“We don’t know how the villagers can consent to diversion of forest land five days after denouncing it”

It all started with great excitement — organising groups, motivating young women to lead from the front, guarding the village borders to prevent vote buying through gifts — for it seemed important to make their voices of dissent heard against the international mining giant Vedanta.

Much like their neighbours in south Odisha’s Niyamgiri, Kanwar tribesmen, well-off Sahus (oil traders) and migrant Bengalis came together to obstruct diversion of 355 hectares (ha) of forest land to the Bharat Aluminum Company Limited (Balco), a Vedanta affiliate, in Baysi and Taraimarh in north Chhattisgarh. Like the Dongria Konds of Niyamgiri, they succeeded.

However, despite their unanimous decision to disallow diversion of forest land, the administration in Baysi ordered fresh gram sabhas in both places on October 2, and claimed to have registered the company’s ‘victory’.

Resolution ‘passed’

“The sabha has passed the [land diversion] resolution,” said C.L. Cider, a senior block-level officer of Baysi. According to him, the villagers of Baysi have “agreed” to divert 308 ha of forest land for industrial purposes in the GS that was convened hastily on Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.

“We don’t know how the villagers can consent to diversion of forest land five days after denouncing it,” said the husband of the Baysi Sarpanch, Ratiram Rathia. Middle-aged Mr. Rathia, who runs the village council on behalf of his wife, was agitated when asked why he did not inform this correspondent about the new gram sabha.

“How could I? I was under severe pressure … yeh ek tamasha hai [this gram sabha is a mockery],” he said.

While it is mandatory for the administration to disclose the status of land three days after the gram sabha, Baysi is completely in the dark about the status of the 308 ha of land surrounding the panchayat.

“We don’t know if the forest land is with us or them [the company]. We only know that 173 of us signed the register of the gram sabha to mark our presence,” said Sadhram Rathia of Baysi. According to the list of voters, even 173 votes does not complete the quorum of a gram sabha in a panchayat comprising 1,347 voters.

All villagers agreed that “173 people” marked their attendance, without consenting to divert the land. The panchayat secretary admitted that he himself is “unsure” about the status of the land.

However, he refused to show the register.

Professor Dhirendra Singh Maliya’s work on violations by three power companies — Balco, DB Power Ltd (owned by the Dainik Bhaskar Group) and Fatehpur East Coal Limited (FECL) — has, time and again, landed him in serious trouble.

He explains how the papers of the gram sabha are fudged “normally”.

“The villagers are asked to give their thumb impressions on the extreme right-hand side of the gram sabha register while their names are picked up from the voter’s list and placed on the extreme left. Two middle columns — ‘agenda’ and ‘meeting’s decision’ — are kept partially blank, only to be filled up after signatures are collected,” he said.

“The signatures could also have been taken on a blank gram sabha sheet using various extralegal means,” Professor Maliya further said, adding “fudging papers is not new … but I don’t know if the same thing has been done again this time.”

The villagers of Baysi told The Hindu that officers are routinely visiting their village at night to collect signatures of approval.

The only person with answers — Sub-Divisional Magistrate S. N. Ram — refused to speak to The Hindu when asked about the villagers’ ignorance regarding their consent to the company’s proposal. “You’re a journalist, go out and investigate,” is all he had to say when asked about the gram sabha.

“We don’t know if the forest land is with us or them. We only know that 173 of us signed the gram sabha register to mark our presence”