Residents of Manegaon meet under a peepal tree in Madhya Pradesh's Mandla district, to discuss ways to prevent the eviction of their entire village to make way for a nuclear power project (Photo by Saji Thomas)
The men of Manegaon village gathered under the shade of a peepal tree. The elders squatted on the ground, the younger men stood around them, while the women sat further back, listening.
Manmohan Singh, perched on a platform in the middle of the gathering, addressed the group's collective fears: the entire village could be evicted at any time, he warned, torn away from their farmlands and their only source of sustenance.
This tribal village in central India’s Madhya Pradesh state is one of 525 facing eviction because of a proposed government-owned nuclear power plant in nearby Chutka village. The 1,400-megawatt facility, planned here in Mandla district, would sprawl over almost 500 hectares of land.
Until a few weeks ago, villagers thought they were safe. India’s Land Acquisition Act of 2013 — originally brought in to replace a century-old British law — stipulated that evictions can only occur after at least 70 percent of affected people agree to move.
But in late December, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government approved controversial amendments to the legislation that critics say will make it easier to take over land. The amendment relaxes requirements for consent and the need to conduct surveys assessing social impacts, if the land is needed for four broad sectors including defense, rural infrastructure, housing and industrial corridors.
The Land Acquisition Act was originally brought in to offer greater protection against rampant evictions — safeguards that the archaic British law, instituted in 1894, had failed to provide. December’s amendments, people like Singh say, are a clear step backward.
The changes, he said, “diluted most of the clauses in favor of the land owners. The government has reintroduced the British law more vigorously”.
Social worker Medha Patkar, a veteran activist, said the Act was decades in the making and sought to ensure the livelihoods of low-income people who have for years been marginalized.
In the past, she said, government agencies easily evicted farmers from their lands, without adequate compensation, using the old British law. December’s amendment, she said, “undermined the very spirit of the constitution and basic tenets of democracy”.
The government, however, paints a different picture, saying that the amendments are aimed at speeding up vital national projects while maintaining protections for those who are impacted.
A December 29 statement issued by India’s Press Information Bureau said that under the existing act, projects had been unnecessarily delayed because of a “prolonged procedure for land acquisition”.
“Neither the farmer is able to … benefit nor is the project completed in time for the benefit of society at large,” the statement read. The “proposed amendments meet the twin objectives of farmer welfare, along with expeditiously meeting the strategic and development needs of the country”.
A district official responsible for overseeing the power plant project declined an interview request.
Tribal villagers attend a land rights meeting in Madhya Pradesh's Mandla district (Photo by Saji Thomas)
From dam to power plant
In Mandla district, however, there is doubt among many who are affected by the looming project. Navratan Dubey is leading his village’s campaign against the power plant. He said local officials have told him authorities may start evicting villagers in March.
“There seems to be no way out,” said the 56-year-old. “If the law is not changed, the government and private companies will rob the tribal people and other poor farmers of the land, under the pretext of industrialization.”
Dubey is resigned to a long fight against the government. More than most, he knows what the future may hold. Forty years ago, he and his family were evicted to make way for the massive Bargi dam in adjacent Jabalpur district.
Dubey said he received monetary compensation for his family’s 26 hectares of land, but it was only enough to buy a fraction of it at his new home. December’s amendment, he believes, could see him lose his land for a second time.
“It is a tragedy that in this country, the poor are always shunted from one place to the other in the name of development,” he said.