Land Acquisition: Jharkhand

Losing in India

Print edition : August 18, 2017

The concrete road that will soon be used by coal-laden trucks servicing the NTPC coal mining project in Hazaribag district of Jharkhand. It is being built on land taken from farmers, many of whom have not given their consent and have refused compensation. Photo: AKSHAY DESHMANE

A warning to land sharks against brokering land deals, on a wall at Jugra in Hazaribag. Photo: AKSHAY DESHMANE

Bhagirati Sao at work in Jugra village. Like many others in the village, he has refused to accept compensation for the land that he lost to the road being built by the NTPC. Photo: AKSHAY DESHMANE

A flag march by Rapid Action Force jawans in Hazaribag after last October’s police firing on demonstrators protesting against the NTPC project. Photo: Manob Chowdhury

While the Chief Minister dreams about the heights that he hopes Jharkhand will achieve, the farmers who stand to lose their land to make way for industrial projects are worried.

Over two days in mid February this year, some of India’s most influential politicians and corporate tycoons assembled for a mega event at an unlikely location: the Harivansh Tana Bhagat Indoor Stadium in Jharkhand’s capital city, Ranchi. It was the eastern State’s maiden “Global Investment Summit”. Among those in attendance were Union Cabinet Ministers Arun Jaitley, Piyush Goel and M. Venkaiah Naidu and corporate tycoons, including Ratan Tata, Kumar Mangalam Birla, Anil Agarwal, Naveen Jindal and Shashi Ruia.

The meeting was the most high-profile event organised as part of the ongoing “Make in Jharkhand” campaign being implemented by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led State government to promote the State as an attractive investment destination in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” initiative. The investment climate in the mineral-rich State has been undergoing a steady change since the current government came to power. At the inaugural session, Chief Minister Raghubar Das told the assembled businessmen: “This is an appropriate time for you to come ahead and invest in Jharkhand. The State government has developed conditions favourable for industry and investment in Jharkhand, which is full of mineral resources, easy [read easily available] labour and natural resources. The State government’s pro-investment policies will play the role of a catalyst in your efforts.”

Seeking to assure his audience that the government had an inclusive vision, Das said: “We are preparing a model of development in which the local population will participate adequately in industrial and economic progress and it will always be the chief stakeholder in the social and economic progress of the State. Perhaps this is truly sabka saath sabka vikas.”

In the comfortable confines of the indoor stadium, the Chief Minister’s speech received applause from the businessmen and senior politicians present in the meeting.

There are no echoes of that applause, though, in the districts where, far from the State capital, the government’s “investor-friendly” policy makes itself felt in an aggressive manner of implementation of projects. The manner in which land is being acquired, or is sought to be acquired, for projects seems to have created resentment among farmers and landowners against the government. Less than three months before the February meeting, opposition parties sought to tap into this resentment with a State-wide bandh to protest against the government’s controversial and hasty amendments to two historic laws protecting tribal rights to land in the State—the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act and the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act. The protests had the intended effect. In June, Governor Draupadi Murmu returned the amendments passed by the Assembly. The Raghubar Das administration in July withdrew the amendments that had been passed hastily in November 2016 to ensure easier acquisition of tribal land for infrastructure projects. There will be extensive consultations before amendments to the two laws are made again, the Chief Minister promised. Acquisition of land for projects continues through other laws, but not without protest.

Contentious projects

To find out how land acquisition is being carried out and why it is attracting sustained opposition in the State, Frontline took a close look at two prominent and contentious projects: the National Thermal Power Corporation’s (NTPC) coal mining project in Hazaribag district and Adani Power (Jharkhand) Limited’s (APJL) thermal power project in Godda district.

Jharkhand has India’s most plentiful coal reserves and a large number of new projects—either proposed or under implementation—are directly or indirectly related to coal mining and thermal power. Since many of these projects require significant areas of land, they also end up displacing people and affecting livelihoods and are thus controversial. A closer look reveals that the projects planned by the NTPC, a public sector undertaking (PSU), and AJPL, a special purpose vehicle set up by Adani Power Limited, have courted controversy for similar reasons. Civil society activists and local residents say they are worried not only about the potential displacement; they allege that the government has worked in favour of the companies and has silenced leaders who articulated people’s opposition by foisting “false” legal cases on them and putting them behind bars.

Hazaribag

One afternoon in mid July, dark monsoon clouds brought light showers and strong winds to Jugra village in Hazaribag district. Bhagirati Sao, 65, a small farmer from the village, seemed nonchalant and focussed on digging mud and levelling his farm’s broken boundary. “Someone, most probably the farmer over there with a larger land parcel, might have broken the boundary by driving his tractor over it. But we didn’t want to fight, so we are repairing the boundary ourselves,” Bhagirati’s son Sukhdev told this correspondent to explain why his father was hard at work despite the rain. But Bhagirati or Bhaglu, as he is known locally, had a bigger worry on his mind. He said that in late May, the NTPC began constructing a 10-metre-wide concrete road by taking over some parts of his and a few other farmers’ land without their consent. The concrete road will provide access to the NTPC’s two controversial coal mines located in the vicinity, Pakri Barwadih East and West, for transporting coal.

In protest, Bhagirati joined a hunger strike of local residents for 10 days, but that produced only a temporary halt on the road construction. This is the season for paddy cultivation, and farmers across the State are busy in the fields. Most of those who lost land because of the construction refused monetary compensation to register their protest. This was corroborated by a company official.

The compensation package was recently revised to Rs.20 lakh an acre. Asked why he refused it and preferred to go on working on his relatively small land pockets spread in the village and together constituting some five-odd acres, Bhagirati said: “Three generations of my family have relied on this land. Currently, there are 15 people in my family. They can be fed and the household’s expenses taken care of, to some extent, because of this land and whatever I get out of farming it, apart from working on others’ farms as a daily wager. How can I sustain my family with the money the company wants to pay us? The money will finish in no time, but the land will stay with us.”

There is only one kind of compensation he is ready to consider in exchange for all his multicrop land: he and the other farmers who lose their productive fields are given farmland and resettled in a common village elsewhere. “Land for land and village for village,” he said.

Bhagirati seemed to reflect the dominant opinion among Jugra’s residents, who have been among the most vocal in resisting the NTPC’s coal mine project. The project was planned in 2006, but work started in earnest only in early 2016. The NTPC’s “revised mining plan and mine closure plan” document, prepared in January 2016, envisages mining 18 million tonnes of coal per annum in the Pakri Barwadih block in Hazaribag district.

The project is spread over 4,695 hectares spanning 27 villages in two blocks, involving multiple land types, such as forest land, tenancy land and government land. The actual mining, being rolled out in phases, is restricted to 1,982 hectares, that is, 42 per cent of the total project area.

At present, two mines in the block are operational: Pakri Barwadih East and West. They supply coal to existing thermal power plants of the NTPC. Curiously, the document says that even when full opencast mining resumes, “29 per cent of total project area shall be unutilised due to various reasons such as presence of hills and rationalisation etc”.

The document puts the “cumulative population” of project affected persons (PAPs) at “approximately 8,339”.

In an interview with Frontline, the NTPC’s group general manager, T. Gopalakrishna, said approximately 8,000 households would be affected. Civil society activists such as P.K. Siddharth, president of the Bharatiya Suraaj Dal, and Birendra Kumar, member of Ekta Parishad, said the actual number of affected people was far higher. Both of them have been involved in the legal battle against this project in the Jharkhand High Court. In separate interviews with this correspondent, they said more than 40,000 people might be affected, assuming five members for each of the 8,000 households. The company, conscious of the opposition it faces, has so far attempted to acquire a limited quantum of land. In villages that are not as united in their opposition to the project as Jugra is, some people have accepted compensation packages. However, company officials conceded that only one village had so far fully accepted compensation. Most others have, at best, made mixed responses.

The document says the NTPC will ensure rehabilitation of affected people. “These PAPs shall be relocated at Rehabiliation and Resettlement Colony which shall be constructed near Denga village on the South Eastern part of the block,” the plan says.

A colony was, indeed, established near Barkagaon, but it quickly became controversial for its poor quality. The Chief Minister had to order a third-party quality inspection after village residents complained. The quality of resettlement colony and the sheer number of people likely to be affected by mining is, however, only a minor reason for the project courting controversy.

In October 2016, as protests peaked against the project under the leadership of former Congress Minister Yogendra Sao, tensions simmered in Hazaribag, which is also veteran BJP leader Yashwant Sinha’s former Lok Sabha constituency. It is currently represented by his son, Union Minister Jayant Sinha. So the protests also acquired an overtly political colour.

A protest led by Sao’s wife, Congress MLA Nirmala Devi, witnessed brutal police firing and violence. Four people were killed and over half a dozen were injured in the violence. Both Sao and his wife are now in jail. The police firing curbed subsequent protests but also brought further infamy to the project. The Chief Minister’s attempts to undo some of the damage have not been very effective in terms of winning genuine popular support for the project.

In the absence of a sustained grass-roots political campaign against the project, at present much of the resistance seems to have moved to the courts. One petition was filed with the Jharkhand High Court and another in the National Green Tribunal’s Eastern Zone in Kolkata. P.K. Siddharth and Birendra Kumar’s writ petition in the High Court, filed soon after the firing incident in 2016, has accused the company and the district administration of multiple violations of law, including a) acquisition of forest land through manipulation of records and/or without following the due legal processes, especially consent of the gram sabha; b) acquisition of farmers’ land under the old land acquisition law of 1894, which is incorrect because possession is yet to be taken of the entire land, so the 2013 law on acquisition needs to be applied; and c) violation of the 2013 land acquisition Act by pressuring farmers to accept compensation and the threat of action against them under the Coal Bearing Act on failing to do so.

In their responses, both the district administration and the NTPC strongly refuted these charges. T.S. Gopalakrishna said: “Such inadequate and incorrect information by the petitioners demonstrates their casual approach for getting cheap publicity.”

This provoked a sharp response from the petitioners. The legal battle is far from resolution anytime in the near future. On the ground, the tension and uncertainty among villagers persist. Bhagirati Sao’s son, Sukhdev Sao, stays in Delhi looking after his small cosmetics business when he does not have to be in Jugra. But this time, his visit home seems to be longer than expected. “I don’t know when I will visit Delhi next, for the time being I have to be here, otherwise they may take over our land,” he lamented.

Godda

Among the residents of Motiya and Gangta Gobindpur villages in Godda district, where the APJL’s thermal power project is to come up, there is uncertainty about what will happen as no actual work can be witnessed in their vicinity. As of July, not much work had begun on the project, though green clearances had arrived. But the project is playing on people’s minds.

When this correspondent visited Gangta Gobindpur, a small Adivasi village comprising a couple of hundred families, in mid July, monsoon showers seemed to have taken a reprieve. Families were drying corn in their front yards in the afternoon by carefully spreading individual corn pieces over floors paved with cow dung, which exuded a sharp smell in the sun. The grasslands near the village were bright green, occasionally faint yellow, with cattle feasting hungrily on them. To the untrained eye of an outsider, the landscape appeared idyllic.

But outsiders did not seem welcome, and the idyll might, at best, be transitory. Wariness was writ large on the faces of the residents. Most would avoid a conversation and only hesitantly give directions for specific addresses. Subodh Soren (25) was an exception. When asked for a specific person’s address, he showed the way to reach it. However, when asked about Adani’s thermal power project that villagers believe will displace them and/or take away their land, Soren spoke after some hesitation: “Why are you asking this? Why should we give away our land? We cultivate crops on it through the year and so our livelihoods are dependent upon it.”

Suraj Hembram, a former schoolteacher known locally as Masterji and whose house Soren had shown the way to, was livid: “I don’t know who you are, so I will only speak if you get mukhiya ji here,” he said. The mukhiya ji, or village head, he was referring to is actually the husband of the real village head of both this and a neighbouring village named Motiya. Ram Yadav, who seems to wield most of the powers of the actual village head, has been vocal against the project. He explained why people of Gangta Gobindpur were so wary of outsiders: “That entire village is going to be affected adversely by the project. If you go there now, they will call you Adani’s man. They are very scared. Anyone [who is not from the village] who goes there is not let in.”

In the four other villages where APJL proposes to acquire 917.37 acres of land, reactions to the 1,600 MW thermal power project are mixed. But a significant section of those who may lose land are concerned about their future prospects. According to official documents, the thermal power plant is being built predominantly to supply power to Bangladesh; only 25 per cent of the total power produced may remain for consumption in Jharkhand. APJL signed a memorandum of understanding with the government of Jharkhand in February 2016 (for stage I) and October 2016 (for stage II) to set up the plant. In October 2016, it proposed to acquire 2,120.59 acres in 10 villages of Godda. In December 2016, it revised this figure to 1,199.97 acres spread across nine villages. By March 2017, this figure was further reduced to 917.37 acres in six villages.

During those months, the mandatory legal processes concerning land acquisition and environment clearance were getting the project mired in controversy. Specifically, two public hearings that were organised by the district administration saw intense protests. The first was held in December 2016 for seeking public feedback as part of the social impact assessment (SIA) process. The second was held in March 2017 as part of the environment impact assessment process. Both hearings were violent and tense.

A resident of Motiya village said, on condition of anonymity: “Landowners opposed to the project were not permitted to attend the public hearing. Instead, a large number of outsiders filled the space as the hearing was conducted. Yellow and green coloured cards [parchas] were distributed and entry inside the venue was regulated.”

Such claims are aired liberally in the two villages where hearings were held. Motiya was one of them. These claims, though not confirmed, were serious enough for the State government to announce a three-member team to investigate them. The team’s findings, if they have been filed, have not been made public yet. This is partly the reason why those opposing the project do not believe the claims made in the SIA report. It said two specific things: a) no homestead land is being acquired, so there is no physical displacement of any landowners and b) 841 families and 5,339 people will be adversely affected by the project by way of loss of livelihood options. The report has suggested monetary compensation to make up for this loss. Interestingly, the report claims 85 per cent of those assembled at the public hearing gave their consent to the project.

The previously quoted resident of Motiya, who is also a member of the Bhumi Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, a front opposing the project, said: “It is possible that about 60 per cent of the people gave their consent by March in the second public hearing. But this SIA report is completely unbelievable.” He claimed lack of any conclusive action against those responsible for the botched up December hearing led to more resentment among people. “We said that the process of land acquisition should be immediately stopped until the committee gives its report, but that has not happened,” he said.

The March 2017 hearing saw strident protests, stone pelting and police caning of protesters. The officially recorded minutes of the meeting, though, mention none of this. They record dissent in one single sentence on the last page: “Some villagers present in the public hearing were also shouting slogans not to provide the land to support the project.”

A month after this hearing, in April, Pradip Yadav, Member of the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly from Poraiyahat and Jharkhand Vikas Morcha (Prajatantrik) leader, started an indefinite hunger strike against the project. A week into his protest, he was arrested. It was alleged that he had provoked violence at the public hearing in March. The MLA’s supporters, like Motiya resident Lakshman Yadav, alleged that the police filed a false case against the MLA because his protest was effective. He continues to be in jail.

In this context, the Chief Minister’s optimistic pronouncements at the investment conference ring hollow. At one point in the inaugural speech, he said: “Our State animal elephant is flying. This is not an unusual flight. It is the matter of transforming unfavourable conditions into opportunities. This is the flight of our dreams. This is the flight of the dreams of 3.25 crore people [of Jharkhand]. Our flying elephant has got wings and they are green. Green symbolises relentless efforts for progress while conserving nature. Its blue ears symbolise peace and security of the state. The elephant’s red colour reflects our passion for all round progress, it shows a revolution in which everybody’s dreams have got wings.”

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

Related Articles

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor
×