Ajodhya villagers, forest dwellers stop Bengal govt project at court for now

The state government acquired the land for Turga Pumped Storage Project;illegally, ruled the Calcutta high court
Turga lake is 10 kilometres away from the Purulia Pumped Storage Project. Image: Google Maps
Turga lake is 10 kilometres away from the Purulia Pumped Storage Project. Image: Google Maps

Villagers and forest dwellers near Ajodhya Hills in West Bengal’s Purulia district recently secured a legal victory against a state government project that allegedly violated the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.

The Calcutta high court on July 2, 2019 ruled that the process the state adopted to acquire the land for the 1000 MW Turga Pumped Storage Project (TPSP) violated the Act. It earlier stayed the project through August. The judgement came after several hearings were held owing to the absence of the public prosecutor and HC ended up quashing all the documents the state had submitted as permissions acquired for the project.

The TPSP hydroelectric power project, meant for storage and generation of electricity, was planned to take over around 294 hectares of forest land, according to a survey. Its construction would have caused the felling or drowning of 3 lakh trees and put livelihood of the residents of many nearby villages like Barelhar, Ranga, Tadpania, Teliabhasa and others at stake.

The villagers and forest dwellers who would potentially be affected filed a writ petition last year against the project backed by Japan International Cooperation Agency.

“The court order will not let the state cut down anymore trees. But, the state may appeal afresh,” said Santanu Chakraborty, the villagers’ lawyer. “Although we have acquired a verdict in our favour, we know the state will not sit back. And that’s why we need to be prepared for the next fight.”

Not the first or the last

This is not the first time the West Bengal government is damaging the environment with such project and it definitely won’t be the last.

A 900 MW Purulia Pumped Storage Project (PPSP) came up at Ajodhya Hills in Baghmundi block of Purulia district around a decade ago. This West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Co Ltd (WBSEDCL) project allegedly led river Bamni to disappear along with 3 lakh trees and six hillocks.

The company has two more such projects in the pipeline, slated to come up on Bandu and Kanthaljola rivers. The WBSEDCL has already obtained stages 1 and 2 forest and environmental clearances from the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change.

“In the Bandu area, six villages will be affected. But the recent verdict has made the villagers more confident,” said environmental activist Sourav Prakritibadi.

“Now the villagers say if the government tries anything against their will they will not allow it. They are even ready to reach out to other villages and make them understand their rights, advice them on legal aspects if need be,” he added.

The Ajodhya Buru Bachao Andolan Samhati Mancha had also organised a mass convention in Kolkata few months ago to assemble villagers from Ajodhya, environmental activists, lawyers, student activists and civil society members to fight for the issue.

Violations: Legal, environmental and cultural

The state government’s resolution from Baghmundi panchayat has no signatures of consent and one from Ajodhya panchayat has 24 signatures. This is when the population of Ajodhya is more than 1,600, according to the 2011 Census.

According to FRA, if a forest land has to be acquired, then at least 50 per cent of the population dependent on the land has to give consent in Gram Sabha and a third of the villagers have to be women.

The petitioners had also alleged that Purulia district magistrate fabricated certificates of consent and the Centre issued in-principle clearance overlooking these loopholes. Hence, the court quashed these certificates, resolutions of the two gram sabhas and the in-principle forest clearance the MoEF&CC had issued flouting the provisions of FRA, 2006.

“Those involved in animal husbandry need fields and if such projects come up they will be left with no such land. Also, many herbal plants are grown in these filed and the pumped storage projects will drown all these plants,” said Sushil Murmu, who lives near Turga lake.

Forest rights activists feel these projects might dodge the legal nitty-gritty but they definitely will make a big dent on people’s livelihood and cultural sentiments.

The TPSP plan includes destruction of a hillock called Marangburu, which is worshipped by the tribals. The Ajodhya hill too has a “pious” Sutantandi area, which the nearby community considers their social court.

“We are not against the government, but we want our rights to be secured. We are completely dependent on the nature, forest, hills and rivers. We cannot afford those to be destroyed. Even tourists come to Ajodhya hill to enjoy nature. Why destroy that in the name of development?” said Nakul Baske, resident of a nearby village.

The activists believe the HC verdict is an initial win because the court has till now just acted against the illegal procedures followed, not stopped the project completely.   

“This time we are more cautious and don’t want to take any chances. We are telling villagers to not let go of their rights at any cost. They are being brainwashed and offered jobs in the project. We are telling them that even if they get a job, they would retire at 60. But if they save the forest, it will give them and generations to come livelihood,” said Supen Hembram, a teacher in a local school.

“There are around 85 villages in Ajodhya that have two high schools, one junior high school, one primary health centre and two sub-primary health centres. So, instead of disturbing the environment, the state should focus on the development of health and education here,” he added.

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