Dying for a river

In Raigarh district of Madhya Pradesh, tribals are fighting to save their only source of water from an industrial house. A woman has already died while sitting on a hunger strike

Published: Thursday 30 April 1998

Dying for a river

The Jindal plant republic Day, January 26, 1998. Charan Das Mahant, home minister of Madhya Pradesh ( mp ), has just finished hoisting the national flag in the town of Raigarh. A few hours later, Satyabhama, 45, a tribal woman from the nearby village of Boda Tikra who has been on a hunger strike for three days dies in the district hospital. The strike was the flashpoint of a three-year struggle of 33 water-scarce villages for their sole source of water, the Kelo river, from a steel plant owned by Jindal Strips Limited ( jsl ), a part of the Jindal group of Hisar, Haryana. jsl has laid claim on the river to run its captive thermal power plant.

The news of Satyabhama's death spread like wildfire. Tempers ran high as the townsfolk started gathering around the district collector's ( dc 's ) office. The home minister left in a hurry, cancelling prior appointments. It was only after the dc assured a magisterial enquiry that the crowd dispersed.

The villagers are continuing their fight against the state government's decision to allow jsl to use the Kelo's water. The 120-km-long river is an important source of water for Raigarh town and the numerous villages along its banks. Since 1995, jsl has been trying to draw water from the river, much to the ire of the residents of the area. Various expert groups comprising government officials have noted that the jsl move would lead to a water crisis. But the state government has bypassed experts at each stage and set up a fresh panel.

By late 1997, when the company was allowed to build a small dam and an intake well on the riverbed close to the city, villagers and the townsfolk initiated street protests. On January 19, 1998, the villagers started a sit-in at the city centre, and a hunger strike in batches of three. Two women and a man who comprised the first batch were hospitalised on January 22. Satyabhama began her turn, along with two others. By January 24, doctors attending on her recommended immediate hospitalisation, as she was very weak. "But she was admitted only on the 25th (by the police officials) -- 24 hours after the doctors submitted their report," says Nandan Gupta, a leader of the Kelo Bachao Morcha that is spearheading the protest. The delay in action on the part of the police proved fatal for Satyabhama, he adds.

The magisterial enquiry into the death was to be completed within 15 days. As we go to press, no report has been submitted. On the other hand, Shailendra Singh, 35, former dc of district Raigarh who was very popular among the villagers and respected for his integrity, was transferred by the state government with effect from March 18, 1998. Many people suspect foul play. "It is another blow. People had faith in him," says Jayant Bahidar, president, Nagrik Sangharsh Morcha, a citizens' forum that is against the jsl move.
A river squeezed dry Water is scarce in the Raigarh region. In summers, people dig pits on the Kelo riverbed, inscribing their names on the periphery so that nobody else can claim the water that collects in the pits. Groundwater has also depleted. "Earlier, we used to dig only 20 to 30 feet to get water. But from the last three years, we have to go at least 50 to 60 feet. Still, people do not get water," says Kailash Agarwal, a bore well contractor in Raigarh.

For many villages downstream, the Kelo is the sole source of drinking water and irrigation. The Raigarh town alone, with a population of 110,000, requires water to the tune of 14,850 cubic metre per day (cmd). The supply is just about 9,450 cmd, of which 4,500 cmd is from the river, the rest coming through bore wells, according to the Public Health Engineering ( phe ) office. "How can we allow the jsl to take water as we are already facing scarcity," says Bahidar. In future, there is bound to be water crises. According to projections, Raigarh town's population, and hence the water demand, will almost double by 2015. Adding jsl' s requirement of 38,400 cmd, and the villagers' needs, the total water demand will be over 100,000 cmd.

The situation is impossible, according to the Zilla Jal Upyogata Samiti ( zjus , the District Water Utilisation Council), a joint body of state government officials. In summer months, the Kelo cannot even provide a fraction of the demand. Going by the available river-flow data of the water resource division of Raigarh, the water content in the Kelo can plummet to 7,571 cmd. "In the period of minimum water flow, not even the required amount of drinking water will be available," notes the zjus . In 1996, the council denied jsl access to the Kelo based on this conclusion. Yet, the steel company had its way. The finger of suspicion, quite obviously, points at the state government.

Watered down norms
The jsl captive power plant has mainly depended on groundwater. J M Saksena, senior general manager, jsl , says: "We have constructed four reservoir tanks... Besides, the supply is augmented by (a) few bore wells." He claims that the supply is inadequate and the capacity utilisation of the plant is 60 per cent of its installed capacity.

Badly in need of water, jsl announced a plan to draw water from the Kelo for the power plant and the factory in 1995. In response, zjus gave conditional clearance to jsl to build a small stop dam upstream of Raigarh town. The condition was that the company would take care of the water demand in Raigarh town and its increase over the next 20 years.

The residents objected. "How can we trust Jindal to take care of our water needs? Till now he has not given us anything except destruction," says Nirmal Singh, a resident of the town, who mobilised villagers against jsl . A former chief municipal officer pointed out to the dc that if jsl was allowed to draw water from the Kelo, the town would face a water crisis. In June 1996, zjus revoked its conditional clearance. The council also noted that the proposed stop dam would lead to considerable agricultural losses.

The council asked jsl to look for an alternative -- to draw water from the Maand, another river in the area. But jsl claims that a dam on Maand leaves little water for them. jsl' s Saksena notes: "Maand is a perennially dry river ( sic ), especially from November to June. The company had no option but to approach government for permission to draw water from the Kelo." The government gave in to the demand. In October 1996, a new committee was set up to examine the water requirement for power projects and industries in mp . The new committee granted permission to jsl to draw water from the Kelo. However, in the face of stiff protest from the people, the administration had to revoke the permission.

Then, not surprisingly, came another committee. Headed by V S Verma, member secretary and chief engineer, survey and research, Bhopal, the committee granted permission to jsl for building a pick-up weir (a small structure to harness river water) downstream of Raigarh. Subsequently in April 1997, yet another committee formed by the state government, the P S Goindi committee, allowed jsl to build a dam four km downstream of the town and draw water from mid-June to February, when water is not scarce. The zjus endorsed this decision. The norms were further diluted. In May 1997, the industrial house was granted permission to build a stop dam only two km downstream of Raigarh town. In September 1997, this was reduced to just 1.35 km downstream of an existing dam of the phe department. The company had got what it wanted.

Nerves of steel
However, the Garhmaria panchayat, which includes village Boda Tikra where the intake well is being built, decided to put up a fight. But the Company overcame this impediment by bribing the sarpanch (leader of the village council) and other members, villagers allege. One of members refused to accept the bribe and spilled the beans. On December 16, 1997, the gram sabha (village council) of the panchayat decided to launch a full-fledged agitation. The dc called two meetings with the villagers in January 1998. But the villagers refused to budge. On January 10, the villagers decided to start a fast unto death.

They dug up the approach road to the Kelo to prevent the jsl personnel from reaching the river. Work on intake well was stalled. "Now, most of the villagers are on a direct confrontation course with the company," says Gopinath, Satyabhama's widower. Gopinath says that after his wife's death, the company offered jobs to and him and his sons to scuttle the agitation. But he says he is determined to continue his wife's fight.

On his part, Singh tried to bring back normalcy, but in vain. "In the interest of the people, we have proposed that the construction of the intake well should be handed over to the irrigation department so that people are not cheated," says Singh. He acknowledges that the river does not have the required amount of water, but expresses his helplessness, as the government has taken the decision.

Dirty deals
The dispute over river water is not the only complaint of the villagers of Raigarh against jsl . They say the company has snatched their land and fouled their air, giving them nothing in return. Those working at the factory feel that the company has not taken appropriate safety measures in the steel plant.

"When Jindals arrived here, we were excited. But the day production started, we felt betrayed," says Ram Kumar Agarwal, a politician who was formerly a member of the state legislative assembly from the ruling Congress party. He is now a leader of the agitation. Agarwal says that the Jindals are very close to the chief minister of the state, and are protected by the state government machinery. "Jindals run a parallel government in Raigarh. The villager are not ready to accept it," says Agarwal. Panch Ram Chauhan, 60, who lives in village Patarapalli next to the plant, alleges that many local people lost their land to jsl .

District-level officials, on the condition of anonymity, note that they are powerless before Jindals' might, for any move against the company is countered at "high levels". Sensing widespread discontent among the villagers, Durgesh M Awasthi, former superintendent of police, wrote in 1994 to the then dc D P Tiwari that a lot of incidents at the jsl plant go unnoticed. He cautioned that in future, such incidents might create problems in Raigarh. He urged the dc to inspect safety lapses at the jsl plant and recommended the closure of the plant till an expert certifies that the required safety measures have been taken.

Smoke from the factory drifts across the river, into villages. "Our crop production has also declined by 25 per cent to 30 per cent. All our trees and fields have become black," says Chauhan. Ujjwal Pradhan, 42, from village Khairpur, lives near the factory and has asthma. "My rabi crop has also been destroyed due to the coal ash thrown away by the Jindals on my land," he complains. He is also fighting a land case against jsl.

In 1994, S S Raghuvanshi, former chairperson of the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board, wrote to Tiwari alleging that jsl has not taken any precautionary measures to control air pollution. He noted that there was high concentration of dust particles in the air. But little seems to have been done. "Nothing substantial has been done to prevent the pollution by the company," says Singh. It will be a long and difficult fight for the villagers. But after Satyabhama's death, the seem determined to go all the way.

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