Why Do they Protest Being Looted When It’s for their Own Good?

Rohini Mohan
Grist Media
Nirupabai from Barkuta and Lalubai from Vidyanagar protest against mining expansion at the public hearing in Korba, Chhattisgarh. Photo by Rohini Mohan

In the last week of February, the first week of Parliament’s summer session, Delhi was festooned with protest. Men in white dhotis and women in several colors of bright marched around the roads, emerging like spokes from Mandi House, finally settling on Parliament Street. Their banners said “Kisan hai Bharat ka anna daata” (The farmer is India’s food provider). When the crowd chanted this, the words ‘kisan’ and ‘Bharat’ were the most emphatic. Farmers’ unions led the protest, joined by fishermen and laborers from villages in Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Tamil Nadu, Assam, Punjab, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, and West Bengal. There were three epicenters of the protest – a sit-in led by Anna Hazare in Jantar Mantar, a rally organized by the Medha Patkar-led National Alliance of People’s Movements, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) march. By the third day, their efforts seemed to have converged. More people kept arriving in buses and trains, many of them spending nights in the muddy boundary around the Jantar Mantar, the capital’s last sundial of grassroots protests.

All of them demanded the removal of the Narendra Modi government’s Land Ordinance promulgated last year, which amended the existing Land Acquisition Act, so that governments can acquire land for certain “important national projects” without seeking consent from the person who owns it. They will still pay what Finance Minister Arun Jaitley called “higher compensation”, but the opinion of the landowner or anyone who depends on the land is now irrelevant. Consent, in the ordinance, has been equated to “procedural rigors” that hold up projects.

Until 2013, land acquisition for projects in India followed a 120-year-old colonial law, the 1894 Land Acquisition Act, whose draconian provisions allowed brutal land grab that then sparked anti-land acquisition protests across the country. In 2013, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government replaced this colonial law with a new Land Acquisition Act after much consultation with the Opposition parties including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), NGOs, corporates, state governments and other stakeholders. The new law included provisions of consultation, consent and assessment of social impact on those whose livelihood depended on the land. In December 2014, however, the Narendra Modi government amended the new law, in existence only for a year then, through an ordinance that reversed so many clauses that land acquisition processes now re-adopt the inequities and high-handedness of the state.

Most crucially, under the 2013 Land Acquisition Act, for private and public-private projects, an overwhelming majority of people had to give consent. But after the ordinance, for a range of projects including industrial corridors, affordable housing and infrastructure projects, nobody’s consent is now needed.

Anyone who owns land, even in cities, could have opposed this change. But most of the protestors in Delhi were from villages – from “upper” caste landowners to Adivasis to landless laborers. Many of them wore a Gandhi cap with the words “Meri hi loot kyun?” (Why am I the only one looted?)

Because several armchair commentators on TV and social media claimed that the protestors were “ignorant” and unaware of what they were opposing, I walked around the protest arena asking one simple question: What have you come here to protest? Sometimes, I followed it with two other questions: Where are you from, and have you had personal losses? In their answers, the protestors were cynical, upset, exhausted, and enraged, but most of all, they were informed.

“The compensation might still be four times the market value,” says Bhagwat Singh from Sambal, Uttar Pradesh, referring to the unchanged compensation clause that those favorable to the ordinance highlight as a good deal that makes the amendment a win-win for both corporates and farmers. “But if you give me no say, and add that even my fertile multi-crop field can be acquired, and not only for dams and power plants but also for factories where I’ll never be employed, then this is a raw deal for me, no?”

Baldiya Rana, an Adivasi from Lakhimpur, Assam, had taken the long train to Delhi with her mother and toddler. She asked why the State was “so eager to stop tribal cultivation near forests, but encourage tree felling for corporations”. “The government’s answer for corporate pollution and environmental damage is that we need development.” A disproportionate number of national interest projects are in the resource-rich areas populated by Adivasis, so that although they make only 8.6 percent of the population, they have constituted an estimated 40 percent of those displaced by development projects in the country. Only 21 percent of these were resettled.

The ordinance also exempts strategic national projects from requiring a social impact assessment on any affected people. The 2013 Land Acquisition Act, for the first time in Indian history, had provided for such a social impact assessment in a streamlined way, conducted by an independent team with a deadline of six months. It was supposed to take into consideration the proposed project’s effect on the livelihood of affected families, infrastructure and assets like schools, sewage systems, roads, cattle-grazing land, community ponds, healthcare facilities, parks, places of worship and burial or cremation grounds. The team would also judge the impact on food security, verify if the project was legitimately public purpose, make sure the benefits outweighed the costs for the community, ensure there was no unused land previously acquired in the area, and that irrigated land was acquired only in exceptional cases. “This is a time-bound exercise, the least a project that takes years to conceptualize can do when it affects thousands,” says activist Medha Patkar. “If this not done, how can real compensation even be computed, or the right decision taken? And really, shouldn’t a government care to know these things?”

Hiranya Devi from Uttar Pradesh, in between chanting slogans, said that the UPA had been no less aggressive in its land acquisition from the poor, and that she had voted for the Modi government in the hope of development for all. She’s a Dalit farm laborer, working daily on another’s land for wages. She knew that the ordinance has scrapped any requirement to analyze impact on livelihood of non-landowners like herself. “If only the landowner gets a job and rehabilitation in exchange, then the hundreds like me will come and fill your cities. Anyway, that’s where all the road, electricity and water is going.”

As I spoke to protestors, most significantly, the word “saazish”, or conspiracy came up a lot. It was abundantly clear that the men and women who had poured into Delhi had no trust in the government to protect their rights or in corporations to extend them fair treatment. While they were rejecting the undemocratic clauses of the new land ordinance, they were also registering a loud protest against a broader army of legal and administrative policies governing environment and development that are rapidly closing them out.

* * *

Two weeks before the Delhi protests, a large unfurnished hall in Khodri village in Korba district of Chhattisgarh was filled with men and women sitting on the floor. Two panchayat members, along with an elder from the neighboring Gevra village, were rifling through a spiral-bound document. A middle-aged moustachioed man – everyone called him Rathore – held another official notice, a single sheet of paper that invited the villagers to attend a jan sunvai, a public hearing on February 11, 2015. Everyone knew it had something to do with their living on the brink of the cavernous Kusmunda coal mines.

The Kusmunda mine, only a 10-minute cycle ride away from where they were sitting, is run by South Eastern Coalfields Ltd (SECL), a subsidiary of the central government-owned Coal India Ltd, one of the world’s largest mining companies. SECL had been mining 6 million tons per annum (mtpa) of coal in Kusmunda since the 60s, going up to 10mtpa in 2006, then 15 from 2009, and to 18.42mtpa a year soon after. The notice in Rathore’s hand announced that the mine was seeking to expand yet again, this time to an astounding 62.50mtpa a year, which would make Kusmunda the largest coal mine in Asia. The public hearing was being held as part of the process of obtaining environment clearance for the expansion.

Khodri was one of the five new villages that would be dug up in the expansion, joining more than 12 others already affected. There was a stunned silence in the room.

Hirasingh Kanwar sat at the back with some other men in their late twenties. “So. This is finally happening to us too,” he muttered. Kanwar had seen SECL’s Kusmunda, Gevra and Dipka mines scoop out the neighboring villages, gradually changing the landscape of the district. He had heard dynamite explosions from the Kusmunda mine all his life, and the repeated quakes had left deep cracks in his house walls. Tons of discarded mine debris – called overburden without irony – towered over his village like growing mountains. Methane escaping from the earth’s depths burned with large fires through night and day, and through heavy rain. The air had the sharp twang of charred coal.

Korba district has a bipolar quality: it is densely forested and populated mostly by Adivasis, but also the single largest source of power grade coal in the country. It has been heavily industrialized and mined for coal since the 1970s. The Hasdeo Arand and Dharmarajan forests are considered some of the last patches of rich biodiversity in India, but the Geological Survey of India found 10,075 million tons of coal reserves underneath, touted as enough to meet India’s power needs for a decade. The most prominent miner today is SECL, which sells coal to several private and public sector thermal power plants. “Across the country, mineral deposits and rich forests overlap with tribal populations,” says activist Alok Shukla from Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan. “Korba is a perfect illustration of this, but over decades, its polluted personality is overtaking its jungles.” All the reasons why the Central Pollution Control Board ranks heavily-industrialized Korba among the country’s most critically polluted regions, were physically palpable in Khodri.

“Is the public hearing being held to ask us if we want to give our land?” Kanwar asked. He owned a paddy farm of 4.5 acres with three brothers. A few other men asked if SECL wouldn’t spare fertile land.

“Don’t you get it? Your land is already gone,” Rathore replied. “It was never yours from the moment they found coal under it.”

Arey, aise kaise? [Hey, how can that be?],” an old man shouted, echoing the exasperation of everyone in the room.

“Coal is the treasure our government wants, we people are just the obstacles sitting on it,” Rathore continued, citing the core conceit of the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957, according to which a land declared as having coal deposits could not be sold by the owner to anyone except the State-owned mining company. The owner would be compensated according to the State-fixed fee, but he couldn’t refuse to part with the land. Rathore was among 5,000 people and 18 villages displaced by the Gevra mine’s expansion from 35 to 40mtpa. The Khodri village headman had invited Rathore to this meeting to offer some perspective. Rathore said he had refused to sell too, and it had come to nothing. Kanwar listened quietly, worry creasing his forehead. With the mines lowering the water table and polluting the river, his produce was falling. He had started doing part-time labor in nearby towns. He would have leased his land for mining but SECL’s track record of rehabilitation, employment and compensation didn’t make him optimistic. When one of his uncles asked about van bhoomi adhikar, he looked interested again.

Korba district is protected under the Constitution as a Scheduled tribal area, and according to the

Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA, SECL would have to consult Adivasi communities in Khodri village before any leasing or takeover. Under Schedule V of the Constitution, Chhattisgarh state also bans the transfer of a tribal’s inalienable right over land by sale to a non-tribal. Futhermore, SECL also had to seek consent from them under the Forest Rights Act, 2006, before forest land could be used for non-forest purposes. An environmental clearance cannot not be given until all forest right claims are settled.

“When they come to ask us, we can tell them ‘no’,” Kanwar’s uncle declared. He added to the men next to him that he didn’t understand how his land was already SECL property.

Laxmi Chauhan, a Korba-based environmental activist, spoke up, “SECL will just say this area doesn’t come under PESA.” In the case of the Gevra mine, SECL had not approached the communities from 18 villages for consultation under PESA. “When we challenged it in court, SECL simply said PESA was not applicable, and no consent was needed,” Chauhan said. “Basically, they just lied.”

People started to lose their temper. “Are they illiterate over at the company?” someone shouted. Everyone laughed nervously.

Chauhan turned to the Kanwar’s uncle, “Leave PESA, leave forest rights also for now.” Chauhan was sceptical about the applicability of the Forest Rights Act in Kusmunda. In October, the Ministry of Environment had written to all state governments with fresh instructions that narrowed the definition of what constitutes ‘forest land’ to exclude certain Adivasi communities from having their forest rights recognized before the forest could be diverted for industrial use. These were technicalities, but Chauhan was worried they could be manipulated.

“The hearing day after tomorrow is about the environmental impact, not land,” explained Rathore. “Let’s think about how to use this rare opportunity.”

Around him, anger was curdling into denial, then panic. People were talking at once, interrupting, arguing, asking questions, rhetorical and indignant, unclear what they were meant to do at an environmental public hearing, and a bit incredulous that their village would actually be razed. The senior panchayat members looked through the spiral-bound document, a Hindi summary of the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report prepared by consultants hired by SECL. It briefly said there might be some air and water pollution due to the mine’s expansion, but the company would plant trees and provide drinking water. There was no evaluation of the current damage by existing mining, or the cumulative damage from the profusion of mining and thermal energy production in the area.

Less than a month after the Modi government came to power, the Ministry of Environment issued several memorandums that exempted certain coal mine expansions from holding public hearings as part of assessing their environmental and social impact. First, existing coal mines producing under 16mtpa could expand up to 50 percent without a hearing, then those over 16mtpa could expand a further 5mtpa, and then those over 20mtpa could expand by up to 6mtpa. It was only because Kusmunda sought to expand its production capacity by an unprecedented 44.08 mtpa that the EIA report had been prepared and the public hearing announced at all.

Some voices suggested the village should boycott the public hearing.

“No no,” Rathore insisted. “If you don’t go your objections will never get recorded and they will happily write in their report that the villagers are welcoming the mines.”

The proposed Kusmunda expansion was enormous, and at this point, the environmental public hearing was the only consultation that was likely to take place. Nearly every other democratic avenue had been systematically weakened or uprooted.

“So, what should we say on February 11?” a young man asked.

“What is there to say about the environment?” Gopal Yadav, a community leader, began. “Look at us here, saans lene ke liye taras rahen hain [we’re struggling to breathe]. The company will say, okay, if the place is so polluted, then tell us a clean place we can settle you in. They will promise us security guards, boundary walls, 24-hour electricity, good water, doctors and hospitals there… We have seen Khamariya rehabilitation colony, haven’t we? Should we fall for this mirage again?”

The chatter stopped; people listened intently. Yadav continued: “They ate our rivers, ate our trees, ate our houses, ate our air, ate our fertile lands… they have made us so desperate that we think giving our land is an opportunity, not a loss. In exchange, what will they promise us?”

Some people said, “Jobs!” and others said “Money!”; “A peon’s job for a land owner!” an angry voice shouted.

“Compensation money never lasts, it can be blown up on one motorbike,” said Yadav.

“A whole family can live off one piece of land. And a job is for how many?”

“One!” many men replied.

Kanwar stood up. “We have water problems. The ash dykes of the power plants are just leaching into our ground water. My crops are drying up.”

“We have respiratory ailments,” his friend Vinod Srivats added.

“Birds have disappeared, our cattle don’t drink the water, imagine our state. We don’t want more mines.”

“Yes, this what we should go say on February 11,” said Yadav, shutting the spiral-bound book.

* * *

Khodri village is just an instance of the thousands of villages across the country trying to filter their rights out of a jumble of laws that are silencing them. Since May 2014, through the land ordinance, coal ordinance, hasty review of existing laws, several notifications from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, strategic amendments, and an incessant rhetoric of efficiency and growth, the government has systematically turned millions of people from rights-holders to unequal partners in a contract. The apparent goal is to remove bureaucratic roadblocks for investors so that they can acquire land and start projects with the least wastage of time and resources. But the cost of this admittedly necessary streamlining process is, today, being borne by those who are the greatest stakeholders of the land.

In the government’s push for coal mining and its ill-thought-out decision to solve India’s huge energy needs through coal-fired thermal power, the dirtiest form of power, grave environmental and social costs like unemployment are not being adequately computed. “Thermal power seems cheap because we don’t value the biodiversity we’re losing, the loss of purity of air and water, and the unemployment and health issues we are taking on,” said Raigarh-based environmental activist Ramesh Agrawal.

Most worryingly, the processes have become less democratic: legislations bypassing Parliament, overnight notifications, and the absence of public consultation are becoming the norm. “If you look into the fine print, the right to consultation is the one that has been plucked out of the system in the name of less bureaucracy,” says Aruna Shekar, researcher for Amnesty International. The decisions are increasingly centralized; when the President was approached to promulgate the land ordinance, the rural development minister, under whose jurisdiction the Act falls, was not present. Most of the time, Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar says fragile ecosystems must not suffer for development, but time after time, his ministry since last May has prioritized industry over environment.

The TSR Subramanian committee, appointed in August 2014 to review key environmental laws, included only one member with some exposure to environmental issues. “They had just two months, later extended to three months, to look at a range of deeply complex issues, and the Ministry of Environment initially limited public consultation to 1000 characters in a text box on its website, which made a mockery of the process,” says Shibani Ghosh, an environmental lawyer with the Center for Policy Research. Eventually, the recommendations proposed a new umbrella law to streamline the environmental and forest clearance processes in a single window system.

“The situation wasn’t great before – under the UPA government. There were some environmentally and socially beneficial provisions on paper but most were not implemented,” says Ghosh. “Under the BJP, things have deteriorated further.”

* * *

The implications of these various new laws and their intent swirled in a haze of mistrust in the public hearing on February 11, 2015 for the Kusmunda mine expansion. The hearing was being conducted at the Indira Stadium, where residents from the five potentially affected villages were joined by activists from across Chhattisgarh, along with angry men and women from previously affected villages.

The hearing began at 11.30am, presided from a stage by Korba Additional Collector Heena Animesh Netham, Regional Officer of the state pollution control board RP Shinde, and SECL officials. Below them to the right, a podium with a microphone was arranged. Plastic chairs were laid out for the public facing the stage, with separate enclosures for the “press and NGOS” and “public representatives”, but hardly anyone sat down. A high fence of bamboo sticks and iron mesh separated the stage and seating area, with a narrow passageway for speakers to walk to the podium, guarded by a large group of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel and police staff.

First, SECL’s General Manager, Mining, Sri Ranjan Prasad Sah, went to the microphone. He was in a powder-blue shirt, wore spectacles, and had a soft, even voice. “We will need a great amount of coal for the energy needs of this country,” he began. “It will be done in an eco-friendly way…We have built hospitals, lakes, tree plantations…” He spelled out reforestation plans, and said that if the mine were to expand, 4,000 people would get jobs.

After him, one by one, villagers, activists, community leaders, and youth spoke their minds.

Dilharan Sarthy, in a clean kurta and a high voice, was first. “I am a poor farmer whose land is half a kilometer from the mines,” he said in Hindi. “I have made sacrifices like everyone here. We support the government’s work, we are a patriotic people too, but we have lost our livelihood, our health, and our forests for the coal that makes Delhi shine and turn all its lights on. Isn’t there something wrong here?”

In a few minutes, Sarthy was interrupted by a chorus of voices: “Stop the public hearing! SECL, hai hai!” About 200 village residents, wearing black bands on their head, marched into the seating area, moving chairs aside and pushing their bodies against the iron mesh fence. Most of the protestors were from some of the 20 gram sabhas that had passed a unanimous resolution in January 2015 withholding their consent for the auction/allotment of their land for mining. Since the promulgation of the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Ordinance in October 2014, 19 coal blocks had been identified for auction/allotment in Chhattisgarh and 20 more for future allotment. Believing that the process of consultation would be a sham, if not entirely written out of the procedure, these villagers had decided on the black-band protest. In no uncertain terms, they wanted it known that the Kusmunda mine expansion would be environmentally and socially disastrous. Gopal Yadav and Rathore were part of the group. “We don’t want a coal mine, we want clean air, greenery!” they chanted, punching their fists in the air.

Policemen and CRPF moved towards them, but the Additional Collector quickly called for “peaceful proceedings” on her microphone. “We will write all your objections down, and it will be used in Delhi to decide whether SECL should get clearance,” she said.

The protestors quickly nominated some speakers, and enraged men and women started to go to the podium.

“Even after you cut one tree, if you replant 10 plants, there is no use!” said Sanjay Rathore, a government school teacher. “Nothing will grow, the way the land has been destroyed!”

“I have one request, come out of your SECL campus and go to the rehabilitation colony you have built for farmers next to your overburden mountains. Will you be able to survive 20 minutes in that air?” someone else asked.

Brajesh Kumar from Pali village said: “You say 4,000 people will get jobs – not our people!” “We are not saying we will not give land, but do it properly. Ask us what we will lose, and care about the forests too.”

The protestors began to shout slogans. “We don’t want, we don’t want, coal mines we don’t want!”, “SECL ke dalalon ko, joota maro saalon ko! [These SECL agents, slap them with slippers!]”

“All the ponds and wells have dried up, the air is black…this is not personal enmity, this is our right for survival,” said M Manohar from Vidyanagar village.

Kusum Devi Sahi, also from Vidyanagar, said, “The rehabilitation housing is also given near the overburden mountains, which are inside the coal mine area. In two years when you expand again, you will displace us once more.”

“You make gardens and lawns around your SECL campus, and we get the coal trucks and their poisonous dust. Only a fool will think this is reforestation.” Someone from the protesting group shouted that unfortunately engineering schools don’t teach their students that “cattle grazing land is not wasteland, but common land.”

Not yet seeing Harisingh Kanwar from Khodri village at the stadium, I called him on his phone. “You know I meant to come, I had a prepared speech also,” he said. He was fighting another battle that day. “I had to take my child to the hospital in Bilaspur.”

Hours passed, and the hearing went on. Some of the protestors walked to the far end of the chair-filled seating area, and sat on the mud. A uniformed boy hired by the company for the day came by with tea. As some exhausted men took the plastic cups of tea and water, some voices said, “Chai – that’s all Chhattisgarh is going to get from now on.” There were more abusive alliterations around chai, and the group was incensed in minutes again. More people went up to the mike to scold the pollution officer, express disillusionment, and detail the horrific pollution and ecological degradation they live with. The officials remained silent for the large part, except for the collector once warning an emotional young activist at the mike to “watch your language”, which only served to aggravate him further. “Arey, let’s see you be polite when you’re being kicked out of your house!” he yelled. The sloganeering began again. Yeh vikas nahin, vinash hai! [This is not development, but destruction!]”

Nirupabai from Barkuta village suddenly sprang up from the crowd, her hand raised, and her face flushed with sweat and anger. “We will never give our land! We don’t want your dirty coal!” She hugged her frail, aged mother. “You force her to live on the very edge of hell! You throw us out of our house first and then call a public hearing?” Barkuta village residents had been forcibly evicted in January for the Kusmunda mine. SECL workers had, in the presence of state officials and the police, demolished all but one house in the village. Nirupabai was also challenging the SECL in court about their rejection of her job application, based on their employment policy of not hiring women in the mining company. “I see these young women sitting on the stage – they work for SECL, but I can’t?” She looked from the embarrassed SECL interns and employees to the villagers in the crowd. “Brothers and sisters, learn from my fate, don’t ever give them your land, tell them you want to keep our coal! Jai Kisan, Jai Bharat, Jai Chhattisgarh!”

As Nirupabai walked away from the podium and back towards her mother behind the fence, she hugged the old woman, threw her hand up, and shouted the words that would echo in the protests of central Delhi a week later: “Why must we bear all the losses? Meri hi loot kyun?”

Rohini Mohan is a Bangalore-based journalist who writes on human rights and politics. She is the author of The Seasons of Trouble, a nonfiction account on postwar Sri Lanka. Tweet her @rohini_mohan and read her work here.