Damning report

Jharkhand police accused of using brute force to quell anti-dam drive

Published: Thursday 28 February 2002

nearly half a century after the Koel-Karo hydroelectric project (sited in present-day Jharkhand) was conceived, tribal protests against the venture continue unabated. An independent inquiry into the latest incident -- in which eight tribal people were killed and 36 others injured just over a year back in police firing at Tapkara -- recently concluded that the police action was illegal, brutal and in blatant violation of human rights.

The probe was conducted by Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation (ngo) Indian People's Tribunal on Environment and Human Rights (ipt), which is headed by Justice Rajinder Sachar, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court.

The incident occurred on February 2, 2001, when the police opened fire on an unarmed gathering at Tapkara police station. The members of the tribal community had assembled there to express their resentment over the removal of the 'people's barricade' by the police near Derang village. The barricade had come to be identified as a signpost of the agitation against the proposed dam on Koel and Karo rivers in the state that has been carved out of Bihar. It had existed at the site for nearly 30 years.

There are two diametrically opposite versions of the firing episode: one by the Koel-Karo Jan Sangathan (kkjs), an ngo of the affected people, and the other by the police as stated in the fir (first information report). According to the latter, the crowd had suddenly become restive and started pelting stones. It was also alleged that the mob burnt three police vehicles and one motorcycle, and ransacked the police station. The police were, therefore, left with no option but to open fire in self-defence, they claimed.

A preliminary fact-finding team of the Indian National Social Action Forum (insaf), an ngo, visited the site shortly after the incident. It recommended a probe by the ipt and a public hearing on the issue.

The tribunal is of the view that the police version contains many incongruities. Firstly, the fact that firing took place from three sides raises eyebrows. Then there is the testimony of those residing in the vicinity of the police station. They have stated that the police themselves torched the vehicles and ransacked the police station. Legislator Koche Munda, who was present at the police post during the incident, confirms that the gathering was peaceful.

Surprisingly, Jharkhand chief minister Babulal Marandi -- a one-time supporter of the tribal cause -- has remained a silent spectator, taking no action against the police and not even ordering a probe into the incident.

As per the tribunal's recommendations, the dependents of those who died in the police firing should get Rs five lakh compensation and the injured should be given Rs two lakh. Further, steps must be initiated against the police officials involved in the episode.

The tribunal also recommends that the Koel-Karo project should be abandoned. The 1973 project is not feasible today in terms of its socio-economic costs, it feels. Moreover, no environmental impact assessment has been done for this project.

Work on the controversial 710-mega watt Koel Karo project was halted by the Supreme Court in the early 1980s, when it acted on a writ petition filed by a tribal leader. The project was first conceived in 1954 to promote lift irrigation, rural electrification and industrialisation in Ranchi, Gumla and Singbhum districts. Several contentious issues have become stumbling blocks for the dam's construction.

The structure would submerge about 10,552 hectares of cultivable land and displace 3,282 families in 26 villages of Gumla district and 16 villages of Ranchi district of which 90 per cent are tribal people. The movement had a single demand: comprehensive rehabilitation -- social, economic and cultural. As usual the package provided by the government was poor.

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