Successful completion of the power grid project at Bhangar was necessary for the Mamata Banerjee government not only because it is supposed to play a crucial role in supplying power to Kolkata but also because the required land for the project was acquired following the chief minister’s alternative to the model applied in Singur and Nandigram by the erstwhile Left Front government that she toppled.
The Left Front government led by Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee had decided to acquire the entire stretch of required land in Singur and Nandigram, which sparked of violent protests that finally culminated into the end of a 34-year-old regime.
At Bhangar, however, authorities of the Power Grid Corporation of India obtained the land following local level dealing with individual landowners in 2014. However, the manner in which the deals were sealed had sowed the seeds of trouble right at the beginning. Now that troubled erupted possibly at the worst hour – barely a few days before the Bengal Global Business Summit – and forced the chief minister to ask her confidante Mukul Roy to find out who failed the government, HT spoke to locals to find out how the local administration and her party’s local leadership tried to crush rumours with force, and miserably failed.
“There definitely were grievances among those who had to part with their land. However, almost everybody had accepted compensations and the grievances were not strong enough to turn into a movement. What fuelled massive public grievances was the way the local Trinamool Congress leadership and the local administration refused to answer our questions on possible harmful effects of the project,” Sirajul Alam, a resident of Khamar Ait village, said.
What locals told HT also raises questions about the model the Mamata Banerjee government pursued – direct purchase of land from the owners by the company that required land. According to residents of such villages as Notunhat, Padmapukur, Gazipur and Shyamnagar, local land agents had started approaching land owners at the end of 2013. When their efforts failed, Arabul Islam and his son appeared in the scene.
Islam, former Trinamool MLA from Bhangar and one of the most controversial leaders of the party, is the chairman of Bhangar II panchayat samiti. His son, Hakimul, is the chief of Polerhat gram panchayat where the project is coming up.
“Arabul and his son having the last words in Polerhat, they managed to acquire the required 16-acre land within a few months. People were aggrieved but lacked the strength to confront,” said Mosharef Ali, one of the key local organisers of the movement.
Construction started by mid-2014 without any resistance and villagers had little knowledge about the exact nature of the project. As they tried to speak to engineers working on the project to glean information, some of the engineers reportedly told them that it was a new kind of power grid using sulfur hexafluoride (SF6) – the most potent greenhouse gas – and that scientists and environmentalists were still evaluating possible environment impacts in case of a fault.
“One engineer told us that any accidental spillage of the SF6 gas could lead to tragedies like the one in Bhopal. Since then, throughout 2015, we approached local Trinamool leaders, panchayat members and administrative officers several times, asking them to clear our confusions. No one heeded our pleas. We were told that the government is agreed to consider increasing the compensation but no question should be asked on the project,” said Mahfijul Mollah of Padmapukur village.
Things took a complicated shape in October 2016, when few brick kiln workers camping underneath high tension wires experienced mild electric shocks when one of them touched a loose wire strung across two bamboo poles for drying their clothes. Soon, a local electrician came to the spot with a tester and the red light in the tester confirmed electricity in the loose wire.
“Panic spread fast but the authorities were not ready to answer our queries,” said Safikul Alam, a villager of Machhibhanga. By the end of October, villagers had started obstructing installation of towers. Since then various kinds of rumours and superstitions about ill effects on health floated around in the area. Trinamool Congress MLA Rezzak Mollah’s derogatory comment on such rumors (ill effects on pregnant women) further added fuel to fire.
On November 3, as a huge police contingent accompanied the power grid officials, local women staged a protest. Three men and three women were arrested from the spot and sent to 18 days’ judicial custody. Desperate villagers reached out to the leaders of little-known Naxalite outfit CPI(ML)(Red Star) – mostly because no one else heeded to them – and movement intensified within a very short time.
Villagers were still looking for clarifications from the administration and, in the first week of December, the sub-divisional officials asked them to reach the office of the power grid authorities at Bishnupur on December 9. After reaching the office the villagers found it was locked and all employees and officials had left.
“We went from pillar to post seeking answers to some questions. But no one cared until we forced them to stop work. Even then, they possibly knew only one way to respond – applying brute force. But it is not going to work,” Mosharef Ali said.