Straddling 30km on both sides of the border of Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, the region known as Singrauli saw its people scatter as seven power plants and several coal mines arrived on the rim of the Gobind Ballabh Pant reservoir in the mid-1970s.
But three decades later, farmers and forest dwellers, mostly scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, uprooted to make way for industry, are still waiting for compensation, jobs and rehabilitation, even as unemployment pushes them deeper into poverty.
Landless in India: Manti Naha (centre), a widow from Dibulganj in Uttar Pradesh, did not own arable land at the time of displacement. She, among others, is not entitled to any compensation. Today, she lives on alms
Their predicament serves as both a reminder of how resettlement and rehabilitation has been carried out—and failed—before and as a warning to the millions who remain in the path of land needed for industrial development. For their part, the companies in Singrauli seem resigned to the situation, mainly citing growing populations that make unclear who is entitled to what.
Resettlement issues are usually governed by the state’s revenue administration and funded by the firms, but there is a lack of awareness among officials about the living conditions of the poor, said Nandini Choudhury, a senior executive at the New Delhi-based industrial project consultancy Green Sea. “Post-project monitoring in India is very poor. And, in many cases, the compensation does not reach people,” she added.
Today, land is even more of a burning issue as several big-ticket industrial projects face opposition from locals unwilling to give up their land. The growing troubles have also forced the Union government to address the problems faced by those displaced long-ago, for the first time seriously.
India still does not have a national rehabilitation and resettlement Act. Such a Bill is now pending before a parliamentary panel, but many say it fails to address issues of those whose homes and livelihoods have already been devastated—such as the people here.
Less than 2km south of state-run NTPC Ltd’s oldest 2,000MW plant in Shakti Nagar, in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district, is the sprawling Chilka Tand colony, where many of the 2,086 displaced people were shifted after their land was identified for the power complex in 1977.
Pushed to the edge of the Khadia coal mine—a ravaged landscape of dug-out mountainside stripped of any vegetation—residents daily battle dust and disease. Every afternoon, dynamite blasts the core of the overhead hill in the hunt for coal, sending gusts of gray dust blowing into their homes.
Homes flood during the monsoons when mud sludge flows down the mined hills, creating breeding grounds for gastrointestinal ailments and malaria. And the community toilet, provided by the power company, has been shut since it was built several years ago.
In the dozen resettlement colonies for the displaced, there is no clean water or proper health care. Nearly 30% of the people who live near the power plants suffer from bronchial asthma, according to a doctor at the local public health care centre, who requested anonymity.
According to Sahyog, a local non-profit group representing the displaced, about 45,000 people faced mass displacement due to the power plants and coal mines in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district alone.
NTPC tied up with Uttar Pradesh’s special area development authority to improve and build infrastructure at the colonies, but the deal broke off last year due to differences over money.
Adding to the gloom, joblessness has accelerated as automation increases and migrants from Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh flock here.
“It has become difficult to distinguish who is a land oustee and who is not. We are already overstretched to provide facilities to everybody,” said an NTPC official, who works in the corporate social responsibility department of the Singrauli power station. This person, who requested anonymity, said the firm has a budget of Rs43 lakh for each of its three settlement colonies, but the population has reached 7,000, more than anticipated.
At Dibulganj, 20km away and the site of state electricity board’s 1,600MW Anpara thermal power station, land oustees are still fighting for jobs promised in 1978. The 1,207 families that lost a total 3,195 acres of land, were each promised a job, but only 304 people are employed today as clerks, peons and labourers. Now, as the company has plans to lease out surplus land to another private plant, the 1,200MW Lanco Anpara Power Pvt. Ltd, local protests have erupted again.
A senior official at the Anpara power station, who requested anonymity, said a board order had specified that no land oustees be given jobs if they hadn’t got one within the first seven years of displacement. Anpara power station is run by the state-run Uttar Pradesh Rajya Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd.
“It’s grave injustice,” said Shyam Jaiswal, a clerk at the Anpara power plant and a trade union leader. “First they acquired our land and kept promising we will get jobs when they expand capacity. Then they gave the land away to another company and changed the rules for employment.” He said many of the jobless belong to families evicted in the early 1960s by the Rihand dam, which created the Gobind Ballabh Pant reservoir.
Living on alms
Many others, who did not own any arable land at the time of displacement, such as Manti Naha, a frail widow with a wizened face, were not entitled to any compensation at all. Today, she lives on alms from passers-by of the Anpara station, gathering rice and dal from different homes. “I have to walk 2km every day to get one meal,” said Naha, whose two sons, a truck driver and a wage labourer, are away in Allahabad and Lucknow. “I can’t ask them for money because they need it too.”
“It will turn into another Nandigram if people do not get their entitled compensation, land and jobs,” warns Pankaj Mishra, who works with Sahyog. “About 90% of the people are unemployed here,” adds Mishra, who recently filed a public interest litigation against Anpara power plant on behalf of the land oustees.
According to Sahyog, the coal mines of Northern Coalfields Ltd, a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd, have evicted thousands, and some 2,000 forest dwellers and 600 families are still owed money or jobs. Asked for comment, V.K. Singh, Northern Coalfield’s chief, said: “Everyone wants a job, which is the main cause of discontentment. But it’s not possible to give it to everyone.”
Across the border
The problem also spills across the border into Madhya Pradesh where NTPC’s 3,200MW Vindyachal super thermal power plant is located. Some 2,300 families were displaced when the plant was set up in 1982. Six hundred families are still waiting to be rehabilitated, according to Upendra Pandey, a member of Bishthapit Yuva Parishad, a local organization.
A larger issue of displacement, according to Green Sea’s Choudhury, is not about opposing industrialization, but offering decent compensation packages.
“People are willing to give up their land if they get a good deal,” Choudhury said. “In Singrauli, when people were displaced by the Rihand dam, they were literally thrown out without any compensation. People are not willing to take risks anymore when they have seen what has happened to others.”