Documents reveal district administration subverted legal provisions in Korba, Chhattisgarh, to aid industry

They walked in a single file. Some were bare-chested, their shirts used to tie their hands behind their back; many nursing bruises from fibreglass batons wielded by policemen. All 36 men were picked up on January 7 and marched six km to a police station on the outskirts of the coal mining town of Korba in northern Chhattisgarh after a public hearing, held to assess the environmental impact of a thermal power plant, turned violent.

“A crowd of about 800 villagers surrounded the district collector and myself,” said P. Sundarraj, Korba's Superintendent of Police. “When the police pushed them back, they started pelting stones.” Mr. Sundarraj said the police then used teargas and batons to disperse the crowd.

While much of southern Chhattisgarh is embroiled in a violent war of attrition between government forces and the guerrilla army of the Communist Party of India (Maoist), resentment is rising in the State's coal-rich central and northern districts where broad swathes of land have been acquired by privately owned thermal power plants. In Korba's neighbouring district of Janjgir-Champa, for instance, farmers are actively resisting 36 coal-fired power plants that seek to acquire close to 40,000 acres.

Large projects in predominantly tribal areas (called Scheduled Areas) must comply with a two-step process of public consultation: a public hearing to assess the environmental impact of the project and a crucial village-level consultation – called a Gram Sabha – where villagers and government representatives agree on the terms and conditions of land acquisition.

Yet, documents obtained by The Hindu reveal how officials in Chhattisgarh treat the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2007and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) of 1996 as mere formalities and routinely overrule gram sabhas to acquire lands on behalf of industry, prompting a withdrawal of the ‘public' from public hearings. In the past, the Planning Commission and Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh identified the non-implementation of PESA as a factor in increasing tribal disaffection and the rise of the CPI (Maoist).

In Korba, the villagers were protesting against the planned expansion of a 1,320 MW power plant set up by Lanco Amarkantak. “Earlier, we gave our land willingly on the condition that the company would provide us with jobs,” said Laharam Murao, a village leader from Imilibhata. Mr. Murao said the company had acquired 1.5 acres of his land in 2005, but he had neither received any compensation and nor had anyone in his family gained permanent employment at the plant. “This time we said ‘we will not give any land, no public hearing shall take place,'” Mr. Murao said.

On January 7, villagers from affected villages blocked the road to the public hearing and refused to attend the hearing. Villagers say a crowd of 3,000 gathered a kilometre away from the site of the hearing; the police have put the figure at about 800.

District Collector R.P.S Tyagi arrived at about 3 p.m. and, according to the villagers and policemen interviewed, set up a table 50 metres from the crowd and announced that the public hearing had begun.

“We refused to approach the table,” said Shyam Kumar Chauhan, a villager, “but a few people allied with the administration gave their opinions.” Twenty minutes later, Mr. Tyagi said that the hearing was complete and tried to leave when the crowd grew agitated and sought to stop him.

“All the legal formalities of the public hearing were complete. If even one project affected person gives his opinion…the legal requirements are fulfilled,” said Mr. Tyagi in an interview, adding that 24 people had participated in the hearing.

Turning the table

While environmental public hearings do not mandate a quorum for project-affected persons, land acquisition rules formulated under PESA mandate that at least a third of the village must be present at a gram sabha, a third of whom must be women, when land is acquired in a tribal village to ensure that the proceedings are not hijacked by a small coterie. Yet in Lanco's case, government officials used a little known legal loophole to overturn the quorum requirements and acquire land without informing the populace.

In 2010, the Korba district administration scheduled land acquisition meetings in four villages, none of which met quorum requirements. On February 15, 2010, only 35 men and a woman attended the meeting held in Dhan Dhani village (population 612), according to an order sheet signed by the tehsildar. If the quorum is not met, the administration can reschedule the meeting for another day. The second meeting does not require a minimum quorum and so the administration is rule-bound to publicise the second hearing as widely as possible.

In Dhan Dhani's case, the second meeting was held one hour after the first meeting was adjourned; the same 36 attendees gave their consent and land acquisition began soon after.

The conditions put forward by those present — a compensation rate of Rs.15 lakh per acre and jobs for those losing their lands — were overruled. “The Gram Sabha's objections and the issues raised by the villagers have no legal basis,” wrote Mr. Tyagi in an order sheet dated March 25, 2010, directing his officers to begin the process of land acquisition.

A similar procedure was repeated in the villages of Khordal, Pehnda and Saragbondia where gram sabhas were repeatedly rescheduled to work around the quorum requirements.

In Saragbondia, several residents interviewed by this correspondent could not distinguish between the environmental hearings and the gram sabha meetings and claimed to be unaware that meetings relating to land acquisition were already complete.

In an interview, Mr. Tyagi insisted that his office complied with all legal provisions governing land acquisition. “For all public hearings there is a protest….[But] we go by the Act,” he said.

Keywords: KorbaPESAMaoists