Bengaluru: On September 3, a little after noon, a large contingent of police arrived at Barhabans village – about 50 kilometres northwest of the steel township of Rourkela in the Bisra-Birkera taluka of the Sundergarh district in Odisha – along with workers of the South Eastern Railways who were there to start work to lay a second railway track alongside an existing line. The expansion of the railway is underway because the route will soon be a lot busier with trains carrying coal from the Dhamra port in the state to a power plant under construction by the Adani group in Godda in neighbouring Jharkhand.
The Adani group also owns the Carmichael coal mine from where the coal will be extracted in the Galilee Basin in Queensland in Australia; the two ports through which it will be shipped – Abbott Point in Australia and Dhamra port in Odisha. It is also constructing a railway link for the coal to be transported from the mine to the port in Australia. The electricity generated at its Godda power plant will be exported to Bangladesh.
At Barhabans, the railway workers and police were confronted by adivasi villagers. The government is seeking to displace 700 adivasi families in order to lay the second line of railway track. Led by activist Deme Oram, president of the Aanchalik Surakshya Samiti, an organisation of Adivasi displaced persons in Barhabans, who was broadcasting live on his Facebook profile, the local residents prevented the construction work from proceeding. Within a few hours, the District Magistrate of Sundergarh arrived and defused the tension, and the workers and police left the spot.
A week later, on September 10, virtually the same sequence played out once again. Railway workers arrived with police protection, were confronted by locals, and left after intervention by the District Magistrate. Once again, Oram broadcast the goings on live on his Facebook profile.
The adivasi residents of Barhabans are demanding that they be provided compensation before any work begins. They are supposed to receive 7 acres and a job in the Railways, they say, according to a 2008 Odisha government decision, and orders by the Odisha High Court and the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes.
The land area in which the Railways is seeking to build the new line to supply the Adani plant was earlier held by the Rourkela Steel Plant, which acquired it in the 1950s, but had never been taken possession of by the public sector steel manufacturer. The adivasi residents, who continued to farm the land after the acquisition, say that not only are they entitled to compensation under various government circulars and orders, their entitlement had been recognised by the district authorities as recently as February 2020, and they had been assured that no new construction work would take place before their concerns were addressed.
Also read: Dirty Tricks and Coercion Used to Acquire Land for Adani’s Godda Power Plant
At present however, the authorities seem to be in a hurry to begin the construction, Oram told NewsClick. A first information report has been lodged against him and several others by the local police for obstructing the construction work, Oram said, and he fears that they may soon be arrested to break the back of the adivasi residents’ struggle.
A Convoluted History
Ramamurthi Sreedhar, Managing Trustee of Environics Trust, a Delhi-based non-governmental organisation, who has studied the subject closely for a number of years, told NewsClick that “close to about 40,000 acres of land in the area had been acquired for Rourkela Steel Plant and the Mandira Dam in the initial decades after Independence out of which only around 11,000 acres were used.” “What has happened over the decades is that Rourkela Steel Plant handed over land to various other agencies, including the Railways,” he continued. It is this land that is under contention.
“With regard to these lands, the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes has said that all the land that has not been used, particularly in Scheduled Areas, should be given back to the adivasi community,” he said, adding that “even under the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, acquired land that has not been used for five years has to be returned to the original land-holders.”
“Here the case is that the government is not able to show any data or original documentation to show what lands have been acquired,” he pointed out, “however they are still seeking to forcefully carry out construction work and displace people.
“Over the last fortnight, the Railways has been resorting to the reprehensible activity of threatening them with police action,” a press release by the Trust said. “The urgency seems to be that this is set to be the hauling line for coal for Adani’s Godda plant,” added Sreedhar.
Proceedings at the National Commission for Scheduled Tribes
In August 2017, Oram approached the National Commission of Scheduled Tribes at New Delhi, raising the issue of entitlements of the adivasi residents over land claimed by the Railways in Sundargarh district. In particular, the land area that is under contention had been allocated for the Railways’ Bodamunda Marshalling Yard project, but had not been taken possession of by the Railways and had proved surplus to the project’s requirements.
In his petition, Oram mentions that in January 2006, an agreement had been concluded between representatives of the displaced communities, the Odisha state government, the Rourkela Steel Plant, and the South-Eastern Railways that unused land in excess of project requirements would be returned to the local community, and the government would set up a committee to work out the modalities of the transfer. In particular, the petition states that, persons displaced due to the Bodamunda Marshalling Yard project were listed as entitled to relief under the agreement.
However, subsequently, the Minister for Revenue and Disaster Management noted in meetings conducted on July 25, 2006, and March 28, 2007, that there was no legal provision to return unused land that has been acquired to the displaced communities, and a new legislation would need to be passed.
Subsequently, on November 26, 2008, the state government’s Department of Revenue and Disaster Management released circular No AG-40/2005/49777/CSR&DM, ordering district collectors across the state to ensure distribution of 5 acres of un-irrigated and 2 acres of irrigated land to the adivasis displaced by development projects.
According to the minutes of a hearing conducted on April 3, 2018, on Oram’s petition before Anusuiya Uike, the then Vice Chairperson of the ST Commission, these decisions were acknowledged by the District Collector of Sundergarh. However, he said that “no decision had been taken” on the return of unused land, and “no legal provision exists to return acquired land.” On the November 2008 circular, the minutes note, the collector described it as an “old order,” upon which the commission pressed him to clarify whether the circular was still operational, which the collector noted it was.
Following this, the minutes state, the Chairperson of the Commission directed the District Collector that this issue must be resolved, and that until the circular and the earlier decision by the Odisha government are implemented and the displaced adivasis allocated compensatory land parcels, no further displacement should take place. In particular, the minutes note, the Chairperson Raghav Chandra emphasised that as far as possible the same land that the displaced adivasi families are currently occupying, should be allocated to them.
Also watch: Adivasis in Odisha Are Prepared for Struggle, Says Activist
A second issue raised by Oram’s petition relates to employment of displaced adivasis in the Railways.
According to his petition, in the same January 2006 agreement, the representatives of the Railways had agreed to ensure that the displaced persons would be given jobs by the Railways. Subsequently, the Railways Recruitment Board, via letter R(NG)(ii)/2002/RC-5/4 dated April 19, 2006, had approved the decision and ordered that the process be initiated.
Later, in another letter E(EN)-11/2010/RC-51 dated July 16, 2010, the Board had reiterated its earlier letter, and ordered that those persons displaced after 2010 be granted employment in the Railways. In 2013, in Krushna Chandra Nayak v Railway Board (W.P. (C) No 5102 of 2013), the Odisha High Court ordered that the Railway Board’s 2010 order be applied retrospectively, to include persons displaced before 2010.
Despite all these administrative and court orders, this promise to the displaced adivasis was never implemented, the minutes of the ST Commission’s hearing notes.
On the basis of this hearing, the commission made the following order on July 5, 2018:
1. The Odisha government’s November 2008 circular must be implemented, ensuring the distribution of 5 acres of un-irrigated and 2 acres of irrigated lands to displaced persons.
2. Adivasi persons settled on acquired land must not be evicted until they have received adequate resettlement and rehabilitation as required under law.
3. The Railway Recruitment Board’s letters of April 2006 and July 2010 must be implemented and an action taken report must be placed before the Commission.
The commission’s order also required that the five authorities summoned for the hearing – that is the Chairman of the Railway Board, the Chief Secretary of the Government of Odisha, the Principal Secretary of the Revenue Department in the Government of Odisha, the General Manager of the South Eastern Railway, and the District Collector of Sundergarh district – submit an action taken report on its recommendations within a month’s time.
A Second Order by the Commission
No action taken reports were submitted by any of the authorities. Accordingly, the Commission summoned all five authorities before it once again in the presence of Oram, the petitioner, and a hearing was conducted on November 19, 2019.
At the hearing, Oram informed the Commission that while no land had been allocated as per the commission’s earlier order, the Railways, with the support of the local administration and police was seeking to conduct new construction works that would displace adivasi families who are protected by the commission’s order. In addition, he informed the commission that the Railways was yet to provide any jobs to the displaced communities, and that the government continued to allocate unused acquired land to various private builders and public companies, which it should be returning instead to displaced persons.
The minutes of the hearings show that the Railways, the district administration and the state government all attempted to deflect Oram’s allegations and sought to divest responsibility. The district collector of Sundergarh claimed that the Railways was only conducting construction work on already cleared areas, and that the administration had not engaged in the use of force against local communities. When this was challenged by Oram, who stated that the administration had deployed police forces in large numbers, creating an environment of fear for the local communities, the collector said in response that the Railways was carrying out “necessary development works.”
From the side of the state government, the commission was told that there is no legal provision that allows for return of acquired lands to displaced persons, and that displaced persons were given compensation at the time of acquisition many decades ago. Further, it insisted that the government is entitled to allocate land to any party for development works.
On the issue of jobs in the Railways, the commission was told that according to a Supreme Court decision in 1998, it was necessary for the Railways to conduct recruitment on an all-India basis, which prevented it from ensuring jobs for the locals.
Having heard all sides, the Chairperson of the ST Commission Dr. Nand Kumar Say ordered that,
1. The commission’s April 3, 2018, order must be implemented and land distributed to displaced persons. This work must be concluded within a period of two months.
2. The district administration and the Railways must not undertake any construction work without meeting with the adivasi displaced persons resident in the area. Excessive police deployment must be avoided.
3. A consensus must be developed on ensuring employment of displaced persons in the Railways.
A meeting of all sides
Following these events, a meeting was conducted on February 14, 2020, at the Additional District Magistrate Aboli Sunil Naravane’s office in Rourkela, at which representatives of the Railways, the district’s Superintendent of Police, and Oram were present.
The Railways representative stated that work could not progress due to the protests by the local community, while Oram stated that in spite of several requests, the district administration had been unable to produce the original gazette notification declaring that the land had been acquired for the Railways.
Also read: Adani Foists Coal Mines and Hinduism on Communities
Oram demanded that the order by the ST Commission must be implemented, and the displaced persons be allotted the compensatory parcels of land and jobs in the Railways as had been ordered.
The additional district magistrate’s proceedings of the meeting state that “after elaborate discussion, it was decided that railway authorities will intimate the employment issue to higher authorities and take a decision within one month...and the Revenue & Disaster Management Department will be moved through the Collector, Sundergarh to consider the issue of allotment of land to the land losers.”
“It was also decided,” the proceedings continue, “to convene another meeting after receipt of the decision of railway authorities on provision of employment.”
All the assurances given to the community at the meeting of February 2020 are now being violated by the administration, Oram told NewsClick over the phone.
“At that meeting, after hearing the representations of the displaced persons, the authorities had assured us that only repair work of existing structures would be done and no new construction work would proceed,” he said, adding, “Now, every other day we are being harassed by the authorities.”
“If they are not going to follow the ST Commission's orders, then they should put it in writing, and let us have hearings before the commission once again,” he continued. “Let them approach the Commission and ask for exemptions. Neither do they want to follow the commission's orders, nor are they willing to admit that they are violating the commission's orders, and at the same time they are trying to begin work through the use of force,” he said.
Pointing out that the government had been unable to produce original documentation proving its legitimate acquisition of the concerned land, he said, “Since 2018, we have been demanding that the state government bring forward the notifications and documents showing the exact area of land that has been acquired and the process that was followed for acquisition, but they have refused to produce the documentation. If they cannot prove that the acquisition was conducted legally, then the entire process has to be struck down. If you are not producing documents, it suggests that the acquisition six decades ago was not done according to legal procedures, otherwise surely there would be some documentation that the state government can produce?”
He went on to add, “When the state government acquired the land for the Railways, it says that settlements were done without any leases or transfer of deed agreements being executed with the land owners. When land is acquired by the government, or transferred, some contractual documentation has to be produced, isn't it? How is it possible that there are no such documents available with the state government? The government must have records of how much land was acquired, what was the Railways' requirement, how much land has been used, etc. How can they refuse to show their records? If the state government can claim that it acquired the land based on "settlements" without any documentation, such a process is clearly illegal.”
Noting that Jual Oram, a veteran leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party, who was the Union Minister for Tribal Affairs until recently, is the elected Member of Parliament from the area, Deme Oram added that the representative had shown no interest in taking up the issue. “He is like Vishnu sitting in the sea; since he has become an MP, he has not been concerned with our issues. If he is not interested in representing his constituents, it would be better if he resigns!,” he added.
Stating that he fears that the police may soon seek to arrest himself and several others active in the protests, Oram said, “Whatever happens after this, the authorities will be responsible. There is a limit to how many violations can be tolerated. They are violating their own statements and the order of the state government. We are seeking a national focus on what is being done with adivasis.”
NewsClick has reached out for comment to the SP, Sundergarh, the district administration, the South Eastern Railway, and the office of Jual Oram, MP. This article will be updated with any response that is received.
Also read: Odisha Jindal Steel Project: Police Barred Tribals from Public Hearing
The author is an independent journalist based in Bengaluru.