In Raigarh, a lot can be done on paper. Land that has not been sold can be bought; the consent of the unwilling owner can be received; and daily wagers can also make millions. On paper, the law of the land also always prevails — tribal land is bought only by tribals, the gram sabha’s (village council) consent for industrial projects on its land is always in place, the displaced get fair compensation in exchange for consenting , and, in a dispute, the courts always have the last word.
The people of Raigarh, however, needn’t take the paper so seriously. Because the story of the sale and purchase of land for power plants and digging mines, and the millions that are the rightful due of the landowners, shall begin — and end — on paper.
Last December, the government promulgated an ordinance to amend the Land Acquisition Act, leading to a debate over the removal of key clauses such as conducting a social impact assessment, impact on food security, and consent of 80% of land owners before acquisition. The promulgation of the Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Ordinance, 2014, paving the way for land acquisition for coal mining — has also invited criticism, after the Supreme Court’s landmark decision last year to cancel 214 coal blocks allocated by the government between the year 1993-2011.
HOW THE LAW RULES
* In December 2014, the government promulgated the Land Ordinance, and Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Ordinance 2014.
* One of the major concerns in the Land Ordinance has been the removal of the provision requiring consent of those affected by the project.
* The ordinance also does away with the provision to conduct a social impact assessment for a specified list of projects
In the backdrop of these debates on favouring the interests of the industry over certain populations, HT travelled to Raigarh, the coal-rich district of Chhattisgarh, and home to the world’s largest coal-based sponge iron plant. Raigarh has seen massive industrialisation in the past two decades. Of the 533 gram panchayats, about 300 are likely to be affected by mining and industrial projects, according to ‘Land Acquisition and Transfers for Private Industry’, a 2014 working paper by the Centre For Equity Studies.
It’s a change that locals will describe by pointing to their fields and forests that have turned into roads, power plants and opencast mines; to the sun that feels too harsh because there’s no shade; and to the roads that have become risky because one could get run over by trucks ferrying coal. If you ask, the locals will tell you other stories too — of fraudulent land transactions, fake land registries, inadequate compensations, and of Raigarh’s fake ‘millionaires’.
Your farm, or mine?
So where did the millions go? For Susheela Kanwar, who holds a BPL card, her teenaged son, and his now dead father Santram Kanwar, they never existed. District records show that Santram, who worked as a peon in a private firm, bought about 3 acres of land in a month, for about 10 lakhs. Neighbours say that the firm’s managers bought land in the area in Santram’s name, because according to the state law, tribal land can only be bought by another tribal. Santram possibly kept quiet to keep his job going. After his death, his widow, Susheela had a hard time getting by, and had to seek the support of locals to even get a BPL card.
To the outsider, Santram’s case might come as a surprise in a state where land transfer and acquisition is regulated by a maze of laws. This includes The Land Acquisition Act, The Coal Bearing Areas Act, the state’s land laws and its rehabilitation policies — that define and determine the terms of the sale and purchase of tribal, and non-tribal land by the state, private companies and individuals, as well as relief and rehabilitation. For the locals, however, this is just one of the ways by which power play on the ground by mining firms allows for the subversion and manipulation of existing laws. "Many times, the land will be bought in the name of a tribal from Odisha or Jharkhand. Sometimes, the ‘buyer’ is an employee, at other times, he is given a job to keep mum on the deal. The seller, on the other hand, is usually given no more than a few thousand rupees per acre," says Rajesh Tripathi, an activist who works with the Raigarh-based NGO Jan Chetna Manch. Between 2009 and 2014, private mining firms have illegally occupied about 276 hectares of land in this manner, reveals an RTI filed by Tripathi last year. About 60% of the original owners have got their land back, at least on paper, he says.
Parables of power
The millions never come because of the power games that have been typical of land acquisition and transfers in the region. The main player here is the company agent/ manager, ‘broker’, or a local dalal (middleman), whose job is to motivate, persuade, and if that doesn’t work, intimidate the land owner into selling his land for cheap, or at times, nothing. The dalal works closely with the Sub Divisional Magistrate (SDM), the patwaari, the panchayat heads, the local police — all of whom make their ‘cut’ in the process, locals say.
Besides force, the agent’s strategies may also include manipulation by other means. "Villagers are taken for trips to pilgrimage sites such as Vaishno Devi. Having won their trust on the trip, the agents will ask them to sell their land, once they are back," says Tripathi. At times, the owner has no idea of how much land he has sold, for what price, and for what purpose. At times, villages have discovered that a mine is coming up in the village, instead of the promised "factory for herbal products by Baba Ramdev". In cases where the state has acquired the land, owners claim that they receive information only after either the acquisition is over, or a few hours are left for them to register their opposition, as mandated by law.
The situation gets messier when it comes to a fair compensation. Groups of adivasis that HT spoke to said that they felt cheated after they heard that a few others in the village had negotiated for up to Rs 40 lakhs per acre, while they had been manipulated to sell their land, for as little as Rs 14,000 per acre. Those who have managed a good price — up to Rs 10 lakhs per acre (the going rate when the state acquires land), and even higher in the case of a private firm — were mindful of the going rates, and in a position to negotiate better with the private companies. Many of these ‘negotiators’ included dalaals who had built land banks in the region by buying land for cheap, and selling it at a higher price to the company.
Price of development
For the landless in Raigarh, the deal has been unfair — some claim that the price of the land did not factor in the cost of the forest produce; others rue that the promised jobs never came, and migration for work to other areas destroyed the social fabric of the village.
District magistrate of Raigarh Mukesh Bansal concedes that corrupt and unfair practices in land acquisition have become common in the region. "We are trying to ensure that the tribals are made aware of their rights, and the original owner benefits from the relief and rehabilitation measures. The mental trauma of displacement, though, cannot be healed. It’s unfortunate that these people live on the land that has valuable natural resources buried underneath," he says.
Many in Raigarh, however, are beginning to wonder — if the ground beneath their feet has resources worth billions, surely, it would only be fair that they got their millions?
Raghunath Chaudhry: ‘Lost my fields overnight'
Raghunath Chaudhry of Salihabhanta village in Tamnar tehsil, says he has nothing left to lose now. About a decade ago, he lost his land when agents of the region’s mining giant started dumping mud on his ploughed farm. Raghunath was told that this five-and-a-half acre plot was now "taken over". A couple of years later, in 2005, after his attempts at resisting the illegal occupation were thwarted, Raghunath took to the local courts, who ruled in his favour. Around that time, Raghunath says his son was found dead in a road ‘accident’, and the company’s muscle men beat him up at the local bus stand. The local police refused to take action, or help him claim the land back. Today, Raghunath says that inside the sprawling grounds of the cooling towers, lie his fields where he would once plant rice. According to the current going rate for land acquisition in the area, Raghunath would have easily got at least Rs 55 lakhs for his plot. Till date, the land is in his name, he has received no compensation for it, and survives on the Rs 50-100 that he makes off his roadside shop.
Shivpal Bhagat: 'Some of us got only 6% of the going rates for land'
Shivpal Bhagat, 27, says he has lost count of the number of fake FIRs (First Information Report) that have been registered against him and many others for protesting against unfair compensations that were doled out in the village of Sarasmal-Kosampalli. Shivpal says that he and a few other villagers ‘discovered’ that their land was "bought over" only when the fields were dug up, and the company’s employees informed them that they could "collect their compensation cheques from the SDM’s office". Shivpal says that it is unfair that they have received about Rs 50,000-2 lakhs per acre, when the going rates for land in the area range from Rs 6-10 lakhs. Many haven’t even received the full compensation, he says. Now, Shivpal, who has recently won the panchayat elections, hopes to get some justice for his village. Tarika Tarangini Lakra: 'They took our consent by force'
For Tarika Tarangini Lakra, who works as a nurse at the community health centre in Tamnar tehsil, the fight to get her family’s land back is what keeps her going. "Our land has been acquired illegally; we were made to consent under severe duress," she says, fighting back tears. The family even took the case to the state High Court in 2005, but got manipulated by lawyers and ended up with a stay order for their house, instead of the land that had been illegally occupied. Tarika says that private firms have also affected the dynamics of the village. Local youths have been seduced by company agents, who regularly ply them with alcohol, in exchange for keeping an eye on those who are protesting against the company. "Our own people have been turned against us," she says.
Gurbari: 'No idea who I sold land to'
Gurbari, in her late 60s, and her son Sakha Ram, 26, say their four-acre plot of land was acquired by a "mining company" for little over a lakh per acre. According to the acquisition rates, Gurbari could have got at least Rs 40 lakhs. But, at the time, she had no idea who she was selling the land to how much it was sold for, and what would have been a fair price. The land was bought in the name of the company's tribal employee, because state law prohibits transfer of tribal land to a non-tribal. Sakha Ram was to get a job too, as part of the compensation package. "All we got was about Rs 5.8 lakhs, which we spent to gedt by in the past few years," says Sakha Ram, who does odd jobs in the village. "We were cheated. We should get our land back."