Power plants insulated from protests, villagers shocked

Ashes to Ashes: A limitless horizon of fly-ash at the summit of the NTPC ash dyke in Chhattisgarh's Korba district. Photo: Aman Sethi   | Photo Credit: AMAN SETHI

An immense expanse of fine, grey, fly-ash stretches out to meet the distant horizon, its flat surface rippled by slow-spinning whirlwinds. Seen from the road, the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC)’s ash pond rises up like an enormous ziggurat of expired embers with a base nearly 1120 acres wide and a summit rising forty feet above Dhanras village near the coal town of Korba, Chhattisgarh.

The self-described “Power Hub of Chhattisgarh”, Korba district, accounts for 11 per cent of the coal produced in India, and 10 per cent of NTPC’s national production. Yet the district’s emphasis on coal-based power plants has come at a price. A 2009 Central Pollution Control Board study described Korba as “critically polluted” and ranked it the fifth most polluted industrial cluster in the country.

An ash pond is a large patch bounded by raised embankments and used to store the powdery fly ash produced when coal is burnt in thermal power plants.

“We can’t even think of coming here once the summer winds start, the dust is everywhere,” says Jagdish Prasad Devangan, a member of the panchayat of Chhurikala, a village adjoining NTPC’s ash pond. It has been ten years since NTPC’s 2600 MW plant began storing its fly ash near the village and now the residents of Chhurikala seem to have had enough.

A high court petition filed by Chhurikala resident Vinod Pandey accuses the district administration of colluding with private power companies to acquire village land in violation of established norms. The case contrasts two landmark legislations that have shaped the course of industrialization in India: the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 and the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act of 1996 (PESA).

“Scheduled” lands

Like many parts of Chhattisgarh, Churrikala’s lands are “scheduled” lands, demarcated as ‘tribal lands’ by Schedule V of the Indian constitution and empowered by PESA, an Act that mandates that village-level gram sabhas be consulted before village land is acquired.

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.”

In May 2008, the sub-divisional officer wrote out another order sheet that downplayed the significance of the Dec 31 meeting. “On 31.12.2007 a Special Gram Sabha was organized in Chhurikala…owing to a lesser number of villagers being present, the proceedings were adjourned…After half an hour the Special Gram Sabha was recommenced. In which agreement could not be reached in the Gram Sabha,” read the order.

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.

Section 4 (2) of the Land Acquisition Act authorises a government officer to enter private land and “to ascertain whether the land is adapted for such set out the boundaries of the land proposed to be taken.” In this instance, the administration nominated “Vandana Vidhyut Ltd” as the survey officer, thereby authorising a private company to act on behalf of the government and evaluate if the land was fit for acquisition by the same company.

Since then, Mr. Agrawal has been transferred as the Collector of Raigarh, another district with large reserves of coal and numerous proposed power plants, and says he is unaware of the Chhurikala petition.

“If Section 17 was used, it must have been done with the permission of the State government,” said Mr. Agrawal, in a phone conversation. When asked if he recollected why emergency provisions were invoked in this case, Mr. Agrawal replied in the negative.

A power surplus State

Chhattisgarh is a power surplus State, exporting electricity to Delhi, Gujarat and Karnataka. Chief Minister Raman Singh has publicly spoken of using the power sector to generate revenue surpluses which he hopes to use in development schemes. Yet, the government’s push to “urgently” hand over land to private companies has shaken farmers.

Last month, 25 farmers were injured in the Janjgir-Champa district when a protest against a proposed 3,600 MW power plant turned violent. Earlier, 100 farmers in Janjgir were arrested during a protest march, when they allegedly attempted to storm the offices of KSK Energy Ventures Ltd, the company setting up the plant.

Back in Chhurikala, existing power plants are looking for more land to store their ever-increasing deposits of fly ash. “Our ash pond will be full by August this year,” said an NTPC official, “After that we are on the road.” The official said that NTPC has identified a spot for their next ash pond — Chhurikala.

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Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 7:34:25 PM |

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