One person is near death and at least 11 gravely injured after police in Uttar Pradesh fired at anti-dam protesters in Sonebhadra at seven on Tuesday morning, eyewitnesses said. Akku Kharwar, a 42-year-old tribal leader from Sundari village, is now fighting for his life in a hospital in Varanasi.

Hundreds of villagers have been sitting in protest at the proposed site for the Kanhar dam since December 30. On the morning of Ambedkar Jayanti, protesters from at least three villages, mostly adivasis, gathered on a road leading to the controversial Kanhar dam in Amwar to prevent trucks from beginning construction. They also carried Ambedkar photos with them. Police reportedly fired on the crowd to clear the road.

“There was a scuffle between the police and the public in which eight to ten police and public were injured,” said Manoj Pandey, a police representative at Duddhi. “We know there was firing at the site but we do not know yet who fired.”

Yet protesters allege they know exactly who had fired on them. “We had gathered here in the morning to protest but the kotwal Kapildev Yadav fired on us,” said Gambhira Prasad, a leader at the site of the protest who was a witness to the firing. “But we will continue to mark Ambedkar Jayanti. Khuni holi mein karenge.”

The dam has now become a political issue in the area. Roma Malik, an advocate and activist with the All India Union of Forest Working People, was present at a public meeting held between administrators and the public on April 10. There, she alleges, the Superintendent of Police of Sonbhadra, Shiv Shankar Yadav, said that the project was a matter of prestige for him and that protesters should not go to the site of the dam.

“Protests died down for a few days, but today people said they couldn’t wait anymore,” Malik said. “That was why they decided to stop the road where all vehicles go to dam site and that is why almost immediately the police came and broke up the protesters.”


The dam is one of several controversial river projects in Uttar Pradesh. A project of the state’s irrigation department, it was proposed in 1976, but shelved in 1989 due to a lack of funds. Although the state periodically attempted to revive it, it never went beyond laying foundation stones. On December 5, 2014, however, construction began once again, reportedly in the presence of police and paramilitary forces.

Local activists then filed a case against the state. Their contention is that in the 25 years since the project was not constructed clearance norms have changed and that the forest and environment clearances the project obtained in 1976 do not consider the far wider range of implications current rules do. They estimate the project will affect at least 80 villages in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh.

Construction work on the dam has continued despite a stay order from the National Green Tribunal on December 24 saying that work should not go on until the state submitted proof of its clearances. Malik says that trees have been cut and work accelerated since the protests began.

Yet Pandey denies any knowledge of the tribunal order, even as he acknowledged that construction at the site is on. “Let the protest continue and we will deal with it on the basis of how it goes,” he said.

In today's context, the protest stands out as the villagers very clearly do not want to lose their homes to the dam – rights for which the Samajwadi Party government is fighting at the Centre, pointed out Malik.

“As today is Ambedkar Jayanti, we had decided yesterday to renew the protest in a larger way,” Prasad added. “The public does not want to give up its land for this dam so we have to do this.”

For now, the protest at the site is already swelling. From a few hundred people, there are now around 700 and more people are joining in as the news of the shooting spreads. Prasad, still in the midst of the crowd at the time of filing, now fears for his own life, claiming that the police have identified him as a leader of the protest.

“The police have surrounded us on all four sides to keep an eye on us,” he said. “But we will remain here in protest until we get justice.”