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Mandla: Villagers in Chutka, Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh are hoping to use the power of the ballot in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to prevent the setting up of a nuclear power plant. Their determination is evident in the many posters tacked to trees which state, "Vote only for the party that cancels the power plant."
This is the story of people determined to fight against forced evictions, environmental pollution and loss of livelihood due to the government for the third time. These villagers were earlier displaced due to the Bargi Dam project and anti-encroachment drives.
In 2009, the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd. (NPCIL) decided to establish a 1,400 MW atomic power station in Chutka village and identified the Madhya Pradesh Power Generating Company Ltd. (MPPGCL) as the nodal agency to execute the project. The project got the in-principle approval from the government in 2011 and was allotted 16.5 hectares of land. This project is estimated to displace 70,000 people in 54 villages in Mandla.
The cause of Chutka villagers has found supporters in leading environment activists like Medha Patkar. In a recent news report, Patkar stated that, "Under the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, the governor has the power to annul any law that goes against tribal interests; the government is doing the opposite." She even cited a Supreme Court ruling in the case of the people affected by the Omkareshwar Dam project that states, "Payment of compensation does not mean the affected people have accepted the terms."
Mandla is covered under the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, where land cannot be acquired without the consent of the Village Assembly. According to activists and news reports, land was allotted to MPPGCL without the consent of the Village Assembly, violating the Forest Rights Act. Patha, Kundla and Tatighat Village Assemblies have rejected the government's proposal to set up the nuclear plant. Locals have also refused the government's rehabilitation plan to shift them to Potla village. They even held Gram Sabha meetings, where their intention of not leaving their lands was openly declared.
Dadulal Kudape, a 55-year-old villager said, "Mother nature has given us everything from food to drinking water. We do not need electricity or any nuclear plant. We have been fighting since 2009, but the government has tried every possible trick to displace us. We will continue to demand that they scrap the disastrous nuclear project. We do not need multi-storey buildings to live in because we are happy in our huts. Our Gram Sabha also refused to give consent to use our lands."
The villages likely to be impacted by the power station project are located on the banks of the Narmada river, 65 kilometres away from Mandla and 80 kilometres away from Jabalpur, and have rich natural resources. Travelling 70 to 80 kilometres through the dense Satpura forests, it is hard to miss the scent of the Mahua flowers. You can find Mahua flowers being dried in courtyards across these villages. These flowers are used for making medicine and also a form of local liquor. Villagers' lives centre around the collection of the Mahua flowers, along with gathering other forest produce. Agriculture is the main source of income.
In May 2017, the power plant was given forest clearance for diversion of 119.46 hectares of forest area by the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change. These villagers don't have access to proper roads or transport: just one bus is plying from the neighbouring town of Narayanganj. They do not want to pay the hefty price of displacement in the guise of progress. "This is third time we have had to rebuild our homes," said Premvati Bai, 60. "We were displaced from Sarangpur (Bijasen) during the Bargi Dam project. At that time, the government tricked us and our houses got flooded. We built shelters in forest, but forest guards broke them as well. Now, we have shifted to Chutka and are not ready to leave this land."
Although the villagers have held steadfast to the claim that they did not agree to give their lands, the state government records revealed otherwise. Answering a question from MLA Ram Pyare Kulaste about this project in the Assembly, the then revenue minister Rampal Singh said that in 2012, 287.21 hectares of land was acquired with the permission of the Gram Sabha. He also stated that villagers in Patha, Chutka, Tatidat, Manegaon received compensation as per the rules. In 2015, the state government deposited Rs six to fifteen into accounts of about 450 project-affected families.
Villagers allege that the state administration forcefully passed the proposal in the Gram Sabha in 2012 with heavy police presence and barred their entry. Prem Singh Kudape said, "We tried to enter the Gram Sabha at Patha village, but were not allowed inside. Many proposals were passed in the Gram Sabha following that session against the displacement."
In 2012, villagers called for a Gram Sabha meeting and listed 20 demands, including compensation fixed at Rs 60 lakh per acre, five acres of land for every adult, a job for a member of every affected family and 10 percent of the profits of the power station to be spent on the health and education of the affected villagers.
Vinod Kumar Gunjam, a 22-year-old from the village said, "The compensation is not enough for us as we have been facing displacement since the construction of the Bargi dam. Why should we pay the cost of development every time? This time we are ready to take this fight to any level, but we will not leave our lands."
Lending support, Patkar appealed to the state government to follow the proposal of the Gram Sabha. She and other activists also raised concerns around radiation-related hazards, as the proposed project is located in a seismically-active zone.
Rajkumar Sinha, an activist working for the anti-Chutka movement said, "Tribals were not consulted and never agreed to the compensation amount. When they realised the government was duping them, many of them instructed their banks to not to reveal their account numbers to the government. Authorities imposed fake cases against villagers, who are raising their voices to demoralise them. The government is trying to play every possible trick to displace villagers."
According to media reports, in September 2018, villagers impacted by the proposed power plant refused to share their Aadhaar details with MPPGCL to receive government compensation. However, MPPGCL obtained this information via banks and deposited the compensation amount directly into the accounts of the affected villagers.
Villager, Sharad Yadav said, "People from the block office and bank came to our village and asked us to open bank accounts. They lured us saying that they will give Rs 15 lakh, which was promised by the NDA government. Most of us signed up because of this and after a few months the government credited compensation to our accounts. We are not willing to leave our village for such low compensation."
There is some amount of anger and disappointment directed at the current MP Faggan Singh Kulaste, as he has not supported the villagers in their fight. "Our MP was not even ready to accept that we are facing displacement for the third time," said Dadulal Kudape, an affected villager. "We have to struggle a lot to prove that we had been displaced by the Bargi project. They displaced us from Bargi by playing tricks and now the government is trying to harass us. Authorities do not approve our PM housing schemes. We boycotted the Jila Panchayat elections in 2018, but this time we will vote for our demands." Kulaste remained unavailable for comment.
Villagers claimed that in hopes of bolstering their cause, they voted for the Congress to bring down the BJP government. They approached the newly-elected Kamal Nath government to discuss their issues with the project via their local MLA Ashok Marskole.
The chief minister assured them that the Chutka project would be reviewed, as the state had a power surplus. Nath reportedly said the Madhya Pradesh government decided to file a review petition in the Supreme Court regarding the order to evict tribals. He also stated that a special committee would be formed to advise the government on the effective implementation of the Fifth Schedule of provisions.
Marskole, who opposes the power project, is determined to see villagers receive their due. "The previous government bypassed laws and tried to forcefully evict villagers," Marskole said. "I am a social worker before an MLA and I know the reality of those villagers. Many people are still fighting for their compensation from the Bargi dam project. Now, villagers of Chutka have to face displacement for the third time. I have approached the chief minister and senior leader Digvijay Singh. Digvijay also wrote to the central government during his Narmada Parikrama Yatra a year ago."
Villagers are also worried about the likely adverse environmental impact from the plant. According to a study by Chutka Anti-Nuclear Power Plant Movement, Madhya Pradesh, the plant will consume 7,25,76,000 cubic metres of water every year from the reservoir, which will reduce the total flow of water to the Narmada river. Besides, water waste from the plant could pose a risk of radiation, thus polluting the reservoir. Take, for instance the Rawatbhata (Rajasthan) Nuclear Power Plant, where NPCIL has prohibited fishing around a 12 kilometre radius due to radiation concerns.
Geographically, the proposed location of the plant is in a seismic zone posing the possibility of natural disaster striking the facility. This plant is also likely to adversely impact biodiversity in the region. The location/region was hit by the 1997 earthquake and saw minor volcanic eruptions in April 2011.
Speaking about the potential environmental impact of the nuclear plant, Marskole adds, "As of now only 10 villages are affected by the project, but once the station is set up, hundreds of villages nearby would face hazardous pollution. We have to protect the Narmada from pollution. The government should explore solar or wind power to generate electricity."
As Chutka's villagers exercise their vote, the potential power plant project is likely to determine the future of political candidates in the region.
The author is a Bhopal-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters