Fresh protests were organised against UltraTech Cement by farmers of Mahuva and Talaja taluka of Bhavnagar district in Gujarat on June 15 with villagers gathering in front of the limestone mining site of the company to stop the transportation of limestone through the villages.
“We have been sitting in protest at the location of the mining site so that we can stop the trucks carrying limestone from being transported through the villages,” said Bharat Bhil, a farmer from Nicha Kotda village in Mahuva taluka.
“The company did not stop the mining activity due to the pandemic or even during the lockdown. In fact, work was fast paced as protests were called off owing to the pandemic. But we had to come out in protest as the company has been flouting environmental guidelines and running its trucks carrying limestone through the villages,” Bhil, who has been leading the protest against UltraTech, told NewsClick.
Noticeably, as per the guidelines laid down by the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change, the mining company is required to built a bypass road at least 200 metres away from a village or any habitat for the purpose of transporting the minerals so that the impact of sound, dust and accidents can be mitigated. As per the Union guidelines, if the same road is to be used for the project, the company is to spend on widening and strengthening of the public road network.
“The Bhavnagar Police arrived at the location of the protest and attempted to clamp down on the villagers and disperse them. However, the police left after the local Congress MLA joined us in the protest,” added Bhil.
For the past three years the two talukas – Mahuva and Talaja, about 80 kilometres from Bhavnagar city, have been in conflict with the Gujarat government after it leased out 8,200 bighas of land from 13 villages in the talukas for limestone mining to UltraTech Cement, a company owned by the Aditya Birla Group.
Also read: Gujarat: Bhavnagar’s Farmers Fight Land Grab in Polls and in Court
Out of the total land acquired by the company, more than 90% is agrarian and sustains more than 20,000 farmers. Though the farmers have been protesting against the takeover since 2016, the movement against UltraTech reached its peak in 2018, when the company got a nod from the Union Environment Ministry for mining and began mining in Bhambhor, one of the 13 villages.
In one of the massive protests against the company in 2018, more than 2,000 farmers had gathered near the mining site. They were stopped by the Bhavnagar Police who were present at the site in heavy numbers. As villagers stood there, the police reportedly lobbed tear gas shells upon the protesters without any provocation, followed by indiscriminate lathi charge.
As a result, more than 40 farmers were injured, including several women. Following the protest, farmers were taken to Datha Police Station from where the protesting farmers – including 35 to 40 women – were arrested. Barring those who were grievously injured and had to be rushed to the hospital, some of the wounded were also arrested.
Subsequently, two cases were lodged against protesting farmers under charges of preventing police from doing their duty, rioting and attempt to murder, among other charges. Over a hundred farmers from Mahuva and Talaja talukas were charged with attempt to murder.
In February 2021, a local court in Talaja sentenced former Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Kanu Kalsariya, who has been participating in the protest and six farmers to six months of imprisonment in a case of trespassing into limestone mining site of a cement company in 2018. Though all of them were granted bail the same day, Bharat Bhil who had filed nomination for contesting local body election in early March this year, had to withdraw his form.
“The case was filed against five farmers and Dr. Kanubhai Kalsariya after another protest against the mining company. We had gathered in front of the mining site in Bhambor village, a piece of land that belonged to farmers of the village. This is the only location where the company has been able to begin its mining operations,” Bhil told NewsClick.
Also read: Farmers Protest Against Land Acquisition for Limestone Mining by Ultra Tech Cement in Bhavnagar
Noticeably, multiple companies have attempted to acquire land in the region. It is rich in limestone and located by the Arabian sea coast. The first company to lay its eyes on the area was Ambuja Cements, in 1985. In the early 2000s, the area witnessed massive protests against the Nirma Group which wanted to acquire 4,500 hectares of land to set up a cement factory and mine limestone. While both Ambuja Cements and the Nirma Group retreated owing to resistance by farmers, the Aditya Birla conglomerate has been persistent.
The corporate giant that has reportedly attempted to acquire land in this area more than once, first attempted to acquire land between 20 to 22 years ago for Grasim Industries but farmers refused vehemently. About five years later, Indian Rayon came to acquire land but failed. Thereafter, in 2014, UltraTech Cement came to buy the same land.
In the three public hearings that were held subsequently in 2016, more than 30,000 farmers from 25 villages – including 13 that are directly affected – participated and all of them refused to part with their land. However, this time the Gujarat government leased out the land to UltraTech Cement for 50 years.