Bhopal sister leads villagers displaced by massive dam on the Parwati

Sr. Dorothy Beck, left, sits with people displaced by a major dam in Ashta, central India. (GSR photo / Saji Thomas)

When Sr. Dorothy Beck joined her congregation’s social work department, she had no inkling that she would soon become the beacon of hope for thousands displaced by a government dam project in a central Indian state.

Beck was 44 in 1998 when she joined Pushp Kalyan Kendra (Little Flower Welfare Center), managed by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Chambery, in Ashta, a town in Madhya Pradesh state 543 miles south of New Delhi, the Indian capital.

Seventeen years later her mission continues among the Dalit (formerly called "untouchable people"), tribal and other marginalized populations. “I still have a long way to go,” the 61-year-old nun told Global Sisters Report.

However, her journey had its crosses to bear. Her opponents painted her work as a façade for converting the poor into Christianity. Some issued death threats through local newspapers to discourage her work among the poor.

“I never hesitated to take any risk for the needy,” she said, describing the obstacles as challenges Christ sent to deepen her faith and discipleship.

Daya Ram, a displaced farmer, said he is happy that Beck did not give up. The 37-year-old Hindu is among about 1,000 families from seven villages who lost their houses and agricultural land for the construction of Rampura Khurd Irrigation Project Dam. The 77-foot-high dam built across the Parwati River inundated 1,228 acres of agriculture land.

The project was originally sanctioned in 1978, but people’s protests delayed the construction until 1992.

Ram, who was a teenager when the eviction took place, recalls that the authorities were ruthless in removing the people from their land. “Our houses were razed and we lost all our belongings, including livestock.” His family of parents, eight brothers and four sisters lost their 20-acre land that had sustained them.

He said the government sent them out without an alternative. It could “easily get us out from our lands and other belongings” since the illiterate villagers had no political backing, Ram told Global Sisters Report in mid-August.

Ram is now the president of the local fishermen cooperative society the nun helped set up.

“We were offered 2,200 rupees (U.S. $51 then) for an acre of land as compensation, just peanuts,” Ram said.

The farmers, who were self-reliant once, gradually migrated to other places and became migrant laborers. Anwar Khan, a Muslim farmer who like Ram stayed back, said they wanted to fight the injustice but “nobody was there to guide us.”

Sr. Dorothy Beck stands in front of the dam that displaced thousands in central India. (GSR photo / Saji Thomas)

It was then they met Beck, who was in search of Dalit and tribal people who faced social discrimination. Beck said she was shocked to see “so many people living as refugees in their own land.”

The nun, who is a tribal member herself, easily understood the farmers’ problems and agreed to lead them. “If you are ready to sweat, I am ready to shed my blood for you all,” she told the farmers as she set out to educate them about their rights and the government’s duty to protect them and their livelihoods.

Khan says her words fired them up after six years of humiliating life as migrant laborers. As news about Beck’s willingness to fight for their rights, even those who had migrated to other places returned and joined the protest, he said.

The first thing Beck did was to get a copy of the government policy for resettlement and rehabilitation of people displaced by various projects. However, government officials refused to disclose the details or give a copy to the Catholic nun. Beck, who is also a lawyer, said she had to “literally knock at every door,” including the office of chief minister of Madhya Pradesh state, to get the copy.

Khan said even the villagers did not know about such a policy for resettlement and rehabilitation until the Catholic nun told them about it.

The government policy promised to pay each displaced family a monthly remuneration of 150 rupees (about $2.25) for three years, provide drinking water, construct a school, park, community hall and roads and worship places — and to offer government jobs to educated unemployed persons.

Succumbing to pressure from the protestors, the government also allotted 506 residential plots on a hilly area that had no road connectivity, drinking water, electricity and other basic facilities, immediately after their eviction. As time went on, life in the new place became intolerable, and about 400 families moved out and went in search of livelihoods. Most have become hired laborers. Only 218 families are staying on their allotted plots.

As the government promises remained only on paper, Beck and her team continued their struggle. The first major breakthrough was achieved in 2000 when the government paid 5,400 rupees (U.S. $115) each to families of displaced persons, the first of three annual payments. This boosted their struggle.

“My strength was the strong support of the people. They were ready to do anything,” Beck said.

Since her convent was almost 20 miles away, she stayed with the farmers Monday to Saturday. There was no church or priest available for Mass in those villages. “In the beginning, I returned to the convent every Saturday for my Sunday obligation,” she said.

Some people who have been displaced by a dam stand before their makeshift house in Ashta, central India. (GSR photo / Saji Thomas)

She spent time with villagers walking from one place to another and took overnight shelter in whatever house was available. She, however, did not miss her one-hour private prayer in the morning.

Besides staging protests, Beck encouraged the villagers to clear 15 acres of forest and cultivate grains there despite opposition from forest officials. Villagers were ultimately evicted forcefully.

“This, however, motivated us to fight hard for a dignified life,” Harku Bai, 61, an illiterate woman told GSR, as she cleaned grains, sitting on a wooden cot in front of her house.

The mother of five boys and four girls recalled that the forest officers had tried to arrest the nun but could not do so as “none of us certified against her in spite of threat and pressure from them.”

Another woman, Bhuri Bai, 50, said the officers even tried to create a rift between the nun and the villagers. After the government implemented the rehabilitation policy, the nun shifted her attention to another area — the right to fish from the reservoir.

“The first right of fishing from the dam should go to the displaced since it was built on their agriculture land,” Beck explained.

It was easier said than done. The powerful fish contractors, who had the backing of administration and political parties, were after her. Beck found that the contractors had used a fake, cooperative society, created in the name of the displaced persons, to fish in the dam. When Beck objected, the contractors sent people armed with guns, swords and other weapons to attack her and villagers, recalled Ramesh Chand, who fought among the villagers.

Without caring for her personal safety, Beck, who had taken special training in leading protests and crowd management, led the villagers, motivating women and men on how to deal with the attackers.

Leaders of displaced people meet with Sr. Dorothy Beck, right, with a black bag in her lap. (GSR photo / Saji Thomas)

The contractors allegedly issued death threats to Beck through the local media. They warned her that she would face the same fate as Australian Protestant missionary Graham Stuart Staines, who had worked among tribal people of Odisha, eastern India. Staines and his two sons were burned to death by a mob led by a rightwing Hindu activist while they were sleeping inside their vehicle after a village program on Jan. 22, 1999. “Similar thing can take place in Ashta, too, then don’t blame us,” the contractors warned.

They also “ran another malicious campaign accusing me of converting poor people in the name of the movement. This was apparently to create a rift among us,” Beck said. Madhya Pradesh is among several Indian states that have stringent laws against religious conversion through allurement and force.

As the tussle reached a flashpoint, the church leaders and her own superiors asked Beck to stay away from the villagers and even offered to shift her to another place.

“As our battle had reached a crucial stage, my withdrawal would have been a death knell for the movement. So, I disagreed with all suggestions to walk away from my people,” Beck recalls.

The administration provided her with police security for six months until the villagers took over her protection. The villagers “used to come to the boundary of the convent and escorted me to the village, ensuring my safety,” she adds.

Raja Ram, 38, another displaced person, said the villagers used to wake up Beck even at midnight in her convent and take her to villages to evade the armed men.

The struggle continued for three years, and the case was taken to the state high court. “Finally, the illegal contractors were packed off,” Raja Ram told GSR. (No relation to Daya Ram; Ram is a common surname among low-caste people in India.)

Raja Ram said the villagers were disappointed when the administration granted the fishing rights to another contractor, allegedly after taking a bribe. Meanwhile, Beck helped the villagers form a cooperative society in their name. “Finally we got the fishing right in 2004,” Ram said. The society now has 123 members.

Since the villagers are not fishermen, Beck arranged special training for them and took them to various parts of the country to expose them to the working of cooperative societies. She also bought fishing nets, boats and other equipment for more than seven years.

Journalists Sachin Jain and Raghuwar Dayal Gohiaji, who helped highlight the villagers’ struggles through their reports, commended Beck for her leadership.

Sr. Dorothy Beck, left, meets with village women in Ashta. (GSR photo / Saji Thomas)

Everyone, including the media, had ignored the dam displaced until Beck came into the picture, Jain said. Even the displaced had given up hope and moved to other places. “But Sir. Beck’s leadership brought them all back to fight for their rights,” he told GSR.

Jain, who has now become a social worker, recalled many had opposed Beck’s efforts to get justice for the villagers. “She has shown her commitment to the work and did not give up even amid life threat.”

Beck shrugs off such praises saying, “The fruitfulness of our mission depends on our union with the Lord, and belief in his word.”

She quoted Isaiah 43:1: “When you pass through the waters I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.”

[Saji Thomas is a freelance journalist based in Bhopal, a central Indian city. He has worked for several mainstream newspapers such as The Times of India. This article is part of a collaboration between GSR and Matters India, a news portal started in March 2013 to focus on religious and social issues in India.]