Days after the Jharkhand police opened fired on farmers protesting land acquisition for coal mines by the National Thermal Power Corporation in Badkagaon, Hazaribagh, on October 1 resulting in several deaths, the demonstrators are still shocked at what they claim was the excessive use of force by the administration.

Residents say five persons have died in police firing, including three students in their late teens, and more than 40 have been injured. On Tuesday evening, the district administration put the number of deaths at four. It was the third time since 2013 that the police have fired on farmers in Badkagaon.

“We want to ask [Chief Minister] Raghuvar Das to ask officials why they shot us all,” said Badkagaon resident Kumar Divakar. “Why should we live in suffocation like this, where the officials are shooting us one by one? Raghuvar Das can live here with the company officials. Should we line up in a queue so they can shoot us all?”

The farmers have been opposing land acquisition of their multi-crop farmland for coal mines allotted to National Thermal Power Corporation since 2004. They had been on a sit-in protest near a mining site in Chiru Barwadih village for two weeks when the police tried to break their protest at 5 am on October 1. When the farmers, including several women, tried to stop the police from detaining Nirmala Devi, the member of legislative assembly from Badkagaon who was supporting the protest, the police fired 60 rounds of bullets into the crowd.

The family of 16-year-old student Pawan Kumar mourns his death. Credit: Manob Chowdhury

The family of Pawan Kumar, a 16-year old student who died in the incident, alleged the police had beaten Kumar after he was shot. “After Pawan was shot, the policemen dragged his body to the panchayat bhawan and kept it in a vehicle there,” alleged Makhi Ram, Pawan’s father who works as a coolie in Kolkata. “He was alive but instead of taking him to the hospital, the police kept him at the panchayat bhawan and thrashed him. The villages heard his screams for three-four hours before he succumbed to his death.”

Families of the other deceased said they were threatened by the police.

“The whole area has been turned into a military camp,” said Santosh Rai, whose 18-year-old nephew Abhishek Rai was among those who died. “We managed to get my nephew’s body back with great difficulty by 4 pm on Saturday," said Rai. "At the autopsy center, the policemen present were saying, 'Learn your lessons, let the mining work go on, or more bodies will fall.' A lot of people had gathered outside, we were worried how we will take the body back, if the police starts firing again.”

In Chindwar village, Sudeshwar Verma expressed anger that the public sector unit and the district administration were not "listening" to the farmers. "NTPC does not want to talk to raiyat(farmers) directly, but only to dalal(land brokers). They have put a board and have an office here. But if we go there, they will not even speak to us." Verma said media reports after the incident had portrayed the farmers as insurgents. "Papers are reporting that Yogendra Sau's Tiger Naxal Force attacked the police," he said. "We are ordinary farmers, we are not Tiger Naxal Force or any such group."

The family of student Abhishek Rai, 18, said they were threatened by the police. Credit: Manob Chowdhury

Women farmers said they too were not spared. “The circle officer started dragging Nirmala Devi by her hair and clothes, when we tried to stop him, the police abused us..." said a farmer who declined to be identified. “They chased us in the fields and broke all our utensils and material lying at the dharna site.” At the protest site in Chiru Barwadih village, the protesting farmers’ utensils and blankets lay torn and scattered on the ground.

Said Jai Birendra, a farmer: “We were on a peaceful protest and were not obstructing any officials for two weeks and were even talking to officials. Why did the circle officer try to attack us at 4 am? Why did he attack and abduct Nirmala Devi in early hours of morning? What sudden pressure were they under?” He added that police force had occupied Chirudih school building for the last three months, interrupting classes there.

At the protest site in Chiru Barwadih village, the protesting farmers’ utensils and blankets lay torn and scattered on Monday. Credit: Manob Chowdhury

By Monday evening, hundreds of families had fled their homes after the police and paramilitary forces carried out a door-to-door search of houses in six villages in the mining area, in Chapakala, Chipakhurd, Sonbarsa, Churchur, Arahar, Nagri. District Superintendent of police Bhimsen Tuti said the police had detained 10 residents on suspicion of having attacked the police but had allowed nine of them to go by Tuesday evening.

“We have video evidence of protestors attacking the circle officer and the additional superintendent of police, and are looking for residents who we suspect to have attacked the police on Saturday,” said Tuti. “We acted to carry out a preventive arrest of MLA Nirmala Devi after the NTPC registered two FIRs on September 28 when the farmers blocked the mine vehicles and interrupted mining operations.”

A First Information of Report has been registered against Devi, her husband former agriculture minister in the state Yogendra Sau, and “500 unnamed persons” and more than 300 police and Rapid Action Force have been stationed in the villages. The police have not been able to detain Nirmala Devi.

Lok Nath Mahto, a former MLA of All Jharkhand Students Union which has formed a coalition government with BJP in Jharkhand expressed surprise that no government official had met the families of the victims since the incident. "The chief secretary and director general of police visited, but even they did not meet the families," said Mahto."What could be be more unfortunate than such an incident?"

On Tuesday, former chief minister Babulal Marandi, former Member of Parliament from Hazaribagh Bhuneshwar Mehta of the Communist Party of India, Rashtriya Janata Dal state president Gautam Sagar Rana and Janata Dal (United) district president Bateshwar Mehta were stopped by the district administration from visiting the area. "The administration does not want out the stories of police atrocity to emerge, thus they have made a situation worse than emergency in Badkagaon," said Rana. "We managed to meet some villagers who say all bullet injuries are above the waist. The intention was intimidation of farmers, not dispersal of crowd."

Rapid Action Force personnel and the police were deployed in the villages near the coal mine site on Monday. Credit: Manob Chowdhury

Land war

Badkagaon in Hazaribagh, 150 kilometers from the state capital Ranchi, has been the epicenter of a dogged protest for the last 12 years by farmers who do not want to sell their land to the National Thermal Power Corporation. Their farms lie over the Rs 33,000 crore- Pakri Barwadih coal block. With a 1.6 billion-tonnes reserve, it is one of the largest coal blocks in the country.

According to NTPC data, seven years into the process, it had by 2015 been able to acquire 4,043 acres of the total 8,055 acres needed for the project. This includes forest and government-owned land. Of 8,745 affected families, only 2,614 have accepted compensation.

The farmers’ opposition has forced NTPC to revise the rate of compensation four times, more than doubling it from its initial offer of Rs 8 lakh per acre in 2007 to Rs 20 lakh per acre now. The affected families say this is inadequate compensation for their land and the norms should be four times the market value of land as per the Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation Act, 2013

Several hundred families in 36 villages say they do not wish to sell their farmland at all. “We grow crops here all 12 months,” said Sudhlal Sau, a farmer. “We grow vegetables, pulses, wheat, we are self-sufficient and every morning five to seven trucks loaded with vegetables go from Badkagaon to Ranchi, Hazaribagh, Patratu. What will we eat if you deprive us of our livelihood?” The farmers complained that they had met Chief Minister Raghuvar Das in August, and he had assured them of an enquiry into the issue within ten days but they had not heard back a word since August.

Security personnel in the villages near coal mine site on Monday. Credit: Manob Chowdhury

Contested history

The Pakri Barwadih coal block has a chequered history.

As the Economic Times reported, the NTPC in 2014 cancelled its 27-year contract with its contractor, Thiess Mines. The mining contractor said that while the NTPC was inexplicably willing to spend Rs 7,000 crore on imported coal, it was unwilling to spend Rs 36 crore annually on a better compensation package for the affected villagers.

The NTPC floated a new tender where the mining contractor would have the responsibility for land acquisition and rehabilitation. A consortium of two companies, Thriveni Earthmovers and Sainik Mining, won the new tender last year and promised to start mining by the end of 2016. Thriveni has been accused of illegal mining in Odisha by the Shah Commission.

At the time of publishing, response from NTPC to a questionnaire was still awaited.

Thriveni Earthmovers amid fields in Badkagaon. Thriveni and Sainik Mining were given mining contract in Badkagaon last year. Image credit: Manob Chowdhury