Over 50 Karbi and adivasi families from the Mikir Bamuni Grant cluster of villages in Assam’s Nagaon district are staging relentless protests against land acquisition by a solar power company, Azure Power Forty Private Limited.
The farmers of the area allege that they were informed about the land acquisition by Azure Power and asked to give up their land without prior consent, stating that the land has not been cultivated in the last 10 years. However, the villagers contest this claim by the state-owned Assam Power Development Corporation Ltd (APDCL) and allege that the allocation of this agricultural land, which they have been cultivating for years, goes against their land rights.
Ever since the process of acquisition began in March 2020, days before the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, the villagers have been protesting against Azure Power and continued in the face of several rounds of reportedly brutal crackdowns by the state.
In the latest state crackdown, villagers from Amdanga who were attempting to stall the plant’s construction work on December 29 were reportedly targeted and attacked by the police.
According to the residents, the police entered the village in the middle of the night, picking up several active farmers, Lakhiram Mardi, Sikari Rongpi and Bhaity Timung. The forces attacked women and men, leaving many badly injured. Rongpi’s pregnant wife was allegedly kicked in the stomach by a male police personnel leading to her miscarriage.
Speaking to NewsClick, Ratul Bora, Nagaon district secretary of the Communist Party of India, explained the ordeal and the legal battle of the farmers since the beginning of the pandemic. “The ongoing lockdown spelled havoc for the tribal communities here. They are being denied of their land rights, while being subjected to the worst form of violence since March last year. No process of community rights or public hearing was followed and our lands were given as a part of a private deal with the zamindar’s family, news of which was given to people through middlemen. Those who wanted to cultivate their land have been resisting the move and have been met with threats, physical attacks and intimidation.”
Image credits-- Ratul Bora
Bora added, “Rongpi’s wife is in enormous pain. Many of our farmers have been arrested, and named by the police under different cases. This had happened in March as well. The heavy police presence is aimed at creating an atmosphere of fear and terrorising villagers to give up their protests.”
Reportedly, a total of 10 persons have been named in the case filed by the police, and four of them are in police custody under charges of attacking police officers.
According to a report in The Wire, only six residents from Amdanga had received a notice asking them for objections to the allocation of land to Azure Power. However, the notice, issued by the circle officer on March 12, 2020, only gave 24 hours for any objections, following which it was challenged in the court and adequate time was demanded for filing objections. Further, when the residents went to meet the circle officer on March 13, the next and last day for objections, he responded saying that the land does not belong to the individuals and they cannot file the objection.
In 2018, the Assam Power Development Corporation Limited (APDCL) selected 287 bighas of land in Mikir Bamuni and Lalung gaon to set up a solar power plant. Following this, Azure Power, which won the bidding for the plant in 2019, bought 276 bighas of land from the erstwhile zamindar’s family, who had originally received the Mikir Bamuni land grant, as per reports.
However, the validity of this land deal with the zamindar has been challenged in court and currently, stands as a civil dispute with contested claims over the land. Amid the legal battle, there are serious questions on the legality of the land acquisition and starting of construction work by the company.
On the other hand, Azure Power has claimed that the “land acquisition has been done fairly and lawfully with due consultation with all the stakeholders”.
Further, questions have been raised by the villagers regarding the power plant’s adverse effects on the the ecology of the region, which is connected to Burha Pahar in West Kaziranga. Herds of nearly 150-200 elephants frequent this area, which makes it vulnerable to land-animal conflicts. A villager was quoted in a report by the online portal East Mojo, as saying, "These lands are frequented by elephants. We set aside a portion of our produce because we know that elephants would eat it. If this is an elephant corridor, how are they building a solar plant?"
Also read: People Without Land: Assam’s Laika-Dodhia Villages Continue Struggle for Rehabilitation Even After 70 Years