Two tribal farmers were killed and 42 were injured on Monday when the Jharkhand police opened fire on a crowd of more than 200 people protesting a thermal plant in Gola in Ramgarh, 40 kilometers from the state capital of Ranchi.

The protestors claimed that their crops were being damaged because excessive usage of river water by the power plant run by Inland Power Limited and by the pollution it was causing.

The dead were identified as Dashrath Nayak, a 50-year old farmer, and Ram Lal Mahto a farmer who was hit by a bullet in the back as he was grazing cattle nearby. Villagers alleged that the policemen had mistaken him as one of the protestors.

Villagers said that they had made a written complain to the Collector early in August, and he had told them that a meeting would be held at the plant on August 29. “We had reached the plant for the meeting," said one protestor. "The Collector did not arrive and instead the police started lathi charging and firing at us."

District officials said 26 government staff, including 23 policemen, were also injured in the clashes. Ramgarh district superintendent of police M Tamilvanan told that the villagers damaged a company motor and set fire to a company generator and the shed in which it was housed.

“The company had built an intake well and constructed a pipeline to take water from Sarangada river 1 kilometer from the plant,” said Tamilvanan. “At around 4 pm, these people started breaking the shed. They set fire to a motor that cost the company Rs 80 lakh and a Rs 40 lakh generator. When police reached there accompanying the block development officer, they started throwing stones at officials using the material kept at shed which was under construction.”

Tamilvanan said the police had fired 47 bullet rounds at the farmers. He said the farmers were armed with traditional weapons such as sickles, spades and crowbars, "which can be deadly weapons”. He added that the authorities recovered six empty cartridges from the spot "which we can prove were not fired from our weapons”.

Jharkhand armed police at the Inland Power Limited's thermal power plant site in Ramgarh on Tuesday. The plant became operational in May 2014.

Villagers said they had gathered at the power plant under the banner of the Nagrik Chetna Manch forum to protest the disruption to their water supply, the lack of electricity to their homes, the damage to roads from the trucks ferrying coal to the plant, and excessive dust from pollution settling on their crops.

Nakul Mahto, a 38-year old farmer from Bamni village said that instead of using water from Gomti and Barha river 10 km away from the plant as had been expected, the company was taking water from the Seranggada river, which was the source of water for locals. “They will finish off our water source this way," said Mahto. "They have already ruined our crop with their smoke and pollutants."

In Tonagutu village, Suresh Kumar Patel a 36-year-old farm worker said villagers from 10 villages – Tonagutu, Bamni, Baying, Urba, Karo, Putridih, Bariatu, Saranhatu, Karamara and Nawadi – had sold land at Rs 1 lakh-Rs 1.5 lakhs per acre to the company but had failed to get decent jobs.

“If any displaced villager get work in the plant, at most they pay Rs 150,” said Lakeshwar Kumar, a farmer in Tonagutu.

Said another villager: “When we began our protest, the local papers reported it as villagers trying to extort money from the company. Are farmers extortionists? The way the police acted has created terror all over our villages.”

Villagers in Tonagatu alleged the police fired at them when they had gone to meet district officials to protest dust and environmental pollution from the plant and its excessive use of their water. Credit: Manob Chowdhury

The company had started construction at the site in 2010, and started producing 63 mega watt electricity on May 1, 2014, in its first phase. It hopes to double this soon.

Sanjay Singh, Assistant Deputy General Manager (Administration) at Inland Power Limited's Ranchi office denied the villagers' allegations that the company was not running the pollution control equipment on a regular basis. “We run an electrostatic precipitator to reduce smoke emission which is monitored online by pollution control authorities,” he said.

He alleged the Nagrik Chetna Manch that led the protests has been formed by people with “vested interests”.

Singh claimed: “Last year, when villagers expressed problems related to damage to roads and other problems, the district administration had formed a committee with two members each from affected villages. Nagrik Chetna Manch has been created as a parallel interest group.”

He added that the company already had land permits for its second 63 megawatt unit, and was waiting for its power purchase agreement to be finalised with the government.

Superintendent of police M Tamilvanan alleged that the villagers want everything for free. "If the company signed a memorandum of understanding with the state government, it is not their responsibility to supply power to the villages, who anyway have got illegal power connections, or school teachers, handpumps, and jobs that pay Rs 25,000, which they are asking as their 17-point demands,” the official said.

He said the company had already employed 227 villagers who had lost their land as contract workers and an additional 40 workers who had not lost any land to the plant. Rajeshwari B, the District Collector of Ramgarh, was not reachable as she was on leave.

Jharkhand chief minister Raghuvir Das has ordered an enquiry into the incident, reported The Indian Express.

Munni Devi, whose brother Ram Lakhan Mahto died of bullet injuries. Villagers alleged the police beat the farmer even though he was not part of the protest. Credit: Manob Chowdhury
Meena Kumari was injured in the clashes. Credit: Manob Chowdhury
Ram Lakhan Mahto's wife and children, Ritu, Subhash and Anuj at their home. Credit: Manob Chowdhury