ASK THE RIVER!

Published: Wed, 04/27/2011 - 10:05 Updated: Wed, 04/27/2011 - 10:07

A typical, unhappy, Indian village story. No one knows who is starting a dam project in a small hamlet in Jharkhand. And why?
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi

Jabra is a small hamlet in the Karra Block of Khunti district near Ranchi in Jharkhand. The villagers here had no clue about the major paradigm shift waiting for them, which could suddenly and completely dismantle their lives. No one told them anything, not even local officials.

Till December 10, 2010, the villagers had no clue about what was in store for them when suddenly men of a private firm - Triveni Engicons Private Limited, a Jamshedpur-based company - swooped in and started the customary bhoomi pujan, a ritual before the commencement of a new project. On December 11,  big machines were brought in, and a day later, the work formally began. Something big was happening. In and around their own indigenous land, homes, fields, trees, water bodies. And no one knew what it's all about!

No one in the village was told anything. Not an iota of information was shared. Not even the sarpanch was informed. Finally, they were categorically and unilaterally told that a dam is being constructed on the Chhata river which flows through the area. Who is constructing it, and why, and who has sanctioned the project and why - nothing was clear. An uncanny, deceptive, sinister shadow of disbelief surrounded the village. The signs were loaded with bad faith.

On December 13, in a bizarre twist, two men were abducted from the village. Among those kidnapped was villager Vijay Dhan and Vidhyachal, an employee with the project contractor. Interestingly, the employee walked free - unscathed - after a few hours, while Vijay's body was found in a well in the adjoining Ghorpenda village. He had been murdered. The police, providing no valid reason, detained two villagers for interrogation and kept them in the police station for five days. 

Nothing concrete in terms of leads has emerged until now. "The investigations are on. We have not been able to figure out who the culprit is," Pradeep Kumar, officer in-charge of the local police station, told Hardnews on phone. The villagers demand that Triveni Engicons should be held responsible for the murder, and compensate Vijay's family with Rs 15 lakh. Ironically, top government officials of the area visited the village on December 17 - they too accepted that they have no information about the project. 

The project has been stalled after the murder. A sense of fear and disquiet has set in among the local community. "The contractor's men told us that we will have to part with our land and we have no other option. We don't step out after sunset, we fear for our lives," said Ghanshyam (name changed), a villager.   

On December 18, villagers and activists decided to visit the district headquarters - out of curiosity. They met the same set of district officials and were yet again told that there is no information about the project. "We met the district collector and other top officials and all of them said they had no clue," said Dayamani Barla, a local activist who is spearheading the campaign. "We were told the work cannot begin till land is acquired."

Locals just could not comprehend this deception drama. Why this mystery? Why have the facts not been shared with the gram sabha and panchayat? Why are people not taken into confidence? The callous attitude of the district administration compelled the villagers to unite in protest against the dam. A round of meetings and discussions followed; there was consensus that the project will be opposed vehemently. "They kept us in the dark," said a villager.   

On January 25, 2011, the villagers agitated at the block office in Karra. "Once again, neither the circle officer nor the block development officer (BDO) had any information about the project," said Barla. The villagers were told that in 2009 an engineer had visited the area for measurements. But there is no information on what happened after that. "We told the BDO categorically that we will not give our land," said Rajeev. "It is a Schedule V area, governed under the PESA Act. No project can go forward without the approval of the gram sabha," informed Barla.

With all relevant details still under wraps, Barla decided to take the RTI route. A slew of information requests were filed with the irrigation department, department of water resources, and the land acquisition department. In a reply to the RTI petition, surprisingly, the departments of water resources and land acquisition - the latter is entitled to survey and acquire the land for any new project - denied having any information. 

Consequently, the irrigation department, Ranchi, in its reply, cleared the confusion - the 'Kanti Dam Project' was sanctioned way back in 2008 to Triveni Engicons at a cost of Rs 64.83 crore. The department suddenly woke up and a hurried letter was dispatched on February 5, 2011 to the land acquisition department, asking it to depute officers for acquiring land for the project. "Yes, the procedures were not followed. We too had no information," Rakesh Kumar, District Collector, Khunti,told Hardnews in a telephonic conversation. "It was the fault of the irrigation department." 

"Even till now, people have no information about the project. I was also not aware of anything. No information was sent to me by any authority," said Kamalkant Gupta, Circle Officer, Karra block. 

Triveni Engicons, the company in the eye of the storm, claims it was under pressure from authorities in Ranchi. "We could not start the project even when the tender was passed in 2008. There was pressure on us. Also, we did not flout any norms. The work started on two acres of land that we had paid for. That land is anyway barren," said RK Singh, a Triveni representative.  

Now that the administration and the contractor have swung back into action, the villagers are up in arms against the plans. "How will we survive without our land? It is our only source of livelihood," said a villager. They are now sensing danger. "As usual, dirty games are being played. The administration has started making dubious plans to diffuse the movement and destroy the opposition," said Barla.

At the time of writing, an emergency gram sabha was being planned on March 25. "We will only go forward with the project if the affected villagers give their nod. We are now rectifying our mistakes," said Rakesh Kumar. 

The villagers are not amused. They are waiting cautiously. They are in no mood to suddenly give way to a "dubious project" with no official credibility, shrouded in secrecy, against all democratic norms of transparency, and violating basic gram sabha rules and laws. They have collectively given unanimous memoranda asking the project to be scrapped. They also point out that the 'official' gram sabha is being planned in a village far away from the epicentre of protest. This is a 'fraudulent norm' across projects like big dams all over the country, argue activists, violating environmental laws and completely trashing the concept of 'public hearings'. "How can they go forward with the project when the people who are projected to be the beneficiaries do not want it?" asked Barla.

A typical, unhappy, Indian village story. No one knows who is starting a dam project in a small hamlet in Jharkhand. And why?
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi

Read more stories by ASK THE RIVER!

This story is from print issue of HardNews