Khedu Ram Shah is facing the prospect of losing his home and having his land appropriated for a big-ticket project for the third time in his life. Having been in the same situation in the past is not shielding him from despair about the future.
“We don’t know where to go or do what,” says Shah, about 60 years old, whose 2 acres of land in Siddhi Khurta is part of the site where Reliance Power Ltd’s so-called ultra-mega Sasan power project is being built.
hreat on shelter: (above) Women in Gharaswal village, the site of Essar Power’s proposed 1,200MW plant. (Photograph by Harikrishna Katragadda/ MINT)
Siddhi Khurta is a tiny village in the Singrauli region that straddles eastern Madhya Pradesh and southern Uttar Pradesh. The area that falls on the Uttar Pradesh side is already one of India’s largest energy hubs, meeting about 10%, or 10,000MW, of the country’s power needs.
Now, drawn by ample water and a chain of coal-rich hills, companies such as Reliance Power Ltd, a part of the Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (R-Adag), Essar Power Ltd, Jaiprakash Power Ventures Ltd and Hindalco Industries Ltd are flocking to set up electricity plants on the Madhya Pradesh side.
An estimated Rs45,000 crore will be invested to generate more than 11,000MW of power in the next few years in Singrauli, promising to transform the face of the district, state authorities say. The Reliance project alone will bring Rs20,000 crore and generate 4,000MW of electricity.
“Singrauli will turn into Singapore,” Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan had said recently.
For farmers such as Shah, and his family of 15, there is only the dread of being displaced by the government’s use of a national land acquisition law that can evict citizens at will and take over their lands, an issue that’s shadowing industrial projects across the country.
Khedu Ram Shah (centre) and son Krishna (to his right) inside their house in Siddhi Khurta village, the proposed 4,000MW project site for Reliance Power. Villagers say the local administration has refused to discuss a rehabilitation package. (Photograph by Harikrishna Katragadda/ MINT)
In the past decades, more than 100,000 people in Singrauli have been displaced by the 91m-high Rihand dam, seven big and small power plants and a dozen coal mines.
Shah lost his first home and 10 acres of ancestral farm land to the Rihand hydel power project that came up in the early 1960s. About 123 villages were affected and thousands of people uprooted by the project. Litigation continues to this day over alleged government failure to keep promises of jobs and compensation.
Shah was promised land near a forest in return, but that plot did not have a patta, or a title deed, he says. When hope of ever receiving the promised land faded, Shah and his four brothers bought five acres with their own savings in a village 20km from here.
Sometime in the 1980s, the family was asked to vacate that land too, for a fly-ash dyke built by NTPC Ltd, India’s largest power producer. With a compensation of Rs1.5 lakh, he then bought the 2 acres of land in Siddhi Khurta that he is fearful of losing now.
“The soil is grainy and we get little rain. We can’t grow rice here, only wheat which meets our year’s supply,” said his son Krishna, who supplements the family income by selling milk.
Across villages in Singrauli, resentment is simmering over alleged government attempts to acquire land without first discussing compensation and rehabilitation.
Vivek Porwal, Singrauli district magistrate, said he had no statistics on the number of people who will be affected by the projects because land surveys are still being completed. He also said no survey has been carried out of people who have been displaced several times among the 128,000 population of Singrauli.
“If the government doesn’t provide us alternative land, we will not give it for less than Rs10 lakh an acre,” said Jagbali Prasad Vaish, a local Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) leader. “We want one job per family and special compensations for those who have been displaced more than once,” said Vaish, who will lose some land to the Reliance project site.
Deepak Gupta, chief executive officer (CEO) of the Reliance project in Madhya Pradesh, refused to comment.
Villagers say the local administration has refused to discuss a rehabilitation package and cite discrepancies in land records while distinguishing cultivable from barren land, which is cheaper.
In Gharaswal—the site of Essar Power’s proposed 1,200MW plant—villagers prevented government officials from conducting land surveys, leading to skirmishes with the police. More than 15 people of this village were jailed for three days in May for obstructing work, residents said.
“We want the court to decide what should be done about our land and future,” says Rajeev Singh Jaiswal, a local farmer, who has filed a petition against the government in a lower court.
The mood turned ugly last month in the nearby village of Bandhora when a police vehicle arrived at the home of Mohan Saket, a marginal farmer. Saket’s house was set on fire and levelled to the ground by a bulldozer, purportedly because he had built a house on government land. Saket and two relatives were whisked away to the police station and beaten up, residents claim.
Ravinder Singh Uikey, superintendent of police of Singrauli, denied all charges. Singrauli district magistrate Porwal admitted that the house was demolished for illegal occupation of government land.
With land getting more difficult to access, companies such as Essar Power are offering incentives to purchase land privately. Essar has promised Rs3,000 a month to the eldest member of a household until he turns 58. “We can’t employ everyone because the skillsets are missing,” said R.P. Gupta, CEO of Essar Power’s Singrauli project.
Not just loss of land
Across the nation, up to 60,000,000 people are estimated to have been displaced by power, irrigation, mining and other development projects since independence. Rehabilitation and resettlement of displaced populations has always been an issue.
“Displacement does not only mean losing land,” says Vimal Bhai, an activist whose People’s Land Organisation in Uttarkhand has been fighting to save people from being uproooted by the Bhagirathi dam. “People also lose their livelihood and natural resources. But worse of all, they are ignored because keeping promises of compensation means project costs will grow.”
India has no national law on how to deal with the resettlement and rehabilitation of people at risk of displacement by big projects, compounding the problem. “Every state is resisting the resettlement policy because land is occupied everywhere,” said Vasudha Dhagamwar, founder-director of Multiple Action Research Group (MARG), one of the first organizations to conduct research into dam and industrial displacement in early 1980s.
“When the dams were built, people were demanding land, now they want jobs,” Dhagamwar said. “But the irony is that there is no planning on development, or even on basic education, to access the new economy.”
Having twice been uprooted from his land, Shah says he has little choice now. “Everyone keeps making promises but do not keep them,” he says. “I don’t want to go anywhere. They will have to force me to go in handcuffs.”