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Konkan’s powerful powerless farmers

In the battle over land in Raigad, innovative protests by ordinary people have won the first round against government-backed big businesse. Sujata Anandan reports.

india Updated: Sep 22, 2009 01:29 IST
Sujata Anandan

Four thousand letters poured in at the district administrator’s office, each carrying an unnerving promise from villagers opposing the transfer of their land to build private power plants.

“We sent notices to the Collector saying we were coming to clean his toilets, because considering the amount of water they had allotted to the power plants, his bathrooms must have run out of water too,” says Pradip Patil, an activist of the protest committee representing nine villages.

The Collector locked up all the toilets.

India’s enduring farmers-versus-big business battle over land is playing out in innovative ways in the Konkan region.

The state government is acquiring land and plans to build as many as 11 thermal and one nuclear power plant to generate 20,000 megawatts of power in a 60-kilometre stretch along the coast, perhaps the largest such concentration in India.

“Government sabse bada dada hai, Gawli se bhi bada (Government is the biggest mafia don, even bigger than [Arun] Gawli),” says Satish Londhe (45), an industrial worker in Alibaug, 145 km south of Mumbai, sitting on the floor in his small living room.

Under Indian law, energy is a national resource and the state government can acquire land compulsorily for a power project, if it is seen as being in the public interest.

But the power plants, activists say, will serve no public interest.

They will provide no electricity to either the region or the state, and only surplus will be sent to the national grid for use by citizens.

They will be used to run private industries in Haryana, Bangalore and Gujarat, says Dr Jayendra Parulekar of the anti-industry Chale Jao (Go Away) movement.

For now, farmers are winning the battle. The government has not been able to acquire any land for two years. It is a battle that will have a reflection on the polls.

“No one has bothered about us or the Konkan,” says Shantaram Bhagat (87), the first headman of Mothe Shahapur village. “Its fertility equals that of Punjab and we are not about to give that up to politicians who look out only for their own interests.”

The protests seem to have sent the government into a defensive posture.

State energy minister Sunil Tatkare says the power plants are only on the drawing board so far.

“Where are these power plants? There is nothing on the ground. They are all only proposed,” says Tatkare. “No land has been acquired at all. So how can they say we have sold them short?”

The battle to save the Konkan has tried to beat the government at its own game — citing environment laws, for example, to thwart the government’s efforts at land acquisition.

The farmers have sent individual notices to the district collector; raided his office and extracted a letter promising land would not be taken away; slunk into the seaside Raigad fort, threatening to commit mass suicide and drown themselves; and started a long march to Mumbai, finally forcing the government to withdraw acquisition notices.

The battle is central to the future of hundreds of thousands of people in the region. “Nearly 200 farm labourers per acre find employment here. Where will farm labourers go?” asks Rajan Bhagat (45), a teacher of commerce and part-time activist.

Parulekar says the power plants would destroy the ecology of the region and pollute estuaries, destroying both fish and fishing, a crucial source of livelihood.

“Chuhon ki ladai haathi se hai (It is a battle of mice with an elephant),” said Londhe. “It will not be easy, but if the mice all band together, we might just manage to win.”