Balco land acquisition plan foiled

Date of publication: 
30 September 2013

On a wet and windy Saturday evening nearly 350 km north of the State capital, Raipur, a non-descript village registered a historic victory against Bharat Alumunium Company Ltd (Balco), an affiliate of India focused global miner, Vedanta. While the Dongria Kondhs turned up in large numbers at the gram sabha to emphatically reject Vedanta’s project at Niyamgiri hills, at the base of Dharamjaigarh hill range in Raigarh, the villagers of Taraimarh dismissed another project of Vedanta by simply boycotting the sabha.

Even after repeated announcements to “choose or denounce” mining in nearly 50 acres of forest land in Taraimarh, villagers refused to respond, forcing the administration to “adjourn” the sabha before time.

Taraimarh opted for an exclusive strategy since Friday. The villagers neither spoke to the media, nor allowed outsiders to enter the village. So no one, including the company’s agents, administration or the media, was aware of the boycott plan. And hence, the quorum required for a legitimate gram sabha could not be “organised” at Taraimarh.

Balco is in the process of acquiring 1,070 hectares of land granted as part of a mining lease in Dharamjaigarh block for its power plant at Korba. Three panchayats of Dharamjaigarh block — Sahpur (which includes Taraimarh), Baysi and Rupunga — will disappear to feed the 1,110 MW plant; 365 hectares of forestland, part of the total land leased for mining, will be accessed from the three panchayats, housing more than a dozen villages. Serial gram sabhas were hosted in three panchayats to obtain consent from the villagers.

The strategy of “civil disobedience” checkmated all, including SDM of Dharamjaigarh S.N. Ram. He snubbed the sarpanch of Taraimarh, Dharamsingh Rathia, in public, almost implicating him for lack of quorum. “If they [villagers] are not coming, then tell me the reason,” Mr. Ram demanded. Mr. Rathia apologetically said that he “tried” his best. Tehsildar K.L. Sori, who was one of the arbitrators at the gram sabha, profusely praised Balco’s activities in the presence of the SDM. “Schools were constructed, hand pumps were fixed [by Balco] and noone opposed those. Isn’t it?” Mr. Sori said, while asking the sarpanch to drum up support for the company. The SDM refused to discuss with The Hindu whether the officials can canvass for a private mining company, especially as arbitrators.

A sizeable crowd gathered at the venue around 1-30 p.m. The locals, including the police, identified the members of the crowd as “outsiders.” While their intention was not known, Collector Mukesh Agarwal was informed of the “company-funded outsiders” by the villagers. Sources in the Raigarh district administration told The Hindu that Mr. Bansal “immediately” called up the officials at the venue.

Within minutes, the SDM asked the police to clear the area and an announcement was made, for the first time, asking the “outsiders” to disperse. “Complaints have been received… I will request them [outsiders] to go away. Only media is allowed to stay,” announced a man, with newly dyed red hair, from the local panchayat.

In another half-an-hour the Dharamjaigarh administration lost interest in the proceedings. “Since only six [out of 260] voters arrived, the gram sabha is adjourned, due to lack of quorum,” announced the man with red hair, amid loud cheers.

Mr. Sori, however, consoled the company’s middleman before leaving the venue. “If more than 100 villagers file application, it can be considered again. If the people who were supposed to appear in the quorum, [still] give their consent, we can definitely consider the case,” he was found saying in a video-graphed footage, clearly violating his official position.

“I have been told, some men are stopping the villagers from attending the gram sabha, it is unfortunate,” associate vice-president (Corporate Communications) of Balco, B.K. Sriwastwa told The Hindu .

On Thursday, another gram sabha was conducted at Baysi, a bigger panchayat about 5 km west of Taraimarh. Nearly 800 villagers, mostly women, staged a demonstration at the venue and brought down a portion of the pandal constructed for the sabha. The husband of the Baysi sarpanch, Ratiram Rathia, said that the “gram sabha was unanimously rejected.”

A local journalist, Sajal Kumar Medhu, who played a key role in resisting mining, said the company “sent a truckload of food to influence the villagers,” who were planning to attend the gram sabha.” Mr. Sriwastwa denied the allegation.