Vasudha Vasanti Dhagamwar
IndiaMARG (Multiple Action Research Group)
Fellow since 1982

Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.

#Displaced person#Tribe#Law#Human migration#Government#Population transfer#Lawyer#Adivasi

The Person

Vasudha has worked for over a decade in the legal field, both in teaching and in grass-roots legal aid and public interest work. She hopes for the evolution of a national policy for resettlement of project displaced persons. She has been invited to be a lecturer to IAS students (Indian Administrative Services, the top echelon of the civil services).

The New Idea

Vasudha Dhagamwar is working toward a national policy for resettlement of project displaced people, especially tribals. Her goal is to secure proper rehabilitation and compensation for displaced people. She is attacking the problem from several angles at once. She seeks to gain legal grounds for her goal through the national judiciary system while also inspiring local resistance to complacency.

The Problem

Vasudha explains that there is a belief on the part of the tribals that the government would never displace them and if it did displace them it would take good care of them. By law, government must work with people in affected areas (from dam projects) to let them know what is about to happen and also to train them in new skills so they can relocate easily. Vasudha finds that in a majority of the affected tribal villages she and her co-workers have visited that the government has yet to even visit the villages much less begin rehabilitation.

The Strategy

Dhagamwar has set up a national legal aid center which brings important public interest test cases before the courts. Her goal is to obtain precedent-setting judgments, especially those from India's Supreme Court, on behalf of the poor and unrepresented, then to provide follow-up services through local voluntary organizations. Her chief focus for these public interest cases is in land-use law. Consequently, her follow-up plans are of crucial importance, both to insure that the judgments obtained are enforced and that the beneficiaries are protected from direct and indirect retaliation for having the temerity to bring such cases. Dhagamwar herself, however, stresses the need to de-emphasize the courts, as they are too backed up. In addition, the hefty expense of putting a case through the courts exaggerates the problem of getting the decisions enforced. She argues that the people have real power if they know how to use it, but they must learn to stand up for their rights directly Vasudha has created a national Public Interest Litigation office that brings precedent-setting cases of policy significance. For example, she focused on a series of cases that she hopes will require that the compensation/rehabilitation costs of dealing with people hurt by development projects (e.g., villages flooded by dams) as a necessary component in calculating such projects' cost-benefit ratio. She is working with local lawyers to help bring such cases and with local voluntary organizations to provide follow-up services. Vasudha is also collaborating on a film that describes what happened to tribal people who were displaced by the Topi dam in India. 50,000 of these people are now landless laborers. Vasudha and her organization are printing manuals for tribals emphasizing the relevant laws in their case and also explaining to the tribals their rights. These manuals are also meant to help tribal people organize effectively to lobby their political leaders for help. The Ford Foundation is funding the production of these manuals. Bread For The World, a German Organization, is the primary funder of Vasudha's organization. During the summer 1984, she helped Fellow Vivek Pandit's struggle to force the government to provide help for bonded laborers he helped release. She also helped in Kirtee Shah's efforts on behalf of Bangalore slumdwellers facing bulldozer evictions.