Allegations of illegal land grab in Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, brings the focus back on the cost borne by locals for development.

Almost 13 years after selling their land to TRN Energy Pvt Ltd, which wanted to set up a 600 MW thermal power plant in Chhattisgarh’s Raigarh district, 88 villagers, including tribals as well as non-tribals, from Benghari, Khokhraoma, Katangdi and Nawapara Tenda villages have now alleged forgery and use of force and coercion by middlemen.

It has been alleged that the locals were duped when their land was sold to TRN Energy and Mahavir Energy Coal Beneficiation Ltd, which has already set up a biomass power plant on land across the four villages.

The villagers allege that their land was bought through illegal benami transactions with signatures being taken on blank paper. The monetary compensation, offered in lieu of land, is far less than the actual market price.

Discontent stems not just from inadequate compensation but also due to forged sale deeds, with the villagers alleging that more land has been sold than what was agreed upon by the owners. The total area of land acquired by both the private firms is around 900 acres across four villages of Raigarh district, which is 263 kms from Raipur.


Complaint by Villagers

Pavitri Manjhi, the sarpanch of Benghari village, in her complaint dated 23 June 2016, has alleged harassment by TRN Energy officials Birender Singh and Raju Pathak, who threatened her with dire consequences for not according an NoC (No Objection Certificate) on behalf of the gram sabha. To build pressure, Manjhi’s sons were allegedly framed in false cases in 2014.

At a press conference in Raipur in June, Kishore Narayan, the lawyer who is helping the villagers fight a legal battle on behalf of the Adivasi Mazdoor Sangh, said: “Almost everyone has sold their land to the same person on the same day. People who thought they were selling 5 acres found out later that 15 acres was given away to the company.”

Pavitri Manjhi, the sarpanch of Bhengari village has alleged harassment and intimidation by representatives of the company.
Pavitri Manjhi, the sarpanch of Bhengari village has alleged harassment and intimidation by representatives of the company. (Photo: The Quint)

Benami Transactions – the Tip of an Iceberg

How was the transaction settled between the villagers and private companies? The names of the companies have not been mentioned in the sale deed (agreement between the buyer and seller), suggesting that the property was bought and transferred to middlemen who initially struck deals with the locals, and thereafter the land was transferred to the company.

But benami transaction is just the tip of an iceberg. There are instances of alleged forged sale deeds as well, hinting at collusion between state officials and the local land mafia. For example, a sale deed on behalf of Mohanlal, resident of Gharghoda tehsil in Raigarh, mentions the date as 21 March 2010, which was a Sunday.

It was Sunday, on the date 21 March 2010 as shown in the sale deed above.
It was Sunday, on the date 21 March 2010 as shown in the sale deed above. (Photo: The Quint)

Case Against Pvt Firms

On 14 June 2017, the villagers approached the Raigarh police station to lodge an FIR under the SC/ST Act or the Prevention of Atrocities Act. Police recorded statements of villagers and are now supposedly ascertaining facts as part of their preliminary inquiry, which could take between 15 days to three weeks.

The case against the private firms is also based on Section 170 (b) of the Chhattisgarh Land Revenue code that prohibits sale of land belonging to tribals to non-tribals or outsiders. The private company, in this case, is an “outsider”.

Also Read: Chhattisgarh Government Strips Forest Community of Land Rights

If a gram sabha in the scheduled area finds that any person, other than a member of an aboriginal tribe, is in possession of any land of a bhumiswami (land owner) belonging to an aboriginal tribe, without any lawful authority, it shall restore the possession of such land to that person to whom it originally belonged and if that person is dead to his legal heirs

Section 170 (b), Chhattisgarh Land Revenue Code 1959

Police have recorded statements of villagers as part of its ongoing preliminary inquiry.
Police have recorded statements of villagers as part of its ongoing preliminary inquiry. (Photo: The Quint)

Clearance From Environment Ministry

In a letter dated 18 March 2011, the Ministry of Environment and Forests granted clearance to the TRN Energy’s thermal power plant after a public hearing on 14 July 2010, with the cost of the project being estimated at Rs 2,820 crore.

The clearance was granted subject to certain conditions, like generating jobs and adopting at least three nearest villages, ensuring basic amenities such as drinking water, primary health centre, primary school etc in coordination with the district administration. Locals, however, say not much has been done on this front.

No roads were built. Only a school boundary and a pond were built by Mahabir Energy. TRN has done nothing

Sukhram Rathia, Resident, Khokhraoma village, Raigarh

We have given our land, but there’s no permanent job. They should hire us. We didn’t get our full compensation

Maheshwati, Resident, Khokhraoma village, Raigarh

The question is, if indeed there was a dispute over land, why didn’t the issue of illegal land grab crop up at the stage of environmental clearance?

“Concealing factual data or submission of false/fabricated data and failure to comply with any of the conditions mentioned above may result in withdrawal of this clearance and attract action under the provisions of Environment (Protection) Act, 1986”, states the letter by the ministry, a copy of which was sent to the authorities concerned in Chhattisgarh.

Political Link

According to company research platform, TOFLER, as on 17 April 2017, TRN Energy is an unlisted private company incorporated on 17 November 2006, with paid-up capital of Rs 74,566.81 lakh. It is a subsidiary of ACB (Aryan Coal Beneficiations) India Limited, with the company’s website listing Rudra Sen Sindhu as its chairman-cum-managing director.

Sindhu is the brother of BJP leader Capt Abhimanyu, who is a cabinet minister in Haryana. The election watch website, My Neta, shows Capt Abhimanyu holding 3,026,926 shares of ACB India Ltd as of 2014. Rudra Sen Sindhu is also the son-in-law of BJP leader and former Delhi chief minister Late Sahib Singh Verma.

In 2012, ACB’s offices were raided by the Income Tax authorities. Earlier, in September 2009, the CBI registered a case against Aryan Coal Beneficiation Pvt Ltd for “misutilisation and misappropriation” of 73,488.64 metric tonnes of washed coal, causing a loss of Rs 8 crore to the exchequer.

The Quint reached out to ACB India Ltd for their version, but no company official answered specific queries regarding the land deal. There was no response to the email sent to the company as well as HP Gupta, Senior Vice President, ACB India Ltd, at the time of filing this report. The Quint’semail to Capt Abhimanyu also went unanswered.

Legal Options Available

While land was acquired by both the companies in 2004-2007, it was only on 28 January 2016 and 25 June 2015, when complaints were sent to the district magistrate and sub-divisional magistrate by the Khokroama and Nawapara gram sabhas, respectively.

Around 35 of the 88 complainants have received certain amounts of money as compensation. It was promised by the middlemen that the remaining amount would be reimbursed, according to Degree Prasad Chauhan, Convenor, Dalit Adivasi Mazdoor Sangh, Raigarh.

What explains such a prolonged delay?

They (villagers) should’ve raised objections within the first three months after the project got clearance, they can approach the high court now. Non-compliance of norms (by the company) can be a ground for revocation of approval for the project. Time is a deciding factor in such criminal matters

Ritwick Dutta, Lawyer and Environmental Activist

Questions emailed to Kedarnath Kashyap, Minister of Tribal Affairs (Chhattisgarh) and Ajay Chandrakar, Rural Development Minister (Chhattisgarh), went unanswered.