Wednesday, February 02, 2011

A Tale of Four Satyagrahas, 20-31.1.2011

About 40000 persons belonging to 9000 families live in Taraimar, Baysi and Rupangar panchayats, and Baysi and Dharam colonies in Dharamjaigarh block of Raigarh district. More than half of them are tribals; they have lived here since time immemorial. The rest are Bangladeshis; Mrs. Indira Gandhi settled them here after the Indo-Pak war of 1971. To their misfortune, the land that they live on- or more precisely, what lies underneath it- has been designated as “Durgapur-II-Taraimar coal block”; all of it has been allocated to BALCO, a former PSU (public sector undertaking) sold to Mr. Anil Agrawal of Sterlite company in 2001. Over the next century, Mr. Agrawal hopes to dig out 8 million tons of coal every year from this land to fuel his 2 thermal power plants and coal washery. He believes that the people who live here will go away quietly. In this, at least, Mr. Agrawal is mistaken.

Over the past two months, Mr. Agrawal’s agents, which (alas) include the state and district administrations besides local goons and conmen, have been ‘persuading’ landowners into selling their lands to them for as little as Rs. 15,000/acre. Most continue to resist. This was evident at yesterday’s public hearing at Taraimar: a tribal youth shouted that if his land was taken, he would join the Naxalites; when the district SP (Superintendent of Police) told him that he would personally shoot him if he did so, the young man said that he didn’t care because he had nothing left to lose. But I am getting ahead of myself. The Tale must begin elsewhere, in the neighboring district of Janjgir.

1. Narihara Satyagraha, 20.1.2011
Janjgir is perhaps the most fertile land of Chhattisgarh. It is bang in the heart of the Hasdeo-Mahanadi-Bango riverine basin. In a state where farmers have to contend with just one crop (kharif) every year, those in Janjgir harvest three, thanks mostly to the Hasdeo-Bango canal (built in a record two-year time, by my father’s government in 2003). Not surprisingly, the largest agricultural fair of the state- the Jajvalya Krishi Mela- is held here every year. However, unlike adjoining Raigarh, this district doesn’t have mineral deposits. But its proximity to Raigarh’s coal deposits and ample water supply make it an ideal location for setting up thermal power plants. During the past 7 years, Dr. Raman Singh, the state’s chief minister, has signed more than 50 MoUs with various companies to set up thermal power plants in this district, which would cumulatively produce no less than 50,000 megawatts of electricity every year.

This would, no doubt, transform Janjgir into the power hub of the nation- except that even if all available water of this district- including underground water- were to be pumped into power plants, it would still produce not more than 12,000 megawatts. By blindly green-lighting power plants that far out-exceed the natural capacity of this district, Dr. Raman Singh has condemned Janjgir- and its 2 million mostly Dalit inhabitants- to what can only be described as purgatory; hell-fire.

A week before last, I tried to walk from Narihara, where KSK- a Hyderabad-based construction company- is erecting its Wardha Power Plant, to Rogda, where farmers were mercilessly lathi-charged by policemen that very morning. We were arrested. Later that evening, I snuck into Rogda: the villagers ran into their houses when they saw us at first; it was only when they were told who I was that they came out to talk to us. There is a dam in Rogda; since 1962, it has been irrigating not less than 800 hectares of land. (Curiously, in the EIA- Environmental Impact Assessment- submitted by KSK to MoEF, this dam has been declared non-functional!) The day before, KSK simply poured earth into the dam, ‘killing’ it forever (this is exactly how the villagers described it). When the villagers came to know of this, they resisted, only to be ruthlessly beaten. (In the police report, it was the villagers who attacked the hapless police; what the police were doing there in the first place, God only knows!)

I am happy to report that since our Satyagraha at Narihara, the villagers of Narihara-Rogda have succeeded in stopping all ongoing work at Wardha Power Plant; this has forced the company back to the negotiating table. I am told that KSK is now promising to build a state-of-art hospital and college for them, and also increasing its previous offer of acquiring land from Rs. 5,00,000/acre to Rs. 15,00,000/acre.

2. Sarguja Satyagraha, 21-22.1.2011
From Janjgir (Akaltara block), I traveled to Sarguja, our northernmost district bordering Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. Two hills sacred to tribals- Samripat and Mainpat- are full of bauxite (not unlike Niyamgiri in neighboring Orissa); HINDALCO and BALCO companies have been systematically digging them up for almost 2 decades. The ore is taken to their aluminum plants Renukut in UP and Lanjigad in Orissa. The people of Sarguja have a simple demand, best summed up in a slogan given by Amarjeet Bhagat, a local MLA: “plant nahi to bauxite nahi”. This means that if the companies want to continue to mine bauxite, then they must set up their aluminum plants within the district itself; this would, at the very least, help generate employment for local youth, businesses for local entrepreneurs and other necessary educational and healthcare infrastructure for everybody. In pursuance of this demand, all transportation from the two bauxite mines was stopped; 4 days later, BALCO sent a letter to the District Collector stating its willingness to set-up an aluminum plant in Sarguja (while also using it to make certain very unrealistic demands of their own!).

3. Kudurmal Satyagraha, 23.1.2011 and 30.1.2011
Before returning to Taraimar in Dharamjaigarh, I should like to stop at Kudurmal, a not-so-quiet little village on the banks of Hasdeo in Korba district. It’s almost as if one has walked into an ongoing earthquake: stones of all sizes and shapes fall from the sky accompanied by terrifying blasts of dynamite; walls of each of the 137 houses are cracked, 3 have crumbled to dust, the Shiv Linga at the village square has been split in two. Most alarmingly, the sacred shrine of Kabir, who lived and preached here more than 500 years ago, as did his descendants, is about to fall to pieces. Given its unique place in history, it has officially been declared a protected monument under the Protected Monuments Act. None of this, however, has deterred contractors of LANCO Power Company from blasting stones less than 1 meter from the village. Two days ago, the local youth of the district pitched a tent and started a Satyagraha right next to the blasting site: they will continue to pray and fast till the unlawful blastings have stopped, and the damage done to people’s homes and the shrine repaired.

4. Dharamjaigarh Satyagraha, 24.1.2011 and 31.1.2011
On my way to attend the public hearing at Taraimar, the Additional SP of Raigarh stopped me: I was told that my presence at Dharamjaigarh- and more specifically at the public hearing- would disrupt peace and order. When I denied this and insisted on proceeding, I was arrested once again, in abject violation of my Fundamental Right guaranteed by Articles 14, 19 and 21 of our Constitution, and rushed to Raigarh, where I was locked up in Room No. 4 of the Circuit House till the time the public hearing at Taraimar was over late last night.

Had I been allowed to speak, this is what I would have said:

• First, I would have challenged the holding of the public hearing itself on three grounds. One, because the EIA submitted by BALCO was not prepared by a consultant accredited by MoEF; two, because the date, place and calling of the public hearing was not done by the Pollution Control Board but by the district collector (whose daughter happens to be an employee of BALCO); three, the public hearing was not held within the stipulated time frame of 45 days from submission of EIA, but more than 2 years later.
• Secondly, the content of the EIA itself is a bundle of lies and half-truths. Most notably, it does not mention that this is a thickly forested area, or that it is part of the ‘Elephant Corridor’, without which the elephants would be left without recourse to a safe passage.
• Thirdly, there is not one word in the EIA, or any other proposal submitted by BALCO, as to how, when and where the 40,000 inhabitants of this ‘coal block’ are going to be rehabilitated: all it says is that their ‘rehabilitation packages would be better than their present conditions.’ By failing to address this most vital of concerns, BALCO- and the state and district administrations- have summarily condemned them to the status of ‘most endangered species’, soon to be made extinct.
• Fourthly, the rates of compensation being offered- Rs. 15-30,000/acre!- are not only way below the prescribed acquisition rates of Rs. 5-8-10,00,000/acre; they are only a pittance of the value of coal BALCO is going to dig out. 8 million tons of coal a year, valued at Rs. 2000/ton (for D Grade coal) is Rs. 1600 crores. If this amount were to be divided equally among the 40,000 people who live here, it would come to exactly Rs. 4 lakhs/year/person. Since BALCO intends to dig out coal for the next 100 years, the share of each person would, therefore, come to Rs. 4 crores; or, given that on an average 4 persons constitute a family, Rs. 16 crores for every household. Even if BALCO were to give just 0.1% of the share that should logically- and rightfully- belong to each family, that amount would still be Rs. 16 lakhs. This is of course not accounting for inflation, or the additional profits it would make by generating and selling electricity.
• Fifthly, by not allowing the public to attend the public hearing- as in my case and also that of at least 2000 others who were not allowed entry for absolutely no reason- the very purpose of the public hearing has been defeated. Under sections 111 and 151 of the Cr.P.C., the magistrate can detain a person only on the basis of ‘reasonable apprehension’: there was nothing in our antecedents, manner and conduct of to give rise to any such reasonable apprehension that our presence would be disruptive of public peace and order. If anyone was disturbing public peace, it was Mr. Agrawal's agents!
• Sixthly, the presence of at least 2000-armed policemen, not to mention the SP himself sitting and screaming on the dais, has vitiated the entire proceedings.

In any event, despite the company’s best efforts to trick and torment, of the 3000 people finally permitted to participate in the public hearing, only 2 spoke out in favor of BALCO’s proposal. Each and every other speaker spoke against it. (Video recordings of the hearing have been made.) Now, I am informed that BALCO’s agents have surreptitiously fabricated about 2000 printed letters under names summarily lifted from electoral rolls (voter lists), all supporting its proposal in exactly the same language, in exactly the same font (!). How on earth would a tribal of Taraimar have access to such computerized printing is beyond me. As such, these so-called letters of endorsement should be pulped; they are not worth the paper they are printed on.

I’ve been asked as to why I am raising my voice now, and not before. Surely these are not the first instances of gross injustices to have occurred in my lifetime; but these are the first that I’ve confronted ever since I have started coming into public life. A beginning has been made…to reconcile the sufferings of those who live on this earth with the wealth that lies buried beneath; to alleviate, if not end, the age-old curse of Rich Land, Poor People (Ameer dharti, Gareeb log).

Before concluding, I would like to mention one unifying- and very disturbing- feature I noticed in all the 4 aforementioned Satyagrahas: more often than not, those entrusted by the People to protect and promote their interests- the legislators and the administrators- are the ones most engaged in plundering them; it is time such people were weeded out to make way for a breed more conscious of its duties and responsibilities towards those that have empowered them in the first place. Such a change is possible only by increasing public awareness: hence, our Call to Truth.

Our Satyagraha.
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Amit Aishwarya Jogi
Anugrah, Civil Lines
Raipur- 492001
Chhattisgarh, INDIA
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