Barmer farmers protest Jindal power project

By Sumana Narayanan
Published: Friday 29 February 2008

Supporters of the protesting f (Credit: SUMANA NARAYANAN)People in Kapurdi hamlet, some 30 km from Rajasthan's Barmer town, are unusually suspicious of strangers. They stop and question every outsider driving through the area. What is making them so wary is land acquisition for Jindal group's power plant and lignite mine coming up in the area. The government is acquiring 8,000 hectares (ha) for the project, which will affect 40,000 people in 30 villages close to nh-15. It has already taken 480 ha around Bhadres village in Barmer tehsil .

The Ministry of Environment and Forests (moef) is yet to clear the project. Velu Annamalai, the chairperson of the expert committee on mining projects, which reviews projects and makes recommendations to moef, says, "This (the Barmer mining project) has not come up before the committee. I have not received the papers pertaining to it." Same is the case with the power plant, says Arijit Dey, a member of the committee on thermal power plants.

Alarmed, the farmers are not allowing government officials to enter the hamlets and collect data on villages and their holdings. "If we are forced out of our land we will die. We are ready to die to save our land," says Indu Singh of Kapurdi. Farmers across the villages echo his resolve. They formed an anti-acquisition group and on December 2007 filed a petition against Jindal subsidiary RajWest Power in the Jodhpur bench of the Rajasthan High Court, citing lack of measures to mitigate environmental and social impacts.

Farmers in Rohili ki dhani, Lakhitali, Ishwarpura and Botiya villages say the government is offering them a Rs 142,000 per ha when the market value is four times this. Asked about the right price, Bhire Ram of Bhadres villages said, "There is no question of the right price. We cannot contemplate selling our land. What use is a farmer without his land?" He sold some land in 2006. "The government railroaded us into selling land. Most of us are illiterate. What can we do?" he asks.

Lip service First of the eight units of the 1,080 mw plant is under construction at Bhadres. Lignite will be sourced from neighbouring Jalipa and Kapurdi villages. Farmers say the project does not need 8,000 ha. They suspect the company may sell the land at profit to other industries. A senior official with the Barmer Lignite Mining Company--a public-private partnership between the Rajasthan State Mines and Minerals Limited (rsmml) and RajWest Power--denies it is grabbing extra land. He says 60 per cent of the land will be for mining. "The law requires us to do some plantation to mitigate ecological damage. So we need the land," he says. But plantation is neither mandatory, nor enough to mitigate mining impact. The farmers also contend that the plant, fuelled by low-grade coal or lignite, will use a polluting technology.

Down to Earth
Alleged beneficiaries of RajWest's R&R package considering the deal

The plan is to complete the first unit by the end of 2008 and have the plant running at full capacity by March 2009. So the scheme to rehabilitate and compensate the 40,000 farmers must be ready? Far from it. There is no rehabilitation plan or resettlement colony that the farmers have heard of. Officials at rsmml, RajWest Power and Barmer Lignite Mining Company say rehabilitation will be carried out in accordance with the 2007 national resettlement and rehabilitation (r&r) policy. But they do not say how. Officials at Raj West Power's corporate communication said they could not comment on any aspect of the project because they had an ipo (initial public offering) pending with the Securities Exchange Board of India.

Those who have sold their land got monetary compensation, not land as required by the 2007 r&r policy, says Kusvinder Singh, the lawyer representing the farmers. The policy says the land should be acquired at the market rate and the affected given land for land wherever possible. It also makes social impact assessment necessary for projects causing involuntary displacement of 400 families. This should take into consideration the impact the project will have on public and community properties and infrastructure.

Rehabilitation as a farce Company officials may not give any details of their resettlement plan for farmers, but are quiet voluble about 'animal rehabilitation'. "We will also rehabilitate animals," says D R Bishnoi, assistant manager, mining, RajWest. How? "When we plant trees the animals will come by themselves from nearby areas," he says. And he actually means it. Small wonder the farmers are wary.

A water-guzzling electricity plant looks a little odd in a dry region. A plant the size of the proposed one needs 37 million cubic metres per year, which can support a population of two million. The company will bring water from the Indira Gandhi Canal near Jaisalmer, 200 km away, through a pipeline. Barmer residents, who are supposed to get water from the same canal, are still waiting. District Collector Subir Kumar says the canal water for domestic use will be available by 2010. The canal has a history of unfulfilled promises. Every time water is diverted to a new feeder canal in Bikaner, farmers protest.

These concerns notwithstanding, rsmml is busy surveying the area and persuading people to sell their land. The bjp mp from Barmer, Manvendra Singh, has added his voice to farmer's protest, while people close to the chief minister are said to be promoting the project. Asked how he planned to take up the cause, he said, "It is for the government and the company to take some action." Adil of Mahila Mandal Barmer Agor, an ngo working on women's issues, says, "It is a question of politics. This project has the blessings of the right people in the state government, so no matter what, it will come through."

Call it posturing or desperation, the farmers are billing their fight as the next Nandigram.

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