Since coming to power last year, the Indian leader has diluted ecological protections in the name of development
TAMNAR, India — Tarika Lakra’s days have a predictable quality. The 32-year-old is a nurse in the Tamnar village government hospital in Raigarh district in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, where she works eight hours per day in the women’s ward. Afterward, she does an hour of housekeeping and cooking in the staff quarters that she shares with her husband, a shop owner. Then, all evening and during her days off, she meets with lawyers and the police, goes to court and spends long hours reading legal documents and scouring the Internet, trying to keep up with the rapid undoing of everything she holds dear. “That’s the role taking over my life,” says Lakra. “I’m fighting a giant every day.”
Until eight years ago, Lakra’s evenings looked very different. They were spent at her orchard — 27.5 acres of fertile land packed with about 300 mango trees, 400 cashew, 315 sagwan teak and 400 of the local mahua. Her father had spent his life’s savings on this piece of land, Lakra says, irrigating it and putting in two tube wells. He taught his daughter how to graft stems, choose fertilizer and tend to a tree so that it would produce the best fruit. After he died, Lakra took over. “He dreamt that this land should be a patch of man-made paradise resembling the forest nearby, that it should employ many villagers and be a proud gift to pass on to his grandchildren,” she says. “But a family like mine can’t have dreams in Raigarh.”
Raigarh is part of Chhattisgarh’s massive industrial belt and has long attracted steel, cement and thermal-power companies to its rich seams of coal. Tamnar village is where it all began, with the government granting Jindal Steel & Power Ltd, or JSPL, a coal-mining permit in 1996, making it the first private company to generate power in India. It started with a capacity of 1,000 megawatts, now expanded to 2,400. Today, Raigarh is often called Jindal Kingdom. JSPL has an enormous campus with thermal power and steel plants. In addition to its coal mines, it runs a private college and numerous schools, which sprawl through half the district. Gradually, other private companies, such as Adani Mining, Monnet Ispat and Hindalco Industries, also flocked here.
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Lakra’s fertile orchard now belongs to JSPL. But her land was purloined, not purchased, she says. In May 2003, Lakra went out to her orchard to check on the harvest, only to find a mountain of debris dumped on the land. “I thought it was a mistake,” she says. Though Lakra had received a company notice asking for her land, she had not yet made a decision to sell. But when she went to her farm, a group of thugs stopped her at her gate, claiming that the property belonged to JSPL.
She filed a complaint accusing the company of grabbing her land, but the police and state government officials ignored her, Lakra says. JSPL paid her about 1.5 million rupees ($24,000) as compensation, which she estimates to be a fourth of the market value for a plot as fertile as hers. JSPL’s lawyers in Chhattisgarh High Court-Bilaspur countered that the orchard had only one nilgiri tree, one tamarind tree and a thatched house. “They said it was barren land and they’d paid its worth,” scoffs Lakra. The court ordered the company to stop building on her land until the case was settled, but the thugs stayed, and soon the O.P. Jindal engineering college and a private road were built where her trees once grew.
Lakra has now joined forces with two others, among hundreds, with similar experiences. Krishnalal Sao is a 51-year-old constable in the home guards, an auxiliary service to the state police. He lost two acres after someone dumped rubble on his harvest of rice. When a neighbor told him about it, Sao ran there to stop them, but goons intercepted him. A notice on his gate declared the land to be the property of JSPL. When he tried to file a report at the police station, a senior policeman suggested he give in. An angry Sao handed in his resignation and went to court alleging intimidation and land grabbing. He now runs a photocopying store in Tamnar while he awaits a court hearing.
Lakra’s other partner is 67-year-old Raghunath Chaudhry, who owns a run-down store selling bits and bobs outside the enormous steel gate of the JSPL premises. He says that in 2004, his then-16-year-old son was beaten up regularly on his way to school because the family refused to sell their five-acre plot to the company. “Finally [on July 7, 2005], some men dragged him inside the Jindal campus and poisoned him,” says Chaudhry. The teenager staggered home, told his mother he felt woozy, lay down to sleep and never woke up. “We were so distressed, we cremated our son the next morning,” says Chaudhry. It was only a few days later, when his farmland was snatched, that Chaudhry wondered if the two events were connected. Afraid for the rest of his family, he didn’t file a police report of land grabbing or allege murder for months. “But seeing Tarika and Krishnalal, I also decided to fight this,” he says.
Despite numerous requests for comment from JSPL’s public-relations officer and the company’s general manager in Tamnar, neither replied. The tehsildar, or revenue administrator, and superintendent of police in Raigarh also declined to respond.
JSPL now owns Lakra’s, Sao’s and Chaudhry’s assets. “Two or three batches [of students] have graduated from the college on my orchard,” says Lakra. From his little shop, Chaudhry points to the smoking towers of the power plant behind him, visible against the horizon from anywhere in the village. A part of it stands on his land. “Seeing it is a reminder of how I don’t matter,” he says. “We keep fighting for the truth while the lie is establishing itself into a concrete reality throughout our town.”
The land appropriation in Raigarh may sound extreme, but it is only one example among many of how private companies and the government are able to violate laws with impunity. And the situation is set to deteriorate. As the trio fight their cases, hoping to get justice in court, the Indian government is diluting the very protections people like them are counting on.
The Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, government came to power last May in a massive wave of support for Narendra Modi, now the prime minister, and his agenda of economic development for all. In under a year, it has begun to undo policies of fair land acquisition, undermine environmental protection and reverse the fight for tribal rights. The finance, environment and rural-development ministers, and Modi himself, have called these safeguards to protect people’s property, the environment and tribal rights “roadblocks” to economic growth. Rules that ensure business responsibility to people and the environment, in other words, are now largely being written off.
For decades in India, regressive policies favored industrial growth over people’s rights. Affected villages would routinely erupt in massive and often violent protests against land grabs, pollution and forced evictions. Thousands of cases like Lakra’s still languish in courts across the country. On the other hand, corporate officials complained of wasted investments, bureaucratic logjams and market uncertainty.
In the last decade, the government, led by the Congress party, tried to address some of these complaints. It strengthened the rights of tribal communities over forestlands and set up the National Green Tribunal, a special court with environmental expertise to hear grievances about green violations within short deadlines. It replaced a 120-year-old draconian law that allowed land to be acquired for inconsistent payment and without permission from owners, with the progressive Land Acquisition Act in 2013. This provided higher rates and made consent from a large majority of landowners necessary before acquiring land for industry. It also ensured that companies assess the impact of their proposed projects on the whole community, including on non-owners such as landless farm workers, fishermen who use local rivers or even children who might lose their school or playground. The Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change also mapped out forest areas that must never be diverted for industry or infrastructure.
The changes had limitations due to political compromises and corporate pressure, activists say, but were still a long-awaited win for communities that had demanded sustainable growth. Since 2014, however, these progressive steps have begun to be reversed. As parliamentary elections approached, the Congress party started to weaken some of its own policies. The party’s ratings had sunk due to million-dollar scams that exposed its coalition members’ corruption in coal mining and telecom spectrum licensing. Desperate for an image makeover, the party rolled back some environmental protections that Indian businesses said had stalled growth.
“In damage-control mode, the Congress scaled back the pro-people laws. This was also to woo corporates for campaign funding,” says activist Medha Patkar, pointing to the tens of millions of rupees funneled by corporations into the campaign coffers of both national parties (90 percent of all campaign funding in 2013-14). Some of this, by foreign companies such as Vedanta, violated campaign laws. The Congress party subsequently increased exemptions from the environmental laws for certain companies and allotted many forests to industry.
The Modi government has loosened these laws even further. Now, in more instances, land can be taken without asking owners. Consent from villagers is mostly unnecessary. Tribal rights hang by a thread. Forests are fair game, and pollution monitoring is more lenient than ever.
The government claims these moves will boost economic growth. During his 2015 budget speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said projects worth millions were “held up for want of permissions” under the previous governments. This may be true for government-owned projects, but nearly 95 percent of projects proposed by private companies have received environmental clearances, and only 13 percent of stalled infrastructure projects have been held up by land-acquisition procedures. “Unfavorable market conditions (and not regulatory clearances) are stalling a large number of projects in the private sector,” according to the Economic Survey of India. “Perhaps contrary to popular belief, the evidence points towards over exuberance and a credit bubble as primary reasons.”
Even without much evidence, the growth rhetoric has remained a powerful justification for the government. BJP ministers equate fast growth with national pride and have called demands for human rights and conservation “anti-national” activity. Patkar says the previous governments were “at least open to conversation with NGOs and people’s groups. That door is fast shut today. They are making policies more aggressive, no matter what the cost.”
In August 2014, Modi’s cabinet set up a committee to review six key environmental and climate change laws. “Their mandate was enormous and vague. It held only six to seven public consultations, and only one of five members was associated with the environment in any way,” says a critic of the process, environmental lawyer Shibani Ghosh, from the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research. In only three months, the body was to recommend changes to laws on everything from water pollution and forest conservation, to coastal zone regulations and recycling electronic discards. “Once the recommendations were out, it was clear the committee was simply meant to remove human rights and green roadblocks for investment growth,” says Ghosh.
The committee suggested a single-window clearance for all green permits, something corporations in India have long lobbied for. In project applications, companies should assess the potential environmental damage their own projects could cause, instead of asking affected communities or the regional pollution-control board to do so, as the earlier rules required. The committee also recommended eliminating all government and independent monitoring and letting companies disclose their own violations, with no oversight. These new rules, the committee says, will oblige companies to act in “utmost good faith.”
Critics say the recommendations “undermine democracy” and “render the affected voiceless.” As Raigarh’s long history of industrialization shows, good faith is scarce in resource-rich regions. The district magistrate of Raigarh, Mukesh Bansal, who is the main administrative officer for the district, admits that “the land mafia” has a strong hold and that companies often use its goons to take over land or forests. Over the past two years, Bansal has spearheaded a project to return more than 800 acres of tribal land that had been grabbed under 200 fake names. “When coal deposits are discovered, the middlemen move in, hold land and, when companies take over, there’s profits all around except for the tribal” people, he says.
Ramesh Agrawal, a prominent environmental activist in Raigarh, is also critical of the new recommendations. “Where in the world have companies admitted to polluting rivers?” he asks. “When companies have to police themselves, they don’t.”
A tall, soft-spoken man, Agrawal has reason to mistrust corporations. After he and other activists accused JSPL of not following normswhile holding a public hearing in 2010 for a coal mine expansion, and beginning construction before getting the appropriate environmental clearances, he was arrested because the company filed a complaint of defamation, criminal intimidation and incitement. The recording of the hearing shows that Agrawal was listing violations by the company since the ’90s, and at one point, he lost his composure and said in Hindi, “If they [Jindal officials] are sons of their fathers, they should come forward.”
Agrawal is indignant. “I wasn’t polite, yes, but is that a reason for arrest? And what about their violations?” he asks. He was in jail for 60 days, until the Supreme Court released him on bail. The activist took the case to the National Green Tribunal in Delhi. After reviewing video evidence, the tribunal called JSPL’s public hearing “a mockery” and “a classic example of violation of the rules and the principles of natural justice.” It went on to cancel the environmental clearance for JSPL’s coal mine.
A month later, in 2012, gunmen broke into Agrawal’s home in Raigarh and shot him, shattering his thigh bone. In his police complaint, Agrawal said the attackers told him to “stop taking on Jindal,” but the company has denied any involvement. Now Agrawal has difficulty walking. “If existing procedures are not working, the government should fix them, not get rid of them,” he says. “Then there will be no place to appeal to when the faith is violated.”
About three-quarters of India’s electricity needs are met by coal-fired thermal power. Power Minister Piyush Goyal said in a parliamentary debate last December, “The country is hugely short on coal supply and has to spend tens of millions of rupees on coal imports despite having the third largest coal reserves in the world.” India has about 10 percent of the world’s coal reserves, but is also the world’s third biggest coal importer. The industry was mired in a massive corruption scam in 2012, which exposed the Congress government’s corrupt allocation of coal mines. The Supreme Court called the allotment arbitrary and illegal and canceled 214 fields with coal deposits allocated to private parties from 1993 to 2008. While this was a course correction, it also exacerbated the fuel shortage.
The new government’s main agenda is to increase coal production, raise more revenue for the state and change the licensing procedure from allocation to auctions of coal blocks. To accomplish these goals, the BJP has passed two laws related to mining and coal.
For four decades, mining in India was dominated by the state-owned Coal India Ltd., which is the world’s largest miner of coal and the only outfit in India allowed to sell or export coal commercially to other companies. Private power, steel and cement companies can mine coal only for their own consumption. The new coal law — Coal Mines (Special Provisions) Act 2015 — effectively ends government monopoly over extraction of coal, allowing private firms to mine and sell coal commercially and making way for foreign companies to do so in the future.
The mining law — Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Amendment Act 2015 — puts in place a system of competitive bidding, instead of government allocations. Since February, the coal-and-power ministry has auctioned 33 coal blocks to private companies, which have given the coal-rich states revenue of more than 2 trillion rupees (about $32 billion) by way of royalties over a 30-year period. With 90 million tons of coal expected to be produced from just the 42 operational mines in the blocks auctioned so far, Coal Secretary Anil Swarup says the chronic coal shortage and reliance on large imports could end in almost four years.
While the auctions raise revenue for states and streamline allotments, many say the new mining policy is still shortsighted.
Coal energy is cheap, but dirty. A study by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, or CSE, found that Indian coal-fired power plants were some of the most inefficient and polluting in the world. More than 75 percent of them don’t comply with regulations, the study finds, a problem that is exacerbated because the power deficit in India “gives the industry enormous amount of leverage.”
And measures are being taken to further reduce environmental regulation. Environment Minister Prakash Javadekar often refers to environmental clearances as impediments to India’s electricity needs. In its first month in power, his ministry issued a series of memos allowing coal mines to expand up to several times their current size without any public hearings or environmental clearances.
Some of the effects of these legal rewrites are visible in the Raigarh coalfields called Gare Palma IV, the same ones in which Agrawal and others objected to the presence of mining. The contested mines have been reauctioned to a different company. “It is as if all the previous times we said no never happened,” says Agrawal. “This time, with all the changed policies, and lesser accountability, it will be even easier for them.”
He is watching with trepidation because, he says, the Modi government “seems to be regularizing a rotten system.” The World Bank conservatively estimates that the cost of environmental degradation in India is 5.7 percent of GDP every year, higher than the rate of growth of national income.
A few hours’ drive away from the city of Raigarh lies Chhattisgarh’s Korba district, the single biggest source of power-grade coal in the country. In early February, a public hearing was held to assess the environmental impact of the potential expansion of the government-run Kusmunda open-cast coal mine. The mine’s owner, South Eastern Coalfields Limited, or SECL, wanted to excavate 62.5 million tons per year, nearly three and a half times the 18.42 million tons it currently has permission for. If it gets clearance, Kusmunda will become the biggest coal mine in Asia.
In the ’70s, the Kusmunda mine was opened at 5 million tons a year, and it has been growing ever since. Its last public hearing was in 2008, when it gained clearance to expand from mining 10 million tons a year to 15 million tons a year. In 2014, using the new rules, it was able to mine 18.42 million tons without a public consultation. “We didn’t even know it happened,” says the chief of nearby Pali village, Kamlabai Kanwar. “That’s exactly what the new law allows: silent expansion, with no chance for an affected person to say a thing.” SECL conducted a public hearing in February only because it now proposes expanding to a whopping 43.75 million tons a year.
At the stadium where the hearing was being held, hundreds of farmers, tribal people and laborers arrived with black headbands, demanding that mining activity not be increased. “SECL down, down!” and “We don’t want the mine!” they shouted.
“We don’t want to wheeze and die like our crops are already doing,” said Vinod Kumar Yadav from Pali village at the microphone set up near the stage. About 20 villages have already been razed by Kusmunda, and the expansion, if approved, would swallow five more. In 2009, Korba ranked fifth in the Central Pollution Control Board’s list of critically polluted places in India, and the Congress government banned further industrialization there. However, it also flip-flopped, lifting and reimposing the ban a few times for some power plants, with monitoring only by local pollution officers. “Mines and power companies swooped back in, and pollution has reached alarming levels,” says Korba-based mining activist Laxmi Chauhan. Kusmunda’s environmental assessment report, however, admitted to only potential air and water pollution, without taking into account existing levels of pollution.
“See from our plight and learn,” said an enraged Devkumar Rathiya at the hearing. Rathiya, who lives in Pali village, had already lost his land in the previous expansion. “Tribals, remember your forestland rights. Don’t be manipulated.”
Almost all of the coal-producing areas in central India are forested. They are alsohome to 10 tiger reserves, a variety of wildlife and nearly 9,000 villages. Across the country, roughly 40 percent of the people displaced by dams, power plants and mines are tribals, even though they make up only about 9 percent of the country’s population. Recognizing tribal communities as stakeholders in forestlands, the Forest Rights Act 2006 allows for the clearing of these lands for development only after an applicant has gained the consent of the local tribal-village council.
Last month, however, the Ministry of Environment suggested changes that will allow the cutting of forests without tribal consent. “If this happens, forestland in tribal areas will be easier to get and cheaper for a company than any other type of land,” says campaigner Nandikesh Sivalingam from Greenpeace India, which the Modi government calls “anti-national” for protesting corporate violations in forest areas. After issuing several threats to the nonprofit to curb its environmental activism, on April 10, the Ministry of Home Affairs suspended the organization’s registration under the law that governs international funding.
Divya Raghunandan, the group’s program director, says, “This is an attempt to remove any kind of dissent despite the Supreme Court having repeatedly said that differing opinions is not grounds for proving anti-nationalism.”
“In one blow, they’ve attacked conservation and human rights,” adds Aruna Sekhar, senior researcher with Amnesty International. In early March, the tribal affairs minister, Jual Oram, whose initial objections were ignored, wrote a seven-page letter to the Environment Ministry strongly objecting to the dilution. Oram belongs to the Kurukh tribe and hails from the heavily forested and mined state of Jharkhand, in eastern India. He writes that “there is no evidence to show that Forest Rights Act is resulting in delays in forest clearance” and that it would be illegal to erase tribal rights to forests.
Chhattisgarh-based activist Sudiep Shrivastava says the government’s push for mining, with simultaneous weakening of forest conservation and tribal rights, is dangerous. “The Supreme Court’s cancellation of coal blocks was an opportunity to re-plan a sustainable process,” says Shrivastava. Before the court canceled the blocks, only 32 of the 800 allotted mines were even operational. “So why not get those to work instead of giving more away?” he asks. “Do we need to mine all the precious reserves right away?”
On the bumpy road from Raigarh town to the coal-bearing areas, a painted sign says “Forest for Need, Not for Greed.” The route is chockablock with hundreds of coal-laden trucks. As they rumble by, plumes of black dust rise and settle on suffocated, scrawny trees on either side, planted by the mining companies for reforestation.
Beyond the sign, the temperature dips perceptibly, and the forest cover is thicker. This is the edge of the Hasdeo-Arand forest, rich in biodiversity and rare medicinal plants. In a satellite image, the area of nearly 600 square miles is a large swath of dark green, but the Geological Survey of India marks it coal black. It is one of the most sought-after blocks in the country.
Earlier this year, 20 villages within this forest resolved to oppose any coal mining here. Alok Shukla, an activist from the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (Save Chhattisgarh Movement), explains that government committees in the past declared this forest inviolate, but it keeps reappearing in the coalfield list. “Forests have only five of the 300 billion tons of coal reserves in the country. Can they not leave this area alone for some decades till they have exhausted all other coal blocks?” asks Shukla.
A few miles outside the forest, Sarasmal village stands at the boundary of the JSPL coal mines. Balkumar Rathiya, whose family home skirts the edge of the mine, points to the fist-sized chunks of coal that fly into his house during explosions. He worked as a mine blaster for three years but was fired when he refused to sell his land for an expansion of the mine. “Earlier, we thought that mines will mean more jobs for us, but we can see now that jobs come rarely and at a price,” he says. His wife and mother grow some turnips and cabbage outside their house, and they get free rice under the state food-security scheme. “I went from being a farmer to a mine worker, and now from a mine worker to a charity case,” he says. “I am asked to sacrifice my land for the country’s growth, but I still don’t have power, there is no hospital, my health is shot because of the mines, and I can’t access the forest anymore.”
Raigarh district, and therefore Sarasmal village, is protected under the Indian constitution as a scheduled tribal area, and according to the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996, or PESA, all companies must consult with tribal communities here before commencing any industrial or infrastructural project. The 2006 Forest Rights Act also applies; for a project to get clearance to tear down a forest, the local village council must give written consent.
On several occasions, Sarasmal has refused to consent to the JSPL mine, but many villagers allege that the project used forged documents to get clearances. Shivpal Bhagat is one of those who has challenged this alleged fraud in court. Today, he says he has 13 false cases filed against him from the state authorities and the company. “If they can’t get consent, they falsify it,” says Bhagat. “And if they can’t do that, they resort to thugs or false police cases.” He faces charges of obstructing government work, attacking company employees and leading a protest march in the village. All these charges, he says, are based on his speaking up at a public hearing. “A lot of my time and money is now spent on going to the Bilaspur high court,” Bhagat says. “But the mining continues.”
Frustrated, Bhagat contested and won the village-council election, hoping to have more control as the village chief. “The Modi government wants simpler procedures for development,” says Bhagat. “I want to tell them, It will all be simple if you treat a villager like a human being and not simply an obstacle to your 24-hour power dreams.” The Raigarh subinspector of police Anand Chhabra denied they were trumped up cases. As Bhagat speaks, however, villagers gather round and describe being constantly intimidated by companies. Agents come with wads of cash to impoverished homes, promising special jobs in the mines and painting pictures of rehabilitation. But Bhagat says that repeated betrayal by the companies and a loss of faith has led his village to agree on a blanket denial for all mines.
Lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, who works pro bono for dozens of villagers like Bhagat, says, “People protest widely, but clearances are continuously given.” The cases against the villagers are weak, but the overburdened court system means that litigation can drag on for years. Her clients, many of them poor or living in remote areas, are summoned numerous times. “By so harassing protesters, the companies send a signal to others to not stand in opposition,” she says.
The government’s main justification for giving “urgent” clearances to mining and power companies is the shortage of power in the country. About 44 percent of rural India doesn’t have access to electricity, but simply increasing the number of power plants doesn’t seem to be the solution. There are 11 mines and thermal power plants in Singhrauli district, but most residents still do not have electricity. In Korba, the power producing hub of Chhattisgarh, villagers live with 12-hour power cuts and intermittent supply. “Energy insecurity is caused not by forest conservation or the clearance process. The problem is [caused] by prioritization and distribution,” says Greenpeace India campaigner Priya Pillai.
At Sao’s photocopying shop in Tamnar in Raigarh, as they prepare for another court hearing to retrieve their land, Sao asks Chaudhry if he remembered the police inspector who worked at the station where they both tried to file their complaints. “Do you remember the line he used to say every time he saw us?” asks Sao.
Chaudhry nods. “How can I forget? ‘When you bang your head against a rock, it is your head that will bleed.’”
As she joins them, Lakra says that with every passing day, she is surer that their fight is about dignity. “I give a little speech to myself when I feel like giving up,” she says. “I remind myself that I am no less deserving of a say than a guy with a mining company. I want the government to hear that loud and clear.”
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