More than 100 tribal families from Bhajna and Kutku villages of Garhwa district leave their villages each year for the upper reaches of the forest to survive during rainy season. From a distance, they see their houses washed away, and poles erected to support their homes. If the wood is not wet, they manage to prepare rice meals, and return home once the water recedes, knowing well that they will have to repeat the drill the next year.
The villagers have been compelled to leave their lands each year since 1987, when the dam walls were constructed, as the water swells up during rains at the stalled Mandal Dam Project, also known as the North Koel Reservoir. However, they now face complete displacement.
Eight villages, including Kutku and Bhajna, will be completely submerged, affecting more than 3,000 tribals, once the project, which recently received clearances from the Union forest ministry and the state forest department, is fully functional.
The dam spanning Garhwa and Latehar districts was conceived in 1970 by the erstwhile Bihar government on Koel — a tributary of river Son — with an aim to boost irrigation in Gaya, Aurangabad and Palamu (now in Jharkhand), and to generate 24 MW electricity. Construction began in 1972 but the project was stalled in 1993 after the Bihar forest department raised concerns.
After the project was revived in 2016, it was agreed to restrict the water capacity at a level lower to reduce submergence of villages. At his first rally ahead of Assembly polls in Jharkhand, PM Narendra Modi, who laid the foundation stone for the project earlier in January, sought a mandate to continue development work under the state BJP government while the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha promised to reconsider the project if elected to power.
The eight villages are under Daltonganj constituency, which will go to the polls in the first phase on November 30. The BJP has fielded Alok Chaurasia against Congress candidate K N Tripathi.
Far from the heated political rallies in poll-bound Jharkhand, through the circuitous route to Kutku via Daltonganj-Chainpur-Ramkanda-Bhandaria-Madhgari after crossing a river, The Indian Express spoke to a few villagers on their concerns over the dam.
“I am married for the last 12 years and every year we make plans to deal with it. We are not able to construct our houses fearing submergence… We somehow manage it thinking that after the rains we will still have our lands with us. But now we will be completely displaced. I have not seen any political leader coming to us to discuss our problems,” said Anita Minz, a tribal Christian at Kutku village.
Ramdhani Bhuiyan, in his mid 40s, said his house is submerged under 20 feet water every rainy season. “We build everything from scratch every year because from October to February we reap mustard oil. This sustains our family. Once the dam is constructed we will be left with nothing,” he said.
While some such as Bhuiyan and Minz are sustained by the fertile land, many seek employment as daily wage labourers in the state and outside.
Pratap Tirkey, who claimed to be a local activist delivering rice, salt and kerosene under the public distribution system to these villages, said most of the families still use wood for cooking. “The government says they will give Rs 15 lakh to each family, and talks have been going on for long, but they need to be given land, a place to live and hospital facilities… Just giving money to the tribals, who have no idea of managing money, will lead to devastation,” he said.
Dr D S Srivastav, secretary of the Nature Conservation Society that prepared and submitted a wildlife management plan for the project before the 43rd Standing Committee meeting of the National Board of Wildlife, said that villagers must be rehabilitated before construction begins. “Construction should not be started till the villagers are re-settled outside of Palamu Tiger Reserve area… The conflict with wildlife will be extreme because of regular presence of elephants, tigers, leopards and other wildlife in the vicinity,” he said.
However, Aftab Alam, the Executive Engineer of the Water Resources Department, overseeing the revival of the dam, said all displaced families had received compensation three decades ago under the Bihar government’s rehabilitation policy.
“However, for smooth implementation, we have identified around 800 families who currently stay in the villages and will give them one-time financial package comprising Rs 117 crore,” Alam said, adding that, “The dam will facilitate irrigation and various other projects like fishing, tourism will be started.”