Trucks carrying iron ore to the Bhilai Steel Plant. Image Courtesy: indiawaterportal.org
The Bhilai Steel Plant is poised to receive land that would otherwise have been off limits under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006 – commonly referred to as the Forest Rights Act (FRA). The Chhattisgarh government has not implemented this Act, neither have district administrators upheld other laws in discharging their duties. However, laws meant to benefit agriculturalists have been used for industrialists instead. The result is that adivasis in Chhattisgarh face the brunt of misused laws.
A report published in The Wire has highlighted one situation, wherein by using a scheme intended for the benefit of agriculturalists with disconnected lands, the Government has transferred land to the Bhilai Steel Plant.
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In June this year, around 30 acres of land were acquired from Adivasi farmers in Kanker only for the collector to transfer it to the Bhilai Steel Plant. According to The Wire, the villagers of Lamkanhar had objected to having their lands acquired since it would reduce the amount of grazing land for their cattle. They had sent a written response to the patwari, however, it was not acted on.
In June, the gram panchayat was coerced into signing a no-objection certificate (NOC) by government officers and the security forces. The gram panchayat consists of the elected administrative representatives at a district level. Ordinarily, the gram panchayat can only issue an NOC after the matter is brought up in the gram sabha – which consists of all adult members in the area.
This is further supported by the Panchayats (Extension To The Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA). Section 4(m)(iii) of the act states: “While endowing Panchayats in the Scheduled Areas with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as institutions of self-government, a State Legislature shall ensure that the Panchayats at the appropriate level and the Gram Sabha are endowed specifically with the power to prevent alienation of land in the Scheduled Areas and to take appropriate action to restore any unlawfully alienated land of a Scheduled Tribe.”
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Apart from the absence of valid consent, the next act of the state administration was to transfer the land to the Bhilai Steel Plant by using the adla-badli scheme. The scheme was intended for the benefit of farmers with scattered land holdings to consolidate their holdings in one place through an exchange. The state administration implemented this scheme so as to ‘swap’ land with the Bhilai Steel Plant for setting up an Indian Institute of Technology in Bhilai.
It would not be surprising if the motive behind all of this is that the area has mineral reserves. In which case it would be just a matter of time before mining licenses are issued. In the meantime, the Adivasi farmers whose lands have been ‘acquired’ will be left high and dry.