It was interesting to read a news report in The Indian Express earlier this week as to how the new Congress government in Chhattisgarh is capitalizing on returning land that was acquired for a Tata Steel project in Bastar district, by conducting rallies and such. While it’s justice done and an assembly-election promise fulfilled, it wouldn’t do for the government to gloat.

It wasn’t long ago that Congress functionaries in the state, along with their colleagues from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had supported this and other projects in southern Chhattsigarh at the height of the Maoist rebellion—besides cooperating over the horrific vigilante group, Salwa Judum. To invite business to an active conflict zone is a bad idea.

This is not to denigrate what Chhattisgarh’s Congress government, which overturned an entrenched BJP government of 15 years in mid-December 2018, has set out to do in the name of restitution. This is about the thin line that separates human rights violation from human rights redressal.

Consider the cynical history of the project. The government of Chhattisgarh and Tata Steel signed a memorandum of understanding in 2005 for a proposed 5.5 million tonnes a year greenfield steel plant. This was the year a rampaging Salwa Judum was launched against a rampaging Maoist rebellion. Lohandiguda was selected as the site. The government even earmarked iron ore from a mining tract in the Bailadila Hills to the south, deeper into the conflict zone.

It’s a tribal area, for which the state needs to acquire land for business. The acquisition process for land began actively in 2010 in 10 villages of the area, and involved several thousand acres. I tracked the proposed project during visits from 2006 onwards for close to a decade, for a book on the Maoist rebellion, Red Sun; and later, for this column and a book on business and human rights, Clear.Hold.Build.

Opposition had already begun to harden over land acquisition for the project. The lone Tata Steel dispensary that I saw in Lohandiguda, which lies on the route to the stunning Chitrakoot falls, wasn’t enough to soothe nerves of several residents. As an article in Frontline magazine had it, many were rattled by state pressure—local police, Salwa Judum toughs, local administration—to up and leave. Some villagers accepted compensation but few had moved out. Several were pressured to agree to compensation. The top bureaucrat of Bastar district went on record with the magazine to admit pressure had been applied—also confirmed to me by some senior police officials in Chhattisgarh at the time.

There was also resentment brewing on the supposition that the plant would draw water from the Indrawati river that feeds the Chitrakoot falls and much of this densely forested region. If the project were to go ahead, it was easy to imagine protests erupting—as they did in northern Chhattisgarh over the issue of diverting already scarce water to industry.

In 2013, I interviewed senior Tata Steel executives on such matters. How much of a rethink is happening within the organization to tell the government, which may procure the land for you, or is seen as strong-arming the land for you, that the implementation of the policy on your behalf has been done in an unacceptable manner. Unacceptable by every definition of corporate governance, human rights, and pure common sense.

His reply was tangential, offering glimpses of how inefficiently several competitors were also dealing with their project proposals, but he admitted: “I don’t think we can handle it very well." When the tenure of the MoU for Lohandiguda ran out in 2016, Tata Steel let it slide. An executive told media at the time that delays on account of “law and order" problems had made the project pointless. What did he expect?

Congress made returning the land its electoral mission. It’s done, barring the final paperwork. But the conflict isn’t. And there is much bad blood that still remains to be cleaned up.

This column focuses on conflict situations and the convergence of businesses and human rights and runs on Thursdays.

Also read Sudeep Chakravarti’s earlier columns

Close