Bhikharipore Singrauli: A Case for Just Development[1]

September 30, 2012

By Lina Dokuzović

The following material resulted from a trip to Singrauli, India, in November 2011. The journey was organized after my participation in the Lokavidya Jan Andolan Conference (People’s Knowledge Movement) at the Vidya Ashram, Sarnath.[2] I was accompanied by conference co-participants and members of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Indian Farmers Union). We met with individuals, families, and communities who had been affected by displacement throughout Singrauli, a district broadly referred to as “the Energy Capital of India.” I am deeply grateful to all those who shared their knowledge and experiences with me, as well as those who accompanied me and who helped organize the travel, from the Vidya Ashram and Srijan Lokhit Samiti, Singrauli.[3] When expressing interest in becoming involved to community members in Singrauli, I was asked to write about the conditions there. The following is, therefore, an attempt at contributing to a struggle from abroad, a struggle which is symptomatic for processes taking place around the world.


Singrauli is located in a remote part of north-central India and stretches across the border of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. The precise borders have shifted over the centuries, however, what we know of as Singrauli today was carved out to outline a resource-rich area in 2008. The district consists of around 400 villages, covers approximately 1,800 square kilometers and consists of vast coal deposits and a massive water reservoir with the nearby Renu River. Some of the main investors, in what is also dubbed South Asia’s biggest industrial area [4], are currently National Thermal Power Corporation Ltd (NTPC), Northern Coalfields Ltd (NCL), Coal India Ltd (CIL), Jaypee Power Ventures Ltd, Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project, Reliance Power Ltd, Essar Power Ltd, Hindalco Industries Ltd, Mahan Aluminum Ltd, and Lanco Power Ltd. There are also hundreds of industrial plants, chemical factories, aluminum companies and cement factories, as well as their dump sites, in the area. The majority of these projects has been financed by World Bank loans. The projects have brought with them extreme consequences for the land, the wildlife, and the local populations. In order to make way for those “development” projects, enormous displacement has resulted with ruthless measures repressing resistance and minimizing compensation. What was, and to a lesser degree still is, a region rich in forests and rivers has for centuries been home to Adivasis (original inhabitants) and agricultural communities. Today it is also home to the resource curse linked to some of the most threatened forests in both India as well as the world.

The following will outline some of the major historical transformations in Singrauli, presenting testimonials from interviews and meetings there, and outlining various violations performed in the area by local as well as state and international players which have contributed to the destruction of the local environment, life, and livelihoods. I will thereby attempt to illustrate the characteristic entanglement of the various violations and failures within this specific case as an example of global “development” processes today and will conclude with the unfulfilled demands of the community members, highlighting current and upcoming events taking place in Singrauli around these issues, regarding mobilization around people’s knowledge, or lokavidya.

A brief history of Singrauli’s “development”

Three major politico-historical eras can be used to frame “development” in India, with similar patterns in many parts of the world, namely: colonialism, independence/nationalization, and globalization. Regarding Singrauli, however, three major phases of “development” can be identified following India’s independence from the British. They are the first major dams, the shift to power mega-projects, and privatization. Many of the policies affecting Singrauli today have formed as an extension of policies implemented during colonialism. For example, it was the Indian Forest Act which radically reformed the relation of the state to the forests, with local documentation attesting to its role in providing the basis for Singrauli’s “development” process (Srijan Lokhit Samiti, p.1). However, as that Act was implemented to satisfy the purported need for a state monopoly on India’s forests, the process most likely began earlier.

Commercial forest exploitation in India can be traced back to its earliest documentation in Malabar in 1796, during British East India Company rule, where teak was used for building British ships and for strengthening the British Royal Navy (Prasad, 2011). Before the rule of the East India Company, there were very few regulations (which gave rulers exclusive hunting access) on forest use (Chowdhuri et al., 1992; Schlich, 1906 cited in Ghosal, 2011). With British rule, however, Indian timber would become the main resource for construction, for the Navy and the expanding railway network. Wood would also be used for locomotive fuel before a larger number of coal mines became active (Guha, 1983 cited in Prasad, 2011). While the British used massive quantities of timber to increase their own production, there was also a strong drive towards using timber in proto-global trade (Lopez)[5]. However, until the mid-19th century, there had been no official supervision of tree felling, so it became clear that profitable resources would need to be regulated (Stebbing I, 1926 cited in Prasad, 2011).

Therefore, with the help of German forester, Dietrich Brandis, the imperial Forest Department was formed in 1864, and in 1865, the Indian Forest Act was passed, introducing a state monopoly on forests (Prasad, 2011). The categorization of forests into reserved, protected, and unclassed additionally emerged with the Voelcker Resolution of 1894. Under that Resolution, reserved forests became entirely government owned, protected forests allowed limited access to forests and forest produce, and unclassed forests were open to forest workers and forest peoples; where the quantification and qualification of forests assisted the sale of timber on an international market. Another major measure was taken in 1894 with the Land Acquisition Act [6], which introduced government allowance for seizing privately owned lands. Through these two major Acts, the Indian Forest Act and the Land Acquisition Act, private land could become “public,” and public land and commons would become regulated, with waves of displacement accompanying each cycle. Communities began to not only be reduced to the status of oustees from their own homes, but to outsiders in their homelands, forced to transform their traditions, ways of life and livelihoods for the preservation of (then-colonial) profit. It would begin to reduce and erase the historical practices of rural populations in India, monopolizing resources for government-regulated profit, and starting what would become a long process of continued policies.

Forest policy would hold new relevance with the expansion of coal mining in India. After the discovery of coal in Singrauli in 1840 (Blacksmith Institute), the social and environmental landscape would change there forever. For the first time, the possibility of coal mining in Singrauli was invented by an Englishman, Captain “Rabthan”. The mining business started in this area during the end of the 18th century. Singrauli’s first open-cast mine would be dug in Kotav in 1857, beginning mining and transportation of coal to other cities via the nearby Son River, the largest of the Ganges’ southern tributaries. However, with the expansion of the railway system, coal could be transported more efficiently, which would lead to other coal mines taking priority, leaving the Singrauli mine inactive for a number of years. From 1947 onwards, though, during the era of nationalization, the need for energy would increase, and Coal India Limited would restart mining in Singrauli in the early 1950s. It was during this time that it became clear that the abundance of water and the long stretch of coal fields spread over 200 kilometers in Singrauli, provided the ideal conditions for building thermal power projects on site.

So in 1960, the hydroelectric Rihand Dam was constructed on the Rihand River, a tributary of the Son, along with the Gobind Sagar Reservoir, beginning the first phase of massive “development” projects in Singrauli. The Rihand Dam was one of the largest dams to be built at the time in India and would begin a snowball effect of both massive projects and their subsequent consequences in the area. The construction of the Rihand Dam originally displaced 200,000–300,000 people from 146 villages (Clark 2003, p.169), causing around 50,000 communities to disappear with people being notified on extremely short notice or not at all before they were swept off their land by the flooding reservoir (Smitu Kothari, 1988). Many lost their homes, possessions and livelihoods in that wave of displacement. There was no rehabilitation policy at the time, which led to people accepting minimal compensation – not enough to rebuild a home. Many, however, did not receive any compensation for the Rihand Dam displacement and many disappeared, never to be heard from again after the flooding. At the time, the oustees were permitted to settle wherever they chose to, and of those who remained, over 60% resettled near the reservoir site, so they could continue having access to water. However, many of them would suffer displacement again during the construction of the next major projects, NTPC’s super thermal power projects (Sharma, Singh, 2009, p.64).

Photo: The Gobind Pant Sagar Dam on the Renu River

The second phase of nationalized “development” projects in Singrauli would take place with the emergence of national power companies, leading to the dense expansion of super thermal power projects from the 1980s onward. In 1973, the Special Authority Development Area (SADA) was established in Singrauli as a municipal corporate body to regulate the generation of capital and the acquisition of land for future projects. It would organize the adequate resources to allow loans to pass, contracts to be validated and projects to be legitimized, and would play a major role in pushing new “development” projects (Srijan Lokhit Samiti, p.28). These projects would prove lucrative for the companies on site in Singrauli, since the exchange of resources among them – water, coal, generated electricity, etc. – could supply a local currency for the industries.

Primary funding for these projects has come from the World Bank, establishing some of India’s oldest thermal power stations and continually operating coal mines, set up by NTPC and NCL. This includes NTPC’s first pithead power plant, which is in Singrauli. NTPC is India’s largest power company and was set up in 1975 to fuel national growth [7]. In 1977, NTPC would construct the first of several coal-fired super thermal power projects planned for Singrauli with the Singrauli Super Thermal Power Plant (SSTPP), financed by a World Bank loan of $150 million (Clark 2003, p.168). The next major projects of the 1980s would be the Vindhyachal Super Thermal Power Project and the Rihand Super Thermal Power Project, which were both set up by NTPC, as well as a plant set up by the Uttar Pradesh State Electricity Board (Sharma, Singh, 2009, p.64). The World Bank additionally financed NTPC’s expansion in 1980 as well as the setting up of other NTPC projects, such as the first open-pit coal mines in Dudhichua and the Rihand Power Transmission project in 1985. Those NTPC-initiated projects also supported the launch of mining projects in nine open coal mines, owned by the NCL. That same year, another Bank loan allowed NTPC to connect Singrauli’s plants to the northern grid (Clark 2003, p.168).

Photo: An NTPC Power Plant in Singrauli

In India, coal mining has traditionally been part of the public sector with the Coal Mines (Nationalization) Act of 1973 officially nationalizing coal. However, two amendments to the Act, in 1976 and 1993, would prompt a shift to increased privatization of coal mining and the energy sector. The 1976 amendment allows captive mining by private companies engaged in the production of iron and steel and sub-leasing to private parties for coal mining. The 1993 amendment allows captive coal mining in the private sector for power generation, as well as washing of coal obtained from a mine, among other end-uses notified by Government […] [8]. That amendment thrust open the door for World Bank investment with the Bank giving a $20 million loan to the Indian government that same year for technical assistance in the negotiation of purchase agreements and the privatization of power projects (Ministry of Power, cited in Marston 2011, p.5). Another milestone in privatization and lending took place that same year when the NTPC received a new $400 million loan from the World Bank for the expansion of the Rihand and Vindhyachal power plants. That loan exceeded the World Bank’s $4 million cap in loans and credits, thereby making the NTPC the single largest borrower in the Bank’s history to date (Clark, 2003, p.170). World Bank involvement and the expansion of energy sector privatization across the country would only increase after the privatization of the energy sector would take place in Orissa in 1995 (Marston 2011, p.5).

With the opening of the energy sector to privatization, a new flood of companies has appeared over the last decade, which would trigger the third phase of “development” projects in Singrauli, starting in 2006. This phase has introduced five more private sector-based super thermal power projects. Several big energy players, such as Dainik Bhaskar (DB, originally a newspaper company), Essar, Hindalco, Jaypee, and Reliance along with other “Special Purpose Vehicles” (SPV) [9] are being set up as private-public partnerships for coal mine operation and super critical and mega thermal power plant construction (Ibid.) [10] Plans exist to increase thermal power generation by 13,000 MW via the private sector in the coming years. Those new power projects will require at least 10,000 acres of land acquisition with dedicated coal mines for each plant (Sharma, Singh, 2009, p.65). In addition, DB, ESSAR, Hindalco, Jaypee and Reliance are establishing their power projects on the recently acquisitioned land with Hindalco establishing its entirely export-oriented Aluminum Smelter Plant under the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) Act.

SEZs are regions where national laws can be suspended in order to allow fluid global free market profitability to the SEZ company. SEZs are allowed huge tax exemptions and the allocation of resources and subsidized land as foreign enclaves on local soil (with exploitation and maltreatment often going unpunished due to their unregulated status). These new projects have been the earliest in the national Plan Periods, which establish targets for energy production. The current, the 12th Plan Period, will last from 2012–2017 with a national goal of producing 100,000 MW, which is double what the 11th Plan Period proposed [11]. The 5-year 12th Plan Period would implement nearly as much power in India as it has developed altogether in the 70 years since independence, having a deep impact on the “energy capital of India” (Greenpeace 2011, p.1). There is additionally a huge wave of private-sector projects beginning in metal and mineral extraction. All of the mentioned projects would run parallel to the existing projects launched by NTPC in the second phase of “development.”

While there was no rehabilitation policy for displacement during the construction of the dam projects, NTPC is required to compose a rehabilitation policy, to be regulated and supervised by the World Bank as part of their loan policy. Therefore, NTPC began by categorizing the displacement according to “Stage I” and “Stage II” oustees. The plan was conceived by the World Bank, who defined “Stage I” oustees as those who suffered from the failures of previous displacement, and “Stage II” as those displaced by the projects born of the new loan. That ranking, however, left “Stage I” oustees often completely disregarded, along with an enormous number of people falling through the cracks and discrepancies of the process (Clark 2003). The number of people afflicted, for instance, during the second phase of “development” in Singrauli, left a recorded 20,504 land-owners without their land and 4,563 families displaced (Sharma, Singh, 2009, p.64). In total, statistics claim that by 1987, approximately 200,000–300,000 people had been displaced “three to five times in 25 years,” in Singrauli (Indian Express, cited in Clark 2003), with approximately 90% of the local people displaced at least once, and 34% displaced more than once by 1991 (Electricité de France, Ibid.). The latter study elucidates how resettlement “appears to have failed in practically all cases,” elaborating on “the inadequacy of facilities and equipment necessary for water, sewage treatment, schools, education and medical care” (Ibid.). While there has been an immense infrastructure built up to support the industries, with rail lines and coal linkage for power plants, roads for coal transportation, and housing and recreational facilities for the high-ranking employees, the local residents have lost their land and livelihoods and gained little in return.

Local interviews and testimonials

My time in Singrauli with the Indian activists was spent driving from one village to another, communicating with families and community members, entering a process of mutual learning and exchange with them. We would hear about a wide range of experiences, while also talking about our positions, interest, and experiences, as well as the knowledges which had been exchanged during the LJA conference in Sarnath. We met with families who had been up to three generations displaced, living on illegal property, who had built makeshift homes. We learned that the majority of families in Singrauli have been living in settlements or partially built structures, which are often not completed before having to be displaced again. We heard stories of people living in perpetual fear, hoping not to have their homes bulldozed in the night, with the promise of relocation or compensation only partially observed by the authorities, if at all. The following will tell some of those stories, but in order to protect the individuals, all names will be omitted in this section.

One of the many communities we visited was a Dalit (“untouchable”) community living in a slum settlement. They were mainly migrants from Bihar, who were employed as cleaning staff at NTPC. They raised pigs to support their community and were able to occasionally pilfer access to some running water. We then visited another community who lived near a coal mine, who spoke of the problems associated with coal mine blasting, debris, heat, pollution and other hazards. They told us about a regulation that prohibits coal mining within 1,000 meters of residential areas. Their homes were only 400 meters away from the mines that had been built, but this is no exception, there are many other coal mines that are built even closer to other villages. They told us about how blasting causes hearing damage and the pollution causes lung damage. In fact, I struggled to communicate with the people because of the immediate intense burning I felt in my chest upon nearing their homes. The people continued explaining that the debris from the mines is dumped extremely close to the homes, and every time it would rain, their homes would become buried under soot, sand, mud and stones. All roads out of the village would be blocked and buried by the blasted debris. Another consequence of the blasting is that the land becomes extremely hot. While the companies are required to spray water onto the streets to cool them and to help settle the dust and debris, it has not taken place and has had detrimental consequences. In addition, no siren is used to announce the blasting, so rocks fly into homes and onto roads unexpectedly. Locals estimated 10–15 deaths in the area every year caused by neglecting safety measures during blasting. Moreover, there has been a noticeable rise in illnesses, with skin cancer and diarrhea being increasingly common.

Photo: Mine dump close to a village of twice-displaced people

Of the many cases of landowning people being pushed off of their land without explanation or compensation, several such stories were presented to us. Heads of families gathered to show us the deeds to their land, explaining their situations. They said they were some of the few men left in their villages, which were now mostly occupied by widows. One elderly man dropped to his knees, saying that he had lost everything, and that his 100 acres of land were not being recognized. He brought documents to prove that it was legally his land, for which he had not only received no compensation but also no recognition of having belonged to him and his family. In this area, there are 58 old cases on illegal property acquisition against NTPC, with 64 more new cases. We then traveled to a family home in a nearby area where there were 42 more open court cases. They showed us the list of demands they had articulated, such as: one job per family, and reimbursement for their land at the actual market rate of 12 lakh (one hundred thousand) rupees/acre. This demand is important to emphasize, since reimbursement, when occurring, has only been up to 2.12 lakhs per farmer, sometimes only 1 lakh, because it is calculated according to “local” rates, which are at least ten times less than the national rates, defined in Delhi.

Another village we traveled to, which was nearly entirely occupied by women, was particularly badly affected by displacement. The majority of the community members were doubly displaced and had very few resources in their current location. They could find no way to pilfer water or find makeshift ways of getting by, since the area they occupied was so desolate. Mostly elderly women, widows and children live there. The elderly women mainly support the community through crafts, such as basket weaving. They told us of how their family members, farmers and artisans, were beaten, intimidated, and humiliated and how many of them committed suicide with their own working tools. It was left upon the women to take care of the children. The oldest woman there, a woman in her early 80s, explained how she had gone to the NTPC building alone to complain, and was brutally beaten with a lathi (an iron-bound bamboo cane), barely recovering from the experience. Villages consisting mostly of women are not uncommon, and are particularly susceptible to police oppression, rape and other forms of intimidation. We spent some time discussing with them about how their skills and knowledge/lokavidya should be recognized and respected among each other and by the authorities, and that these forms of oppression and claims of not being eligible for employment were a structural construction that needed to be understood and fought against.

Many people have trouble remaining in their newly settled areas, because of both the impending threat of additional displacement as well as problems with access to resources. With toxic chemicals being dumped into the water and land, more and more areas are becoming uninhabitable and unlivable. Those most affected by these conditions are the socially marginalized populations, with women often bearing the brunt of these processes, and in the case of Singrauli, it is mainly the Adivasi population which suffers the most. Until coal had been found in Singrauli, the area was mainly populated by Adivasis, who to this day compose a very large part of the population. Today they have the most difficulty in receiving employment as well as any kind of official recognition of their plight. We visited one such family, of the Baiga tribe, in a forest in the mountains. They were displaced 40 years ago by coal mining, and have no authority to live where they do. They have since been struggling on that land, because the government is still yet to approve and give them the authority to live there. The family survives by growing paddy and graham, which are the main crops in that area. They collect wood and leaves from trees and try to sell them at the market. They also collect neem for toothbrushes and eating. However, they have no proper clothes, very limited food supply, no blankets, and no basic livelihood.

They told us about the absurd conditions of “knowledge meritocracy” that people are being subjugated and disciplined by. In order to measure a person’s knowledge, and thereby worth, the government developed a scale to rate merit. If a person is literate or possesses a high school pass, they have basic merit. However, according to this scale, illiterate people, possess no merit and are thereby unemployable. This includes a very large portion of the Adivasi population. Those who can display merit and who are granted employment are limited to construction work on roads and buildings. However, these are only temporary jobs, which would leave the workers unemployed again quickly with no further prospects for employment afterwards. This specific family had received some recognition though, because their eldest son could read. The family continued by telling us about the various agitations organized to get the attention of the authorities over the years. The first agitation happened in January of 1984, and the next was in 1986. On January 17th 1986, a memorandum was given to the District Magistrate. This action was organized by Srijan Lokhit Samiti. In addition to issuing the memorandum in 1986, thousands of people marched to the headquarters of NCL. That agitation was effective and led to the government putting pressure on the companies and financiers. In addition, on February 5th 1988, a massive protest of an estimated 15,000 people – mostly Adivasis – marched through Singrauli, attracting the attention of journalists and social workers. This combined pressure gained the World Bank’s attention and pushed them to begin an Environmental Impact Assessment. The Adivasi family claimed that the combined pressure is why people have remained where they are. The companies and government actually stopped removing the residents, because of the media and journalist attention. Then afterwards, the government built some facilities, such as the road we drove on to meet the family and a solar panel they showed me. It was then that NTPC promised free electricity, which was not delivered. Later they offered it at the minimum rate. However, that was also not delivered. They then showed me that the solar panel was not connected to anything, and therefore, had no use. It was merely a symbolic totem to “development.” However, that is still considered wealth in the area – an area which was first promised to become the “Switzerland of India” by Nehru and now “like Singapore” by the current Chief Minister, Shri Shivraj Singh Chauhan.

People have lived off of their skills, knowledge, and agriculture in the area for centuries, but now many go completely unrecognized, claiming they are regarded as Sudra [12] no longer allowed to speak to authorities. The displacement has not only destroyed community links, making people become even more isolated and alienated, they live like refugees in their own countries. The curse that accompanies rich resource deposits has spurred a perpetual state of exception, controlled through the tightly knit relationships of power between global companies, state regulation and local administration. In recent years, the organization of people is more and more frequently met with immediate brutality. And those who are granted electricity or other amenities, receive a bare minimal allotment, not dissimilar to official states of emergency. For a district where the cement and power industry are so strong, it is also remarkable to see how little access to energy the local inhabitants have and how poorly built (the mostly dirt) roads are. While early agitations did bring results, in a situation where the modes of repression and methods of displacement are constantly in flux, contemporary struggle is met with the difficult challenge of remaining ongoing and in a state of continuous flexibility. This is certainly not a simple task for people suffering from ill health, poverty, violence, indignity, intimidation, misinformation and isolation.

Ramifications and violations

The Singrauli area has undergone various levels of devastation and will continue to if the regulations that should protect lives, livelihoods, and the environment remain disregarded. There has been a grave failure in implementing regulations on a local as well as a state level. Additionally, those implementations have been even more complicated by the intertwined disavowal of international regulations by, for example, the World Bank. Some of the major consequences of this “development” and the violations committed will be outlined below.

Upon entering Singrauli, one is immediately struck by the overwhelming environmental damage, from the hardly breathable air to the blackened, ash-covered landscape. Both the land and water have been fiercely and systematically polluted with long-lasting, large-scale consequences. One of the major causes of pollution in Singrauli is coal mining itself, which leads to dangerous coal fires, overheating of the land, clogging of water sources, soil erosion and loss of soil fertility. Some of the toxins released from coal mining are arsenic, lead, mercury, and radium, as well as uranium and thorium, which lead to radioactive contamination. Then there is the direct dumping of toxins, which pollute the land, water and air with mercury and heavy metals. Deforestation also leads to high emissions of greenhouse gases, aside from destroying the resources of local people and wildlife. And another major culprit is the release of fly ash from the factories. Fly ash is released by, for instance, the NTPC factories flowing into the Rihand Dam. Fly ash is filled with toxins, and it smothers and clogs the land and water sources (Greenpeace 2011, p.33). These water sources are what the local people and wildlife rely on, although some of the ponds have become referred to as “death water,” since the high acidity has eaten away the flesh of those animals and people that have tried to enter it. Thereby the water, which is not only toxic for consumption or contact, creates an enclosure which becomes uncrossable, with companies denying requests to build bridges across them (Srijan Lokhit Samiti, p.39).

Photo: A coal mine in Singrauli

These conditions have led to Singrauli being rated as “critically polluted” by the Critical Environment Pollution Index (Greenpeace 2011, p.6). That rating would prompt the Ministry of Environment and Forests to impose a temporary moratorium on mining on January 13th 2010. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Environment and Forests as well as the Ministry of Coal would be identifying so-called “go” and “no-go” zones for coal mining in order to create a list of coalfields not to be mined for the preservation of future energy reserves. The list would be released in March 2010, with several coalfields in Singrauli identified as “no-go.” However, after central and state pollution boards asserted on July 5th 2011 that pollution would be dealt with in Singrauli, the moratorium on mining was lifted, allowing the processing of all forest clearance. Simultaneously, many of the “no-go” areas in Singrauli suddenly shifted to “go” areas, which allowed for additional land acquisition for the new or expanding energy companies to take place nevertheless (Ibid.).

As Singrauli’s detrimental conditions inevitably influence all life in the area, those who support their livelihoods through agricultural work as well as those who survive off of forest produce, are by far the most affected. This is all the more significant in an area in which close to half of the people displaced by “development” projects have been Adivasis (Ibid. p.12). They have traditionally been those to bear the greatest brunt of “development” in India, occupying regions which are nearly congruent to the mineral rich forest areas across India. Aside from the toxicity of the land, water and forest produce in the areas they have occupied, one major problem in the process of displacement has been the denial of Adivasi rights to claim compensation. Although hey have lived on the land for generations, most rehabilitation packages only acknowledge officially recognized landowners in their compensation schemes. For example, the resettlement and rehabilitation policy of CIL only considers a person eligible for employment if the person possessed at least two acres of land before being displaced. Those who cannot prove land ownership or who cannot display enough land ownership are disregarded under such policies (Ibid. p.15).

While Adivasis possibly suffer the most from “development” projects and are heavily excluded from rehabilitation policies, there are numerous laws which exist concerning the right to involvement in decision-making processes, as well as the occupation and cultivation of forest resources. There are international regulations, concerning sole rights to overground resources and underground minerals for indigenous peoples, such as the UN Declaration of 2007 [13]. In addition, the World Bank includes provisions in its policy which purportedly require the participation of project affected people through the entire process of project realization. This should accompany the advancement of local people’s lifestyles, since land acquisition should only take place in the form of “development” projects that should thereby also happen with the consent of all affected persons and communities.

In addition, there are national laws which should also protect tribal or marginalized peoples in India. Some of the major laws include The Forest Rights Act (FRA) of 2006, The Provisions of Panchayats Extension to the Scheduled Area Act of 1996 [14] and The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act. The FRA provides, among other rights, the rights to collecting forest produce and living on and holding forest land [15]; The Provisions of Panchayats Extension to the Scheduled Area Act of 1996 requires the consultation of Panchayats (local self-governments) or the Gram Sabha (electoral body of a Panchayat) before making land acquisition and mining coal when conducted in Scheduled Areas [16]; the Samata Judgement of 1997 declares the status of the government as a “person” in mining activities, thereby nullifying all land leases to private mining companies in Scheduled Areas [17]; and The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act should address the rights and provisions which have not yet been fully implemented. However, due to the supposedly unclear composition of structures such as Panchayats, the state and local authorities are often able to go around these policies in an effort to unofficially shift sole decision-making power to the companies and investors. Furthermore, there have been examples of the NTPC informing World Bank officials not to meet local affected persons without their accompaniment. This has led to strategic translation of statements and preference to testimonials by NTPC rather than the afflicted (Kohli, 1997). The pending problems have been exacerbated through intimidation, coercion and flat out negligence. Ultimately, instead of respecting the rights of forest people and forest dwellers on their land, the people are treated like trespassers on private company property.

Although the protection of the environment and minority rights has classically been the responsibility of the state, the conditions and guarantees for resettlement and rehabilitation have generally been the responsibility of the given companies and investors. While some basic amenities were provided ad-hoc to a select few following a series of agitations, they were a far reach from satisfying legal requirements or compensating for peoples’ losses. The greatest violations began during the second phase of “development,” by NTPC and the World Bank, and continue to this day. Per World Bank policy, when an entity enters into a loan agreement, they have a binding agreement to respect local laws and to introduce rehabilitation schemes according to World Bank guidelines. These contracts should guarantee, for example, free electricity, education and medical treatment, such as those beautifully advertised in the pages of “Destination Singrauli,” by way of local centers established by the companies. They should also guarantee sustainable employment options (however limited according to the aforementioned recognition of who can receive these benefits) with the new companies as well as resettlement and rehabilitation packages.

However, the reality is a far different one. Following the 1988 protests, only about 1,050 of the 11,500 displaced persons received regular jobs in the given projects (Sharma, Singh, 2009, p.65). In addition, there is a high level of corruption and bribery, with for example, reports filed on NTPC officers charging bribes during fake job interviews, leaving the displaced persons losing money, disappointed, and still without jobs (Kohli, 1997). Those who complain run the risk of being blacklisted, preventing potential future employment. So it is not surprising that the majority of the workers on the construction sites of the projects are migrants from poorer areas, such as Bihar, Chattisgarh, and Jharkhand, who are typically expected to work for less and to make less demands and complaints (Greenpeace 2011, p.16). Manpower does require money, however, so the statement by the NTPC Rehabilitation and Resettlement Manager in 1996, regarding a preferred restriction on manpower for the insurance of speedy loan recovery to the World Bank certainly correlates with the long list of violations and strategic negligence of their responsibilities (Kohli, 1997).

Along with the many failures in employment policy, educational and medical facilities have been just as problematic. Of those who have been considered eligible for compensation, many cannot even afford to pay the school fees to send their children to school and those who can, often cannot afford the school dress, with many claiming that the education offered will not get their children jobs anyway nor will it enable them to continue their family’s agricultural work (Srijan Lokhit Samiti, p.34). While companies implement employment policies that only accept individuals, who are educated enough according to their standards with unfitting short-term manual work, the policies for education that may provide potential social mobility implement an unaffordable system.

Those who have fought for their rights have often been met with disciplinary measures to silence and make examples of them, maintaining intolerance of interference in production processes. Most of the major human rights violations in the area have been committed by NTPC, with examples ranging form NTPC bulldozers running over people’s crops and homesteads to NTPC dump trucks running over a protestor (Clark 2003). If people’s spirits are not successfully broken then they are often called in to report to the police, who work intimately with the companies, for questioning. Residents are then forcefully coerced into “accepting” and signing minimal rehabilitation agreements, with police violence ordered by NTPC employees. Once people have shifted off their lands, they have very little leverage to assert additional demands. When NGOs stepped in to file complaints against NTPC to the World Bank, the Bank claimed its “hands were tied” due to the conflicting information it had received from different parties. All the while, the supervision of NTPC that the Bank required was carried out by NTPC employees themselves (Ibid., p.180). The NTPC has directly violated World Bank policies time and time again, while the World Bank has turned a blind eye. Without proper self-regulation, even those who have been resettled have no guaranteed access to water and sanitation or the health and educational facilities they have been promised. While the Bank has been informed of NTPC’s violations numerous times, rather than suspending loans until an investigation disproved complaints, the World Bank has observed only NTPC’s testimonies instead of those by locals or the NGOs that attempt to support them (Kohli, 1997). However, both the World Bank and NTPC still have a binding responsibility to oversee resettlement and rehabilitation processes until the given loan is repaid in full, and this is an endeavor that needs to continuously be fought for. With multinationals entering in the phase of privatization, it becomes more and more difficult to claim leverage for compensation. In such a consortium, whether a partnership of national and global or public and private, it becomes increasingly difficult to track down and rectify violations and there is a far greater potential for policy abuse.

What is to be done now?

Singrauli tells many stories at once. As a district, land and community, Singrauli embodies several histories in parallel, from tribalism to industrialization, colonialism to globalization, and from independence to fueling one of the world’s fastest growing economies with some of the richest mineral deposits on the planet. It shows a dense concentration of manifold contemporary global processes and exemplifies policies in crisis. It exposes exploitation, marginalization, and exclusion from processes of industrialization as well as cognitivization of labor in conjunction. It illustrates a race towards limited natural resources in a landscape of globalized economic crisis. All the while, asserted efforts of creating a divide in solidarity and commonality ensue, with a complete disregard of where the responsibility towards the people in fact lies. The evasion and blunt violation of policies for protecting human rights that take place on a global scale within globalized processes of unjust economic development thereby become a global problem and require the attention and action of people around the world.

An endangering cycle of dependency has been thrust upon the people of Singrauli, which is erasing their history of land-based self-sufficiency. People who have lived from their agricultural work must now buy their produce (now imported from different regions) and depend on the market. Demands for electricity have been fulfilled at a charge, imposing dependence on something they barely have access to. Self-sufficiency poses one of the major challenges to capitalist exploitation as well as competition in a race towards natural resources. Self-sufficiency is not something acceptable in the current phase of globalized neoliberal capitalism and private property ownership becomes an imperative for inclusion in “development” processes. Promised development, the people of Singrauli have simply been displaced to allow the wealthier a cut, with those who cannot afford the new standards of “development” converted to beggars.

As more and more people around the world are squeezed out of rural areas and into bigger cities, resource rich areas become evacuated, allowing industries to come in, making compensation unnecessary. However, for those who are unable to adapt to city life, because of a lack of formal education, legal or financial status, or work or living experience compatibility, slums and ghettos await them, accumulating and exposing what cannot simply be erased. India is a country with the highest amount of people living without electricity, at over four hundred million (International Energy Agency) [18], however, current “development” strategies make it clear that the aim is not to provide electricity through just forms of development and rehabilitation. As that “development” relies on the disenfranchisement of Others, it exposes a global necrocapitalist system (Banerjee), where global (deregulated) capital regulates the local through the filtration of state oppression in order to commit and jointly collude in human rights abuses, displacement, and land-grabbing. This type of “development” is not sustainable on an environmental or a social level, and is bringing places like Singrauli, as well as many others worldwide, to the brink of extinction.

Sustainable development cannot be achieved without first beginning a process of sustainable rehabilitation. While it becomes clear that non-renewable energy and the finite natural resources it relies on will not last for long, even the future of renewable energy technology will not go far without just development processes that universally respect human and environmental rights. In addition, simple financial compensation is not enough. Money is spent quickly making up for loss. Sustainable livelihoods are the only way to compensate for such immense loss, and this includes land-based compensation [19], particularly in the case of those who are not used to dealing with money; sustainable employment opportunities for every family regardless of land ownership, gender, wealth or formal education – or the alternative of unemployment compensation – in a prompt and fair fashion for all those who are afflicted.

It is also imperative that people be informed about the projects that will affect their lives well in advance, along with being given relevant and valid information on the policies and procedures of the investing companies and their financiers. Moreover, their right to participation in decision-making must be observed and considered mandatory before the start of any new projects. In addition, the right to equal and affordable access to education, medical care, housing, and clean land and water must be respected, as well as the right to preventing unlimited resource exploitation. Likewise, the recognition of lokavidya in development strategies based on a dialogue involving the mutual respect of each other’s common knowledge in envisioning a common future together, should replace current forms of cutthroat knowledge meritocracy.

Lokavidya represents people’s knowledge, including both formal or informal knowledge, such as skills or knowledge of land, crafts or of community, for example. The demands and need for social recognition of lokavidya became all the more obvious in a context where recognized, knowledge – meaning the knowledge which has been quantified into units and qualified through the commodification of knowledge via complex reform processes, which are very similar and in some case identical worldwide, due to their role in entire policy packages – becomes the currency for negotiating human rights. People have survived on their lokavidya and are now unable to carry on under the new conditions, because their knowledge, capacity, skills and even citizenship go unrecognized.

The notion of lokavidya played a major role in our process of communication in Singrauli. It is also the notion that is driving a movement across India – the Lokavidya Jan Andolan (People’s Knowledge Movement) – and was at the center of the Conference at the Vidya Ashram, in Sarnath. So when co-participants of the conference, from the Bharatiya Kisan Union, traveled with me to Singrauli, that concept was the binding element with which we entered a dialogue with locals, exchanging knowledge and experiences, learning from one another. We met many people across the region, and on my last day there, a meeting was held consisting of various community members, heads of families and activists who declared that meetings would begin to take place in a displaced persons’ community center around the notion of lokavidya every Saturday from then on in order to start a discussion and dialog among locals – many of which are otherwise rather isolated – around how lokavidya can be applied in an emancipatory way to mobilize people and make concrete demands.

Currently, in the nearby Madhya Pradesh district of Anuppur, Moser Baer (Projects Private Limited) is in the process of constructing a new coal-based thermal power project with a capacity of 2,520 MW. They are currently developing the first phase of the project as a Special Purpose Vehicle. Coal will be acquired from South Eastern Coalfields (a subsidiary of CIL) and water will be taken from the Son River. According to their website: “The company has set new benchmarks in the power sector by achieving critical milestones (in terms of land acquisition, coal and water linkage, securing various statutory and other clearances and award of various contracts) in a record time. The company has already achieved financial closure of Phase-1 of this project and construction work is underway. Development of the Phase-2 of the project is scheduled to be taken up shortly.” [20] It is a massive project which requires enormous land acquisition. However, the compensation offered to the rural people has so far been approximately 15 rupees / square meter, which is low even for the most meager of compensation offers. The Bharatiya Kisan Union has thus begun a large struggle against this new process. Meanwhile, the Vidya Ashram has set up a local Ashram in Singrauli and has recently organized a major conference on lokavidya in Singrauli on September, 28–30, 2012.

The notion of lokavidya presents a non-violent alternative to maintaining self-sufficient and sustainable livelihoods by placing equal recognition of knowledge at the center of relations, reproduction of society, and exchange, rather than unjust, competitive notions of “development,” production or surplus. How to apply such a radical idea will be discussed in the conference, including different perspectives from across the country as well as the current discussion which has developed in Singrauli over the last few months. While current forms of “development” must undergo a radical transformation in order to benefit all of society equally, a radical shift in how struggle is organized must take place as well. Divide and conquer strategies are used to weaken social bonds, and the subsequent individualized struggles are not a sustainable way of demanding human rights. It has been demonstrated time and time again that agitations and publicity bring results and that a divided struggle suffers enormously. However, as every new wave of “development” projects brings with it new problems and as companies and their financiers usher in a complex entanglement of local, national and international/global, it is important to envision a struggle that tackles each of these perspectives through international pressure and international knowledge sharing. There is a lot to be learned from movements around the world, to mutually strengthen struggles, and to place a common exchange of knowledge at the center of an expansive struggle rather than individualized access to increasingly privatized resources, which were commons to begin with.

About the author:
Lina Dokuzovic is an artist and activist living in Vienna. Her work deals mechanisms of appropriation, privatization and militarization of structures, such as education, culture, the body and land. She works at the Austrian Association of Women Artists ( and eipcp (


Banerjee, Subhabrata Bobby. “Live and Let Die: Colonial Sovereignties and the Death Worlds of Necrocapitalism.” Borderlands ejournal, 5 (1). 2006.

Blacksmith Institute, “Singrauli: Pollution from Thermal Power Plants.” Accessed 3 Mar. 2012.

Clark, Dana. “Singrauli: An Unfulfilled Struggle for Justice.” Demanding Accountability: Civil Society Claims and the World Bank Inspection Panel. Dana Clark, Jonathan Fox, Kay Treakle, eds. Rowman and Littlefield. 2003.

Ghosal, Somnath. “Pre-Colonial and Colonial Forest Culture in the Presidency of Bengal.” Human Geographies – Journal of Studies and Research in Human Geography. 5.1. 2011. pp. 107–116. Available at: Accessed 27 Jun. 2012.

Greenpeace India Society. “Singrauli: The Coal Curse. A Fact Finding Report on the Impact of Coal Mining on the People and Environment of Singrauli.” 2011. Available at: Accessed 9 Dec. 2011.

Kohli, Madhu. “Request for Inspection: NTC Power Generation Project Cr. 3632 25,” CIEL: The Center for International Environmental Law. April 1997. Accessed 16 Jun. 2012

Kothari, Smithu. “Survival.” Illustrated Weekly of India. 24 Apr 1988; republished in the appendix of Cost of Development.

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Marston, Ama. “No Fairy Tale: Singrauli, India, still Suffering Years after World Bank Coal Investments.” Bretton Woods Project. London. Nov 2011. Available at: Accessed 9 Dec 2011

Sharma, R.N. and Singh, Shashi R. “Displacement in Singrauli Region: Entitlements and Rehabilitation.” Economic and Political Weekly. Vol. XLIV. No. 51. 19 Dec. 2009. Available at: Accessed 27 Dec. 2011.

Srijan Lokhit Samiti. Cyclostyled report. Cost of Development: The Effect of Big Gigantic Projects in Singrauli. Singrauli, India. Undated, ca. 1988.


1. Bhikhari is Hindi for beggar. The title Bhikhari-pore refers to local people’s reactions to the claim that Singrauli will become like Singapore through the planned development proposed by the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, Shri Shivraj Singh Chauhan, in e.g. the booklet, Destination Singrauli:


3. Srijan Lokhit Samiti is a voluntary grassroots organization formed in 1983 in Singrauli by concerned citizens to raise issues on the rights and entitlements of displaced persons for resettlement and rehabilitation.

4.; Accessed 3 Mar. 2012.

5. Many authors, such as Rajani Palme Dutt, assert that it was the transfer and expropriation of wealth from India to Britain which played the key role in Britain’s industrial revolution, specifically claiming that it was the colonial plundering of India’s resources (such as timber), India’s capital, market, and knowledge, that were heavily responsible for the industrial revolution in Britain.

6. There has been a campaign going on since Aug 2012, led by several grassroots organizations regarding a new bill introduced by the Ministry of Rural Development, the “Right to Fair Compensation, Resettlement, Rehabilitation and Transparent Land Acquisition Bill, 2012.” That bill has been introduced following decade-long attempts by people’s movements to repeal the colonial Land Acquisition Act and instead enact a just resettlement and rehabilitation act. The current Bill proposed by the government should guarantee legal protection to project affected people, however, the government has rejected any suggestions by people’s movements on drafting the bill, and activists thereby assert that this bill would simply be a name change and would not alter the conditions of displaced persons. The grassroots organizations and people’s movements involved in the campaign have therefore been demanding a comprehensive legislation that takes into account the process of development planning as well as consent and consultation of Gram Sabhas in future projects, and not only the land acquisition needs of the private sector and government. They have organized a series of meetings and discussions on the issue in an attempt to propose alternatives. See, e.g.:;

7. NTPC currently has a total generating capacity of 34,854 MW and plans to reach 75,000 MW by 2017.〈=en


9. An SPV is a legal entity, usually a limited company, created to fulfill specific or temporary objectives, typically used for isolating the entity from financial risk, hiding debt or obscuring relationships between related entities.

10. It is important to note the organization of the so-called national and public industry, which has mostly been founded as or reduced to limited liability companies (which have special provisions in India, making investment by global partners very favorable), in which only the majority of shares, 51%, must be national for it to be considered a national and “public” enterprise. The only thing “public” about them is that investment into the 49% is not restricted. For example, each shareholder could themselves be a large private or global corporation. See, e.g.:


12. A member of the lowest of the major castes of traditional Indian society.



15. See:; All of these apply to members of Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers who have been residents for at least three generations prior to 13th December 2005.

16. Schedules Castes (Dalits) and Scheduled Tribes are two groupings which are recognized as historically disadvantaged by the Indian Constitution. They are thereby assigned special “reservations,” which are similar to affirmative actions.



19. Ironically, during a July 1992 visit by World Bank officials to Singrauli, NTPC’s policy was referred to as exemplary for land-based compensation, which is an alternative recognized and supported by the World Bank, although such an option was not actually supplied in practice by NTPC in Singrauli. Madhu Kohli, “Request for Inspection NTC Power Generation Project Cr. 3632.”



2 Responses to “Bhikharipore Singrauli: A Case for Just Development[1]”

  1. Says:
    January 16th, 2013 at 21:31

    I really seem to agree with everything that was written in “Bhikharipore Singrauli:
    A Case for Just Development[1] at Sanhati”. Thanks a lot for
    all the actual details.Thank you-Lavon

  2. Ajay Pandey Says:
    March 29th, 2013 at 05:08

    the development today in singrauli could not be called as development, because when we talk about development it consists of two main responsibility’s the corporate responsibility and the social responsibility out of which social responsibility is often neglected which will lead to an imbalance in society. On one hand Singrauli is giving all what it has to the nation and in turn is getting only fake promises, which some where deep in the heart people of singrauli know would not be kept. I being singrauliite feel the pain in my heart of being moved from my home twice and left with memories, waiting to be moved again..

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