Now Singur syndrome hits Jharkhand!

Displacement versus development triggered another controversy in Aamgachi village under Kathikund police station of Jharkhand's Dumka district early this month and six tribal villagers protesting against construction of a power plant in the village were killed in police firing.

Patna: Displacement versus development triggered another controversy in Aamgachi village under Kathikund police station of Jharkhand's Dumka district early this month and six tribal villagers protesting against construction of a power plant in the village were killed in police firing.

The issue has been a reminder of the deadly Singur syndrome which seems to have spread in all such areas where new projects are being planned.

Is Aamgachi going to be the Singur of Jharkhand? Is the ground being prepared for another Nandigram in making? These are some of the questions stirring the sensible minds involved in the issue.

The tribal people in Aamgachi were protesting against the proposed construction of a power plant by Calcutta Electric Supply Corporation (CESC) of RPG (Goenka) group.

The CESC had plans to install a 1,000 MW thermal power plant in this power starved and poverty stricken state in accordance with a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) signed with the state government.

The company required 700 acres of land, but it initially requested the government for 328 acres of land to set up plants and machinery in this village. The process of land acquisition started and notification to this effect were issued.

Initially all went right until Munni Hansda led Ulgunan Manch came into picture vouching to safeguard the tribal people from eviction and alienation.

"Whether the land to be acquired is 100 acres or 1,000 acres is not the criterion. Land is like an umbilical cord to the farmers and there is a fear psychosis of what the family will do after selling their land," a top investor said.

A thermal power plant requires two basic facilities, coal and water. The company was allotted captive coal mines near the proposed site at Aamgachi by the Ministry of Coal early this year.

The company sources say that the proposed plant would require 3.33 million cubic meters (MCM) of water per month which would be made available from river Brahmni during the rainy season.

However, for the remaining season the plant would require storage facility necessitating need of additional land for the company.

In this backdrop, the agitation against eviction and land acquisition gained momentum. In the first week of December, the Ulgulan Manch started 'jail bharo agitation' and accelerated pace of movement.

In view of the agitators mood the district authorities promulgated prohibitory orders under section 144 of Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC) in the area.

On December 6, the mob turned violent when the police tried to stop them from violating the prohibitory orders. The mob suddenly went berserk and police opened fire resulting into six causalities and several injuries.

Activist Medha Patker later approached the scene and led a 'pratirodh march' to the Governor House in Ranchi and sought to nationalise the issue.

Undoubtedly, such incidents of violence would adversely affect the investment prospects in the region and make situation uncongenial for investment and industrial ventures.

This is not the isolated case in Jharkhand aspiring to go up by signing a number of MoUs since its creation in 2000. Few months back, in Khunti district of the state, officials of Arcelor-Mittal were brutally beaten up and their faces blackened when they had gone to inspect the proposed site for construction of 12 million ton steel plant.

Similarly Bhusan Steel faced vehement opposition in Patmada in Jamshedpur district of this state. Other companies have also experienced similar vehement opposition. Interestingly all the investors in Jharkhand are interested in mining lease rather than Green field projects. This may be one reason for the negative reaction by the tribal in the region.

No doubt, these developments have triggered a quest for the reason about why such incidents of violence were happening? The bigger issue, however, is to find out ways of fixing these problems.

What Done It?
While answer to either of the questions is not easy to find, it is important to look at the entire problem in an anthropologic-constitutional perspective, in case the government, social activists and investors really want to come out with a solution acceptable to all.

States like Jharkhand had been brought in Scheduled Area Regulation Act of 1956 under Article 244 of Indian constitution in order to provide extra safeguards to the tribal inhabiting these areas vis-a-vis their alienation from land.

The threat to their unwilful eviction from their ancestral land was sought to be further protected by enactment of Panchayats (extension to the scheduled areas) Act in 1996.

This law makes it mandatory on part of the government as well as the companies to obtain the consent of the Gram Sabha before starting any land acquisition process or signing MoUs.

Unfortunately most of the MoUs have been signed without obtaining the consent of Gram Sabha as enshrined in the law.

The previous experience of tribal people with respect to benefits given to them in lieu of their land that have been taken or industries those have been set up, have never been happy.

For instance, in a place called Kiriburu in Chaibasa district of Jharkhand, which is believed to be the largest deposit of iron ore in the world, mining operation has been underway for the last ten decades.

Today these mines are owned by Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL). The company has erected huge infrastructure including plants, machineries, guest houses and quarters but the surrounding area is poorly developed.

In fact, this area is one of the most neglected areas with dismal literacy rate and poor per capita income. Nowamundi, another area in Chaibasa is a typical example of utter neglect. In this area, some iron ore mines are owned by Tata group.

Interestingly, while mining operation has been on for years in the region, the demography has not yet been benefitted to the extent it should have been. We have a number of examples in this mineral rich state in which poor people has not tasted the fruits of dividends of mineral excavation.

The state government's new mining policy attracted private companies and several mining lease have been granted to them. But these lease and MoUs could not bring about any qualitative change in the life of common tribal.

No wonder then, the tribal people are hostile and against these investment.

The apathy of the government towards the legal rights bestowed on the tribal is revealed in the MoUs, which are signed by the government with a host of companies without Gram Sabha's consent.

On the other hand, there is no denying the fact that investment in sectors like power is a prerequisite for development of any state. If industrialisation as well as agriculture have to make progress, energy is required. This area has been opened for private sector and it is in this background this company decided to setup power plant at Aamgachi.

Communicate, Build Trust
There are still few questions that remain unanswered. One, why is there so much of distrust? Two, why have the government machinery and companies failed to make the locals understand that they would be the ultimate beneficiaries from such investments? And last but not the least, why are tribal people not being convinced about rehabilitation and other government incentives that are likely to be given to them?

In fact, this communication gap between them is the crux of all these problems. The kind of involvement and association which are required at the outset in such projects are conspicuously absent from both sides.

The government must come up with more participatory land acquisition policy in tune with the PESA and take the local people in confidence before launching any project.

The civil society as well as the government will have to think that how and why do suddenly the same kind of people appear on the scene and vitiate the prospects of developmental projects.

It does not mean, however, that all such NGOs are putting stumbling blocks in the way of development, but the experiences which we had in Singur has not really been encouraging.

After the exit of Tata from Singur, even the local people feel cheated by the so-called activists who had promised to them of more bargains. But all went in vain.

This is not philanthropy, but an economics also, because unless we enhance the purchasing power of billions of Indians, the graph of growth cannot move upward. 

What’s more, the situation needs a timely action by the state government—an intervention with precision of a heart surgeon—to prevent another Singur.

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