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Powerless in Urjanchal

It is destined to be a national hub of light, a ‘new Singapore’. But for five lakh tribals and lower castes, Singrauli is India’s heart of darkness. Samar Halarnkar writes.

india Updated: Sep 01, 2011 10:32 IST
Samar Halarnkar

Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan wants it to be the new Singapore. State officials call it Urjanchal, land of energy. For sociologist Sakarama Somayaji, the enduring image from India’s emerging energy wonderland in Singrauli is the women who sell baskets of stones on the roadside.

Individually or in groups, the women break stones, and sell them to passing trucks for R80-R90 a basket, a day’s labour. The women are among half a million people who have lost their homes and modest livelihoods tending single crops or gathering herbs and honey from forests that have all but disappeared in the rush for development since the 1980s.

Somayaji, a relocation and rehabilitation specialist with The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri), New Delhi, met families who have been moved not once but up to four times in 30 years, as Singrauli rushes to find land for its relentless expansion on the dusty borders of southern Uttar Pradesh and eastern Madhya Pradesh.

As India struggles to balance development with growing environmental concerns and a Maoist insurgency fuelled by the exploitation of tribals, Singrauli is a case study of how the country is getting it wrong — and how it can yet be rectified.

The rich seams of coal that run through an area of more than 2,200 sq kms — about four times the size of Singapore — draw some of India’s biggest names to Singrauli, one of India’s poorest districts.

Human development indices are among the lowest in the world. But in less than four years since the district was created in 2008, it has attracted investments of R84,115 crore, according to government figures. Half that money has been invested by the Reliance (Anil Dhirubhai Ambani) Group.

Other investors include the Essar Group, the Aditya Birla Group, Hindalco, the Dainik Bhaskar Group, publishers of India’s largest-circulated Hindi newspaper, and public sector giants National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and the Power Grid Corporation.

Across Singrauli, coal mines are being excavated to feed the coming of the ultra-mega power plants, as these giants are called. As these plants come onstream over the next two or three years, starting this year (if they keep to schedule), Singrauli, with a planned capacity of between 20,000 and 30,000 MW, will become one of the largest global hubs of electricity generation.

Already, a tenth of power-starved India’s electricity flows from five Singrauli super thermal power plants, mostly run by NTPC.

The rush for power has already come at a cost.

Singrauli is one of India’s 22 critically polluted areas identified by the Central Pollution Control Board. The coal-fired plants have made vast swathes of land unfit for cultivation and in some parts of Singrauli, toxic flyash, a byproduct, lies in piles five feet deep. Researchers have found children with respiratory problems and low IQ levels.

The women report still-births, menstrual irregularities and sterility. These problems will worsen once the 15 planned mega plants and mines come on stream. But worries about ill-health pale before the injustice of multiple displacement and lost livelihoods being inflicted on the mostly tribal, scheduled castes and other backward castes.

Singrauli’s people are among the 50 million displaced over five decades across India by dams, highways, ports, mines and other industrial developments. Recognising how broken promises create rootless paupers — and violent rebels — the government in 2007 issued the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy.

It upheld the power of the state to acquire any property for ‘public purpose’ but also said the status of those displaced should be equal or better than their previous positions in life.

The state has enthusiastically carried out the first provision and mostly washed its hand off the second. It acquires land and leaves the fate of Singrauli’s displaced to State-owned and private companies. It’s a grim fate, worsened by the fact that the resettlement policy is merely a guideline — no one can go to court.

So tribals find themselves with some money and little else. Save for a tiny elite, illiterate subsistence farmers cannot run the canteens, transport, laundry and other professional services the new projects need. Much of the machinery and specialised labour comes from China, with many services subcontracted to professional companies outside India.

The loss of land and lack of alternative livelihoods is one of the greatest challenges to industrialising India. Since they have never been adequately addressed, many families faced repeated displacement. Teri’s Somayaji narrates the story of Samaylal Gond, a tribal in his 50s, first displaced by an NTPC plant in 1979-80, then by the State-owned Northern Coalfields in 1994-95 and in 2008 by an Essar project.

Every time, he was promised a job if he moved. Every time that promise was broken.

“The displaced person’s backbone is systematically broken and the psychological trauma is immense,” says Somayaji, whose organisation works with some companies to improve rehabilitation efforts. “If these developers want to do good for the people, they really can.”

That good will only emerge if, as a start, two new laws, pending in Parliament for the last two years, are passed: the Rehabilitation and Resettlement Bill and the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill, 2007, the latter meant to supplant a 116-year-old colonial version that allows the State to take over any land it wants.

Real change will only come when local authorities are trained in resettlement concerns and companies retrain locals. Some labour cooperatives provide cleaning and gardening services, but these are no more than flickering candles in Urjanchal’s vast heart of darkness.