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Of land and other demons

February 7, 2011

The Hindu/Aman Sethi

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.

The first case was about a group of villagers in Surguja who are opposing a powerplant to be set up by IFFCO:

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 the second, villagers from the Korba district have gone to court against a 540 MW power plant being built in the midst of their nagar panchayat:

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?

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Mini Mathew permalink
    February 7, 2011 6:00 PM

    Complete flouting of even basis checks and balances. Divide and Rule. Our rulers learnt their lesson well.

  2. quietwrite permalink
    February 8, 2011 10:34 AM

    There can be a way that can make most of the people involved in the mess happy. cannot make anyone happy. The Company and the state might give them compensation in terms of money but it is said that it is better to teach a man a skill than to give him thousand pieces of gold.

    The locals can only see heir loss compounding- loss of livelihood, loss of culture,. I mean everything they stood for since ages vanishes. Their purpose of life is destroyed. Mind you purpose of life isn’t money, power but happiness.

    The company and the state need to do something for the locals not merely giving money. Like free education, a very very certain livelihood, promotion of cultural activities, promotion of their community values- all this without any change in location. They wouldn’t like anyone bossing them in their own backyard. All these things will make the locals happy. The company and the state must redefine their goal- to build a self sustainable town. Remember opportunities are multiplied when they grabbed

    The amount of change that locals will undergo because of this project is tremendous. And too much of change doesn’t make anyone happy it only creates complications which only compound in due course of time.

    Livelihood should be such that they should earn from their ancestral skills. And also improve upon it so that can promote it in the rest of the world. The state and company can really make the culture of the locals very very rich.

    The company should not treat the locals as obstacles but as friends. Nobody dares to do what the company and state plan to do the locals to their friends. And it is better to make true friends than to compound enemies, which I am sure both the state and company have in plenty.

    If all these things are done then the company and the state will earn tremendous goodwill not only from the locals but also from people of other parts of India. By the way this idea isn’t unique. Look at Jamshedpur. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is happy and proud of what Tatas have done for them and the city. We only need to create many such Jamshedpurs. If done in this way then I think every state government will gladly award projects to the company.

    Yes the company and the state may have to spend more but look at the returns. You will make an entire village that is not only proud of the company and the government but also loyal. The locals will be your friends, fans even when the firm’s bosses loose their jobs or become bankrupt. Nobody looses anything by making friends. Even the shareholders will be proud of the company.

    By the way all these great things should be done not after the project is complete but when the project is going on and should be complete before the project is complete. You will see the immense satisfaction that the company bosses and the employees will have.

    P.S: We also need to tech the locals some basic skills that will enable them to live comfortably in the modern world

  3. Anant M permalink
    February 8, 2011 12:27 PM

    Aman, I have read the Down To Earth report. The last part of the report talks about the cumulative impact. Reading that along with your report makes me ask the following
    1) The main tool for environmental regulation in India is the EIA report submitted by the project proponent. Riddled with problems as it is, the EIA model that is prevalent in India, is a ridiculous approach to take in the Chattisgarh kind of situation. Cumulative impact of this kind just cannot be arrived at by aggregating the impacts of the discrete projects. That is one area where one could up the ante so to speak. It requires some concerted work by EIA experts both on the regulatory procedural front as well as on modeling techniques. Chattisgarh case can easily become the starting point for this.

    2) This growth strategy… Chattisgarh becoming the power hub of India. How was this developed ? Who were the consultants who told the Government of Chattisgarh that this is the way to prosperity ? I mean this sort of thing could not have come out of the heads of a few politicians and a few IAS officers close to retirement. It could only have been cooked up by a network of consultants. Those documents usually never come into legislative debate. I think it will be useful to get a hold of the big game plan and figure out what is on the cards. (Addition of 500 per cent power generation capacity…what is the idea ? Chattisgarh will be selling power to Bombay?)

    3) The point I am driving at is that while it looks like a local problem, which has to be opposed by local people, what is happening in Surguja and Korba is the result of a host of translocal calculations. Unless resistance/engagement is equally translocal…there is not a chance in hell of there being any meaningful resolution.

  4. Arun Kumar permalink
    February 8, 2011 2:28 PM

    Each and every individual who thinks that such anti-people projects should come forward and express their opinions- even though they not being directly affected
    by it – at all the places – drawing rooms, tea stalls, eateries, trains, buses,office
    chats and so on and so forth. They should also work at their level best to bring
    all forces oppposing such projects to reach to a minimum – unity of purpose.

  5. somnath permalink
    February 9, 2011 11:56 AM

    “2) This growth strategy… Chattisgarh becoming the power hub of India. How was this developed ?”

    The economic superiority (in terms of cheapest cost of power) of pithead coal power plants, especially for “base load” plants, is well known..Has been known for a quite a few years now…

    There are no conspiracies of “multinational consultancies” here…

    Environmental impact is a different question…But in case India is to get its per-capita power availability to even china’s level, coal is the only viable “base load” alternative available…

  6. Anant M permalink
    February 9, 2011 2:31 PM

    Conspiracy ? What conspiracy ? I said the work of these consultancies is not subject to any legislative debate and (I will now add) whetting or regulatory oversight or a code of conduct that is open to public scrutiny. Prove me wrong on that with evidence or hold your peace.

    Here is the Chattisgarh Infrastructure Development Action Plan drawn up by NCAER with UNDP funding. Now, when you are ready to show me when and where this document has been discussed in Chattisgarh Assembly, or in the Planning Commission, or if it was at least subject to some kind of code of ethical conduct let us talk, let us talk again.

    And, yes any cheap engineering final year text book will tell you that pit-head stations have an economic advantage. But that knowledge is just what it is… stuff purveyed by cheap engineering text books. In this decade, it is necessary to have better costing techniques which take into account a number of complex issues into account… issues that cannot be reduced to per tonne cost of transportation and transmission via Indian railways. Kafila is not the forum for that discussion. So, I have nothing more to say on this.

  7. Anant M permalink
    February 9, 2011 2:57 PM

    sorry, here is the link to the infrastructure development action plan
    and please read the phrase in the last part of my previous comment as: issues that cannot be reduced per tonne cost of transportation via indian railways and per mwh cost of transmission by the national grid.

  8. somnath permalink
    February 10, 2011 11:10 AM


    Well, maybe “cooked up” does not tantamount to “conspiracy” – apologies!

    You really think that development strategies on a technical area like power are based on a 27 page, general purpose report full of rehashed data and motherhood statements? I have a lot of respect generally for NCAER’s output, but this particular piece of work has a quality similar to a typical B-school project report (maybe not even that much).

    I would be very surprised if either executive decisions or Parliamentary debates were carried on the basis of such reports…

    THIS is something more serious – this was commissioned by the Chattisgarh govt, and would likely have had an impact on policy making..

    Its on the Chattisgarh govt’s website, so in case it has not been debated by anyone in the Assembly, then the blame lies with the legislators!

    BTW, Chattisgarh does have a power regulator, in line with the Electricity Act 2003..

    There is no gainsaying the environmental impact and displacement of people..

    But if you agree that per capita power consumption is incredibl low in India, then the power has to be generated somewhere..If the economic cost of doing the same is cheapest in Chattisgarh (whether the engg books are cheap or expensive is besides the point, no?) but “total social costs” (estimated from expensive humanities books :)) are higher, then the question is what is your alternative? Is there a source where the social costs will also be lower? Or are we condemned to live (and die) as the most starved consumers of per capita power in the wolrd?

    • February 14, 2011 7:34 AM


      The intention was not to set up humanities against engineering or expensive against inexpensive. It was to say that exam oriented engineering text books promote a cheap attitude towards knowledge. Your smirk says it all.

      I have followed up the lead you gave. It appears that soon after the state was formed Chattisgarh Infrastructure Development Corporation Limited hired PWC to draw up a business plan. From this plan, PWC appears to have also written up Chattisgarh vision 2010 which was circulated by the state government as its vision. This business plan overrode perspective plans drafted by the line departments. I could find a critique of the chapter on water on the Planning Commission website which essentially says that the plan goes against previously established policies and does not pay heed to a number of critical issues. I could not find the entire plan anywhere in one place… only a few of the chapters online. Anyways, the point I made is not that such plans are secret or that there is a conspiracy…but that reading these documents with a critical eye can teach us a lot. Plans like this have no statutory standing. Yet they are very powerful ideological tools. They catch the imagination of a few key decision makers and rework policy and implementation ethos. In some other context, I have called this the ‘rise of the entreprenurial state’. It is a creature of economic globalisation and it manifests with very specific characteristics in India’s state capitals.
      The last question you asked is not difficult to answer. But since Kafila is not a technical forum, I will keep it short.You are using a very crude form of location theory, taking firm behaviour and developmental imperatives as already specified. And you are using the results of this model to take decisions which can bring about significant ecological change in the foreseeable future. In layman’s terms, you are making a case for greed, and settling environmental issues in the margin to defend an answer which you have already decided upon. What can I say? The crux of creative problem solving lies in changing the problem statement. If you are not willing to do that, there can only be one correct answer, the answer at the end of the text book, the answer you already know. What results then is not an exchange of ideas, but dispensation of venom.

    • February 14, 2011 12:50 PM

      …But if you agree that per capita power consumption is incredibl low in India, then the power has to be generated somewhere..If the economic cost of doing the same is cheapest in Chattisgarh (whether the engg books are cheap or expensive is besides the point, no?) but “total social costs” (estimated from expensive humanities books :)) are higher, then the question is what is your alternative? Is there a source where the social costs will also be lower? Or are we condemned to live (and die) as the most starved consumers of per capita power in the world?…

      Discussion purely in terms of “economic cost” ignores the issue of who benefits from the economic activity and who has to bear the “externalities” caused by this activity.

      Take Korba district of Chhattisgarh for example. Half the mineral related revenues of Chattisgarh come from this district. Over 11% of India’s coal is mined here. Taking advantage of the mines, there are four thermal power plants located here, generating 3650 MW of electricity. The Chattisgarh Human Development Report (2005) however records that less than 50% of the households in Korba district had electricity.

      And what about the “benefits” of the development – Korba is one of the most polluted places in India. Huge open fly ash ponds dot the Korba landscape, easily visible even from Google Earth. 20% of the villages in the district complained of respiratory diseases caused by fly ash from the thermal power plants. The impact of mining ranges from coal dust from coal handling plants covering the agricultural fields and affecting the yield adversely, to pollution of surface water leading to negative effects on the health of people and agriculture as well as degradation of forests. These are just some of the impacts – other than the direct impact of displacement and loss of livelihood of the people whose land is taken over.

  9. somnath permalink
    February 15, 2011 7:42 AM


    Would not belabour upon the expensive/engg/humanities point, though your shot at “engg books – cheap attitude to knowledge” is quite misplaced..

    Anyways – you talk of changing the problem statement…So what is the revised objective function? How would you benchmark power consumption in India? To the US? To China? Or to Mongolia?

    From there, is the objections on ecology, or on livelihood issues? If it is the latter, you should take equal cognisance of local groups who agitate “in favour” of these projects, as much as you do of people who dont…Would you take Singur as an example of “success” or “failure”?

    Unfortunately, there are no easy “black and white” answers available..If there is a strategy for example, to pull large numbers of adivasis into even low-middle income categories quickly, the alternatives do not go much beyond industry…For al the critiques, is there a viable blueprint of an “alternative”, barring of the rhetorical type?

    • February 15, 2011 10:14 AM

      First, I am sure there is a humanities/social science equivalent of ‘exam oriented’ engg books and they deserve to be written about in an entire post. I did not mention those because I am not competent. May be Nivedita can do it at some point.
      Second, this thread started with a concrete question from Aman. Let us not hijack it. OK ?

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