Monday, February 28, 2011

Women and Forced Displacement in the Tehri Dam Project

Vandana Asthana
[Associate Professor at Eastern Washington University, Cheney WA]

The main aim of the project is to investigate “How do women experience displacement and relocation in the dam project?” through the case study of Tehri Dam and its impact on women. Cernea’s (2000) model of displacement was used to identify the women’s risks of forced displacement. The eight interlinked potential risks intrinsic to displacement identified in Cernea’s model as landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalization, food insecurity, increased morbidity and mortality, loss of access to common property and social integration manifested in the daily lives of these displaced women. In a region where women and children make up the majority of displaced population, insensitivity to the needs of women has shaped post-rehabilitation programs in a way where women face impoverishment, income decline, and destitution. They suffer from joblessness and homelessness as many of them live in tin sheds; they have lost their traditional homes and cannot afford to build new ones; they suffer from a loss of access to commons, which creates fodder and fuel wood shortage and decline in income and food diversity. The findings revealed that systems of care, protection, compensation, resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) remain largely insensitive to women’s needs leading to a fundamentally disenfranchising experience.

Many international conventions have drawn attention to gender justice and reduction in gender inequality. India remains committed to many of these conventions but there exists a gap between the ground realities and government’s commitment to these rights. State institutions often end up marginalizing women because of their ignorance as to what constitutes gender sensitive programs that are suitable to local needs of the people. These gender inequalities are comparatively more starkly evident in this hill region of Uttaranchal where women are the backbone of the hill economy and most men migrate to the plains in search of jobs. The research demonstrates that as people experienced new realities, women experienced marginalization in the processes of involuntary displacement by the dam project.

These processes of involuntary displacement are surrounded by ‘physiological, psychological and sociological components’ (Scudders 1993:13) that destabilizes their traditional cultural practices with a ‘reordering of space, time, relationships, norms and psycho-social-cultural constructs’. The shifts in these traditional practices result in newer practices. These practices are negotiated and renegotiated in the socio-cultural setting of an environment that emerges only after the breakdown of earlier routines and practices. This change makes it very difficult for women to adapt in a new and hostile environment. Women experienced a sense of social disarticulation due to disruption of social network by the processes of displacement. In the past community networks that helped cope with poverty through personalized strategies, informal loans, exchange of food, clothing and durable goods, mutual help with farming, building houses, and caring for children existed. These networks provide small loans of food and cash, or labor exchange and tide poor families through periods of shortage in their places of abode in villages. This disruption of such networks usually goes uncounted in cost benefit exercise of large irrigation schemes, and rehabilitation programs associated with such schemes of resettlements. These multifunctional yet virtually invisible social networks are lost through displacement acts. They are a major cause of impoverishment.

Women also experience a lack of well being. However, their sense of well being is not just related to physical needs but also involves social, cultural, economic, political and psychological support systems. They miss their forest walks for fuel wood and fodder which was also the time they spent with friends and shared their daily activities. In doing these day-to-day activities, they found their freedom and autonomy to run their households. They also miss the relationship with the river, which has both material and spiritual significance for them. As a young woman from the resettlement site mentioned:

I used to get up at in the morning. I would make chai (tea) and start with the household chores. I would go to the spring to collect water; I would make breakfast and send my children to school. I would then give fodder to the cattle and then with some of my friends from the village. I used to go to collect wood and fodder from the forest. That was the time I spent talking to friends. In the afternoon, I would work in the fields and in the evening cook dinner for the family. I was busy and I could just wander out of my house anywhere I wanted. Here, I still get up at 4 am and finish my household chores but I have no place to go and no friends to talk to and nothing much to do. The environment in the plains is different from the hills. Women in this area do not work in the fields; it is considered inferior; so I am confined to the walls of this tin shed I live in.

In the plains, hired labourers are required to perform various agricultural tasks. In the villages women were an integral part of agricultural practices that also included decision-making and equal participation of men and women. In the resettlement sites, it is mostly men who negotiate hiring and supervision of the activities, and women feel marginalized and disempowered in this process. Their participation in day-to-day routine practices is negligible and the confinement to their household limits their space of social interaction. Confined to the four walls of the house, and fear of moving out in an alien environment makes many women depressed, stressed and lonely. Many women complained of high blood pressure and other health problems.

Women also experienced a sense of insecurity in the physical and social space assigned to them. Built houses and residential patterns, cultural and linguistic differences as well as hostility of host populations in the resettlement areas do not provide a sense of security that they experienced in the hills. In their villages and in old Tehri women felt safe and could move around even in late hours. They could freely wear jewelry and travel to different villages to attend weddings and ceremonies. Now their apprehensions are expressed as under:

I never put a lock in my village at Mallideval. Here I have to lock the house all the time and have to be in the house by 6 pm. It is just not safe and many people in this host village consider us outsiders. We have been dumped and are sufferers on both counts

Due to a sense of insecurity and distance between kinship groups, women also experience a loss of support systems. Dependency has overtaken their role of being the primary household keepers. Due to the lack of familiarity and loss of social networks, they become dependent on male members in the household for small little things whether it is traveling back to the village or taking the children to the doctor.

In the interviews conducted, women complained of lack of basic amenities like water, loss of land rights, discrimination in compensation, and absence of a sense of well being and security. These observations substantiate the claim of the World Bank Report (1994) that men and women are affected differently by dam projects. Women are harder hit by resettlement than men, since they are more likely to earn their living from small businesses located at or near their residences. Women may also be affected disproportionately in rural areas since they are more often dependent on common property resources.

These experiences can be traced back to the historical processes of gendered division of labor. The male biases perpetuate gender inequality, and state institutions and policies are insensitive to women’s needs that are far different from a monetized economy. Processes of development are not gender neutral, a gap exists in the ways in which distribution and calculation of benefits of development is accomplished. Contributions of women as the invisible workforce remain uncalculated and men have disproportionately enjoyed benefits (Agarwal 1996). A gender gap exists in both policy and practice. Thus, gender justice remains distant in local and state discourses.

The resettlement process is fraught with ‘impoverishment risks’ and the reconstruction remains incomplete. Women are forced into adopting a culture they have never known, and limitations in their social space have prevented them from rebuilding their daily practices in a new environment[1]. The narratives of the displaced women interviewed clearly brought out the insensitivity of state discourses to the needs of women. Although the national R&R policy acknowledges gender as a category in resettlement processes, the actual resettlement and rehabilitation is a state issue. The processes of displacement transform the everyday lives of women from a community owned network to individual private property ownership that undermines the socio-economic status of women. State policies should take into consideration these problems to enable participation of women and move towards gender justice. Ensuing narrative based approach highlights the concerns of women affected by displacement processes, for consideration by policy planners while making decisions that make far reaching transformations in the lives of women in the name of 'development and public purpose'.


Agarwal, B. 1996. A Field of One’s Own. Gender and Land Rights in South Asia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Cernea, M. 2000. Risks, Safeguards, and Reconstruxction. A Model for population displacement and resettlement. in M. Cernea and Christopher Mcdowell (eds). Risks and Reconstruction. Experiences of Resetttlers and Refugees. The World Bank. Washtingon:11 - 56.
Scudder , T. 1993. ‘Development induced Relocation and Refugee studies: 37 Years of change and continuity among Zambia’s Gwembe Tonga’ Journal of Refugee Studies. 6: 2.: 123-52
World Bank. 1994. Resettlement and Development: The Bank-wide Review of Projects Involving Involuntary Resettlement 1986-1993. Environment Department Paper. World Bank, Washington, D.C.

[1] Women have started renegotiating their daily lives although it is a difficult process. For example, during my stay in the resettlement site women would often go to the nearby forestland in Hardwar region to gather fuel wood but it was always in big groups of tens of twelve. Women mentioned that they felt insecure, as they were sometimes victims of the anger and disciplinary powers of the forest rangers that prevented them from picking fuel wood categorizing it as illegal and an offense. This was earlier natural to them in the hills where fuel wood was their common property that met some of their daily needs.


Home Business said...

I have also done the case study of Tehri Dam and its impact on women. And I also got lot of consequences from that. They have lost their traditional homes and cannot afford to build new ones and many more.

Anonymous said...

hi merry xmas to you all - matty