Battle of Bastar

Print edition : May 04, 2012

Chhattisgarh: The Centre approves the diversion of forest land for the Tatas' proposed steel plant in Bastar.

in Bastar

Tribal women out to collect forest produce in Chhattisgarh's Bastar district. The destruction of the forests in the region could spell disaster for the tribal people dependent on forest produce.-ARUNANGSU ROY CHOWDHURY

INDIA'S hinterland, densely forested and mineral-rich but inhabited by extremely poor and vulnerable tribal people, is witnessing a saga of broken promises, dislocation, deprivation and disempowerment in the name of development. Whether it is Niyamgiri in Odisha, Jharsuguda in Jharkhand, or any other place in India, tribal people are up in arms against policies that seek to dislodge them from their homes and their land. The Bastar region of Chhattisgarh is the latest on the list. After some delay, Tata Steel recently got the Centre's approval to divert a huge tract of forest land for its greenfield mega steel plant at Lohandiguda in Jagdalpur in the region. Work on the project may begin any time. Villagers, who face eviction, were unaware of the development until this correspondent broke the news to them. The immediate reaction was disbelief followed by despair. Many residents of the villages in Lohandiguda block, which will be affected by the project, said they would die fighting rather than part with their land.

The Chhattisgarh government signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Tata Steel in 2005 for the greenfield project with a capacity to produce 5.5 million tonnes steel a year, on an investment of Rs.19,500 crore. The project envisages the acquisition of over 2,000 hectares of land. The area required for the steel plant is some 960 ha; the rest of the land will be used for residential quarters, ancillary units, roads, schools, hospitals, and a 625 MW captive power plant. About 585 ha earmarked for the project is held by individuals (called account holders, or khatadharaks in Hindi). The rest is controlled by the government and can be allotted directly to the Tatas on lease.

The controversy is about the agricultural land belonging to the 1,707 account holders. The local administration says 80 per cent of this land has been acquired, while Tata officials say that the entire compensation money has been deposited with the administration for the purpose of acquisition.

The company and the local administration organised a public hearing on the environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the project on October 12, 2009, at the proposed project site in Lohandiguda, and it was attended by Varun Jha, Tata Steel vice-president in charge of the project. At that meeting, company officials promised to invest Rs.2,000 crore for environmental protection and conservation as per rules, but no other details of any restoration plan were offered.

A year later, on October 12, 2010, the District Collector organised a public hearing on the Collectorate premises to sound out the villagers over the project, and later declared that the project had received overwhelming support from the villagers. The villagers, however, claim that both meetings were stage-managed and persons who would be actually affected were prevented from attending them. Those who attended, they allege, were people from Jagdalpur, contractors, real estate agents and others with vested interests. The villagers, in fact, organised a parallel public hearing in November 2009 at Badanjee village, where the project was unanimously shot down. They sent copies of the minutes to the then Minister for Environment and Forests, Jairam Ramesh.

There was no response to their complaint, and on October 22, 2010, the Environment Ministry gave clearance to the project; this clearance said that work could begin only after the Union government gave approval for the diversion of forest land. This approval was granted in March this year.

Shivraj Singh, Principal Secretary (Industries), Chhattisgarh, and B. Muthuraman, MD, Tata Steel, sign the MoU to set up a steel plant, in Raipur in June 2005, as State Industry Minister Amar Agrawal and Chief Minister Raman Singh look on.-AKHILESH KUMAR

Some 20,000 people in 10 villages will be affected by the project. Nine of the villages are in Lohandiguda block Badanjee, Belar, Takraguda, Kumhali, Chindgaon, Dhuragaon, Dabpal, Paroda and Beliapal. The tenth, Sirisguda, is in Tokapal block.

The villagers say they have been petitioning the governments at the Centre and in the State, pointing out that no worthwhile social impact assessment was done for the project and not enough measures to mitigate environmental pollution were promised. They allege that not only have their pleas gone unheeded but they have also been facing harassment at the hands of the police. Slapping of false cases and even award of jail terms on the basis of these are some of the ways in which the administration has been trying to bully them into falling in line, the villagers say. According to a list drawn up by them, 100 villagers have been booked under false charges and are still being terrorised by the local administration. In some cases, indirect pressure is applied through family members.

Hirmoram Mandavi, a farmer and the sarpanch of Takraguda village, said: They cannot scare us into giving away our land. No matter what the compensation, we will not give our land. Let them first kill us, but before they do that we will kill them as well. Fellow villagers Ramu Ram Maurya, an activist of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Madhusudan Bhakra, the sarpanch of Badanjee village, Kamal Gajviye, a resident of Kumhali village, and many others echoed his thoughts. Mandavi said that the villagers had been forced to give their signatures approving the project at a stage-managed gram sabha meeting where they were terrorised by heavy police deployment. He added that it was only the local administration's claim that the villagers had given their approval for the project.

They were initially promised Rs.3.75 lakh to Rs.5 lakh a hectare, and the administration has promised to ensure that they get Rs.25 lakh a hectare. But, Mandavi said, the tribal people would not give up their land, whatever the price. We do not know what to do with money, but even a small patch of land will ensure that we have something to eat, he said. According to Gajviye, even if one member of each family is assured a job in the project, it is of no real value since the tribal people, with their lack of skills, will get only the lowest-paid jobs.

The Congress is backing the State's Bharatiya Janata Party government on the issue. The villagers, backed by the Communist Party of India (CPI), have approached the authorities at all levels and are even willing to undertake a fast unto death to stop the project. Even if we have to give up our lives, we will do that, says Bhakra.

The villagers are all the more annoyed because the MoU did not mention Lohandiguda block at all and had only Tokapal block as the target area. The land in Lohandiguda is very fertile, it gives us two crops a year as it is near the source of water. Why can't the government ask the Tatas to take banjar [barren] land? Why take away our agricultural land? one of the villagers said, echoing the general sentiment.

The reply to this, interestingly, comes from the Collector of Jagdalpur, Angalban P. According to him, the land in Tokapal, which was initially earmarked for the project, was subsequently found to have a high potential for diamond mining, and reconnaissance work for it is going on. Suppose we give away the land to Tatas and tomorrow diamond mines are found on that land, then what do we do? We cannot take that risk, he says.

But how wise is it to destroy large chunks of agricultural land and wipe out forests, and thus wreak havoc on the ecology? According to the Collector, despite the collateral damage, the returns are high. The fertility here is not very high and the project will bring in many related economic activities as a result of auxiliary and ancillary units coming up, which will benefit the villagers. The profile of this area will be transformed and it will become one of the richest townships, like Bhilai or Jamshedpur, he said.

At the public hearing on the Collectorate premises to sound out the villagers on the project, on October 12, 2010.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

He conceded that the administration had not dealt with the villagers with tact. Yes, I agree that initially there was high-handedness, and unnecessary force was applied on the villagers. They should have been dealt with with more sensitivity, and I plan to do just that. I will try and make them understand that the project is for their own good, that they cannot live in isolation and poverty under the excuse of their exclusivist culture and tradition. After all, the mineral wealth of the region on its own will not do any good for them if it is allowed to be carted away to other areas, as it is happening now. But if the project is set up, they will benefit in many ways. We will make schools for their children, will make hospitals; they will be given jobs and provided training to equip themselves for better jobs. We will have one of the best rehabilitation schemes for them, he said.

The administration is willing to give land for land in as many cases as possible and give more than Rs.25 lakh a hectare as compensation. He says more than 50 per cent of the landholders have taken the compensation. Even their compensation amount will be enhanced, if there is a need, he said.

The villagers dismiss all this as bunkum. In Jamshedpur, go and see for yourself. How many tribal people and their children have been given jobs? All this is just an eyewash, a ploy to usurp our land for the big companies, to destroy Bastar, to destroy our forests, says Gajviye, declaring to an accompanying chorus that if the government tries to use force, it will be worse than Singur.

The local administration seems to have realised that violence and strong-arm tactics will not work. There is no question of any violence. Yes, we want the project here, but only if the villagers agree. We are not desperate at all, the Collector said.

But Tata Steel has already paid the entire compensation amount, Rs.69.43 crore, to the Chhattisgarh State Industrial Development Corporation for the land which has been acquired by the State for them. We certainly want to start work on the project as soon as we can since all the clearances, including the one for diversion of forest land, have come. But we certainly want to keep this project as low profile as possible, otherwise it will invite trouble, said a senior Tata Steel official.

So the conciliatory approach may not last. Roughly 70 per cent of this money has been disbursed, according to the administration, while Rs.27.36 crore is still lying with the Collector. The money that has been disbursed has been deposited in the bank accounts held by the account holders, or khatadharaks. Some villagers seem to have accepted the compensation under pressure.

The project is almost certain to destroy the lush green forests of Bastar and change the way of life of the tribal people of the area. Trees on 42 ha of forest area will be cut down. The tribal population of the region depends on the forests for minor forest produce, such as tendu leaves, mahua, tamarind and timber. Farming and the collection of such produce are the only economic activities that the tribal people of the region engage in. There are no details forthcoming on any relocation plans, so it is not clear to what extent the project-affected people may be rehabilitated. Besides, the region's groundwater and the waters of the Sabari and Indravati rivers, the main sources of drinking water for the tribal population, will get polluted, affecting agricultural activity in nearby areas. The movement of heavy vehicles, transportation of iron ore from the mines to the plant, and the 625 MW captive power plant will add to the pressure on the environment.

A letter from the Editor


Dear reader,

The COVID-19-induced lockdown and the absolute necessity for human beings to maintain a physical distance from one another in order to contain the pandemic has changed our lives in unimaginable ways. The print medium all over the world is no exception.

As the distribution of printed copies is unlikely to resume any time soon, Frontline will come to you only through the digital platform until the return of normality. The resources needed to keep up the good work that Frontline has been doing for the past 35 years and more are immense. It is a long journey indeed. Readers who have been part of this journey are our source of strength.

Subscribing to the online edition, I am confident, will make it mutually beneficial.

Sincerely,

R. Vijaya Sankar

Editor, Frontline

Support Quality Journalism
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor