The first anthropological study on development caused displacement by a big dam in India

Abhijit Guha

The first anthropological study on development caused displacement by a big dam in India was conducted by a famous anthropologist named Irawati Karve. This study is still little known among the academicians of our country and abroad. But let me first give a brief outline of the life and works of this renowned Indian anthropologist in the following paragraph.

Irawati Karve (1905 –1970) was one of the pioneering anthropologists in India who taught Anthropology at Deccan College and founded the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pune (Ray 162-174). Karve contributed profusely in both Physical and Social Anthropology. She was born on 15 December 1905 to a wealthy Chitpavan Brahmin family and was named after the Irrawaddy river in Burma where her father, Ganesh Hari Karmarkar, was working for the Burma Cotton Company. She attended the girls’ boarding school Huzurpaga in Pune from the age of seven and then studied philosophy at Fergusson College, from which she graduated in 1926. She then obtained a Dakshina Fellowship to study Sociology under G. S. Ghurye at Bombay University and obtained a Master's degree in 1928 with a thesis on the subject of her own caste titled The Chitpavan Brahmans — An Ethnic Study. She studied at the famous Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics, in Germany and was awarded a doctorate in Anthropology. She had wide-ranging academic interests in subjects like anthropology, anthropometry, serology, Indology and palaeontology as well as collecting folk songs and translating feminist poetry. She wrote a book named Yuganta: The End of an Epoch, a study of the main characters of the Mahabharata and treated them as historical figures and used their attitudes and behavior to gain an understanding of the times in which they lived. Karve wrote the book first in Marathi, and later translated it into English. The book won the 1967 Sahitya Academy Award for the best book in Marathi. [ accessed on 21.05.2020].

I will now discuss about Irawati Karve’s lesser known book with Jai Nimbkar entitled A Survey of the People Displaced Through the Koyna Dam (1969) was the first of its kind on displacement caused by a big dam in India. Nandini Sundar perceptively observed that this research is a model for studies on dam displaced people which received fresh attention in the 1980s and 1990s (Sundar 2010:405) (My emphasis).   The study was undertaken by Karve on behalf of the Research Committee of the Planning Commission of India and was published by Deccan College, Poona. The Koyna dam was the first big project in Maharashtra in which 100 villages were affected involving 30,000 people. A total of 30,000 acres of land under cultivation was submerged and another 32,000 land was acquired, which could no longer be cultivated. But this dam was also the first big project in which the government assumed the responsibility of offering substitute land and housing plots to the displaced families apart from the payment of monetary compensation.

Under this background Karve and Nimbkar made a detailed micro-level anthropological investigation to assess the success and failure of governmental rehabilitation and the nature of adaptation of the displaced population. This impact assessment research showed how anthropological methodology of studying small populations could also be fruitfully applied to study displacement of population caused by a big dam over a wide area. Another significant thing about the study was the fact that Karve and Nimbkar had no intention to please the government by writing a success story; they have not also said anywhere in the report that the dam was unnecessary.  The results and the conclusions of the study simply revealed how the government despite its stated good intentions for development failed to deliver justice. In the Foreword the authors stated unequivocally

More dams have been built since independence than during the two hundred years of the British rule….. With independence this major activity became entirely a state sponsored enterprise. The state also realised that paying an adequate money compensation did not end the responsibility of the State and that people so displaced must be rehabilitated by the state.
The following report will show that the State understood its responsibility and tried honestly to fulfill it but still the attempt was largely fruitless because the rehabilitation was not properly planned (Karve & Nimbkar, 1969:1).

The book contains eight sections and three appendices which included the findings as well as detailed description of the methodology along with the questionnaire schedules. Under the section on findings the authors analysed a huge mass of quantitative and qualitative data on landlessness, caste composition, occupational changes, education, housing, compensation and the impact of displacement on the social and religious life of the affected population. In the concluding section the authors succinctly observed how the sufferings of the displaced population caused by the mega development project owing to lack of planning and foresight. I quote from the monograph

The chief failure of rehabilitation lies in the lack of planning….What actually happened is that people did have to move in a hurry, and the government puts the blame for this on the indecision of the people themselves. …the valley people did not have a clear idea of what was going to happen…..they handed large cash amounts to people who had never before handled money, and left them to their own devices. The result was that much of this money was spent in transportation expenses, instead of being utilised in constructing houses (Ibid, 1969:106).

Interestingly, Karve and Nimbkar finally narrated the short-sighted approach of the government, which was revealed when the government gave a cash dole of few hundred rupees to the displaced persons just before the general election of the country apprehending that the dissatisfaction of the affected people might have been dissipated towards the government. Suffice it to say that Karve and Nimbkar could not accept this governmental approach to the resettled families (Ibid 108). This forgotten study by Karve and Nimbkar should be widely read not only by the anthropologists and sociologists but also by the planners and policymakers of our country.

Karve, Irawati and Nimbkar, Jai. (1969). A Survey of the People Displaced through the Koyna Dam. Poona: Deccan College.

Ray, S.K. (1974).Bibliographies of Eminent Indian Anthropologists (WITH LIFE-SKETCHES) Anthropological Survey of India, Govt. of India, Indian Museum, Calcutta.

Sundar, N. (2010). (First published in 2007).In the cause of anthropology: life and works of Irawati  Karve. In P. Uberoi, N. Sundar, & S. Deshpande (Eds.), Anthropology in the east: Founders of Indian sociology and anthropology (pp. 360–416). Ranikhet: Permanent Black.

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May 21, 2020

Abhijit Guha

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