Special investigation

Jharkhand villagers ask why should they lose land for Adani project supplying power to Bangladesh

How does the project qualify as ‘public purpose’ and does it violate legal safeguards for Santhal areas? Part 2 of a Scroll.in investigation on the Godda plant.

In the villages of Motiya and Gangta in Jharkhand’s Godda district, tractors and SUVs race down a recently widened dirt road. Even in the clouds of dust they kick off, it is hard to miss the fence stretching across kilometres of farmland, with cows grazing on one side, and trees lying horizontal on the other, roots exposed to the sky.

Inside the fence, Adani Power Limited is building a coal-fired thermal power plant with the capacity to generate 1,600 megawatts of electricity. As the host state, Jharkhand is legally entitled to buying 25% of this electricity. But the company plans to export all the electricity from the Godda plant to Bangladesh, while sourcing Jharkhand’s 25% share from another project, which it has not yet identified. The Bharatiya Janata Party government in the state has allowed the company to charge a higher price for this electricity by amending Jharkhand’s energy policy in 2016, as Scroll.in reported in the first part of the series. A government audit has estimated this could cost the state an additional Rs 7,410 crore over 25 years.

For the residents of ten villages in Godda, however, the losses are more immediate. The government is acquiring their land for the Adani project, even though many do not want to sell.

Unlike private purchases of land, where a company buys directly from willing sellers, land acquisition involves the forcible takeover of land by the government on behalf of a company.

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act,a central law passed in 2013, allows the government to acquire land for a private company only if the project is categorised as having “public purpose”. This needs to be determined through a social impact assessment – an exercise that involves consulting local people to assess the costs and benefits of the project. Even after a project is declared as having public purpose, obtaining the consent of 80% of the landowners is mandatory before land acquisition can take place.

Adani’s Godda project requires 1,214 acres of land, according to its social impact assessment report. Another 74 acres are needed to build a 10-km long private rail line to carry coal to the plant.

The Jharkhand government has so far acquired 174.84 acres of land for the project, according to the district land acquisition office in Godda. In March, the Telegraph reported the company had deposited Rs 250 crore in the district treasury, with another Rs 200 crore still pending.

The district authorities claim they have taken the consent of the landowners for the acquisition. But several residents in the affected villages contest this. They told Scroll.in they were forcibly kept out of the social impact assessment hearings and alleged that their land was fenced off by the company without their consent.

Experts have also raised questions over the legality of the acquisition, given that Godda is part of the Santhal Parganas Division, which is governed by the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, which does not permit the transfer, lease or sale of agricultural land, barring a few exceptions.

Excavation and levelling of land is under way in the villages of Motiya and Gangta, with JCB excavators working well into the night. Local farmers that Scroll.in spoke to allege that their lands have been dug up and fenced off without their consent.
Excavation and levelling of land is under way in the villages of Motiya and Gangta, with JCB excavators working well into the night. Local farmers that Scroll.in spoke to allege that their lands have been dug up and fenced off without their consent.

Private profit, public purpose

In October 2016, days before Adani Power Limited signed its final Memorandum of Understanding with the Jharkhand government, the state chief secretary sought the advocate general’s opinion on whether the Godda project could be deemed as having public purpose.

As explained above, categorising a project as having public purpose has immense legal significance: a private company can then rely on the government to acquire land on its behalf.

Furnishing his opinion on the matter on November 10, 2016, Jharkhand’s advocate general, HK Mehta, stated that the terms of agreement between the “said Company and the state or any department has not been provided to this office”. However, he concluded that the Adani project served public purpose based on section 2.1 (b) of the 2013 land acquisition law, which allows the government to acquire land for both public and private projects in industrial sectors that are listed in a notification issued by the Union Ministry of Finance. Electricity generation, transmission and distribution feature in this “Harmonised Master List of Infrastructure sub-sectors”.

But researchers point out that the electricity generated by the Adani project will not be used within India. “With the Godda plant being set up only to evacuate electricity to Bangladesh, it is critical to justify how this is public purpose for India,” said Kanchi Kohli, the legal research director at the Centre for Policy Research-Namati Environmental Justice Program.

Kohli said under the 2013 land acquisition law, whether a project has public purpose cannot be determined arbitrarily by state authorities. A mandatory social impact assessment needs to be conducted. “A legalistic mention of the Ministry of Finance notification or electricity generation as the activity is not enough to determine public purpose,” she said. “It requires a fair and transparent clarification, based on which the acquisition should be publicly reviewed and consent sought.”

How the social impact assessment was done

A month after the advocate general declared the Adani project met the definition of public purpose, on December 6, 2016, district authorities in Godda conducted the social impact assessment hearings. One was held in the Khadi Bhavan of Motiya village, while the other took place in a high school in Buxara village.

The social impact assessment of a project aims to map its potential impact on the lives and livelihoods of people who own and work on the land sought to be acquired. The findings are shared with the project affected people in public hearings, before their consent can be taken.

In Godda, a survey done as part of the social impact assessment showed the land Adani Power was seeking to acquire was held by 841 families with 5,339 people across ten villages. But the villagers claimed the actual number of landowners is higher – the company’s estimates were based on a land survey done as far back as 1932. The survey had left out landless families that lived and worked on the land, even though they did not own it.

Many villagers further alleged the district administration tried to prevent them from attending the public hearings by issuing preemptive notices. At the venue, the company’s agents controlled the entrance, they said, by handing over “passwords” in the form of yellow cards.

“They said it to us straight – will you give your land?” recounted Champa Devi, 40, who owns nine bighas of land in the village of Motiya. “We said no. They said we can’t let you in.”

In Buxara, residents made similar allegations. “We brought our Aadhaar cards, but they [the company’s agents] barred us from entering,” said Baby Devi, 40, who owns nearly 100 bighas of land in the villages of Buxara, Petwi and Baliya Kitta. “When we went there, they said they are only allowing people with yellow and green cards – Adani ID cards they called them.”

Some women managed to sneak in, nevertheless. A resident of Ranganiya village, Anita, reportedly created a stir when she asked those attending the meeting to declare how much land they held. “Jo raiyyat hai woh bahar chilla raha hai, jo ki raiyyat nahi hai, woh yaha bol raha hai. [The local farmers are shouting outside, while the outsiders are speaking here],” Devi recalled Anita as saying. “When she said this, they snatched the mic from her. After that the administration began their lathicharge.”

The villagers claimed that nearly 2,000 police personnel were present at the hearing. They allegedly broke into a lathicharge, fired teargas shells and even entered the homes of villagers, beating some up, according to several residents of Motiya and Ranganiya villages.

Women in the village of Ranganiya say they were not allowed inside the social impact assessment hearing in the village of Buxara.
Women in the village of Ranganiya say they were not allowed inside the social impact assessment hearing in the village of Buxara.

The district collector of Godda, Kiran Kumari Passi, declined comment on the allegations, saying she was not posted in the district when the social impact assessment hearings took place. But she insisted the process of land acquisition was proceeding smoothly.

“When we were disbursing cheques, there wasn’t any kind of commotion,” she said. “There’s not been a single incident of breakdown of law and order, and people are taking their money peacefully.”

The social impact assessment report prepared by the Agriculture Finance Corporation has no mention of any violence or disturbances in the hearings. It states 1,415 people from five villages were present at the hearing in Buxara, but records only the views of 13 people from two villages. For Motia village, it registers the presence of 1,221 people from four villages, but records the views of only four people. A line at the bottom states all landowners present gave their consent by raising their hands in the air.

According to the rules of the 2013 land acquisition law, the consent of landowners must be taken in writing, on signed forms, at the social impact assessment hearings and at a meeting of the gram sabha.

When Scroll.in asked district authorities for copies of the consent documents, the request was denied. “We are trying to be as transparent as possible, but we cannot share these consent documents, because they contain people’s personal details, including their Aadhaar numbers,” said Pawan Kumar, the land acquisition officer for Godda district.

Similar requests made by the villagers of Motia and Gangta on November 17, 2017, elicited no response.

On February 2017, Jharkhand’s chief secretary, under instructions from the Jharkhand governor, had constituted a special investigative committee to investigate allegations of fake consent obtained at the social impact assessment hearings. But these findings have not been made public.

In a note written on March 23, 2017, the state advocate general cited the consent obtained during the social impact assessment hearings to reiterate his opinion in favour of the Adani project. He said since 400 MW of electricity supplied by the company will be utilised by the people of Godda and Jharkhand, and that “by export of power, foreign currency will be earned, which will be used for development of people of District/State/Country”, the project meets the definition of public purpose.

The advocate general also referred to the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, which prohibits the transfer of farmland in the area. He said its restrictions had “lost force” because the Adani project “has the consent of more than 80% affected families since the land is to be acquired for an electricity generation plant which is public purpose”.

“We won’t give our land to Adani, even if they kill us, let them kill us on our plots. When I lost my husband early, what I made from the land helped me raise my children,” said Gayatri Devi, 75, from the village of the Sondiha, who had fasted for seven days in protest against the Adani project. “This is our dharti mata [Mother Earth]. It has raised us. Our ancestors made this land cultivable with great difficulty, why would we leave it?”
“We won’t give our land to Adani, even if they kill us, let them kill us on our plots. When I lost my husband early, what I made from the land helped me raise my children,” said Gayatri Devi, 75, from the village of the Sondiha, who had fasted for seven days in protest against the Adani project. “This is our dharti mata [Mother Earth]. It has raised us. Our ancestors made this land cultivable with great difficulty, why would we leave it?”

Getting past the state laws

Godda lies in eastern Jharkhand, which is the traditional homeland of the Santhal tribal community. Three of the nine villages where land is being acquired for the Adani project are predominantly Santhal. Across these villages – Gangta, Nayabad and Mali – elders had a similar refrain: for the community, land is everything, they said.

“We are Santhals. We must die on our own land, not on the banks of the Ganga,” said Girinath Tudlu from the village of Gangta. “Adani can kill us if they want, we are not going anywhere.”

The Santhal Parganas witnessed a rebellion in 1855 against oppressive land tenure systems introduced by the British. In 1876, the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act was passed, which was adopted by Independent India in 1949. The law prohibits the transfer of farmland in the area, barring a few exceptions – for instance, when land is acquired for the government or the railways under the 1894 land acquisition law.

Jharkhand’s advocate general HK Mehta, however, took the view in November 2016 that land acquisition for the Adani Project was not restricted by the 1949 law. “I am of the considered opinion that the said SPT Act does not restrict the acquisition of land for any public purpose, either for the government or for the company, except under Section 69 of the said SPT Act,” he said.

But other lawyers in the state disagree. “Section 69 places a clear bar to acquisition on certain lands – those exempt under Section 20, land for railways and the government, vacant holdings of a village headman, sacred groves, grazing lands, burial groves,” pointed out Rashmi Katyayan, a lawyer in Ranchi who specialises in revenue laws. “We must know if these things are there. How can there be a village without these things? How can the AG [advocate general] not talk about this in his opinion?”

Gopeshwar Prasad Jha, a member of the Jharkhand Bar Council who lives in Dumka, a district which is part of the Santhal Parganas Division, said section 69 of the law, while prohibiting the transfer of farmland, makes an exception for land transfers under the 1894 land acquisition law. The colonial-era law was repealed in 2013. “However, there has been no subsequent notification that introduces the 2013 Act into that schedule,” he said.

The same month as the advocate general gave an opinion in favour of the Adani project, the state assembly passed amendments to the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act in a record three minutes. The amendments enabled the transfer of agricultural land for non-agricultural purposes. After state-wide protests against the amendments, in which four people were killed, the state government withdrew them in August 2017.

“Why don’t they just make the power plant in Bangladesh? Why must they pollute our water and cut our trees?” said Sushil Hembrom, a Santhal Adivasi elder from the village of Gangta.
“Why don’t they just make the power plant in Bangladesh? Why must they pollute our water and cut our trees?” said Sushil Hembrom, a Santhal Adivasi elder from the village of Gangta.

Forced acquisition

In Godda, the legal contentions have not impeded land acquisition.

On January 16, Balees Pandit, 31, a resident of Motiya village, rushed to his plot of farmland when he heard earthmoving machines hired by Adani Power were demolishing the embankments between fields. He found his land was being excavated, even though he had not given consent for the acquisition of his land.

A month later, on February 7, Ram Jeevan Paswan, a retired school teacher who owns land in Motiya, witnessed a similar excavation of his land. When he protested and asked who had authorised this, he was allegedly threatened by the machine operators. “Then Adani’s man came,” said Paswan. “I asked him the same thing. First, he pushed me, and I fell. Then he hit me with his shoes and insulted me and said ‘dusadh saala, we will bury you into this ground.’” Dusadh is another term used for the Dalit Paswan community.

Paswan went on to file a complaint at the the district police station against three people, including the man he identified as a field official of Adani. The first information report, registered in March under the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, alleged the official used a caste slur to insult Paswan, before beating him up.

Paswan does not know whether the police has made any progress in the case. But he is distressed that his land now lies fenced with wire. “Toddo aur phir taarein daalon, dono saath hi saath,” he said, describing the company’s policy – break and fence the land, all hand in hand.

Before their lands were fenced off, both Pandit and Paswan had been offered compensation. But they had refused to accept it. Later, Pandit found out the compensation had deposited in the bank accounts of his family members. “They prepared our genealogical chart, and have shown my father as dead, but also my father’s brother as dead, despite depositing cheques in their names,” he said.

Adani Power Limited did not respond to Scroll.in’s questions about the allegations made by the villagers. A company spokesperson emailed a statement: “We are building the Godda TPP as per applicable statutes and the records are available in the public domain. As a responsible corporate citizen, we have been developing all our crucial assets well within the law of the land in India and overseas. Your queries are based on presumptive premises and lack facts.”

Ramjeevan Paswan, a retired schoolteacher, climbs on top of his motorbike, as young Balis Pandit and a friend wrap their faces with handkerchiefs to avoid breathing the large volumes of dust as they pass the site of construction for the Adani power plant. Paswan and Balis were both witness to their plots being dug up without their consent, and said that they were insulted by Adani officials when they protested.
Ramjeevan Paswan, a retired schoolteacher, climbs on top of his motorbike, as young Balis Pandit and a friend wrap their faces with handkerchiefs to avoid breathing the large volumes of dust as they pass the site of construction for the Adani power plant. Paswan and Balis were both witness to their plots being dug up without their consent, and said that they were insulted by Adani officials when they protested.

Double cropped land

The land acquisition law of 2013 prohibits the acquisition of irrigated multi-cropped land, barring under exceptional circumstances. In the last two years, however, Jharkhand, like many other states, has tried to dilute the law’s provisions.

In August 2017, amendments to the law were passed in the state assembly even as the opposition staged a walkout. The amendments allow for the acquisition of multi-cropped agricultural land for over 15 categories of government projects. The Union government has not endorsed the amendments, which are pending with the President of India for approval.

Jharkhand, however, successfully diluted some of the provisions in 2015 when it notified the state rules for the implementation of the 2013 law. The state rules allow for the acquisition of 2% of the total irrigated multi-crop land of the state, as opposed to 1% allowed under the rules framed by the Centre. For other agricultural land, Jharkhand’s rules allow for acquisition of 25% of the total net sown area, instead of 5% under the central law. The state rules also reduce the quorum for gram sabha to one-third of all members from the requirement of half, and the notice period from three weeks to two weeks.

Adani’s power plant is predominantly located on agricultural land, comprising over 70% of the project’s area, according to the environment impact assessment report. More than 90% of the project affected people are farmers and farm workers, according to the social impact assessment report. Neither of the two reports provide any details about how much of the land is multi-cropped or irrigated.

“My land is multi-cropped and we manage to coax three crops out of it,” said Bidya Devi who owns 18 bighas of land in the village of Ranganiya, where land has not yet been taken possession of. The family grows paddy, wheat, chana and masoor dal. “Next to that, I have a garden, which yields mango and jackfruit. I have a vegetable patch where I grow potatoes, cauliflowers and tomatoes,” she said. “If the plant comes, where will we be able to grow such green vegetables?”

“This land wasn’t always like this,” she continued. “We endured a lot of difficulties so it can yield three crops and now they say hand it over? Why would we want to give away the land?”

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Fixing compensation

This is not the first time that the Jharkhand government has acquired land for private power companies in Godda district. In 2013, Jindal Steel and Power Limited had sought to acquire land under the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 to set up a power plant. The next year, the Godda deputy commissioner recommended rates ranging from Rs 5.2 lakh to Rs 10.39 lakh per acre under the 2013 law.

But the project was eventually put on hold indefinitely, after the company lost the Jitpur coal block which had been allocated for the project, following the Supreme Court’s 2014 judgment which struck down all coal block allocations across the country as arbitrary and illegal.

In Jharkhand, opposition parties accuse the BJP government of reducing the land rates in Godda. “When the Raghubar Das government came into power in 2015, the land rate was brought down to Rs 3.25 lakhs an acre,” said Babulal Marandi, former chief minister and head of the Jharkhand Vikas Morcha. He claimed protests by the opposition forced the government to revise the rates.

On July 13, 2016, the commissioner of the Santhal Parganas Division, based in Dumka, announced the rates for land under five categories: Rs 6 lakhs-Rs 7 lakhs per acre for agricultural and homestead land of poor quality, going upto Rs 12 lakhs per acre for prime agricultural land that was irrigated. In a nod to the Santhal Parganas Tenancy Act, the circular uses the term ‘unsaleable land’ even while determining the rates for it.

The state revenue secretary, KK Soan, claimed landowners in Godda were getting a fair deal: the rate of Rs 12.5 lakh per acre, including the 12% interest that was mandated as compensation for compulsory acquisition, was multiplied four times, as per the 2013 land acquisition law. “This is around Rs 40 lakhs-Rs 50 lakhs per acre for a good piece of land,” he said.

But the compensation given so far in the Godda project is much lower. Out of 175 acres acquired so far, 150 acres were valued at Rs 6.13 lakh per acre – the rate for the poorest quality of land. This was multiplied two times and not four, since the land is rural and not urban. None of the land acquired so far for the Godda project falls under the prime category of land.

 “They’ve sold us out,” said a woman in a Dalit colony outside the village of Sondiha, referring to large land-holders and outsiders who had accepted compensation from Adani. “What choice do we have? Where do they expect us to go?”
“They’ve sold us out,” said a woman in a Dalit colony outside the village of Sondiha, referring to large land-holders and outsiders who had accepted compensation from Adani. “What choice do we have? Where do they expect us to go?”

It is not just landowners who don’t stand to gain very much. In addition to privately-owned land, the Adani project will see the acquisition of 148 acres of common land. The common lands that are cultivated, typically by the landless, are called gair mazrua khas lands, while pasture land, water bodies, roads and other lands are called gair mazrua aam lands. On January 30, 2018, the state cabinet sanctioned the transfer of common lands to Adani Power Limited. The villagers say their consent was not taken. “They even reduced the price of GM land [gair mazrua land] by 50%, as part of a cabinet decision in 2017,” said Marandi.

In Gangta, Mali, Sondiha, Motiya and Ranganiya villages, the residents said nearly 3,000 mango trees in a common orchard were cut down in February 2018 to make way for Adani’s fence. “They have made it a desert,” said Chintamani, a school teacher from the village of Motiya who lives opposite the power plant.

“They didn’t even give us a notice,” said Matuki Mathai, who used to raise her goats and cows on pasture land acquired as part of gair mazrua land. “The officials and dalals in power now are blind, but coming generations will suffer.”

“Land is not like the government,” said Baby Devi of Ranganiya village. “One day this sarkar [government], the next day that sarkar. But land is for generations. If there is land, then there is a next generation, else there is not. Whatever your sarkar says, this land is ours and will remain ours.”

A bird flies over the fence in Motiya village, where Adani’s power plant is set to be built.
A bird flies over the fence in Motiya village, where Adani’s power plant is set to be built.

All photographs by Aruna Chandrasekhar

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