Jindal SEZ at Salboni: A First-hand Report

April 3, 2009

This report dated 20th November, 2008 was prepared by Jayanta Singha and Arjun Sengupta who were part of the fact-finding team that went to Salboni. They are also members of the SEZ Birodhi Prachar Mancha. The report has been translated from Bengali by Koel Das and Suvarup Saha, Sanhati.

In Salboni, West Midnapur district of Bengal, the Jindal Group is building a SEZ on 4877.44 acres of land. According to the State Government and JSW Bengal Steel Limited, the SEZ is being built on totally arid land. And that the land has been given joyfully, spontaneously, in return for which the Jindal Group has provided adequate compensation and promises. The job of this team was to probe the veracity of these claims, the socio-economic effect of the purported SEZ on the local population, and its environmental implications.

Introduction

Singur-Nandigram has been the epicenter of a huge political turmoil pertaining to the questions of land acquisition and industrial development. From innumerable protest demonstrations to death of agitators, the issue has drawn immense attention and fueled irreconcilable debates. However, a little distance away, the JSW Bengal Steel Limited promoted iron and steel project situated in the Salboni region of West Medinipur district seems to set a remarkable precedent in commissioning of industrial projects. Nothing really could go wrong with this project and both the ruling party and the leading opposition are unanimous in applauding the ‘Jindal formula’.

In 2008, the Jindal project was brought under the purview of the SEZ-2005 act, although the process of land acquisition was started well before, in 2006. However, the land givers as well the local people were not initially informed about the plans to give this project spanning 4877.44 acres the status of an SEZ. This confidentiality was complemented equally well by showering this project with epithets like – ‘A new step in the Industrial Revolution in West Bengal’, ‘An Ideal model in fulfilling the dreams of the land-givers’ or ’An unique scheme to establish social rehabilitation and justice’.

But concrete information pertaining to actual terms and conditions of the land transactions or the rates and quantities of land that was bought, the socio-economic profile of the land givers was conspicuously missing. This led us to send an investigating cum fact finding team of ten members to west medinipur on 20th November, 2008. The team members, accompanied by independent observers – local resident Sribhakti Mahato, ASECA member Laxmi Mandi, APDR secretary Deepak Bosu and a correspondent from the regional news channel NE Bangla, visited the following villages/maujas to record the testimony of the local people – Bankibadha, Balibasa, Borju, Dubrajpur, Notundidi, Kulfeni, Laalbandh, Aasnashuli. The entire proceeding was recorded on camera and aired in the news channel multiple times, in parts.

We called up the West Medinipur DM on 20th November (2008) evening in his office to seek an appointment, without any luck. A fax sent the next morning went unanswered. We visited his office personally on 22nd but were turned away being told that the magistrate was out of town. A meeting with any other official was not granted. We talked to Salil Kanti Saha, Kartik Jana and other TMC local leadership. However, we were not able to interview the CPI(M) leadership in spite of our best intentions to do so.

Rather, while we were talking to the peasants in the Kulfeni village, a few plain clothed people claiming to be policemen started interrogating us; however they could not produce any identification proof and we refused to answer them. A little later, a jeep carrying a few policemen and some other plain clothed people arrived at the site and started intimidating us. One of the plain clothed people identified himself as a circle inspector. We handled the situation calmly and finally received assurance of cooperation from the policemen.

Later we came to know that the plain-clothed people belonged to the CPI(M) fold. In the mean time, our journalist friend, being concerned about security issues, wanted to leave. In fact, he left after our work at the Balibasa village was done. We were warned by a villager that “you will be surrounded by them”. But we refused to relent and carried on with our work pretty enthusiastically. However, in the entire process there were a few CPI(M) cadres who would come on motorbikes and monitor the situation. Our presence was in fact investigated by the police who started questioning the Medinipur chapter of APDR from the 20th.

What the Jindals have to say

“..When we decided to set up a steel plant in Salboni, we felt that we must involve in the project all those who will give up land for it. This point of view of land acquisition has now accepted universal acclaim as a model in the national level. The land acquisition in Salboni is compensated in 3 ways –

1.Money for land
2.Job for at least one member from each of the land-giving family
3.Stakes of the JSW Bengal Steel equivalent to the land price”

This was what Sajjan Jindal, chairman of the company, said in an advertisement in the news media on the day of foundation stone laying ceremony. In the same advert, the JMD and CEO said “By discussing with the local village leadership and maintaining continuous contact with them, not only have we obtained universal acceptance of our compensation package but also we have earned the reputation of a large-scale green-field project…The land giving farmers are happy as the land pricing has been done in consultation with them.” The advert further goes on to claim “Projects like cattle rearing and water-shed management have been initiated. Distribution of drinking water to the villagers is being worked out with utmost priority. The local youth are being trained and then employed to build a 38km long boundary wall…”

On the other hand, a leaflet titled ‘Salboni JSW Bengal Steel Project: Economic and Social Package’ published by the vice president of the company Rajesh Gupta claims “… 50% of the negotiated price will be paid by cheque and rest will be invested in a life insurance plan with yearly/monthly income schemes. This will not only insure the lives of the farmers, but also provide them with a steady monthly income and thus prevent any possible misuse of the compensation amount…”

Thus, the newspaper advert and the leaflet differ a lot when it comes to the details of the payable compensation. None of the land giving farmers that we interviewed had a clue on this; neither do they have any documents on this nor are they aware of the insurance scheme or the insurance company that is supposed to cover them or the yearly/monthly interest rates they can expect.

This information should be made available in the public domain at the earliest.

Character of the land

We had gathered from various media reports as well as political parties that the project land in Salboni is infertile and is not fit for cultivation. What we saw in reality is that in some fields actually are full of ripened paddy or paddy is being cut in some places. In some land, the preparations of a winter crop are already on.

When we delved deeper, we learnt that though some of the land is mono-cropped, most are bi or multi cropped. They yield potatoes, mustard, vegetables, and sesame. The farmers complained that they will not be allowed to cultivate from the next year. In fact they were skeptical about obtaining the yields of the current farming cycle. They further begrudged the fact that though with proper irrigation most of the mono-cropped lands can be made multi cropped, the administration is really not eager to tread that path. In fact, the villagers themselves have arranged for rainwater harvesting using local techniques.

Scheduled Land

The 4200 acre of notified land that has been assigned to the project actually belongs to the State Animal Welfare Board. Before that the land belonged to the Adivasis. The entire Shilda region was inhabited by them. One can find the locally revered ‘Vairab-er Than’ which has religious significance. Fairs are held at the time of Dashami. This place was called Saonath in the Mughal period. Some conjecture that the word Santhal actually comes from the name of this region.

The land that was reclaimed from jungles by the Adivasis is known as Fodder Farm. Till very recently, this land was used to grow fodder for cattle – maize, jawar or bajra. The area has 6-7 deep tube-wells that were used for this purpose.

It is this land that is being handed over to the Jindals for the project. But traditionally this notified land was supposed to have been given back to the Adivasis or the landless peasants of the region. This is precisely the sentiment of the residents. One such farmer, aged 60, said “…We knew that Adivasi land cannot be sold. But I don’t know how this (giving land to Jindals) happened. They made us give finger-prints and took away all land. We did not really want to part with our hand, but the Party-babus (CPIM members) made us do so. We are now beggars…”

It appears that the state government and the Jindals are trying to avoid any legal complications in this way by making the villagers stake holders in the project. This might be the reason why married daughters of the family are being coaxed to take the compensation. The company has announced that shares of amount equivalent to the price of the land will be given to the land owning farmers.

Forest Land

The proposed project area used to have extensive forest land, we were told. There were precious Sal, Segun, Arjun, Shirish, Akashmani and Jackfruit trees. However, this no longer exists. We saw some roots of what used to be huge trees. Most of the trees have been uprooted as a whole. One can see the craters left behind.

The local people and the CPI(M) leadership were at loggerheads regarding this felling of trees. Parimal Mana and some other leaders of the Saidpur local committee of the CPIM were allegedly trying to smuggle away trees worth millions at night with the ready connivance of the police. They were actually locked up in a local Shitala temple overnight along with the proceeds by hundreds of alert villagers of Kulfeni, Aasnashul, Jambedia and adjoining areas. The villagers further alleged that Shalboni Police OC Tirthankar Mukharji ordered lathi charge in an inebriated condition. There was 7-8 rounds firing in the air. Some people got injured.

It should be noted that Parimal Mana is a notorious name in the area. His mafia activities are complemented by his political anchorage with the ruling party. During the infamous Keshpur-Gorbeta face off, he is credited with providing the CPI(M) militia with ample monetary and logistical help. It is quite natural that he enjoys absolute obedience in this region and the people are too scared to testify individually against them.

The grudges of the local people are in fact very practical. The prevailing custom entails the adivasis and the local people a quarter of the proceeds from the sale of the forest products. They were getting this share regularly till now, some two-ten thousand rupees per family.

The Right of the Forest In the Hands of the Forest-dwellers

This is a demand of Indian Democracy. But the Adivasis have been denied this right from the British period. This has led to numerous bloody upheavals like the Hul Revolt of the Santhals, The Ulugan rebellion of the Kols. This trend of exploiting the Adivasis is continuing – the Adivasis and other under developed people of Salbnoi region are the latest example.

According to the 6th clause of the Forest-dwellers’ Rights Act, decisions regarding forests will be primarily taken by the Gram Sabha. This will be lowest tier of the administrative hierarchy and will comprise of all adults of the village or the neighborhood. The proposals regarding forests should come from this body.

However, this right seems to exist only in the law books. In case of the Salboni forest lands, this procedure was not at all followed. No meeting of the gram sabha was convened before the forest land was cleared off. No one was aware of this. This was the view voiced by the people of the Laalbandh area. Haripada Mahato, Sandhya Shit and many others said “…The netas took away the trees in the night and the police beat us up…” Thus, the right of the forest land now passes on to the Jindals instead of the rightful owner, the Adivasis.

Adivasi Land

Apart from the 4200 acres of notified land, 469 acres of land has been purchased from the farmers. Out of this, more than 100 acres belong to the Adivasis. According to the 14B clause of the Land Revenue act of 1955, this kind of land is non-transferable. This fact is known to even the villagers. Then what is the secret behind this latest change of proprietorship? Then is it not that the company is partnering the villagers to avoid legal tussles in future?

Not really voluntary

‘People have voluntarily donated all the land’ is a big lie. We learned from the people that they had tried to organize against the take-over of their land at various times. People of Asnashuli had actually set up a Save Farmland Committee and agitated for some time. However, the movements failed to sustain in the absence of efficient leadership. The people of the Balibasa and Laalbandh villages also protested unanimously and presented a deputation to the administration, protested verbally to the Party-babus, but to no avail. The local TMC leadership said that they were scared of being branded anti-industrialization, anti-development and decided not to lead the movement. The local people are still angry. They declared unequivocally “…We will not let them build the boundary wall unless we get the compensation money…”

Promise versus Reality

Jindal statement: “The farmers who gave land for the steel projects are happy for this…”

Almost none of the farmers we taked to had given land willingly (their names and address are not being published out of security concerns). Without a shred of doubt, they confessed that they had had to hand over the land out of party pressure. They were threatened that they would not even receive the amount of money they were getting now if they didn’t sign off their land. They have stated clearly that they are unhappy about the factory. They stated – “…Poor will get poorer because of this, people have to leave their own home, village and move elsewhere due to the smoke, temperature and dust. Kids will lose their playground. The distance between the village and the factory fences is less than hundred meters. So we will have problems, there will not be any road connecting two of the villages (Balibasha, Lalbandh) to the outside. Our ‘Than’(a place for worshiping their gods and goddesses) will be inside the factory premises. It’s about 3 acres. We will never lose it. If necessary, we will agitate and close it.”

Out of all the people we talked to, we found one person who refused to give his land.

Jindal statement: “We have paid compensation for the land”

We found two types of farmers in all the villages we surveyed, 1) Rayti and 2) Pattadar. Apart from them, we have land laborers. Although Rayti farmers received Rs. 3 lakhs per acre of land, Pattadars received nothing. The land laborers were not even taken into consideration. Even farmers working in the land since 1969 after receiving patta did not get any money. Hence the fire of discontent is building up slowly but steadily. It might erupt any day. One of them even blurted out: “Will pierce (stab) if I don’t get the money”. Discontent is also rising within the Rayti farmers.

The amount of money received by most farmers is pretty low. Actually most of the land in the area is hereditary. The payment on the land, mostly belonging to their forefathers, once divided within the members of joint families comprising of 10/12/15 people, reduces the individual share to a paltry amount. It has been seen that individual share ranges from Rs. 15-16,000 up to Rs.70-72,000. A handful of the farmers though have received a bit more, in the ranges of one lakh rupees. Naturally it is not possible to maintain a family based on the interest earned by depositing the payment received. But almost all of the interviewed people told us that the whole year’s produce of paddy came from their land. Some even said that they even earned around Rs. 20-22,000 by selling the extra crop. Apart from that, they even earned some extra cash by selling mustard, sesame and other crops.

Jindal statement: “At least one of the family members of the land-givers will be given employment”.

Jindal statement has no effect on the villagers. They clearly feel that they will not have any work in the company. They said, “At most we can manage to land a job of carrying brick, cement and sand, but that won’t feed all”, the reason being few numbers of suitably educated villagers. They say “apart from that, there is just verbal promise, nothing in writing is being given”.

We have investigated and found out that since land is the only source of income, and land being hereditary, all members belong to joint family.

“Even if one member gets a job, what will happen to the others? The earning from the land fed the whole family. Will one member’s salary be enough for that?”

A very logical question.

The kind of employment obtained under “SEZ” is common knowledge. There is no labor law. People have to work for 12/14/16 hours for very low salary. Furthermore in skilled industry like iron and steel, how many people can get employment? They need skilled labor. After talking to the villagers, it is clear that none of them have those skills. The Jindals have talked about giving necessary training. But the people interviewed said they have no such ‘news’. Although a NGO was supposed to give training to some of the poor people, ultimately that did not materialize.

Jindal statement: “JSW Bengal Steel’s share, obtained free of cost, will be equivalent to price of the land. The shares will be deposited in a trust controlled by West Medinipur state administration, and term length for the deposit is the time required for the first phase of commercial production. The shareholders can either sell or keep the shares after the term limit expires.”

The people in the village have no experience in dealing with this. They are in turn asking, “What is this? What to do with these shares?” One of them even asked, “Shall we get credit in stores by showing these?” Everyone is saying, “We have not received any paper work”.

How will they get papers? It has not yet been enlisted in SEBI. No one knows when it will be in this current worsening market. Additionally the company has no immediate plans of producing steel. They want to build a “Beneficiation Unit” and a “Pellet Plant” now.

It is clear from the villagers’ experience and mentality about shares that even if they get the shares, it would not remain in their hands. There is no doubt that the company or self-interest groups would ultimately control the shares. Furthermore, there is no mention about the type of shares in the advertisement or company leaflets. Sometimes shareholders are forced to take responsibility for the company under certain conditions. What happens then? There is no answer.

Jindal statement: “Not only did this package receive universal approval by continuous discussions with local village leaders and involved people, it is also going to be recognized as a big scale green-field project.”

The villagers have no interest in whether the project is “green-field” or “red-field”. We can say for sure after talking to them that leave aside package, even the project has not been approved universally. The villagers even complained that decisions have not been taken after discussing with them. Decisions have been taken and then imposed upon themselves through the ruling party (CPIM) bigwigs. They also said, “The party leaders are powerful. Our words have no place there”. They do not know if there have been talks with other local leaders. “But there were no meeting from the village committee”. Trinamool Congress Party said they have not been included in the talks.

We are sure that there have not been talks with the farmers. If that had been the case and if indeed the package got universal approval, then there would have no locally grown Save Farmers Committee and there would have been no grievances. Almost everyone with whom the investigative team interacted had some grievances. They even said that if required they would resist building the walls (Project boundary wall). They even had a strike last September demanding above-mentioned roads, as there are no roads connecting the outside world to some of the villages.

Jindal statement: “Projects involving cattle-rearing and water distribution has been started in the area. Availability of pure potable water to the villagers has been given priority.”

Cattle rearing plays a crucial role in rural economics. Just like farming pays for the entire year’s food, cattle rearing also fulfills various other financial needs, like medical expense of the family, educational expense for the children, merchandise expense etc. By selling cow’s milk, the villagers could handle such multiple expenses. They used to sell milk at Rs 10/12 per kg and earn around Rs 1500-2000 per month. Additionally, cow dung used to provide fertilizers and combustibles. There are a total of 3000 thousand goats and 2000 cows in the village Asnaguli. “All these used to graze on the project field and still do. That is going to stop completely in the coming days”. Selling of cows has gained momentum due to this fear. One of the villagers from Asnaguli told that he has sold a cow worth Rs. 6000 for only Rs 2000.

The villagers said that no steps have been taken for water irrigation. The fact-finding team also observed the same. The existing water irrigation systems are old ones. Rain water is collected by building barriers on low lands. Irrigation is carried out using that water. Many such water reservoirs have fallen into the project land according to the villagers. A lady from the village Balibasa said, “It will be difficult to grow crops in the area surrounding the project land due to this. Leave aside water irrigation; there is no good arrangement for drinking water. The water taps (faucets) in this village were built through contribution from us.”

In a place where there is such acute water problem, it is unclear what new problems the steel plant bring. Steel plants need massive water supply. It is known that 4.5 tons of water are required to produce 1 ton of steel. Although it has been heard that water from the river Rupnarayan through Daspur will be used, that will not solve the problem. In fact, the surrounding rivers will have water shortage and condition of this dry land will worsen.

Jindal statement: “Local people have been employed by giving full financial and technical assistance for building the 30 km. long boundary wall.”

The villagers do not know who got what assistance, but they said, “There have been factories for making cement slabs near the project entrance, next to the poultry farm. One of the factories is owned by the CPIM’s local committee editor Lakhikanto Ghosh’s nephew Koushik Ghosh and Chandan Chowdhury. The other factory owner is possibly someone from Medinipur. Although some people work there, only a few are involved in building the wall; most of the work is being done by machine.” The fact-finding team also found a maximum of 10-15 people building the wall. According to the villagers, “All of those men are people from the party. Ordinary people have not gotten any work till now. We could have earned Rs 80/day by working at the sites. But that avenue is also closed.”

Use of Forest Resources

“Forest is like our mother. We look after her. We get necessary supplies like combustible wood, plants etc. from her, and food when rice at home is finished. The girls collect Sal leaves and sell and earn Rs. 80 for every thousand bundles. The factory stopped all that. There was a Save Forest Committee. But the forest does not exist anymore, what will the Committee do?” The villagers said that every year they used to get 25% of the proceeds from the forest. “Now that is also closed”.

Additional Facts

It has been heard that there are stone mines inside the project land. We could not enter the project land and hence cannot see the mines. The villagers told us that as much as Rs 200/day could be earned by picking and carrying stones. The stones are still being picked though. Almost 60,000 cubic ft. stones have been sold from the project land to Amit Jashu from Godapiyashal.

There are questions regarding this too. Villagers asked, “If cement is being produced, why are the stones being picked and sold? Does that mean cement will not be produced?”

The Illegal Land Transfer

The price of the land has already increased due to the Jindal project. It is going to increase more in the coming days. As a result the land-giving farmers are going to suffer. Furthermore, illegal land transfers have started due to the price increase. And “party people” are also linked with this. Land is being sold to dummy owners. Thousands of acres have been sold this way in the surrounding Ahmedpur, Sitarampur, Jageswar, Shalika, Bankibandh and other areas. Land recorded from 1948-52 or thereafter has been transferred in the Registrar of Assurance Office in front of Raj Bhavan at Kolkata. An ex-bank manager in the area said, “The dummy sellers did not dare registering their land in Medinipur”. He said that he had a lot of information related to this issue. With the help of RTI act, he has collected this information.

Many incidents/topics like this have come to our attention. It is evident that tricking tribal people and keeping the local people in the dark, the state government and CPIM leaders have formed an unholy alliance with the Jindals in the land-grab saga.

As an example we can cite the issue of building a Special Economic Zone (SEZ). Not only the villagers, but even people from city of Medinipur are unaware of this topic. One retired bank manger in the area said in this issue, “The land was taken in the name of steel industry. There was no talk of SEZ. Suddenly the area was declared as a SEZ.

How can we live in a SEZ? I heard that there are no laws in SEZ. There is no consideration given to environment pollution.” Many think that steel, cement factories will lead to severe environmental pollution in the area. Ecology of the area will be hampered. The forest land will be cleaned. That is why there is so much secrecy surrounding this. There are no public facts coming out. On what condition and paying how much did the Jindals get the land? Who will answer this?

We do not know whether the local people can manage to get the answers. But the history answers by maintaining silence. It tells us that time after time, the tribal people have been evicted from their native land. This time will be no exception. They have to leave their land, their forests, their water, their homes, built so long ago by their ancestors and leave for the unknown destinations with empty hands. Or else, these independent descendants of Sidhu, Kanhu, Birsa, Munda tribes will have to run errands for the company biggies.

Summary

The project has been given the SEZ status by keeping the land givers and whole of West Bengal in dark.
The conditions/treaty of the state government with the Jindals has been kept in dark.
The tribal people’s land has been illegally transferred.
By giving prime land and forest area to the Jindals, the tribal and backward-class people have been stripped of their rights to water-land-forest .
The pattadars have not received any compensation to this day
The Salboni land is not barren. In fact, with proper irrigation scheme, one-crop/two-crop land can be converted to multi-crop land.
The poor tribal and people from backward class will become even poorer.
The area surrounding the project will be unlivable. In future, poor tribal and backward class people have to leave their native land.
There has been no arrangement regarding shares and annuity, hence there has been financial suffering among land givers.
The poor and illiterate people from the area have no hope regarding employment, and they think they will not get the jobs
The environment of the forest land and surrounding area will suffer serious damage due to pollution from factory
The whole area will face acute water scarcity. There will be severe damage to the surrounding rivers.

Our Demands

Immediately rescind the SEZ status of the JSW Bengal Steel Ltd at Salboni
The tribal people and people from the backward class cannot be denied their rights to forest-land-water.

4 Comments »

4 Responses to “Jindal SEZ at Salboni: A First-hand Report”

  1. Soumen Ghosh Says:
    June 3rd, 2009 at 17:23

    Sir,
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    I am interested to start my career in your company. Please give me a chance. And please reply soon. My C.V is attach.

  2. sudip sashmal Says:
    June 6th, 2009 at 01:15

    sir,
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  3. sudip sashmal Says:
    June 6th, 2009 at 01:17

    sir,
    I ,sudip sashmal(Gold medalist),diploma in chemical engineer(1st rank in w.b.)passed out from Dr.M.S.I.T,Haldia in june’2008.Now doing AMIIche through jadavpur at the same time doing job in ACC Ltd.(Holcim)as a asst.Engr..I am interested to join in your organisation at salbani project,W.B.plz. give me a chance..MOb-919752985376

  4. gourab ganguly Says:
    February 1st, 2012 at 09:57

    sir,
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