War rhetoric drowned a fracas that took place on 1 October, when Jharkhand’s police killed six protesters and injured several dozen over an NTPC Ltd mining project.

The power generation company was awarded land near Hazaribagh to mine coal to feed its thermal power plants 12 years earlier, but delays in plans and problems with land acquisition and resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R), have kept matters on the boil.

In August 2015, five protesters and a journalist were injured when police fired tear gas shells and bullets at a restless crowd protesting both land acquisition terms and rehabilitation measures. In 2013, an NTPC contractor’s son attacked the local village headman, cutting open his head, after the elder had tried to prevent work at a project site. In the ensuing eruption, a protester was shot dead by police, and several injured.

There have been numerous other flare-ups at state-run NTPC’s three coal-mining sites of Pakri-Barwadih, Chatti Bariyatu and Kerandari in Hazaribagh, with protesters, politicians who both help them and leverage them for their own ends, administrators, police, and the company in the ugliest of messes. NTPC lists the status at these sites as “LA in progress"—land acquisition in progress. With incomplete and contested land acquisition and contested R&R measures, the stew remains even as Hazaribagh MP and India’s junior civil aviation minister, Jayant Sinha, and his father Yashwant—former MP and minister—attempt to cobble together détente among all players.

Alas, détente doesn’t include changing the law for acquiring land for coal mining, which remains arbitrary and utterly violative of democracy: The Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957. Applying the doctrine of eminent domain, it was kept away from the ambit of The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, which, among other things, fortified aspects of free, prior and informed consent, and social and environmental impact of projects.

Section 4(1) of the Coal Act permits acquisition of land “whenever it appears to the central government that coal is likely to be obtained from land in any locality…" Section 7 permits the central government to “give notice of its intention to acquire the whole or any part of the land" and all rights over such land. Section 8 permits a person who would be directly affected by such an acquisition to object within 30 days of the notification, in person or by a “legal practitioner" to be heard by a “competent authority". That “authority" would then bump up his recommendations to the central government for the decision “of that government".

Imagine a situation in areas inhabited by those often poor and illiterate, without recourse to help except through the odd activist—and there were practically none in the early decades after Independence when vast swathes of land were acquired for mining, with some of those displaced yet to be compensated. Imagine it in the absence of the Forest Rights Act, 2006, and the recent flurry of providing titles to Adivasis and forest dwellers after sustained non-governmental activism.

In any case, such rights wouldn’t amount to much, as Section 9A fast-tracks acquisition by ditching all need for Section 8 if it is “necessary to acquire immediately the whole or any part of the land…"

So, once land is identified for acquisition, those at the end of the acquisition food chain can haggle over compensation and resettlement and rehabilitation parameters if at all they can gather the necessary bandwidth. But their land will ultimately be acquired to be given over to a government agency.

Rights of citizens are slim, as has been proven time and again by media investigations and human rights activists alike, and most recently by an excellently researched report by the human rights watchdog Amnesty International India—When Land is Lost, Do We Eat Coal?: Coal Mining and Violations of Adivasi Rights in India—released in mid-2016.

The report, available at amnesty.org.in, details the fuzzy process of notifications, pressure applied by corporations for villagers to come on board, forced compensation and evictions, police action on protesters and numerous other ills that plague the application of human rights in business.

The report highlights human rights disasters in the expansion of the mines of South Eastern Coalfields Ltd in Chhattisgarh, Central Coalfields Ltd in Jharkhand and Mahanadi Coalfields Ltd in Odisha—all subsidiaries of state-run Coal India Ltd.

And it’s all patriotic, of course, in the name of building India’s future.

Sudeep Chakravarti’s books include Clear.Hold.Build: Hard Lessons of Business and Human Rights in India, Red Sun: Travels in Naxalite Country and Highway 39: Journeys through a Fractured Land. This column, which focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights in India and South Asia, will now run on Thursdays.

Respond to this column at rootcause@livemint.com

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