Chhattisgarh lost the battle

The people of Chhattisgarh appear to have lost the battle against industrialisation without rules. Even those who held out longest against the acquisition of their lands, forests and rivers are giving up the fight.

 

“Things are not what they used to be,” laments an old man in one of Raigarh district’s 290 villages in North Chhattisgarh. Here, land issues have been central to the lives of the people who live off the land — mainly farmers and indigenous people. The state of Chhattisgarh was carved out of the state of Madhya Pradesh in 2000. 

 

Seventy-nine per cent of Chhattisgarh’s population lives in rural areas and 45% are below the poverty line. With 35% of its geographical area under cultivation, agriculture is the mainstay of its economy. Almost 80% of the working population is dependent on agro-based livelihood, but the irrigated area in the state is only 16% of the total area, according to government figures. 

 

Forests, rivers, and fertile farmland have been taken over by flourishing industries backed by an unjust state. For several years, thousands have been displaced despite violent activism by the oppressed. Rivers have been bought and diverted leaving hundreds of villages thirsty and acres of farmland parched. Tribal people, who have roamed these mineral-rich forests for centuries, have been forced to seek employment and adapt to a different way of life as industries continue to encroach upon their lifestyle. Protected forest land has been sold to greedy miners who exploit its riches without considering the disastrous effect of industrialisation on the flora and fauna. 

 

The state has been the first in the country to go to the extent of selling rivers such as the Sheonath and Kelo to a private owner who will use it to supply water to industries. This is just the beginning. Industrialists are lining up to pour money into Chhattisgarh in return for extracting a great deal more from it and, in the absence of just legislation and regulation, destroying both its people and the environment.  

 

With the state government itching to meet an investment target of US $ 3 trillion by 2010, indiscriminate industrialisation is inevitable. Crucially, access to, use of, and control over, water resources, is becoming an issue in Chhattisgarh and has led to the emergence of people’s movements against government policies on water issues.

 

The movement started in 1998 in Boda Tikra village in Raigarh district. A tribal woman lost her life after fasting to death. A decade later, the Kelo river she fought to save has been lost too. 

 

Elsewhere, villagers of Rabo and Danot have sold their land, some after holding out for a considerably long time. Many have run through whatever money they received in compensation and regret their decision to sell.  

 

Another centre of resistance is Gare village where villagers are resisting the sale of their land by enduring bullets, baton-wielding policemen and intimidation by industrialists. 

 

Boda Tikra: A forgotten sacrifice 

 

Over a decade ago, Satyabhama’s simple protest fast to oppose the privatisation of the Kelo river, on which 10 other villages depended, ended in her death from starvation. A decade later, her son, Ram bhoi (30), a labourer, remembers his mother, “Many people want to know what happened that day but nobody does anything for us. My parents were simple labourers, and my mother went to fight for water for the villagers alone.” 

 

Ram bhoi, who has five siblings, alleges foul play: “She was taken to a hospital after 10 days of fasting. My father was with her. She wasn’t in a serious condition when admitted. She was 40 at the time of her death in 1998.” 

 

Satyabhama was fighting on behalf of 10 villages which would be affected by a plant belonging to Jindal Steel and Power Ltd. In 1996, JSPL was denied permission to draw water from the Kelo river for industrial purposes as the District Water Utilisation Council felt that the river's waters would be inadequate to meet both industrial and drinking water needs of Raigarh town.  

 

However, in 1997, the company managed to secure permission from a state-level committee to construct a check-dam across the river and sink wells to draw more than 35,000 cubic metres of water daily. Nearly 250 families dependent on river fishing saw their catches plummet after the construction of JSPL's check-dam.

 

Satyabhama’s sacrifice has been forgotten, though what she feared has come to pass. These days the residents of Boda Tikra cannot manage with the borewells – their major source of water supply now that the river has been depleted — as they dry up in summer. Every January 26, the day of her death, her family prays at her memorial which they erected in the village. “The villagers don’t join us even though she died for them. The protest stopped the day after she died. People were bribed in the village. Nobody raised a voice,” says Kritya, Satyabhama’s eldest daughter. 

 

Rabo and Danot submerged 

 

The fields in the villages of Rabo and Danot, also in Raigarh district, have been submerged by a dam built four years ago for the 1,000 megawatt (MW) Tamnar hydel power project of the Jindals. Farmers sold their land to the government, which leased it out to the Jindals for the power project. The farmers were promised jobs but have found only temporary employment.  

 

“Today we didn’t go to work because they said there was no work. Some families have left because of this. We sold our lands because we had no choice – the fields would be submerged anyway. There have been no benefits from the dam for us. Only the Tamnar power plant stood to gain. We used to get wood from the area, grow rice and vegetables, but not now,” says a woman who did not want to be named. 

 

“They bring men from other states to work here, so if there’s an accident,  the locals won’t revolt as the affected party is an outsider. This way they can’t make a union to fight with the company,” said a labourer in Rabo village. 

 

Ram Pradhan (name changed), whose wife is a member of the panchayat of Rabo village, recalls how the protest fell apart.  

“A year after the protests began, farmers lost interest. Some went behind our backs and took cheques from the government. Gradually, their numbers increased.” 

 

In 2002-2003, state government representatives had surveyed the area for the hydel power project and subsequently presented a proposal to the panchayat. The villagers did not sign anything, yet in 2004, the work on the project began without their consent. They realised later that the state had sold off their land by bribing some panchayat members. 

 

“We even visited the chief minister. When they started encroaching on our land, we stopped them from taking the machinery through the village. On October 13, 2004, we started protesting in nine villages. Now seven villages are already submerged,” said Ram Pradhan. 

 

Champibai of Rupunga village was a rebel icon, who protested alongside noted activist Medha Patkar. She sold her land after years of protesting as support for the cause declined. “What could I do if one by one the people who stood by me began to leave?” she asks. She now works as a gardener for the employers she protested against. 

 

A villager from Danot alleges that the sarpanchs, or village heads, and the police connive with industrialists and approve the handover of the land rights to them in return for money. That’s how the Kelo river was sold, they claim.

 

A resettlement plan was approved by the state government in Danot village but the residents are unhappy with it. “The amount of money that we were given for our land was paltry. Even the chief minister said that we would be compensated handsomely and we had it on paper, but the collector wouldn’t abide by it. The houses they have given us in exchange are very small compared to the ones we had and are in the middle of nowhere,” says a villager. Almost 110 farmers from 70 villages have filed a case against the government for not giving them just compensation for their land. 

 

They allege that the jan sunwai or public hearing that is mandatory before such projects are approved, was held in inaccessible areas so hardly anyone attended. 

 

According to social activist Ramesh Agarwal of the NGO Lok Shakti, 22 companies operate in Raigarh district in the midst of reserved forests with a population of 3,64,287. Activists have moved the courts since 2004 against the Jindals and others. “We even approached the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court against Jindal Steel and Power Limited. There’s no alternative to the judiciary.”  

 

Over 1.5 lakh people depend on the Kelo river which has been polluted by the industries. Some 70 villages depend on water supplied by tankers that is sold by Jindal. Hand-pumps have dried up. “These people are just beginning to understand the implications of industrialisation without rules. Members of committees appointed by the government to resolve these problems are also on the boards of most of these companies, so there is a conflict of interest,” says Agarwal. 

 

Gare: A battle still to be won

 

Gare lies almost 40 km from Raipur, the capital of Chhattisgarh. A coal-based power plant is to be constructed in Gare, but the locals are fighting the project with all their might. Gare is the only village in the district that has successfully resisted industrialisation. In the public hearing or jan sunwai held on January 5, 2008, the villagers were threatened that they would be arrested and jailed if they protested on the streets and blocked traffic.

 

That did not stop the protests and more than 50 men and women were jailed. But because of the presence of the media, they were released, says Savita Rath, a young activist. The resistance continues to date and though a few have sold their land, most have held out. Savita says this is because the protestors are under a good leader who cannot be corrupted or intimidated. Dr H P Patel has been able to organise the movement, collect money and help people travel from far-off villages to join the resistance movement.  

 

There are at least five coal mines and one sponge iron plant in the area, and one coal mine that is seeking to expand. The industrialists, including Jindal Steel and Power Ltd and Jayaswal Neco Ltd, have tried various means to break the movement. Six youngsters who were part of the resistance movement were charged with rape and could not secure bail. Their parents approached the only entity that could exert pressure on the police — a powerful industrialist who was struggling to establish a base there. The boys were released and their families became the first ones to sell out in 2009.

 

Dr Patel complains that “men have been bribed. People who have sold the land haven’t been paid. Sixty per cent of the participants in this agitation are women. People from neighbouring villages have sold their land for as little as Rs 80,000, but those who held their ground managed to get the company to raise the amount to Rs 8 lakh.”

 

Patel has cleverly crafted the resistance strategy. He has managed to set up a fund to run the movement. Every Saturday, each family gives Re 1 during their weekly meetings. This amounts to Rs 170 per week, which is used to make food for the protestors who have set up road blocks.  

 

For people like 85-year-old Munudai, who has spent almost all her life in Gare, it is vital that the resistance continues. “I was seven years old when I moved here. My parents and grandparents used to farm. Where will we go if they displace us after the village is submerged? I will not move come what may,” she says. 

 

Dr Anupama Saxena, associate professor in the department of political science at Bilaspur University, and director of the Women's Studies and Development Centre, Guru Ghasidas University, Bilaspur, is studying the perils of displacement and gender. The women suffer the most during displacement, she says. “No one takes their opinions into account, despite the fact that they are central to the family structure, and most times,  contribute equally to the household economy." 

 

Unkept promises, underhand means 

 

Where rapid and unregulated industrialisation has occurred, it has been achieved by misleading and cheating the villagers whose land is crucial for any project. Rajesh Tripathi, a local activist, explains: “Villagers are offered only temporary labour jobs. First, the industrialists target the small farmers whose land is not fertile and who readily sell the land. Then they home in on the rest. This has happened in Janjgir village.  

 

“They bribe farmers not to oppose them in the jan sunwai. In each village 30% of labourers don’t own land but used to work for the farmers. Now they work as labourers in the factories. So now there’s a labour problem too.”  

 

Another activist from Raigarh, Shiv Rajput of Lok Shakti, says that the “scheming” industralists work by splitting the resistance. “There is no unity to fight this, so this makes our movement weak. The industrialists have appointed people/officials in the village to split the movement. Industrialists target the one who has more responsibility or is vociferous in the resistance movement like the sarpanch, and they bribe him. As a result, the rest lose faith in the movement and it breaks.” 

 

Farmer-turned-activist Chandrashekhar learnt his lesson the hard way. He was one of the few who did sell his land in Gare, and lives to regret it. 

 

“I got Rs 1 lakh for the land I sold, so I bought clothes for the family, some gold for my wife, a bike and a television. Now I have finished my money. This has happened to almost 55% of villagers. Only 25% of people have bought land with that money. We still haven’t been able to bring up the environmental concerns as we are still grappling with monetary problems.”  

 

Chandrashekhar now travels extensively all across the state advising illiterate farmers about the serious implications of selling their land. On his visit to a neighbouring village, he lectures, “Your land is a buried treasure that all your generations will profit from. The money they will give you will only benefit one or two generations. Eventually, the money will run out. If you don’t farm then the food will be less. More people are illiterate here so they can’t gauge long-term implications. Industrialists adopt villages and build schools, clinics, hospitals etc and people see that as progress. They fail to notice the negative implications and soon become dependent on the facilities, which can be withdrawn at any time. The wages of the villagers depend on the amount of land sold. A cut also goes to the contractors.” 

 

There is progress of a sort in the region, however. Workers from outside the state have been brought in to work in the industries, so villagers rent their homes to them, and some have opened shops to cater to them. 

 

The farce of the Jan Sunwai  
 

The jan sunwai or public hearing is a mandatory exercise and part of the process to clear projects as required by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Officials analyse issues to be studied and then consult the public. The state pollution control board advertises the day and venue of the hearing so that the public can be present to voice its concerns. 

In practice, though, the jan sunwai is easily subverted. In the case of the Tamnar hydel project, for instance, the jan sunwai was held in inaccessible areas so hardly anyone attended.

 

Ramesh Agarwal of the NGO Lok Shakti explains that the literacy rate here is just 15-20%, so people are unable to understand everything, and particularly not the highly technical reports.. But since it is all on the record, the people cannot claim that they were not told. “It is just a drama so that people can’t go to court in future saying that they were unaware of the environmental and health hazards,” Agarwal says. 

 

“People don’t play a role in decision-making, then how can you call it a public hearing?” asks Agarwal. “We visit the spot after reading the report and it is very hard for us also to cross-check as we don’t have any special expertise. We have to go door-to-door asking people to participate in protesting this degradation of the environment.”

 

A jan sunwai is being held in Janjgir village for the expansion of a coal mining project of the ubiquitous Jindal group. Lots of policemen wait at the entrance of a crowded park in case the crowd turns violent. “My friends and I have come to participate in the show,” said a woman who has come from Janjgir village. Some youngsters were drunk. “First we used to drink mahua (the local brew) now we drink Aristocrat like you,” boasted Rakesh who had just sold his land for the expanded coal mine. 

 

On stage, officials of the Ministry of Environment and Forests introduce themselves and welcome the crowd to discuss the expansion of the open cast mine that currently produces 6 million tonnes of coal. A 60-year-old man from Amgaon village in Janjgir says: “I’ve observed the changing lifestyle all my life and asked God for betterment of society. God answered my prayers and sent Jindal. So much of development has occurred because of them. Those days we didn’t even have bicycles, now we have bikes and mobiles and cars. Connectivity has increased. I support Jindal wholeheartedly.”  

 

There’s commotion as those in the opposition object. The gathering is obviously teeming with many pro-Jindal supporters. 

 

Gopinath Patel, a villager, speaks up against the projected expansion: “People are being bribed and coerced. Promises are being broken. People are promised jobs and then they are denied after the land is bought. Officials take advantage of their illiteracy. Water levels in the wells are constantly deteriorating. I object to Jindal’s intervention in this region, I beg you not to give him the permission to expand his project.” 

A young businessman comments caustically, “They will build schools, but they will also declare a holiday in the same school if they need the premises for a meeting. Three blasts take place in a day while mining and the school building even cracked during the blasting process.” 

 

In a hut around 100 metres away from the commotion of the jan sunwai, Nandu, proud owner of 50 acres of land, smokes a bidi and says, “My great grandmother worked on this land. We won’t sell out. They offered Rs 1 to 1.5 lakh for the whole area. They want to displace the whole village for coal mining. Where will we go? Will he give land to all of us? I don’t think so. Washing and ingestion of water is already causing problems. We never needed bore wells but now we do. Trees become black because of the pollution when it doesn’t rain.” 

 

Unless the situation in the remote villages changes due to public or judicial intervention, or through awareness created by civil society, the environmental impact and the devastating problems that will arise through massive internal displacement will plague the people of Chhattisgarh for several decades to come.

 

Dilnaz Boga

 

 

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