Published:  12:00 AM, 12 November 2015

Dam created environmental refugees of ethnic minorities in Chittagong Hill Tracts

Possibly the first ever "environmental refugees" in this part of the world was affected by a huge hydroelectric project in Chittagong Hill Tracts, south east of Bangladesh. The hill forest is the land of habitat for ten different Buddhist indigenous communities including Hindu and animist ethnic minorities emerged mostly from Mongoloid race. The socio-economic condition of one-fourth of the entire population of the hill people was affected by the construction of the hydro project.
The Kaptai Dam inundated 253 square miles of hill forests, including 10 square miles of reserved forest. Nearly 54,000 acres of cultivable land that was about 40 per cent of the district's total cultivable area submerged under the biggest man-made reservoir named Kaptai lake. Homesteads of 18,000 families; approximately 100,000 people were displaced from their hearths and 70 per cent homes were ethnic of Chakma community, according to Bangladesh District Gazetteers: Chittagong Hill Tracts. The population of CHT in 1961 was 385,079, according to national census. Aparently, 26 per cent of the population was displaced due to the construction of the dam.
Built in early 1960's, the Karnaphuli Multi-Purpose Project submerged 40% of the rice bowl of the hill forest and displaced several sections of the indigenous population. Thousands of indigenous people migrated to sparsely populated regions of Mizoram, Tripura, Assam and Arunachal. Perhaps 40,000 "environmental refugees" migrated to India and another 20,000 migrated to Myanmar where they live in the Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India. The citizens neither get the citizenship of India, nor of Bangladesh.
In the aid-game of "Green Revolution" to produce more food and industrialisation, the United States government built a hydro electric project damming the Karnaphuli river which  got originated from eastern India. No study on the social impact or the environmental impact was conducted by the American company selected by the USAID to implement the project. The "green revolution" was biased to farmers and elites residing in the plainland.
The rehabilitation programme was inadequate and half-accomplished. A government publication however claims rehabilitation, resettlement and adequate compensation to the displaced indigenous people.
The District Gazetteers writes, "in consideration of the backwardness of the tribal people of this district as for the sacrifice that they made  for good of the rest of the country, government took up the responsibility to compensate and rehabilitate the displaced persons . . . . . A majority of the displaced families have been rehabilitated on the upper reaches of rivers Kassalong and Chengi and also a certain percentage has been rehabilitated in other non-submerged areas of Bandarban and Ramgarh subdivision (now district). The rehabilitation scheme envisages the economic rehabilitation of the people on a sound basis."
The government publication however admits that the hydro project caused negative impact on the agriculture and economy. It says the average time-span for jhum (slash and burns in agriculture practice) production before inundation by Karnaphuli valley would take 7 to 10 years or even 20 to 25 years, this did not cause serious deterioration to the fertility of the land. But submergence of jhum lands, natural increase of population and acute shortage of ploughable  land as a consequence of inundation by Kaptai Dam which damaged 40 per cent of the best cultivable land, have been mainly responsible for the shortening of the cycle that is generally three to five years. This has resulted in declining soil fertility, low yields from jhum land, and quick erosion and consequent soil degradation. In the process the timber and bamboo resources were destroyed.
The ethnic minorities were not consulted before the hydroelectric project was built, nor their resettlement and compensation were adequately met. Instead of being a pride of the "Jumma" (as the hill people wished to be called), the project angered them. In the subsequent years their anger turned violent in early 1970s, they demanded an autonomous state of Chittagong Hill Tracts, a size one-tenth of Bangladesh with a present population of 450,000.
The military regimes since 1975 forcibly settled nearly 400,000 landless peasants from the land-hungry plainland into the hill forests by scrapping sections of legislation stating exclusive areas for the ethnic minorities. After 25 years of bush-war with the government troops, the leaders of the ethnic militants signed a peace accord in December 1997, which led to the surrender of 2,000 battle fatigue guerrillas. After series of parleys during the peace process, both side agreed to cease-fire in early 1992. After the government endorsed the peace accord at the parliament, a regional council has been announced, paving way for an election in the hills for an autonomous region.
The water management in CHT is a "killing dam", as some describes the hydro-electric dam. The project not only made thousands of environmental refugees, but also killed thousands of people. Nearly 10,000 people died in two decades because of bush-war between the government troops and ethnic militants. Genocide, torture to death, rape of ethnic women were committed, country reports of Amnesty International says. Communal tensions among the Bangla-speaking people from the plainlands and ethnic communities were locked in riots killing several hundreds on each other. The ethnic leaders argued that the settlement of people from the plainland is threat to their cutlure, hertitage and natural resources, specially land.
Compensations were paid for the loss of their land, trees and structures under the government resettlement plan. Constraints of budget allocation discouraged rehabilitation of majority of the displaced population. The largest concentration of the rehabilitated persons was at Kassalong where the reserved forest has been deforested and the plain land was made available to them.
"The tribal sacrifice for the project was not duly compensated," retold Ali Haider Khan. Then a young relief officer responsible for rehabilitation and resettlement of the displaced hill people, said in an interview to this writer in 1980. Mr. Khan who retired as Divisional Commissioner of Chittagong.
The government of Pakistan with poor budget resettled the displaced hill people at a certain height, determined by the dam project engineers. Saddest development of the commission happened when the hydro electric project came into effect in 1962, the water level submerged most of the resettled hill people. The American hydrologist calculated wrong height of water rise inside the catchment, which is a picturesque Kaptai Lake. The Pakistan government have given up attempts to rehabilitate them again or compensate.
As an amazement for many, the US consultants and Pakistan government officials recorded in the document that the ethnic minorities are of nomads and practice "jhum" (slash and burn agriculture). They explained that the nomadic ethnic communities migrate after each five or seven years cycle from one hill to another hill. Therefore, it will be a difficult task to rehabilitate or resettle the "nomadic" hill people at a permanent place. Nonetheless, the question of resettlement or rehabilitation does not arise. The foreign consultants assumed that the hill people would move away to another hill for "jhum" and need not to be resettled. The truth is, there was not enough lands fit for agriculture, horticulture and homesteads.  

The writer got Ashoka Fellow (USA) and is Special Correspondent with The Asian Age.
Twitter @saleemsamad email: [email protected]

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