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Deocha Coal Project: ‘Vigil’ by Police, TMC Cadres Creating ‘Fear Psychosis’ Among Adivasis

CM Mamata Banerjee has started handing over compensation packages, but SKM and other outfits have accused it of bypassing holding of gram sabhas.
Deocha Pachami Coal Project

Kolkata: The Deocha-Pachami-Dewanganj-Harisingha (DPDH) coal block under Mohammed Bazar Development Block in Birbhum district is fast becoming a “symbol of the West Bengal government’s high-handedness”. So much so that local residents, a large number of whom are adivasis/santhals, are being cautious in airing their concerns about the proposed coal mine.

This is because the police are keeping a close watch on people who they suspect are against the project and, therefore, will be reluctant to part with their land. Police are also against visits by civil society members and social activists at the site to articulate the concerns of local residents stemming from a sense of insecurity.

In recent times, outfits that have organised protests at the site and those which have issued statements condemning the “repressive” role of the police and have also sought the release of arrested activists, include the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, Jawaharlal Nehru University Students Union, Teachers Against Climate Crisis and Bangla Sanskriti Mancha.

For taking part in a march against ‘land grab’ organised on February 20, police filed criminal cases, charging nine activists with attempt to abduct, murder etc.

Aiding and abetting this fear psychosis is the ‘dadagiri’ of ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) cadres who regularly take out bike rallies to ensure that discordant voices do not grow and upset Didi’s  (Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee) move  to industrialise the area.

The TMC cadres are, in fact, following Banerjee’s well-known tactics – the right to protest and agitate is hers when she is in the Opposition, the right to put down protests and agitations is hers when she is in power.

It is alleged that TMC has also weakened the project opposition ranks by ‘inducing’ some independent adivasi leaders, who had some reservations, to defect to the party.

This is how political observers and social activists summed up what is happening at the site of the proposed coal mine being promoted by the West Bengal Power Development Corporation Ltd.

Fast-paced administrative actions by Nabanna (state secretariat) since last November explain the context of the prevailing situation at the coal block site. On the basis of the feedback given by the nine-member apex committee headed by well-known actor Parambrata Chattopadhyayay with chemical engineer Tanmoy Ghosh as convener, Nabanna notified on November 16 a relief and rehabilitation (R&R) package for land owners and other “sufferers” to set in motion the land acquisition process.

Ghosh told NewsClick that the committee members had visited the site a number of times, met locals to understand how they felt about the project and what their concerns were.

“We did not go there with pre-conceived notions. Our job was to determine what would ensure that they did not feel deprived”, he said, and claimed that after the committee assessed what the reaction of the people was to the November 16 package, Nabanna sweetened it on February 24.

The built-up area for houses to be offered was raised to 700 sq ft from 600 sq ft, subsistence allowance was hiked to Rs 1.5 lakh from Rs 1 lakh and the government offered to build three new SC/ST hostels. It also agreed to appoint persons with higher qualification to posts higher than junior constable in the police hierarchy.

The same day, the Chief Minister kicked off the handing over of package components – cheques for land givers, pattas for land, appointment letters --- to select ‘willing’ persons/families at Nabanna. In all, about 200 persons, out of about 1,600 ‘willing’ land givers, as of now, received the package components. Government sources indicated that nearly 4,000 persons needed to come forward for this process to be over.

As per the order issued by the state’s power department on November 16, the DPDH coal block covers an area of 12.31 sq km, which is around 3,042 acre. The block has two sub-units: Dewanganj-Harisingha/2.61 sq km and Deocha-Pachami/9.7 sq km. It has an ‘indicative’ coal reserve of 1,198 million tonnes. There is also basalt/black stone, the estimated quantity being 1,400 million cubic metres. The Central Mine Planning and Design Institute, a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd, did the detailed exploration.

Around 3,400 acres has been indentified for overburden dumping, mine infrastructure development and R & R of the locals. Preliminary estimates place the land requirement at 3,294 acres. The category-wise break-up is: forest land 203.64 acres, government vested land 655.98 acres, land owned by other state departments 27.34 acres, and privately-owned land in 10 mouzas of Mohammed Bazar PS 2,267.44 acres.

The first three categories can be acquired under extant provisions. It is for the privately-owned land and other project-affected persons that a R&R package was needed. Twelve villages make up the DPDH coal block area, which has 4,300 plus households with an aggregate population of over 21,000. SCs and STs account for 3,600 and 9,000 plus households, respectively.

As estimated by the power department, the beneficiaries of the R&R package are to include: 3,010 families who will lose both house and land;  1,838 families who will lose only land; 104 persons who are recorded bargadars (sharecroppers); 24 families residing on rent; 15 ’resident encroachers’; 285 stone crushing unit owners; 10 active stone quarry owners; 3,000 workers engaged by stone crushing units and quarry owners; 39 shop owners/small businessmen and 150-160 farm labourers/khet majdoors.

Demands by SKM and Other Activists

Social activists and civil society members are unanimous in their demand for immediate release of the arrested persons and withdrawal of all charges against them. The Samyukt Kisan Mocrah (SKM), whose over-a-year farmers’ movement against the Centre’s controversial farm laws received support from Mamata Banerjee, has

accused the West Bengal government of bypassing holding of gram sabhas, as laid down in the Right to Fair Compensation and Transperency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013.

SKM proposes to soon send a fact-finding team headed by social activist Medha Patkar to the site. The team will hold public hearings and convey the concerns of the residents to the state government for redressal. (According to apex panel convener Ghosh, holding of gram sabhas is not necessary “as land is being taken possession of by the government on the basis of written consent of owners who were provided all details about the proposed coal mine by the Birbhum district magistrate”).

NewsClick talked to two adivasi/santhal residents of the area – Lakshmi Ram Baske, convener of Birbhum Jami, Jibon, Jibika O  Poribesh Bachao Mahasabha and Sukhi Hansda, activist with Gago Gaonta (Mothers’ Assembly).

Baske said: “I will not give up my land, I will not move to any other place”, while Hansda said: “We do not want the coal mine; we are living here peacefully. We do not want to be disturbed. Let the government think of some other project that will not upset us”.

The adivasis are very sensitive about their land and settlements in an open environment. The holy grail of their faith is jal, jungle, zameen (water, forest, land); they pray to the trees, knowledgeable quarters said.

Kartik Pal, vice-president of All-India Kisan Mahasabha and West Bengal convener of All-India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee (AIKSCC), told NewsClick there must be a number of instances of absentee landlords, on whose behalf farm activity is carried on by tenant farmers. If legal owners get the cash compensation for parting with their land, what happens to tenant farmers, Pal said.

Asked how soon will they decide on their next round of agitation at the site, Avik Saha, AIKSCC secretary and general secretary of Jai Kisan Andolan, said the agitation by aggrieved residents in the area was continuing. “They are displaying enough courage in the face of the administration’s pressure tactics”, he told NewsClick.

The compensation for land with almost 100% solatium is in the range Rs 10-13 lakh per bigha. At the handing over function at Nabanna on February 23, a ‘willing’ person received a cheque of Rs 21.45 lakh which, judging by his reaction, far exceeded his expectations.

An obvious question that arises is whether resident protesters will find the package too tempting to forego. Meanwhile, there is a buzz that Didi, desperate to establish her credentials in industrialisation, may further sweeten the package.


The writer is a Kolkata-based freelance journalist.

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