A Singur in The Making

March 20, 2007

Source : Anand ST Das, Hazaribagh

Sixty-five-year-old Chandru Sao, 65, a farmer at Barkagaon in Hazaribagh district in northern Jharkhand, says his family has never had to go hungry, thanks to the seven acres of fertile farmland that he owns. But these are desperate times — the public sector giant National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) has started the process of acquiring land for its maiden, ambitious coalmine project at Punkhri-Barwadih, a small town 30 kilometres southwest of Hazaribagh town. Sao says he would rather die than be parted from his land. Thousands of farmers, small and big, in Barkagaon block of Hazaribagh face the same predicament.

With tempers rising, the sleepy hamlets around Punkhri-Barwadih have all the makings of turning into another Singur – a flashpoint of people’s violent resistance to the prospect of losing their fertile farmland to an industrial venture. Apart from the loss of over 10,000 acres of well-irrigated three-crop farmland, and dense forests, NTPC’s planned opencast coalmine is likely to obliterate, or at the very least damage irreparably, Punkhri-Barwadih’s megaliths — some of the last vestiges of a prehistoric civilisation which flourished in the region.

The Rs 4,000-crore Punkhri-Barwadih project is NTPC’s first ever foray into coalmining. Scheduled to commence operations in December 2007, it will displace some 14,000 families. In November 2006, a mob of thousands of farmers tore down NTPC’s project-site office at Barkagaon. Six were arrested and there seems to be a lull for now. But, as a Tehelka investigation discovered, that is because villagers in the remote hamlets in this Naxal-infested region are busy re-organising themselves for a stronger assault before the process of land acquisition begins.

Rafiq Ansari, a fiery leader of the anti-land acquisition organisation Karnpura Bachao Sangharsh Samiti (kbss) was arrested on January 5, but that has not deterred the villagers from attending regular meetings organised by kbss and the Karanpura Bisthapita Morcha (kbm).

The psu is faced with coal shortages for its power plants and expects to mine 15 million tonnes of coal a year from the opencast mine. Explorations have confirmed deposits of 1,400 million tonne thermal-grade coal at NTPC’s Punkhri-Barwadih coal block, covering an area of 10,482 acres (42.42 sq km).

NTPC was allotted three coal blocks in Jharkhand — Punkhri-Barwadih, Chatti-Bariatu and Keredari — by the Union Coal Ministry in October 2004 and is acquiring land under the Coal Bearing Area (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957, which is exclusive and binding for India’s coal-bearing areas. NTPC will acquire a total of nearly 40,000 acres for the three projects together.

Those set to lose their homes, farmlands and forest-based livelihoods are largely small farmers belonging to the st and sc communities. Rivulets crisscrossing the agricultural landscape around the villages supply enough water to produce three crops every year, while the forests – consisting mostly saal (Shorea Robusta) trees — provide ample sustenance with their leaves and myriad fruits. “We will die fighting for our land but will not give it away to NTPC or any other company while alive,” says Birduryodhan Sao, a villager. kbss activists Krishna Chandra Sao and Dovan Sao, both farmers who stand to lose their lands, warn that there would be severe public protests if NTPC doesn’t withdraw its project. “The situation could become worse than Singur,” says Krishna.

The Punkhri-Barwadih’s megaliths are the creation of the region’s earliest inhabitants, the Munda and the Ho tribes, and were used as burial stones and astronomical observatories over 5,000 years ago. According to the cultural heritage conservationist Bulu Imam, this site lies at the centre of the tribal people’s sacred landscape, comprising other megaliths throughout the Hazaribagh plateau.

“The megaliths are a complex and hitherto little explored relics of Indian prehistory that hide a great deal of knowledge about the country’s primitive civilisation. They hold the keys to understanding east-central India’s early inhabitants and their civilisation,” Imam, convener of intach’s Hazaribagh chapter, told Tehelka.

While NTPC plans to start production in December 2007, so far its land acquisition initiatives have been a mess, marked by bureaucratic high-handedness and lack of transparency. The psu has failed to put across its resettlement and rehabilitation (r&r) policy to those who will be displaced and has been quoting different figures at different places about the number of villages that will be acquired and the number who will be displaced.

NTPC first said it would acquire 28 villages for the Punkhri-Barwadih project, but later brought the number down to 19. In face of violent opposition by villagers, the pre-project socio-economic survey of the area for rehabilitation has been abandoned after two abortive starts in February and July last year. The three public information centres (pic) set up by NTPC in Barkagaon have remained abandoned for weeks.

The public hearings organised jointly by NTPC and the Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board (jspcb) have had to be called off at the last minute twice, as officials were afraid of being assaulted. The notice cancelling the first public hearing — scheduled for November 23, 2006 — was put out in the newspapers on the same day. About 10,000 villagers who had gathered from different villages in the project area became angry at the cancellation and ransacked the NTPC office in Hazaribagh.

On January 6, the public hearing at the District Collector’s office had to be called off as the villagers turned violent.

The district administration has remained largely indifferent to the people’s concerns. It has been tardy in the identification of the people’s landholdings and in forming Village Development Advisory Committees (vdac) in the villages which will be affected by the project.

Much of the land which is to be acquired falls under the Gair Mazurwa (gm) category — this means that the land is owned by the government but has either been officially granted to some villagers to cultivate or has been in their illegal possession for many decades and is being used for residential or agricultural purposes.

Revenue department officials say that nearly 50 percent of the land to be acquired is in the gm category, and villagers are worried that they will not be entitled to compensation. Villagers who have been living and cultivating land that has officially been marked as forestland for many decades have raised similar concerns. NTPC requested the Hazaribagh district administration six months ago to form vdacs which could negotiate with it and the state government representatives. But the district administration is yet to form a single vdac. Hazaribagh has seen three dcs, four digs and three commissioners in the last six months.

NTPC officials have only given oral assurances on the protection of the megaliths. They are unwilling to disclose the exact nature of their protection plan. Conservationists like Imam and Das are worried that without a proper, scientific protection plan, even slight movements of the ground surface would irreparably disturb the prehistoric alignment of the megaliths vis-à-vis the surrounding hills. “The megaliths would not be damaged, as we will protect them,” is all RB Pathak, General Manager, NTPC’s Punkhri-Burwadih Coal Mining Project is willing to say. He doesn’t give any specifics.

“All the opposition to our project is organised by vested interests. There are two main groups: those who do not want development in the area and the illegal coalmining mafia,” Pathak told Tehelka. Though he refused to name anyone or any group, the NTPC general manager said that Christian missionaries and Naxalites are active in the area.

“Hardly 25 percent of those participating in the anti-coalmining rallies were from the original villages. The rest were simply hired from outside. The vested interests are instigating the villagers to organise chakka-jams (motor-vehicle blockades) whenever we plan to go there to talk to the people. They have caused us a loss of Rs 20 lakh by destroying our site office at Barkagaon,” he says.

He has already sought the deployment of Central Industrial Security Force jawans and expects to get at least 50 men by April.

Barkagaon’s mla, bjp’s Loknath Mahto, who figures as an accused in the vandalism case, and Hazaribagh’s mp, cpi’s BP Mehta say that Pathak’s allegations are baseless. “There are no vested interests at play. There’s no politics either. It’s purely an issue of a large number of people suddenly becoming homeless and being driven away from their agriculture lands and forests,” said Mahto.

“Any coercive methods by NTPC to acquire land may result in bloody violence as the area is still very tense,” he warned.

Hazaribagh District Collector Himani Pandey, who assumed office two months ago, called NTPC’s resettlement and rehabilitation policy “extremely good”.

She said that the compensation amount NTPC is willing to give displaced villagers could be 1.33 times more than the sum arrived at by the district administration on the basis of the category and quality of the land. “The people are being misguided. The problem is not serious,” Pandey said.

Feb 03, 2007

Source: http://www.tehelka.com/story_main26.asp?filename=Ne020307A_Singur.asp