On the Godavari River, 2009

Large dams 3: Oustees India

In Books, The rest, India by tony4 Comments

Feature photo: On the Godavari River, 2009

ORT_Logo   Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony,  10 October 2015

Oustees across India : The tragedy of displaced people


Tony: Protest Poster Polavaram Dam Project, 2006

Tony: Protest Poster Polavaram Dam Project, 2006

This is the last of three articles on large dams the others are Large Dams 1: An Introduction and Large Dams 2: Aswan High Dam. The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe describes a similar issue in Australia. Another related article is Rukmini Rao Woman of the Year 2014.

The case study of India is representative of other countries with large poor populations but the numbers of people displaced by dams in India is at the extreme end of the spectrum. People who are displaced by large projects in India are called oustees; in the case of large dams these are initially the people whose ancestral homes and lands are submerged by the dam, for example the Nubians and the Tonga mentioned in the last article on the Aswan High Dam. I’m not sure that the bureaucrats who began using this term ever realised how callous and dehumanising the word seems in English.

WordNet captures this, turning the verb into a noun compounds the insult:

  1. oust remove from a position or office: The chairman was ousted after he misappropriated funds
  2. oust remove and replace: The word processor has ousted the typewriter

The irony is that the Indian bureaucrats have captured the nuance perfectly. The Indian engineers who built large dams feel exactly the same. Oustees are the irrelevant human detritus (usually poor and powerless) who have to be shuffled aside to complete the project. What happens to them is irrelevant. They are mere distractions to the path of progress. Collateral damage is the modern parlance — indeed also relevant — as will be revealed below oustees often are dead people but the process is much slower.

Koya Tribal Man being interviewed about Polavaram Dam, 2005

Koya Tribal Man being interviewed about Polavaram Dam, 2005

The Indian Constitution protects scheduled tribes and scheduled castes. Other backward castes (or classes) are protected by commission and perhaps sometimes get a better deal. Tribal groups also often have lands reserved for them, which supposedly cannot be encroached upon. However, they are. And, unfortunately many large development projects, especially dams infringe mostly upon tribals and they are not protected.

India is an unusual country in that it is supposedly a democracy and is known for passing enlightened laws to protect the poor and vulnerable. Where India fails is that these laws are frequently never implemented and rarely are the poor and disadvantaged treated fairly. Corruption is also endemic. Not that this is a problem restricted to India, nor is India unusual in treating those displaced by large dams incredibly badly.

The posters of mine that I am using to illustrate these articles on dams were intended to highlight the plight of tribals in the submergence zone of the Polavaram Dam Project: to highlight them as human beings and to highlight the universal tendency of governments in India to underestimate the numbers involved. In my western sensibilities, I expected that these posters could influence people. I think I was wrong. The Indian middle classes are extremely callous, when it comes to the poor and downtrodden in their own society. This is of course a generalisation, but it is not inaccurate.

What happens when people lose their homes and livelihood?

A town to be submerged by the Polavaram Dam, 2009

A town to be submerged by the Polavaram Dam, 2009

I was involved in research on real estate some years back in the most desirable suburbs in a wealthy first world city, perhaps the equivalent of Jubilee Hills in Hyderabad or Vasant Vihar in New Delhi. Even amongst rich buyers with secure incomes and backgrounds, moving house is both emotional and traumatic.

How much more so is it with tribal peoples or scheduled and backward castes thrown out of their homes and the ancestral places where they live and feel they belong? These are people who may know little of the world outside their own villages.

Commenting on displacement, Shekhar Singh et al. say:

Most people have a strong attachment to their homes, especially when these are ancestral homes. The forced abandonment of one’s home is always traumatic and cannot be compensated for by an alternat[ive] house …. displaced populations would most likely have had free access to the water and other resources of the river, including the riverbed land and the fish. They might have had access to common grasslands, forests, wetlands and to a host of natural resources, from which they derived not only subsistence resources but also incomes.

Displaced people are never properly compensated. There is the loss of familiar surrounds. There is loss of preferred livelihoods. There is the trauma, uncertainty and insecurity of the unknown.

Poor people, non-literate people, scheduled castes and tribal people are much more vulnerable to these things. They do not have resources to fall back upon. They will become alienated by any move. There may be conflicts with host communities. There are complex and vexed issues of eligibility, who is to be compensated? There are gender issues. Women are not traditionally treated as possible landowners or farmers in India. Women may also be affected disproportionately because of their greater dependence on common property. Because women in India are much less mobile than the men, the breakdown of village and social units affects them much more severely. Also compensation money, when it is given, always goes to the men, which can be a major problem for the family, especially when it is used to drown the pain.

Patrick McCully of the International Rivers Network says that researchers working on resettlement are unanimous that giving land-for-land is far more successful than cash compensation. Compensation received for land may also be inadequate because corrupt officials or other middlemen skim off a cut for themselves.

Koya Tribal Woman at Meeting about Polavaram Dam, 2005

Koya Tribal Woman at Meeting about Polavaram Dam, 2005

For many rural people, especially the poorest the submergence of the commons, including all communally shared resources, is one of the worst losses to a reservoir. Yet these losses are rarely compensated.

McCully says traditional community elders and leaders are often marginalised by displacement. Sickness and death rates usually increase markedly after displacement, especially among the young and the very old. Malnourishment tends to increase. He says one of the most severe long- term problems faced by oustees is indebtedness.

Impoverishment of oustees also means that they cannot fulfil their traditional obligations, such as marriage ceremonies, festival offerings and the like.

The great majority of those displaced by dams [many whose rights were not even considered] have statistically disappeared, swallowed up by the slums and the camps of migrant labourers. In India, perhaps three-quarters of the millions of dam oustees were given no replacement land or housing; at best they received a small sum of cash compensation, often they got nothing at all. And numerous studies show that even those Indian oustees who were “resettled” invariably ended up impoverished, demoralized and bitter. “Submerged destitutes” is the sadly apt name given to the people displaced by Rengali Dam in the [S]tate of Orissa by their new neighbours at their resettlement sites.

And yet governments believe they can dictate these things from above, without involving those who are intimately concerned with the displacement and aware of all the complexities.

How many people?

Godavari River near VR Puram, 2008

Godavari River near VR Puram, 2008

Arundhati Roy has commented on displacement in these terms:

According to a detailed study of 54 Large Dams done by the Indian Institute of Public Administration, the average number of people displaced by a Large Dam is 44 182. Admittedly 54 Dams out of 3300 is not a big enough sample. But … it’s all we have … let’s err on the side of abundant caution and take an average of just 10 000 people per Large Dam. 33 million … That’s what it works out to … What about those that have been displaced by the thousands of other Development Projects? … Fifty million people …I feel like someone who’s just stumbled on a mass grave.

‘The number of people who are forced out of their homes by dams is staggering,’ says Patrick McCully. ‘It is, however, difficult to give even a reasonably accurate estimate as the industry and their government sponsors have rarely bothered to collect reliable oustee statistics.’

Many different figures have been given for the numbers of people displaced by dams since Independence. They range from a laughable two million; McCully, an activist, says 14 million; others say 20, 33, 40 or 50 million direct displacees. The authors of a study commissioned by the World Commission on Dams estimated 57 million based on 4291 dams and averages for hectares submerged and people per hectare. While the authors believed these figures were too high to be absolutely relied upon, their work and that of others suggests that respected, independent studies should put the figure at the higher rather than the lower end of the range.

If 50 million is a reasonable estimate of submergence displacees in India since Independence, then including canal, backwater, livelihood and other non-submergence displacees suggests that dams and related projects since Independence have displaced around a 100 million people in total. I don’t know why activists are always conservative in their estimates, while governments always lie about their numbers. I suspect that 100 million is an underestimate.

Arundhati Roy’s comment that she felt as if she’d ‘just stumbled on a mass grave’ is hardly an over-statement.

All this displacement and human misery is too high a price for the poor economic benefit gained from large dams, an increase in food productivity of just 10% at immense financial cost (15% of planned central expenditure from Independence to 1982).

Table 1 provides figures from a number of projects to demonstrate how ‘oustee’ numbers are systematically underestimated before projects begin.


The Sardar Sarovar figures are probably the closest to a real estimate of displacement for any project because it is arguably the most researched and debated project in India’s history. Eliminating Sardar Sarovar on the Narmada River from calculations, however, and using the mainly official government statistics in Table 1 (see, I’m being conservative as well), ‘oustee’ numbers are at least 236% underestimated by governments and others involved at the outset of any project.

Patrick McCully says of these figures and others ‘The main reason for the consistent underestimates is almost certainly that it suits project authorities and lending agencies to distort the figures to make projects look more viable.’

The figures and official statements, however, tell only part of the story of the human tragedies that have unfolded in India because of large dam and other development projects. Detailed analyses of Bargi, Hirakud, Nagarjunasagar, Ukai, Pong, Sardar Sarovar and many other displacements help to tell the real story (see below).

What about government compensation?

Sailing boat on the Godavari River, 2005

Sailing boat on the Godavari River, 2005

Personal case records of displacement are often heart-rending. Yet the political, bureaucratic and administrative process is so ingrained in India that those on top can confidently deliver pronouncements and then feign surprise when promises are not matched by reality.

Tony: Protest Poster Polavaram Dam Project, 2006

Tony: Protest Poster Polavaram Dam Project, 2006

According to N.V. Gadgil, Minister in charge of India’s multi-dam Damodar Valley Corporation Project in 1948 ‘… every person who will be uprooted from the soil … will exchange his shovel for a decent cottage, darkness for light and fanaticism for faith…’

There has not been a positive example of displacement compensation and sensitive implementation by any government in India since Independence.

Nirmal Sengupta says ‘Years later, as a Central Minister, [the famous dam builder] Dr. K.L. Rao visited Bhakra[-Nangal] Dam, which was commissioned in 1963, and wrote about his visit as follows:

The Bhakra Project was completed in all respects and the Prime Minister dedicated it to the nation on 22 October 1963. There was a large gathering and everybody felt happy that the dam would confer immense benefits for all industrialists and agriculturists. It is curious to observe how we handle our projects without sparing a thought for the affected people. When the Bhakra dam was built, the village of Bhakra, situated on the banks of the Sutlej, was submerged and the people built their houses on the adjacent hills. The project resulted in great suffering to the people of the village, but nobody took note of the peoples’ representations. It was many years later, during one of my visits to the dam site, that I found that the new village of Bhakra had neither drinking water nor electricity, though surrounded by blazing brilliant lights. This was indeed unfair and I asked the Bhakra Management Board to supply both power and water to the village. Even then, there were objections. The Management Board thought that this was not a proper charge on the Project. This indeed was an absurd approach which I overruled. I hope that in future proper amenities are made available in the rehabilitated villages.

Fisher Woman on The Godaveri River, 2005

Fisher Woman on The Godavari River, 2005

This is the rule rather than the exception. Over time protests against such treatment increased and were usually suppressed with violence, for example at Hirakud in 1946, Pong 1970, Chandil 1978, Icha 1982 and, more recently, the ongoing Sardar Sarovar saga on the Narmada River.

After 20 years of struggle involving hundreds of thousands of people, as Medha Patkar of the Narmada Bachao Andolan says in a recent interview ‘… the major achievement [has been] mass empowerment … not limited to the Narmada Valley. In Sardar Sarovar despite the state’s games of lure and scare, the people have not run away. We have not yet changed the paradigm … but we have made a difference.’

Central and state governments claim compensation packages have improved considerably. Rangachari and other water engineers, bureaucrats and politicians cite the Sardar Sarovar rehabilitation package as a vast improvement on past practice. They do this without irony, virtually denying the years of protest and the pain and suffering necessary to bring such changes about.

Yet, Medha Patkar does not claim a victory in this sense because, as with many things in India, a promised good package is irrelevant unless it is honoured. The relatively standard package offered in India is rarely implemented, or honoured only in part, so that all the problems arise again and again and are not addressed.

Even the best packages – with a more flexible definition of those who are ‘project affected’, with timely consultation allowing some participation by those affected, and having implementation mechanisms that (at least on paper) seem well-thought-out and sensitive – are insufficient. They are insufficient because they still do not embrace the complexity of individual cases, women’s or cultural issues, or difficult common and group resource issues. They do not devolve decision-making to those at the ‘grass roots’ who actually understand the circumstances of each individual involved – delivery is still top-down and the ultimate decisions remain in the hands of the elite.


Sarpanch of Pochavaram discusses Polavaram Dam, 2005

Sarpanch of Pochavaram discusses Polavaram Dam, 2005

Unfortunately, there will always be a mismatch between apparent government intent and what actually happens with major projects unless they involve:

  • Timely discussions as the first step in project development, that is perhaps 10 years before dam construction, involving all of those likely to be ‘project affected’;
  • Adequate planning;
  • Proper and complete compensation and sensible mechanisms for implementation;
  • Full accountability for the money spent and post evaluations over a number of years.

Since Independence, the displacement and destruction of vulnerable non-literate people, particularly scheduled tribes and scheduled castes (despite constitutional protection) has been a callous abrogation of human rights that could be labelled a crime against humanity.

Those in charge can no longer claim as a valid defence that they were unaware of the excesses of their subordinates. Bureaucrats and politicians cannot claim a lack of information: the World Commission on Dams, The World Bank and numerous other authorities have issued guidelines, case studies and research on how displacees or ‘oustees’ ought to be treated, much of it based on Indian experience.

No more dams should be built until governments in India confront the problems of displacement and implement processes to address the problems properly and humanely.

This was the last of three articles on large dams the others are Large Dams 1: An Introduction and Large Dams 2: Aswan High Dam. The Murray-Darling Basin Catastrophe describes a similar issue in Australia. Another related article is Rukmini Rao Woman of the Year 2014.

Key words: Oustee, displaced people, Indian Constitution, scheduled tribes, scheduled castes, backward castes, tribal lands, corruption, engineers, Patrick McCully, International Rivers Network, Polavaram Dam Project, Arundhati Roy, Rengali DamSardar Sarovar Dams Project, Bargi Dam, Hirakud Dam, Nagarjunasagar Dam, Ukai Dam, Pong Dam,  Bhakra-Nangal Dam, Hirakud Dam, Chandil Dam, Icha Dam, Medha Patkar, Narmada Bachao Andolan, Koya Tribe, VR Puram, World Commission on Dams, World Bank, Narmada River, Godavari River, compensation, land for land

Further information

Key references

Tony: Protest Poster Polavaram Dam Project, 2006

Tony: Protest Poster Polavaram Dam Project, 2006

The World Commission on Dams, Cape Town 2000 (WCD) as well as producing a final report in 2000 commissioned and encouraged many other reports. These used to be kept as a knowledge base at the WCD website but are no longer.

The key reference for India is WCD 2000: Rangachari R., Sengupta N., Iyer R.R., Banerji, P. and Singh, S. Large Dams: India’s Experience, a WCD country case study prepared as an input to the World Commission on Dams, Cape Town 2000.

McCully, Patrick Silenced rivers: The ecology and politics of large dams Zed Books 1996

International Rivers farewell to Patrick McCully

Wikipedia brief outline on Patrick MCully

What happens when people lose their homes and livelihood

The quotation in paragraph 3 is from Shekhar Singh et al. Environmental and social impacts of large dams: the Indian experience (Summary Report) WCD 2000, p 112. (Hereinafter referred to as Singh WCD 2000.)

The information in paragraphs 4 to 8 is from McCully 1996 p 66-82. The quotation in paragraph 9 is from McCully 1996 p 76.

How many people?

Roy, Arundhati The greater common good essay in The cost of living Modern Library, 1999. Quotation below this from McCully 1996 p 66.

Wikipedia biography on Arundhati Roy

The problem with numbers — an exercise

Calculations of the numbers of displaced are always ‘back of envelope’ exercises as no one really knows. The authors in Singh WCD 2000 calculate the number for 213 dams to get an average submergence of 8748 hectares (ha) and an average number of people per ha of 1.51. Hence multiplying 8748×1.51×4291 (the number of large dams) one gets 57 million.

The Central Water Commission (CWC) recorded 13 000 ha average submergence in one study (11 dams) and 24 555 ha in another (54 dams). Another study of 83 dams found an area of submergence of 16 604 ha. Combining all these and averaging for all 148 dams one gets 19 237 ha. The CWC estimate of average number of people per ha was 1.1, whereas The World Bank gave a figure of 2.26. Playing with the figures but still using the 8748 ha above one gets 41 million (1.1x8748x4291); and 98 million (2.26x8748x4291), using the two averages for people per hectare. Alternatively, if one uses 19 237 ha multiplied by 1.1, 1.51 and 2.26 for 4291 dams one gets, 91 million, 125 million and 187 million, respectively. One quickly recognizes the estimates are not reliable.

However, one also suspects that the previous low conservative figures of 14 million, 20 million and 33 million are also not reliable. A median conservative estimate for submergence displacees in India since Independence would be 50 million and if one includes canal, livelihood and other indirect displacees a figure of 100 million would not be too far off.

Bull Godavari River, 2005

Bull Godavari River, 2005

Information on Indian Dams and Table 1

Table 1 is mainly from McCully 1996, p 84, the quotation below the table is from p 83.

Nagarjunarsagar figures (a dam that supplies the city of Hyderabad) are from, Thukral 1992 p 54 et seq. (Thukral, Enakshi Ganguly ed. Big dams, displaced people: rivers of sorrow rivers of change Sage, New Delhi 1992.)

Bagri, Hirakud, Nagarjunasagar, Ukai, Pong displacements are covered in Thukral 1992.

Dharmadhikary, Shripad Unravelling Bhakra : Assessing the Temple of Resurgent India Manthan Adhyayan Kendra 2005 is a recent general study of Bhakra that covers displacement.

D’souza, Dilip The Narmada Dammed: An Inquiry into the Politics of Development Penguin 2002 gives details on Sardar Sarovar and the Narmada. The SANDRP newsletter Dams, rivers and people is an excellent source of information, as is the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s newsletter Narmada Samachar. There are also many other books and displacement case studies available.

What about government compensation?

Tony: Protest Poster Polavaram Dam Project, 2006

Tony: Protest Poster Polavaram Dam Project, 2006

The N.V. Gadgil quotation is from McCully 1996 p 76. The Dr. K.L. Rao quotation is from Sengupta WCD 2000 p 22-23.

The protests regarding Hirakud in 1946, Pong 1970, Chandil 1978, Icha 1982 and SardarSarovar are mentioned in McCully 1996, p 299 et seq.

Parsai, Gargai “We have made a difference” Interview with Medha Patkar The Hindu, 15 December 2005 p 13.

An example of an apparently good package on paper (discussed in detail in the India’s Dam Shame Booklet, see below) is National Thermal Power Corporation’s Policy on resettlement and rehabilitation, June 2005.

In all areas of Andhra Pradesh government policy (now with new governments in the two split states) but specifically in the backward areas of water engineering and agriculture there is going to have to be a painful learning process on how to implement client or customer-based policy from the bottom-up. Without this none of the necessary reforms will ever work or be implemented properly. Peter Mollinga et al. call the top-down approach ‘policy as prescription’ and what is needed is the bottom-up approach ‘policy as process’. They give guidance on the distinction in the context of what ‘ought to be’ and ‘what is’ with reference to ‘participatory irrigation management’ (PIM) in Andhra Pradesh, p 242. In some of the NGO movement and some development aid work the concept of ‘grass roots’ participative planning and implementation is well understood.

Mollinga, Peter P. et al. Capture and transformation: participatory irrigation management in Andhra Pradesh. In Mollinga, Peter P. and Bolding, Alex Eds. The politics of irrigation reform: contested policy formulation and implementation in Asia, Africa and Latin America Ashgate, Aldershot UK 2004.

Iyer WCD 2000 covers briefly the constitutional protections and legislative framework in India for scheduled tribes and scheduled castes.

India’s Dam Shame: Why Polavaram Dam must not be built by Tony Stewart and Rukmini Rao, Gramya 2006.

Download: India’s Dam Shame



  1. Dear Tony,
    The tragedy continues. In addition to displacement due to dam construction, we now have governments pushing people out of the forests by insisting that shifting cultivation is unsustainable. Over the millenia indigenous people in the world have sustained forests by living close to nature and being non acquisitive. Tragedy of Polavaram is made worse because people are pushed out before their rights are recognized as per the law.

  2. Now that the new state government of AP is in place Chandrababu Naidu, the new Chief Ministser is asking the Central government to take forward the work on Polavaram Dam. All the delays and escalation of costs we spoke about has and is coming true.

  3. Author

    I’m amazed how long it has taken them to act (18 years to date since we wrote ‘India’s Dam Shame’). Yet, the issues of a bad dam, cost blowouts and inadequate or no compensation haven’t changed.

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