October 29, 2018 / 1:02 AM / a month ago

FEATURE-Villagers lose homes, land to feed India's booming power sector

PIDARWAH, India, Oct 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - S iyaram Saket refuses to give up his one-and-a-half acres of farmland in central India - no matter how much the coal mining company offers him.

Whatever the amount, said the 55-year-old, it will not be enough to replace the value of the fertile land feeding his family of six in Pidarwah village, Singrauli district.

He knows of people in nearby villages who moved on the promise by the government and power companies of money, jobs or homes in exchange for their land a decade ago.

Now homeless, they are still waiting for compensation, he said.

“We can see what happened to those villagers. They’ve become beggars,” Saket explained. “We’re not going to let that happen with us.”

As energy-hungry India seeks to fuel its continued economic growth, millions of people are being robbed of their homes by companies building power plants on their land or mining the coal below it, activists and villagers say.

India’s energy output has tripled in the last 15 years - according to CARE Ratings, a credit rating agency - making it the world’s third-largest electricity market.

In Singrauli district alone, more than 1.3 million people have been displaced as the result of government deals with power companies since the 1960s, says Climate Agenda, a local nonprofit.

The government and the power companies often renege on the terms of their land acquisitions, said Priya Pillai, a senior researcher at Asar Social Impact Advisors, a sustainable energy consultancy, who has worked for several years in Singrauli.

“The biggest problems in the area are displacement, a lack of livelihood and environmental degradation,” Pillai told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Mines (have) destroyed entire lives and whatever was promised in return never happened.”

The government led the first wave of displacements in the mid-1950s to build the 300-megawatt Rihand Dam, said Ravi Shekhar, a campaigner with Climate Agenda.

Lured by the steady electricity supply, private and state-owned companies soon followed, he said.

Some families have been moved as many as four times to accommodate energy projects, he added.

FIGHTING FOR COMPENSATION

More than a decade after the government allocated land to Indian power company Essar Power across four villages in Mahan, a forest area in Singrauli district, locals say they are still waiting for their dues.

Sitapati Singh, a resident of Khairahi village, said she was told by government and Essar representatives that she was a minor when the deal went through, making her ineligible for any compensation. She insists she was over 18 at the time.

Such disputes are common. According to Land Conflict Watch - a New Delhi-based research initiative - as of October, about 7.2 million people have been affected in more than 600 ongoing land disputes across India, involving investments worth $179 billion.

“One of the biggest (issues) with land and environment is that none of the procedures that are meant to be followed are followed ... That leads to conflict,” said Kanchi Kohli, a researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank.

“The transition is inhuman. You dislocate someone from a place and take completely no responsibility for it,” she said.

An Essar spokesman said by email that the state government and the district administration had identified and acquired the land for its power plant and the company paid for compensation under the guidance of the administration.

“All the eligible villagers have been duly compensated,” he said.

India’s power ministry did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the rehabilitation procedure for residents affected by power projects.

COMPLAINTS

Saket, the farmer in Pidarwah, pointed to villagers’ complaints about Essar’s land deal to explain why he and his neighbours will not sell their land to state-owned power company THDC India Ltd.

According to residents, in November last year villagers attended a meeting called by the government to discuss the proposal.

As per protocol, everyone present had to sign or put their thumbprint on a register to hear about the proposal.

People who were at the meeting said that about 150 villagers attended.

But when they later filed a freedom of information request to look at the register, they saw the signatures and thumbprints of 661 people.

Based on that number of signatures, the company has approval from the villagers to move ahead with the purchase, said A.K. Sharma, additional general manager at THDC.

Villagers said that in the days after the meeting, a village council official tricked people into adding their thumbprints to the register, telling them that he was doing a survey of how many people lived in the area.

Some of the signatures were simply forged, Saket and other Pidarwah residents said.

The villagers have written to government officials with their version of events - a copy of which was seen by the Thomson Reuters Foundation - but have not heard back so far.

Anurag Chaudhary, the administrative head of Singrauli district, said that he has not received any complaints from Pidarwah residents but was ready to “resolve any procedural issues”.

“The villagers need to tell me if there is a problem ... I can order an inquiry if anyone complains to me,” he said by phone.

Sharma said that government officials were currently trying to figure out the best compensation package for the residents of Pidarwah.

“They don’t need to worry,” he said, referring to the villagers.

“We are a government company and the government never deceives.”

Param Sukh, a former farmer in Singrauli, said that is not his experience. He was about six years old when his family was first moved to another part of the district in the 1950s to make way for the Rihand Dam.

They were displaced again in the 1970s for a state-owned power plant, he said, and were given a 1,500-square-foot plot in the nearby Chilkatand resettlement camp, bordered by a coal mine to the north and a power plant to the south.

They have lived there ever since.

“Earlier we had land, and we could grow our own food, and we were comfortable,” Sukh said.

"Today we are suffering." (Reporting by Megha Bahree, Editing by Jumana Farouky and Zoe Tabary. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org)

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