Land Acquisition For Mining Coal In Bengal: Mounting Protests Can Become A Replay Of The Singur-Nandigram Stir
Strong arm tactics are not likely to stamp out opposition to the mega mining project, but they can easily lead to an intensification of the protests that can find resonance in other parts of the state.
History may be set to repeat itself in Bengal. Fifteen years ago, protests against forcible acquisition of land for industrial projects in Nandigram and Singur snowballed into a movement against the then ruling Left Front government and eventually catapulted Mamata Banerjee to power.
Banerjee, now on the other side of the fence, is facing the ire of potential land losers — many of them tribals — in a 3.4 lakh acre swathe of Birbhum where the world’s second largest coal block is located. The Deocha-Panchami coal block in Bengal's Birbhum district was allotted by the Union government to Bengal and has an estimated 2012 million tonnes of coal reserves.
Cash-starved Bengal that has been driven deep into the red by Banerjee’s populism is excited about the prospect of earning huge revenue from the coal that can be mined from the area. Mining can also generate many jobs, though mostly menial, for locals.
But most of the 21,000-odd persons belonging to 4,314 households living in 12 villages spread over the coal block are staunchly opposed to mining. About 43 per cent (9,034 persons) of them are tribals and over 17 per cent are Dalits.
There are some, though, who are willing to part with their lands in return for the generous compensation — more than three times the current value of their lands and one government job for every land-losing family — announced by the state government. But, say the large number of opponents of the mining project, the willing are very few in numbers and are either associated with the Trinamool, or have been ‘bought over’ by the government.
The Compensation Package
Last year, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had announced a Rs 10,000 crore compensation package for those who would be displaced or affected by the project. She had said that the 3,000 labourers working in stone crushing units there would receive an annual maintenance of Rs 1.2 lakh each.
The 160 agricultural labourers would get a one-time compensation of Rs 50,000 each and 100 days’ work for 500 days. The state government had fixed compensations ranging from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 13 lakh per bigha of land to be acquired for the project. Above all this, all the affected families would receive a one-time grant of Rs 5.5 lakh for shifting from their existing houses to the new 600 square feet concrete houses that the government would build for them away from the project site. Moreover, one person from each project-affected family has been promised the job of a junior police constable.
The Chief Minister assured that the rehabilitation colony where these houses for the project-affected people will be built will have all civic amenities — piped water supply, electricity, roads, healthcare and anganwadi centres, banking facilities, ration shops, schools, community centres, places of worship, playgrounds and other facilities that would be provided by the government.
But Locals Are Unwilling
But despite this ‘generous’ compensation package, it is estimated that 85 per cent of the local people are opposing the project. They do not want to be displaced from their homes and are happy with the earnings from their farmlands. They also resent the fact that the state government violated established protocols by not taking them into confidence. The locals allege that the state government failed to carry out a thorough environment impact assessment and the mining will cause irreparable damage to the local ecology.
The locals grow vegetables, pulses, oilseeds and paddy and supplement their incomes through stone quarrying. They claim they earn enough to sustain themselves and do not want to face an uncertain future by being uprooted from their homes and losing their farmlands and livelihood. The 4,314 families who will be displaced own about 2.04 lakh acres (of the total project area of 3.04 lakh acres) of land and the rest is government-owned land.
“Money is not everything. We have farmlands that yield a recurring income. The cash compensation that is being offered will not last forever. We will be tempted to buy expensive items and will blow up all that money, and will ultimately become paupers. It is not wise to be greedy. We don’t know anything about financial investments yielding steady returns that the government officials tell us about. So we all feel it is better to continue with agriculture and earn modest incomes rather than get a huge sum of money that will only last for a short period,” Gobinda Soren, a local farmer, told Swarajya.
The locals also fear that the irreversible damage to the environment caused by mining will adversely affect their lives and that of their future generations. “Streams and rivers will get polluted and mining will pollute the air, causing illnesses. This entire area will become unfit for habitation,” said Sunil Kisku, another villager.
Not Consulted, Say Locals
Banerjee had declared in July 2020 (when the handing over of the coal block was announced by the Union government) that senior state officials, including then chief secretary Rajiva Sinha, had held “detailed consultations” with the local people and explained the project “at length” to them. Banerjee also claimed that “all queries by local stakeholders were addressed” (read this tweet).
Banerjee also declared: “We will create a model for India to execute large projects like Deocha Pachami Coal Block. This shall be done in phases & with full public support by adopting best mining practices in a time bound manner”.
Locals dispute Banerjee’s claim that senior state officials held “detailed discussions” with them. “Perfunctory discussions may have been held with some Trinamool functionaries and supporters, but never with us. Most of us were unaware of the project and there were only some rumours about it. Later on, we were only told that we would have to sell our lands to the government and would get a very good price for it. We were also told that we would be rehabilitated elsewhere, but no details were provided,” said Kisku.
Local tribal bodies like the gram sansad were never taken into confidence and the locals allege that the Birbhum district administration, the police and Trinamool muscle men are pressuring villagers to accept the compensation package being offered and give up their lands.
Laws governing the acquisition of lands for mining and other projects by the government lay down a detailed procedure for such acquisition. Public hearings involving all local people have to be held and the entire project, including any adverse fallout (like damage to the local environment) have to be explained to the local people.
Such public hearings have to be transparent and well documented and the local administration has to mark the attendance of at least 90 per cent of local people, especially those who would be affected by the particular project, at such hearings. After that, feedback about the project has to be collected from the local people. Lastly, consent from at least 85 per cent of the people who would be affected by that project would have to be taken in writing.
Activists say that the state government bypassed this entire procedure and has preferred to deploy strong-arm tactics to force locals to part with their lands. Their allegations fly in the face of Banerjee’s assertion on the floor of the state assembly on 9 November last year (read this) that her government would not resort to forcible acquisition of land, as had been done by the Left Front government in Singur in 2006, for the coal mining project.
Strong Arm Tactics
That the government and the ruling Trinamool is deploying strong arm tactics to throttle opposition and force the locals to accept the compensation package is quite evident from recent developments.
Those opposed to the mining project have formed an organisation called the ‘Birbhum jibon, jibika o prakriti bachao mahasabha’ (Birbhum Mahasabha For Saving Lives, Livelihood and Environment). The mahasabha gave a call for a protest meeting near Birbhum’s Dewanganj football grounds on 20 February.
When the organisers of the protest meeting sought police permission, they were told to get the consent of the owner of the grounds where the meeting would be held. The organisers did that, but the night before the meeting, the police informed them (the organisers) that the owner of the ground had withdrawn his consent.
The Trinamool then deployed its musclemen to stop people from attending the protest meeting. Their prime targets were leaders of some left outfits and civil society groups which had lent support to the anti-land acquisition protests.
Well-known activist Avik Saha, the secretary of Swaraj India (founded by controversial activist Yogendra Yadav) was a target and Trinamool goons tried to prevent him from reaching the protest site on the night of 19 February.
Though the protest meeting passed off peacefully the next day, some activists who had gone there from Kolkata and other parts of the state were stopped about two kilometres away while returning after the meeting.
The activists allege that Trinamool cadres led by one party functionary Sunil Soren attacked their vehicles and tried to manhandle them. The local people rushed to the aid of the besieged activists and detained Soren.
The activists met with another protest, this time one led by local Trinamool leader Kali Banerjee, further down the road. They dialled the Birbhum district police chief for help. The activists alleged that the police arrived after an hour, but detained and ultimately arrested nine of them.
The police slapped stringent charges including attempted murder (of Sunil Soren) on the nine activists. The arrested got bail only on 1 March.
Locals say that Trinamool cadres are intimidating them regularly. “Whenever we go out of our villages or go to work on our farmlands, Trinamool workers and musclemen accost us and issue dire warnings and threats to us. They tell us that if we do not sell our lands and move away, they will harm us. But such threats will not deter us,” said a villager.
While such strong arm tactics are not likely to stamp out opposition to the mega mining project, they (the tactics) can easily go wrong and lead to an intensification of the protests that can find resonance in other parts of the state, as had happened with the Nandigram and Singur protests. Like the then Left Front government, Banerjee will also find it difficult to douse the widespread protests then.
“Using strong-arm tactics and extra-legal means carry huge risks. Even a small wrong move like an assault or attack on a protestor or an activist can go wrong and trigger louder and more intense protests that can easily spiral out of control,” said Gautam Chandra Banik, a retired police officer.
“It is impossible for the (Trinamool) leadership to keep its cadres on a tight leash and prevent them from committing any excess or making a wrong move. The cadres have been asked to intimidate those opposed to the mining project and ensure that the protests die down. But since the protests are continuing, these cadres will get frustrated and will be tempted to use more strong-arm measures. They are most likely to get physical and that is where things can go wrong,” Banik added.
A number of ultra-left outfits, including the CPI (ML) Liberation have jumped into the fray and have started fishing in the troubled waters. They are organising the protesters and are planning to intensify the protests.
Police say that Maoists are also getting involved. “These ultra-left outfits want to precipitate a crisis that will turn national attention to the project and derail it, and also show the state government in a very poor light,” said a senior police officer who did not want to be named.
According to police reports compiled during the Singur and Nandigram movements, Banerjee had also covertly taken the help of Maoists and some ultra-left outfits to organise the protesters that time. The Maoists had even provided arms and arms training to some people in Nandigram.
“It is an irrefutable fact that Mamata Banerjee took the help of Maoists and ultra-left organisations in Nandigram and Singur. She used them for her narrow political benefits and derailed the chemical hub project (in Nandigram) and the Tata Nano project (in Singur). These Maoists made Nandigram a ‘liberated zone’ and declared it ‘out of bounds’ for the police and state administration. When the state tried to reclaim the area and drive out the Maoists, the police were attacked with lethal arms by the Maoists and a group of villagers they had trained,” said a CPI(M) leader.
Banerjee is now on the other side of the fence — in the seat of power — and the ultra-leftists are getting involved in opposition to a mega project that Banerjee hopes will benefit Bengal, just as her predecessor (Buddhadeb Bhattacharya) had hoped that the chemical hub at Nandigram and Tata Nano plant in Singur would change the face of Bengal.
The million-dollar question is: will Banerjee’s dream, like Bhattacharya’s, also get shattered? And, like in the case of Bhattacharya, will the current anti-land acquisition protests spell major trouble for her?
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