PP Post: Rail project families at risk: NGO

A girl cycles past shacks at a Dangkor relocation site. (Pha Lina/Phnom Penh Post)

An NGO has criticised a controversial railway rehabilitation project – funded primarily by the Asian Development Bank and AusAID – in a report that states the US$143 million project has left families at risk of impoverishment by failing to adequately compensate and resettle them.

In the report obtained by the Post, Bridges Across Borders Cambodia says a perception among many families interviewed that they had been, or would be, worse off because of the project was “unsurprising”.

“The lack of meaningful consultat-ion, including the provision of genuine choices from the beginning, has meant the resettlement process has been fraught with problems for many households,” the report says.

More than 4,000 families living alongside the railway could be affec-ted by the project, and at least 1,200 families will have to relocate.

BABC executive director David Pred said that although there had been recent improvements, including a partial refund of electricity fees for resettled families in Phnom Penh and allocation of plots to people previously denied them, problems with the resettlement process remained.

“The most serious systemic problem of inadequate compensation and loss of income leading families into debt has not been addressed, and it poses the greatest risk of impoverishing affected people,” Pred said.

More than a third of the households interviewed felt they had been “intimidated or coerced, mainly by local authorities”, and NGOs monitoring the project had come under “significant pressure”, he said.

The report says the resettlement experience “was not uniform”. Fewer than 40 per cent of the more than 200 households interviewed between September, 2010 and October last year reported that living standards had improved or had not worsened, and development partners had made efforts to improve resettlement.

However, there was a “systematic downgrading” of compensation for affected families, the report says. It states that for some, the five resettlement sites were too far from their original homes and none were adequately equipped when families relocated, with access to water and electricity costs of particular concern.

“A considerable number of affected households have suffered harm and a deterioration of their living conditions due to non-compliance with the ADB Policy on Involuntary Resettlement,” the report says.

It urges the government to halt resettlement until international rights obligations and ADB policies are adhered to, review compensation and ensure basic services at resettlement sites.

Officials from the Ministry of Public Works and Transport were not available for comment yesterday. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached, while Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that he was “not aware” of what was occurring with the resettlement.

Long Vanny, 53, who moved from Tuol Sangke village in Russei Keo district to Trapaing Anhchanh village in Dangkor district, is about US$1,000 in debt from building a house and opening a grocery shop.

“I hope this relocation and my business will help support my living better, although I owe money,” she said. She has received a larger plot of land with water, electricity and toilets and more than $900, but is far from schools and health centres.

The ADB said safeguard policies had not always been “uniformly implemented”. “All families affected by the resettlement process will be as well off, and in many cases much better off, than they were before.”

Relocated households would receive land titles after five years and electricity, water supply and basic facilities were being implemented, it said.

An Australian embassy spokesperson said improvements had been made at resettlement sites, compensation and grievances processes.