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Bleak future in mining region

Landowners face uphill battle to save property without official allies

Bleak future in mining region
A village threatened by the proposed mine reporter, Jharkhand

May 11, 2011

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(part two of a two-part series – click here to read part one) Protests in India against the displacement of villagers, spearheaded in the 1990s by the high profile Narmada Bacaho Andolan movement, have since intensified as a liberalized economy claims power to exploit natural resources that have been the economic survival base of village communities. The Land Acquisition Act is regarded as a colonial law based on the principle of ‘eminent domain', giving the state power to legally acquire land for a nebulous ‘public purpose’. The Coal Bearing Areas Act was formulated to acquire coal mines from private owners at the time of the nationalization of the coal industry. Both are now used to take away legal ownership of land to turn it over to the state. The issue here, though, is not loss of marginal land such as is created by roadbuilding, but whole villages, and clusters of villages, being removed for huge opencast mines. A common complaint is lack of transparency. Those to be displaced receive notices telling them to collect a sum of money as their compensation. How this total sum is arrived at is not clear -- for what quality of land? At what rate? Including or excluding what other fixed assets such as wells? For other income providing assets such as fruit trees? It is notoriously difficult to get accurate data as a result of data jumbling. In one example the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) in 2006 gave the Ministry of Mines and Forest the names of 17 villages to be affected by a project, whereas a senior NTPC official gave the press the names of 26 villages. The same data given to the ministry had the population of seven villages for phase I of the project at 2,221, whereas the 2001 Indian census put the population at 8,709. Equally non-transparent are plans, if any, for the resettlement of the displaced. The Karanpura valley contains approximately 23 mining blocks which the Coal Ministry has put on the open market, with many having been taken by various mining companies. In their Environmental Impact Assessment, each will present its own impact, completely ignoring those of neighboring projects. The Damodar river, for example, can perhaps take the impact of any one coal mine, but not the cumulative impact of all twenty three mines. Yet nowhere has a cumulative impact assessment been made; the ministry of environment and forests merely judges them piecemeal. Similarly, while the Pakri Barwadih project is to uproot fifteen villages, which it could possibly resettle, the total number of villages to be affected by all the projects in the North Karanpura coalfields is 200, with a population of something like 200,000. To resettle these people, and to find them work, is a task which is not even being considered. The result can only be social unrest, which is what is taking place now. In September 2008, Rakesh Roshan and a colleague were badly beaten up while distributing compensation checks to people to be displaced by the Pakri Barwadih mine. A police car was overturned and 16 policemen injured in disturbances which saw charges being laid against more than 500 people. Roadblocks were also set up in nearby Barwadih, Surya Mandir and Guru Chhati. In July 2009 another distribution of compensation checks was held at the NTPC Barkagaon block office. Local legislative assembly member Loknath Mahato at the time said the area was very good for agriculture and the people did not want to give up their land. The general manager of NTPC, Upendra Rao, said "fertile land would not be taken and that NTPC would only take land where there was coal," and asked for the cooperation of landowners, who nonetheless refused to take compensation. The NTPCs response has been to give out sops. Medical clinics have been held, thousands of school bags and sports equipment for children have been distributed. Saplings have been planted everywhere, always with press reports and photos of smiling officials. At a much publicized tree planting ceremony in Barkagaon, NTPC general manager R.S. Sharma was reported saying: “All will taste the sweet fruit of the tree of NTPC”. Well repair and village road making projects have been given to local contractors, who have since become the company’s local henchmen. The local press gives good coverage to these initiatives, but in recent years there has been a news blackout on protests. Members of the Bachao Sangarsh Samiti, a farmer’s body, have been vociferous about this. One member, Inder Ram, claims: “There are protests every second week. When officials come in their vehicles, we surround them and send them back. We stage marches, but the press does not report them, unless there is violence and the police are out in force. They consistently report on welfare projects with photos of smiling benevolent officials. It is commonly known the press takes money to make these reports. The company can afford to pay them, we cannot.” On June 6, 2010 the Hindustan Times reported that the NTPC had promised to set up a technical training center in Barkagaon to give skills training to thousands of children of project-affected people. The following month, NTPC officials and police came to lay the foundation stone of the center, but a protest saw the ceremony called off. While the NTPC announcement of the training facility was given coverage, the public protest was not. The government gives full support to the company. In July 2009 Hazaribag's deputy commissioner Binay Kumar Chaubey visited Arahara village and asked the villagers the reasons for their reluctance to hand over their land. After listening to their replies, Chaubey told them the state government would acquire the land for the coal mining project in the larger interest of the nation sooner or later. Another disturbing feature lurking in the background is the strong paramilitary presence in the area. Arahara, Beltu, Kutki, and Ango villages have heavily armed paramilitary outposts, “for action against Maoists,” it is claimed. However, their presence has become handy for the NTPC in times of trouble. On January 16, when a large number of villagers were protesting during a visit by the federal coal minister, it was the Kutki paramilitary force that intervened and broke up the protest, which saw six people hospitalized. These days, no meeting is ever held without a heavy police presence, and officials often travel with police guards. No doubt, Thiess (a subsidiary of Australian construction and mining giant Leighton which won the 20-year, A$5.5 billion (US$5.9 billion) mining contract) will be asking for the same.
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