The First Social Impact Assessment Study by
an Anthropologist in India

Abhijit Guha

Social impact assessment (SIA) has become a buzzword since 1970s and it originated in the United States of America from its precursor Environmental Impact Assessment(EIA).SIA is basically an interdisciplinary methodology to review, assess and evaluate the social effects of infrastructure projects and other development interventions.  Although SIA is usually applied to planned interventions, the same techniques can be used to evaluate the social impact of unplanned events like disasters and epidemics ( on 08.05.2020). In India, SIA became popular in connection with the reform of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894. According to a 2017 report entitled Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and Social Impact Management Plan (SIMP): An Indicative Structure published by a leading non-governmental organization, Centre for Science and Environment (CSE):

The role of the SIA is as an instrument that helps assess and determine the implications of land acquisition on the affected community and people. SIA minimizes the risks involved in displacement, rehabilitation, compensation and resettlement. It also guides the land acquiring agency to plan in an informal manner, thus saving cost, and in timely completion of the projects, therefore reducing the risks involved in delays. [ Italics mine].

Given this short and basic background, I will narrate the story of an early social impact assessment study done by an Indian anthropologist conducted as early as 1951, although the expression “Social Impact Assessment” was not used by the author. This valuable but little known study was done by Surajit Sinha, (1926-2002) who then just passed out as M.Sc. student in anthropology from the University of Calcutta. Sinha later became one of the famous anthropologists in post-independent India who held the position of Director at the Anthropological Survey of India and later became the Vice-Chancellor of Visva-Bharati University. He was well-known for his contribution in the study of tribal and caste societies of India in the context of the greater Indian civilization (

The aforementioned impact assessment study was entitled as Resettlement of East Pakistan Refugees in Andaman Islands: Report on Survey of Further Possibilities of Resettlement (1955) published by the Govt. of West Bengal.  Sinha’s painstaking and intensive study on the resettlement of Bengali refugee population in Andaman just after the partition of the country still remains an almost unnoticed work in the history of Indian anthropology. It was not a run-of-the-mill government report. This was one of the ground-breaking studies on the resettlement of refugees, which Sinha himself did not publish later in any journal of anthropology or sociology nor did the anthropologists of the succeeding generation made any detailed discussion on this applied anthropological study in Indian anthropology.  For example, in an article of the Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society published in 2003 in memory of Surajit Chandra Sinha S.B Chakrabarti admitted that Sinha’s study on the resettlement of Bengali refugees in Andaman was ‘a brief but excellent report which probably has escaped the attention of the anthropologists of this country at large’ (Chakrabarti 2003:104).In another article in the same issue of the aforementioned journal by Jayanta Sarkar we find only a brief mention of Sinha’s perceptive recommendation on the unfeasibility of  resettlement of  Bengali refugees in the Jarwa territory(Sarkar 2003:168-169) and from the article by Anjan Ghosh in the volume we came to know that Sinha’s report on the refugees ‘laid the basis for the government’s rehabilitation policy in the Andaman Islands’ (Ghosh 2003:111).These are all about the evaluations of the succeeding generation of anthropologists on Sinha’s impact assessment study on Bengali refugees.

Undoubtedly, Sinha’s study can be viewed as one of the pioneering anthropological works on nation building since it dealt scientifically with the burning problem of refugee resettlement, which was plaguing the planners and administrators of the then new nation. Sinha was appointed by the Refugee Rehabilitation Department of the Government of West Bengal in 1951 as an anthropologist. His task was to visit the Andaman Islands and report to the state and central governments on the possibilities of further resettlement of families displaced from the then East Pakistan by studying the local situation as regards the relationship between the refugees and the host populations of Andaman Islands. In the very beginning of the report Sinha categorically stated his objective in the following manner:

A student of Cultural Anthropology has a distinctive point of view in approaching socio-economic problems. Any social situation is assessed by him in terms of how far it satisfies the total range of human needs in the communities under observation. His attention is not restricted to economic plans only; the problems of social relationship and other cultural factors are given simultaneous consideration. So the problem of relationship between the refugees and original inhabitants was not studied as an isolated item (Sinha 1955:1). [Italics mine].

After outlining his anthropological position, Sinha stated the specific objectives of the study in concrete terms, which were (i) intensive socio-economic survey of the resettled refugees, (ii) comparison of the degree of adaptation of the refugees and the earlier settlers, (iii) socio-economic inter-relation between refugees and earlier settlers and (iv) identification of suitable geographical areas in the Andaman islands for further rehabilitation of refugees. Most interestingly, Sinha’s intensive socio-economic survey not only included collection of quantitative data but also the participatory observation of the whole round of daily activities of the resettled refugees. He even took part in their ‘gossips to note the psychological trends, on which direct questionnaire method or statistical enquiry did not seem profitable’ (ibid). The socio-economic survey conducted by Sinha is one of the finest examples of an anthropological study on the social impact assessment of the resettlement and rehabilitation efforts undertaken by the government in Independent India. It contained detailed factual description of the historical background, geographical environment, socio-demographic features, settlement pattern, economic and social life of the resettled refugee population in Andaman. The description vividly revealed the ground realities of resettlement around the differential adaptation of the refugee groups and Sinha was not hesitant to record the failures of the government in providing land for the resettlers. With the help of quantitative data presented in the form of a table Sinha stated:

The chart amply shows that not only the promised quota of land has not been fulfilled in most cases, but there also exists a large amount of disparity in distribution of land among the different settlers. This has hindered the attachment of the refugees to the local soil. They are still in the hope that they may be given their full quota of land somewhere else. The refugees allege that their lands have not been measured to their satisfaction” (Ibid 1955:14). [Italics mine].

Along with governmental failures Sinha also noted the limitations of the refugees in adapting to the new environment. In page 24 of the report we find:

On the whole the refugees are even today dissipating some amount of their energies in grumbling and praying for more grants than adequately exploiting their allotted quota of land. Though the cultivator families are doing fairly well in tilling the plain lands, their record in clearing jungles for expanding the cultivable land has been poor. They have moved very little in exploiting the forest or sea” (Ibid 1955:24). [Italics mine].

Immediately after the above statement, Sinha provided some positive examples of traditional higher caste (Brahmin and Kayastha) families among the refugees who started ploughing and also some resettlers whom he found to work hard in clearing jungles. Quite importantly, Sinha’s fieldwork was not limited among the Bengali refugees. He gave adequate time to understand the  complex situation of adaptation of earlier settlers in Andaman, which included the descendents of Indian convict parents,  the Mapillas, the Bhantus, the Burmans, the Karens and the Madrasi refugees from the then Rangoon, Burma. In a section entitled ‘Local Adaptation of the East Pakistan Refugees Compared With the Earlier Settlers’ he carefully depicted how the different groups adapted to the Andaman situation under a variety of historical and socio-economic factors and how these earlier settlers maintained a peaceful relationship with the latecomer Bengali refugees who were last in the series of resettlers in the islands.

Finally, Sinha made a comprehensive assessment on the whole situation of refugee resettlement in Andaman and provided point-by-point practical recommendations on the further possibilities of a more planned refugee resettlement in different parts of Andaman with transparency and consultation with the refugees themselves, which we now-a-days designate as “participatory approach”.

It is really a tragic story in the history of Indian anthropology that such a valuable report on the rehabilitation of refugees went into oblivion. The Anthropological Survey of India and the Government of West Bengal should salvage this invaluable social impact assessment study by republishing this report at the earliest.

Chakrabarti, S.B. (2003). Anthropology of Surajit Sinha—a brief note. Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society.38(2&3): 103-106.
Ghosh, A. (2003). The historical anthropology of Surajit Sinha. Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society. 38(2&3): 111-115.

Sarkar, J. (2003). The Jarwa destine: a critical appraisal of some recommendations. Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society.38(2&3): 167-172.

Social Impact Assessment (SIA) and Social Impact Management Plan (SIMP) An Indicative Structure (2017). New Delhi: Centre for Science and Environment.

I owe my debts to Dr. Mundayat Sasikumar, Deputy Director, Anthropological Survey of India, Kolkata for providing me the Report of Surajit Sinha in 2019.

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May 15, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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