Of land and other demons
Since January this year, I have been traveling in North Chhattisgarh to try to understand the scale of land acquisition and dislocation in a state that markets itself as India’s “Power Hub”.
There is something pretty massive going on in North Chhattisgarh – as a recent Down to Earth Cover pointed out :
The state has 10,300 MW of coalbased power capacity, including the captive 2,063 MW that industry consumes. This is about 12 per cent of India’s current coal-based power capacity. To this, it will add 56,000 MW, which is 65 per cent of the country’s coal-based installed capacity, as per the Central Electricity Authority. Nearly two-thirds of this capacity are planned in Raigarh (37 per cent) and Janjgir- Champa (34 per cent).
For this to happen, the state has to acquire vast amounts of land – in some places because the land happens to be above a coal bed, and in other because the land happens to be adjacent to a coal-bed. Most developers prefer “pit head plants”, or plants just adjacent to coal mines to reduce transportation difficulties.
Over the last month, I worked on two interesting legal cases that point to how such acquisition is taking place. I think the two cases offer an interesting insight into the sort of battles that villagers are fighting.
One morning in March 2010, residents of Premnagar awoke to discover they were villagers no more. An administrative notification had dissolved Premnagar’s village council or gram panchayat and replaced it with a city council or nagar panchayat. Unbeknownst to her residents, Premnagar in Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district, had become one of India’s newest urban centres…
Jaggi Devi and two other residents filed a petition in the Bilaspur High Court, claiming that the ‘urbanisation’ of Premnagar was unconstitutional and pushed by the local administration and politicians to set up a thermal power plant on village land.
In June 2007, Vandana Vidhyut Ltd signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the Chhattisgarh government to set up a 540 MW plant in Chhurrikala. A public hearing was conducted on 31 December that year. In his report, the Sub-divisional officer wrote (in Hindi), “the villagers were informed about the acquisition of private land for industrial needs …the villagers present were not in agreement with giving their lands.”…
Soon after, Korba’s District Collector, Mr. Ashok Kumar Agrawal, invoked special powers of urgency under Section 17 (1) of the Land Acquisition Act 1894 to acquire the land. Section 17 (1) allows a district collector to over-ride all objections and acquire private land “in cases of urgency” within a period of 15 days. Mr. Agrawal justified his decision on the grounds that “in view of electricity generation and employment in the State, it is very necessary to acquire this land…[the acquisition] is necessary in public interest, as in the absence of the land it would be impossible to build the power plant.”
In the same order, Mr. Agrawal wrote that the acquisition process was exempt from section 5 (a) of the Land Acquisition Act, a section that allows those affected by land acquisition 30 days to register their objections.
In such a situation, what might be a strategy of resistance/ engagement/ resolution look like?