Monday, 7 July 2014 – IST | Agency: DNA

Hakeem Irfan

Kanhai Ram Patel, 41, of Sarasmal, a tribal village, 40 km from
Raigarh, has 15 FIRs (first information reports) registered against
him in the local police station. This piece of statistic may
traditionally match that of a dreaded criminal but Patel, a farmer, is
fighting for what he calls “survival and justice”.

Patel’s village, a cluster of mud huts divided by a single road, is
surrounded on three sides by an open cast coal mine of Jindal Power
Ltd (JPL). The village seems like a green beach of a black sea of
coal. Patel is one of the few villagers who have not given away their
land and are fighting against JPL, which allegedly discharges
poisonous effluents into his field.

“Whenever I protest along with others, the police register a case
against me. Most witnesses in every case are Jindal employees,”
alleges Patel, while pointing at his lush green field, adjacent to the
coal mine. Patel’s family and seven other villagers, including four
tribals, who own around 38 acres of land, have decided not to yield to
any pressure and fight it out in the court.

“They (company) try every possible way to throw us out and take away
our land,” adds Patel, who is dependent on the produce from his field
and rental income from the two shops he owns in another village. In
his field, Patel grows fruit and vegetables and has a mahua tree as
well. “I want to save this greenery for my progeny. But in sometime I
dread this whole village will be wiped out,” he sighs.

The last house of Sarasmal village belongs to a tribal labourer, Bal
Mukund Rathia, who has given away his land to the company at a meagre
compensation of Rs 50,000 per acre. “It was a sort of forced
acquisition,” Rathia laments. But now even his house is not safe. The
compound seems to be an extension of the coal mine, with heaps of soil
and rubble dug from the mine by JPL, dumped in the premises.

“Everyday I feel tremors in the house twice, due to blasting in the
mine — my next door neighbour. Some rocks even land on the rooftop or
compound,” says Rathia, whose family includes a two-year-old child.
The water pump outside his house is dry as ground water has depleted
alarmingly. The women go to a common water tank nearby, which is
installed by Jindal Power as part of its corporate social
responsibility. While moving out of the village, heaps of rubble were
seen dumped in the fields, which, Rathia said, has not been acquired

“The company wants us to be completely dependent on them and mock us
with these sort of water tanks. We installed our own electric motor to
pull water from the bore, but the electricity department took it away,
demanding submission of electricity bills of Rs 7 lakh. It is just
another tactic to harass us,” says Patel. The village pond is also
polluted due to coal dust and black water emissions from the mine.
But, people washing clothes and taking bath in the pond is a common
scene. Villagers complain of various water- borne, skin and
respiratory diseases.

Raigarh district magistrate Mukesh Bansal told this reporter that
there should be a gap of at least 300 metres between the coal mine and
nearest residential house and 100 metres from the village pond or the
field. “I have not been able to visit Sarasmal yet. But I will
definitely go there and take action, if there is any violation,” he

The government also has not conducted any environmental or health
study in the region for more than a decade. Environment and health
department officials in Raigarh, pleading anonymity, rued about poor
infrastructure and dearth of human resource. The locals have also
raised questions on the land acquisition by mining companies including
Jindal Steel and Power, while referring to the Panchayat Extension to
Schedule Areas (PESA) Act. The Act covers most areas in the mining
region and makes gram sabha and panchayat clearances mandatory for
such processes.

“Here, the companies have even faked clearances as gram sabhas were
held under heavy security and duress in 2008. There have also been
instances when they were not held,” Patel said. A study conducted by
the Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies and Raigarh’s Jan Chetna
says, in Sarasmal, companies have even threatened or intimidated
villagers into selling their land.

“Intimidation includes dumping material on individual’s land, blocking
access to their fields, cutting down trees, forcibly digging up land
and many others. In Sarasmal and Kosampali, we found 26 percent of
land were sold or acquired illegally by companies,” the 35-page study
reveals. “Illegal occupation of land by the company accounts for 22
per cent in Sarasmal and Kosampali.”

While, this reporter drove out of the village, passing through the
common road that also leads to the coal mine entry gate, security
guards of the mine, intercepted. “Where are you from?” they asked.
“Delhi,” this reporter replied and drove away, before they could ask
anything more.

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