which was promised a supply of electricity as part of the rehabilitation, now largely sits in darkness despite being given electricity connections a decade ago.

“The bill is around INR 300-350 (USD 3.95-4.60) per month and many couldn’t afford it. By November [2019], they disconnected lines to almost every house in the village,” Neeraj said.

The stories of residents being stranded because of the dam were repeated in many villages where fertile agricultural land by the river had been lost. In Rajawan village besides Matatila dam, Jagadish Tiwari assumed we are government officials. He approached us from afar and asked: “Do you know when the water will recede from the dam? It was supposed to have receded by now.”

Submerged land near Matatila dam [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]
Submerged land near Matatila dam [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]

He has seven acres within the reservoir, which is usually inundated between August and November. This year, the monsoon had been bountiful and water levels in the dam were, on average, a metre above average. With the waters clearing only in January-end, he had lost much of the time for a winter wheat harvest.

In villages like Deogarh and Garholi at the fag end of the Rajghat reservoir, a vast majority of cultivable lands have also been submerged. The villages are surrounded by protected forest areas, and when the dam was constructed, villagers were left with almost no land to buy.  Today, residents are forced to either migrate for work or settle for low-paying manual labour in the region. Agriculture is no longer a viable option.

Cycles of floods and droughts

80-year-old Lallu Raja, who is venerated as the de-facto village head at Kottara, recalled the old village which now lies submerged under the Matatila reservoir. The dam was constructed nearly 60 years ago, and Kottara was relocated up a hill. The old village, built around a fortress of a local Bundela feudal lord, was amidst lush teak forests – all of which are now submerged. Establishment of the new village eventually denuded the forests, with residents using timber and firewood for their domestic needs.

But the village is stuck in a cycle of floods and droughts. During the monsoons, the reservoir inches towards Kottara and their winter crops suffer losses when dams upstream release water. “Every year, this happens. Water from Rajghat is released, but the gates of Matatila are not opened on time. The reservoir breaches its banks and our winter crop of wheat – which is our primary crop of the year – is flooded. We approach the district magistrate and seek better coordination between dams, but there is no action on that,” said Raja.

Submerged land near Matatila dam [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]
Submerged land near Matatila dam [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]

During the summers, the Betwa river recedes to some 3 kilometres away. “For the past three years, we have been getting water tankers to supply us with drinking water. There are many handpumps, but only five or six work during the summer. Our old village was in the valley and there was water in the wells. But, in the hills, open wells dry up completely,” he said.

Changing the face of agriculture

On the contrary, for villages further away from the banks, the crisscrossing network of irrigation canals have ensured higher yields during winter months. Water for at least two crops – the monsoon crop of urad or soya bean and a winter crop of wheat, channa and peas – is guaranteed in large parts of Bundelkhand.

However, what social impact assessments for these dam projects failed to take into account is the consequence of the changing face of agriculture. Between 2001 and 2011, acreage of rain-fed, less-water intensive crops such as bajra and jowar has come down by over 80%. In its place, water-intensive crops like wheat (+70%) and soya bean (+58%) have increased.

“Red wheat, khodo (a millet), jowar and makka (maize) which used to be a staple [for us] has disappeared from our plates,” said Keshav Prasad, a resident of Budhwar village, which was a beneficiary of the Rajghat irrigation scheme. “Instead, wheat now dominates our meals,” he said.

This change from drought-resistant sustainable agriculture built on staggered sowing, to water-intensive, pesticide and fertiliser dependent crops may be one of the factors of the “continued misery of droughts” in the region, according to a NITI Ayog-UNDP report.

Changing face of fisheries

While social impact assessments for the Ken-Betwa project talk about reservoirs becoming active areas of pisciculture and allowing a new avenue of livelihood for fishermen, the case of Rajghat proves otherwise.

Fishing at Rajghat dam [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]
Fishing at Rajghat dam [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]

A former army man is in charge of protecting the reservoir, a job he does with the help of motorboats and camps spread across the banks. “The contract to fish in the water is worth crores, and the owners will do whatever it is to protect it. I have posted my team in camps to keep an eye on the fishermen. There have been incidents of fishermen selling the fish to locals directly; or, villagers fishing in the waters,” he said.

The fishermen are primarily from the Kevat community of traditional fishermen in the Ganga, and come from Varanasi during the non-monsoon seasons to catch fish. Over 300 such fishermen operate 30 boats. The catch of around 10 quintals of fish per fisherman each month is sold in markets in the cities through the contractors who are not from the area.

Locals still have access to waters backed up in minor barrages along the Betwa. But this comes with an adverse impact on catch for locals.

Kemraj, a fisherman at Padochha near the confluence of the Betwa and Bina rivers, said their catch has reduced from 50 kg of fish daily to barely 4-5 kg after the construction of a barrage nearly a decade ago to supply water to an oil refinery.

Kemraj, a fisherman, at work [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]
Kemraj, a fisherman, at work [image by: Mohit M. Rao, Astha Choudhary]

“Before the barrage was built, water used to flow between rocks. It became easier to place nets and catch fish. Now, water stagnates and fish just avoid our nets,” he said.

These aren’t just fading remnants of the past, but a tangible present for those in the villages. Raja Ram remembers the promises given three decades ago and asks if we can help remind the government of it. “I’d have fought for my land if I’d known that the government would take back their word on it,” he says.

This article has been produced as part of Veditum India Foundation’s Moving Upstream fellowship programme