New power plants will improve the power situation in Uttar Pradesh but the State lacks the enterprise to negotiate with farmers on issues fundamental to their existence

On the morning of November 15, while India was engrossed in the 124th birth anniversary of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, hundreds of farmers in south Allahabad had assembled near the banks of the Tons river, a tributary of the Yamuna better known for its connection with Tulsidas’ ashram.

Their agenda for discussion was thorny: whether to continue their agitation (which had been going on uninterrupted for the last four years) and keep their land, or give it up for the sake of development.

After hours of peaceful discussion, the farmers unanimously decided that they would intensify their agitation in the coming days. But they also reached a consensus that they could change their mind if the State compensated them under the provisions of the newly enacted Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013.

Significant

This was for the first time in four years that farmers in Allahabad were contemplating giving up their land for the proposed 1,980 MW Karchanna power plant, albeit with the Land Act clause. But unlike the recent mahapanchayats that were meticulously followed, this one passed off without a murmur in the local media.

The project was conceived in 2007 under the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) regime and around 2,500 bighas of land was acquired for it. However, it could never really kick off due to farmer protests over compensation. The Allahabad High Court stalled the project last year. And, now, with the farmers not in a position to return the compensation received by them or willing to give up their land, the project lies in a limbo.

The same afternoon, barely 20 km from Karchanna, another group of farmers was jostling with officials in an attempt to throttle progress in the acquisition of the remaining land for the 1,320 MW Meja power plant. Like in Karchanna, farmers in Meja also stipulated that the Land Act be applied before any further acquisition was done. Similar scenes were witnessed in Bara tehsil, where a 1,980 MW power plant is in an advanced stage. Farmers have regularly obstructed the setting up of key pipelines for the project, venting their frustration on officials and thekedaars.

Given the geographical proximity of these sites, the protests have, over the recent weeks, acquired a cohesion, building into a mass movement against the power plants. They assume significance given the dismal power situation in Uttar Pradesh. The three power plants — Bara, Meja and Karchanna (proposed) — will together produce a major chunk of the State’s power requirement according to the 11th Plan.

The latest report of the Central Electricity Authority says Uttar Pradesh accounts for 40 per cent of India’s and 60 per cent of North India’s total electricity deficit. Last year, fingers were pointed at Uttar Pradesh for the northern grid failure. Most recently, the power problem provided fodder to the Opposition to mock the Samajwadi Party. The government, though, besides criticising the BSP regime for leaving behind a power debt of Rs.25,000 crore, has done nothing substantial to bring an end to these snags.

Acquisition and compensation

For the farmers who will be immediately affected by the projects, the Land Act of 2013 has brought a glimmer of hope. It has given them the impetus to negotiate and insist on implementation of the Act, which offers them improved compensation, rehabilitation and security.

While the official word on the application of the Act to these projects is still unclear and a matter of “legal discussion,” the farmers may not be unjustified in demanding that its provisions be applied to them. They have received poor compensation at present.

First, there is enough evidence to suggest that the right procedure of land acquisition was not followed in these cases. In some instances, compensation meant for barren land was given to acquire fertile land. The farmers were excluded from the process of land acquisition. Moreover, the urgency clause was invoked in acquiring land, but even after five years, the acquisition is not complete. Invoking the urgency clause automatically leads to the suspension of Section 5(A) of the Land Act 1894, which gives landholders the right to raise questions. The farmers, at present, do not really have a voice in these cases.

Second, there has been no financial consolation for the affected persons. Under the “rehabilitation” programme of those affected by the Meja project, in the last five years, the company has spent a paltry sum of “Rs.15,000” for the “social welfare” of the 831 affected persons in seven villages.

This sum covers essentials such as health, developmental and play facilities. The setting up of 42 hand pumps and a well, construction of roads in a “few” villages, besides providing bags and stationery for primary schoolchildren, hardly offer any consolation to the farmers. On the ground, scores of families have been made to resettle in such nondescript locations that during the monsoons they have to cross a stream by boat just to attend nature’s call.

Jobs

Another issue is of jobs. Prior to the acquisition of land for the Meja project, officials held lok adalats and committed through newspaper ads (Dainik Jagran, July 21, 2009) that one member from each displaced family would get government jobs. However, on the ground, not a single person has been accommodated in the last five years. In its explanation, NTPC Limited, which is running the Meja project as a joint venture with Uttar Pradesh, has in fact gone back and stated that “it is clear that no guarantee is given about the employment of one candidate of project-affected person.”

Moreover, the project managers claim that of the 831 affected persons in Meja, 820 have received compensation or other assets under the provisions of the U.P. Land Acquisition (Determination of Compensation and Declaration of Award by Agreement) Rules 1997. However, they are yet to respond to RTI queries seeking details on rehabilitation provided under these rules.

The projects are also likely to adversely affect the riverine ecosystem in the region, which is drought-prone. In Bara, where the land is rocky and barren, much of the land acquisition has been settled after initial setbacks. However, the Nishads, the traditional fishing and boating community, have launched a fight to save the Yamuna’s waters, and have intensified their struggle over the past few weeks.

Their apprehensions are justified. The three power plants have not received a ‘No Objection Certificate’ (NOC) from the Central Water Commission.

Water depletion

Despite this, the Bara project will draw 150 cusecs of water from the Yamuna. This will hamper the livelihood options of lakhs of Nishads, who have already been compelled to alter their cultivation techniques due to the drying riverbed and illegal sand mining. The power plant will only aggravate the depletion of water in the area. There are also apprehensions of environmental damage due to the toxic waste produced by the plant: the project will burn 22,840 metric tonnes of coal and 90 tonnes of heavy oil per day, and produce 80,000 tonnes of ash per day. The project, however, has received environmental clearance.

Another issue critical to both Meja and Bara, and the inhabitants of Uttar Pradesh’s most populous district, Allahabad, is the drawal of groundwater for the projects. Ministry of Environment and Forests guidelines clearly stipulate that “no groundwater will be extracted for the project at any given time, not even in [the] lean season.” But this is being openly flouted in these cases.

This is important in the context of depleting groundwater resources of the State. Of the 820 developmental blocks, 72 have been placed under the “over-exploited” category by the Union Ministry of Water Resources, 32 are in a critical state and 107 in a semi-critical stage, with six located in this region. Taking note of the situation, the World Bank, last year even accepted a proposal to revive drinking water projects for 104 villages in Meja.

Despite all this, the State has lacked any enterprise to initiate talks with the protesting farmers on issues fundamental to their existence. It is not surprising since power does not feature high on the poll agenda in the State. But with the new impetus received by the agitation, the State can only be pressed to deal with the issues at the earliest and avoid a Bhatta Parsaul-type of situation.

In turn, the power plants will do much good to improve Uttar Pradesh’s dismal power infrastructure and save the State further embarrassment.

omar.rashid@thehindu.co.in

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