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PUCL, Jul;y 2003

PUCL Bhubaneswar and Rayagada


A fact-finding report on attack on the villagers' agitating against their displacement due to the proposed Sterlite Alumina Project in Lanjigarh Block of Kalahandi district

Background
It was reported in the news paper, The Samaj Dated 9.4.2003 that around 170 tribals of 6 villages who are opposed to the proposed Alumina plant at Lanjigarh, Kalahandi were coming to Lanjigarh Police Station to ask why Lingarj Azad had been arrested. On the way to Police Station they were beaten up by the people of Lanjigarh Village who are in favour of the proposed plant. The tribals are so afraid that they are not going to police station to lodge FIR against the attackers.

Also, 2 people from the affected villages had come in person to request the Rayagada unit of PUCL to send a fact- finding team to their place. Considering the seriousness of the issue, PUCL Units of Bhubaneswar and Rayagada decided to send a 4-member joint fact -finding team to know the cause and consequence of the said incident and its other ramifications.

The project and the locality: some notes
The proposed Alumina plant at Lanjigarh, Block Lanjigarh, Dist. Kalahandi, by Sterlite Industries (India) Limited is a one million ton export-oriented project with an investment cost of Rs. 4,500/- crore. The plant at Lanjigarh will process the bauxite to be sourced from nearby Niyamgiri hill (5km south of Lanjigarh village) having a reserve of 73 million ton (Source: Sterlite Industries (India) Ltd.). Niyamgiri bauxite reserve forms the part of the `East Coast Bauxite Zone?, which covers a big chunk of KBK districts of Orissa. Already 3 proposed mining and alumina plant projects in the adjacent districts of Rayagad and Koraput have not yet taken off due to local people's resistance. And 3 tribals were killed at Maikanch, Kashipur on 16th December 2000 by the police who were opposing the mining plant in the Kashipur Block.

In accordance with the letter No. 205(400) dated 26.6.2002 of the Collector, Kalahandi, Bhawanipatan, 12 villages of the Gram Panchayat Lanjigarh and Batelima will be affected by the proposed Alumina Plant at Lanjigarh .Out of which 60 families will be displaced and 302 families will be affected as their land will be acquired for the project. 1109.41 acres of revenue land and 680.13 acres of govt. land will be acquired for the plant. (Copy of the letter is annexed for more details). According to the company sources, 1073.4 hectares (2683.5 acres) of land is required for mining activity and the exact number of people to be displaced is not given. (A copy enclosed in annexure).


The version of the affected people
The team visited the villages, Turiguda, Boring Padar, Belamba and Basantpada on 15.4.2003 and talked to the villagers, both men and women, individually and in smaller groups, on the happenings of 2nd April 2003. We could not visit other villages reportedly affected by the incident, due to paucity of time. We also visited the village Panipanga, which comes in between Turiguda and Basantpada but not yet been given any notice by the Govt. for land acquisition, to know about their views on the proposed Alumina plant. The following account is based on our discussion with the above villagers:

On 2nd April 2003, in the morning, one of the friends of Lingaraj Azad informed about his arrest by the Lanjigarh Police. Lingaraj Azad, Orissa State Unit President, Samajbadi Jana Parishad is supporting their struggle against the company. Having heard about his arrest nearly 250 people, including 150 women and children from the villages Turiguda, Boring Padar, Belamba, Kupaguda, Basantpada, Kinari were coming to Lanjigarh Police Station to ask why he had been arrested. They were completely unarmed and peaceful. Before they could reach police station, some 100 people from Lanjigarh village who had come by motor cycles and a commander jeep attacked them with lathis, cricket bats and stumps. When asked about the identity of the attackers, the villagers alleged that they belonged to a youth club (Yubak Sangha) at Lanjigarh funded by the company. As they were unarmed and had no idea that this could happen, they tried to escape by running here and there. The attackers chasing them reached the village Basantpada. Entering the village, they started attacking houses, threw away utensils and grains, even broke the doors of some houses and made some minor damages to the roofs of some houses.

The villagers, both men and women, of each and every affected village narrated the same story of attack on them by the villagers of Lanjigarh. The team saw visible injury marks on their bodies. A list of people beaten injured is given in the annexure. Bhim Majhi of Turiguda complained that rupees 400 and his cycle were taken away by the attackers. The brunt of the ire seems to have been borne by the villagers of Basantpada. The team saw the minor damages caused to the roofs of the houses not yet repaired and broken utensils made unusable. In the house of Gaura Chandra Mali the team saw the doors have gone off the hinge and not yet repaired. His wife showed us the broken utensils. On that day she was alone and when the attackers broke open the door, she hid herself and did not come out for one hour. Nobody present in the village resisted the attackers. Fear is still visible.

The affected people admitted that they have not lodged any complaint in the police station out of fear. They fear that they will be beaten again if they go to Lanjigarh. Secondly, they believe that police of Lanjigarh are hand in glove with the attackers, so there is no point going to police station.

People and their protest
The majority of the population of the villages the team visited belongs to Kutia Kandh tribe. Agriculture is their main source of living. Collection of forest produces like mango, char, mahula supplement their meager income. The team saw people drying these things on the village roads to be sold in the nearby hats. Agriculture is totally rain-fed, no irrigation facility available in the area though river Bansadhara is flowing nearby. In the years of drought, as this year, people suffer a lot. They go out of village in search of work or depend totally on the forests. Now there is a proposal to construct an `impounding reservoir across the river Bansadhara at Bilatipadar to supply water to the Alumina plant round the year

People got to know about the proposed Alumina plant when the Kalahandi district collector served notice for acquisition of land on 6.6.2002. In the same notice people were intimated to give their opinion or register complaints about the proposed project at the office of Revenue Inspector, Lanjigarh on 22.6.2002. Nearly one thousand people assembled there on that day and submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister opposing the project. 199 individual petitions were filed before the R.I. demanding cancellation of the project. On 26.6.2002, Gram Sabha meeting was called by the collector at the GP headquarter of Batelima Panchayat and Lanjigarh Panchayat. At Batelima people did not allow the Gram Sabha to take place to discuss the issue of the Alumina project and demanded outright cancellation of the project. At Lanjigarh though the Gram Sabha could be held, no resolution could be taken in favour of the project. (Source: message circulated through internet on behalf of PSSP the Organisation reportedly leading peoples' agitation against proposed alumina plant at Kashipur) .

People told the team that many times Govt. officials have come to their villages to persuade them to leave their land. But they are determined not to leave, even if monetary compensation is given. Echoing the same sentiment, Silme Majhi of Boring Padar says, "They (the company and the Govt.) are very clever. On one hand they will give us money; on the other hand, through the people of Lanjigarh, they will snatch away the same money. Our blood has been spilled; we won't leave the land, even if we die."

People also told that there have been many attempts to do the survey work but they have not allowed it. For that police is trying to arrest some people. They narrated an incident that had happened sometime towards the end of March (exact date could not be told by them). The police picking up 7 people from various villages reached Turiguda and were asking about some people from their village. Sensing that they are being taken to police station, the women of Turiguda gheraoed the police van and forcefully released those 7 people.

The team in its visit saw a slogan written in Oriya on the walls of many villages whose literal English rendering is: We govern our village and we have the rights over our land, jungle and water - (Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti). It seems an organization called Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti has been formed to organize the protest. However, when we asked about it, many people could not say much about it; a few people told that they have formed it.

When asked why they are opposed to the company, the villagers said that whatever little they have they would lose if they do not oppose the company.

People also told that some villages like Kinare, Bandhaguda, Boorbatta, Kothduar, Bundel are in favour of the project. The villagers of Panipanga, a village not yet been given any notice for land acquisition, seemed to be non-committal, either for or against the project.

The police version
The team had visited the Lanjigarh Police Station, the place where |Lingarj Azad was arrested on 1st April 2003, at Lanjigarh, which also is the Panchayat Head Quarter. Lanjigarh however looks much more than a Panchayat Head Quarter.

The OIC of the P.S. Shri Bhabani Shankar Das being absent on court-duty, the team could only talk to Shri Bishnu Nayak, ASI, who spoke very cordially and at length with us. We are constructing a narrative, which may be treated as police version of events:

A survey team from Kolkata, led by one Shri Dipak Kumar Mukherjee of S. K. Mitra Associates, BALCO, Korba, had come to Lanjigarh to conduct a `sea-level survey' of the proposed Alumina plant bauxite mining area. On 21.3.2003 they had taken a vehicle from the Sterlite Company, and along with surveying instruments visited the villages. At Basantpada village, a meeting of the anti-company people was allegedly taking place, where Lingaraj Azad was present. The survey team was allegedly confronted by hostile villagers. They allegedly snatched and took away the instruments of the survey team. They also threatened to kill if ever the survey team tried revisiting the area. The survey team came back to Lanjigarh, lodged an FIR at the P.S after 2 days, reporting in detail the above incident and left.

On 1st April 2003, Lingaraj Azad had reportedly come to Lanjigarh, and tried to convince the pro-company populace why they should oppose the company. This resulted in arguments, and finally a crowd of above 100 people led by the Vice-Chairman of the Lanjigarh Block brought Lingaraj Azad to the P.S. and handed him over to the police. Based on the FIR created out of survey-team's complaint, where Lingaraj was named, he was arrested at around 11.30 AM on 1/4/2003 and the next day he was court-forwarded. A case has been framed against him and 150 others (Case No. 9 dtd. 23.3.2003 under section 147,148,427,379,506,149/109 IPC). The court had granted him bail.

When the PUCL team asked about the incident, where people from some of the mining plant affected villages had been beaten up, when they were coming to the police station, the police stated that as they are yet to receive any complaint, they have not been able to act. But that they have heard that a group of the said villagers were confronted by the irate local villagers, who were angry due to the former's anti-company stand. However, when the team insisted that it had visited the affected villages, and also met people (including women) with visible injuries, caused on 2.4.2003, the police pleaded ignorance, as well as their inability till a complaint is lodged.

After leaving the P.S, the team, wanting to gauge the mood of the Lanjigarh village people, met some of the local residents (including senior citizens) who were assembled close to the P.S. They communicated that setting up of the plant mining project by the Sterlite Company would bring rich benefits to the local people, and everyone in Lanjigarh is in favour of the plant. The area would get employment; people's lives would improve... They sounded convinced.

When asked why some people are opposing the company, they said that vested interests have misguided them. They also tentatively accepted that a new forum called Yubak Sangha have been formed to mobilize support in favour of the company. They admitted having beaten up the anti-company villagers on 2.4.2003 and alleged that the villagers were agitated over the arrest of Lingaraj Azad and were coming to gherao the P.S., which they did not allow.


The version of Shri Lingaraj Azad

The team could not meet Lingaraj Azad as he was, at the time of fact-finding, ill and staying in his native place. However we talked to him over telephone. Based on this telephonic discussion we present his view on the said incident:

On 1st April, in the forenoon, Lingaraj Azad arrived at the Lanjigarh bus stand to travel to Rampur as he had to attend court on 2nd April. At the bus stand, a group of people from the village Lanjigarh surrounded him and asked him why he was opposing the Sterlite Company. Mr. Lingaraj tried to convince them of the rightness of his stand. The people, after listening for sometime, caught him and handed him over to the police. He was arrested at 11.30 AM of 1st April 2003 and was produced before court at 3.30 P.M of 2nd April. On being asked about his involvement with the incident at Basantpada on 21.3.2003 (as alleged by the officials of M S S.K. Mitra Associate) Mr. Lingaraj strongly denied that he was present in the Basantpada village on the date of survey. Lingaraj alleged that while he was in the police lock-up he could overhear the OIC giving instructions over telephone to youth club members of Lanjigarh to beat up men and women with cricket bat and stumps.

Findings of the team
Despite the limited context in which the fact-finding was conducted, a few facts have emerged about which the team is reasonably convinced:

1. The villages the team visited, are visibly very poor and backward, with negligible civic amenities and infrastructure. The economy is, by and large, at a subsistence level, which is totally at the mercy of nature; no irrigation, no electricity, no medical and educational facility worth mentioning. It is hard to believe that it is a part of the same India that the elite continuously brag about having catapulted into twenty-first century. A tribal-dominated area, but very few welfare-schemes meant for their development seem to have reached them. The level of awareness, particularly about their fundamental rights, is distressingly low. The condition of these people is a great reflection on the 'developmental' priorities of our government. To cite only one example, in spite of having a major river flowing through the area the government was yet to plan any irrigation project there. But on the advent of a private company a reservoir has already been planned to exploit the river water for their use. The govt. has to share responsibility for these people's deplorable living condition. But instead, it appears that the Govt. is hell-bent upon handing over these mineral-rich areas to the private companies like Sterlite, at the cost of total destitution of these hapless people.

2. The people appear to be non-violent and peaceful. They are largely unorganized and for the first time are trying to get organized under the banner of Niyamgiri Surakshya Samiti, just to protect their home and hearth, their land of their ancestors.

3. The rally that marched towards the Langigarh P.S. (consisting mainly of women) was totally peaceful and unarmed, when they were attacked by pro-company youths. They were beaten up and wounded, and some of the wounds were still visible after two weeks have elapsed.

4. The people are terrorized, and believe (perhaps rightly) that their attackers enjoy the support of the police. This apprehension of the people is reinforced by the fact that the attackers admit in public that they have attacked the agitating villagers. The fact that they didn't lodge any complaint underlines this. Now they are scared even to enter Lanjigarh village.

5. The police could not have been unaware of the attack, as Lanjigarh is just a large village, and also the incident took place very close to the P.S. This inaction of the police shows them in poor light, and gives credence to the affected people's apprehension about the police.

6. The police plea for inaction, that no complaint was lodged, appears to be pre-meditated, motivated and bureaucratic.

7. The fact that no complaint was lodged till 15.4.2003 (not even through a letter) also reflects the organizational weakness of this particular movement.

8. The fact that even after being reported in the media, the news did not attract any meaningful attention of the administration underscores the haplessness of the people concerned as well as the callousness of the district administration.

9. There is a division within the local people about their attitude towards the Sterlite Project. The project seems to have caught the imagination of some people, particularly non-tribal youths and the local elites, that this project would be the harbinger for development, growth and employment in this backward region. (Kalahandi district has almost become a metaphor for backwardness and starvation deaths). The team apprehends that unless attended to in a proper way, this division might take an ethnic character in the future i.e. tribals vs. non-tribals as in some other areas of the state.

Recommendations of the team
1 - The administration should take immediate action against the culprits those have attacked the villagers agitating against their displacement. The concerned people have the democratic right to agitate for pressing their demands before the state, particularly on a vital issue like displacement from their land and livelihood. The deliberate inaction of the police and administration proves the emerging trend of active complicity of the State in protecting the interest of the private monopolies at the cost of common people particularly in the backward mineral-rich tribal belts.

2 - The deliberate inaction of the police should be treated as willful negligence in the duty of police to protect the life and property of the people and to take action against any kind of criminal act whether formally reported to it or not. Action should be initiated against the concerned police officials for such willful negligence and it should also be inquired if the OIC was instigating the attackers.

3 - The people who have suffered injuries and loss of property should be compensated by the administration.

4- The Govt. instead of displacing people from their land and livelihood in the name of development should take measures to augment the local resource base like constructing irrigation projects in the area to supplement peoples livelihood.

List of people beaten/injured
Turiguda

1. Bhim Majhi - calf muscle still in swelling condition.
2. Nakul Majhi
3. Dhanurjaya Majhi
4. Adshi Majhi

Boring padar

5. Domba Majhi
6. Natha Majhi - wrist broken
7. Gajan Majhi
8. Durya Majhi - scar still visible on the forehead
9. Kalia Majhi
10. Silme Majhi
11. Rupa Dei
12. Mala Majhi
13. Laxmi Majhi

Belamba

14. Phulmati Majhi
15. Bimba Dei

Basantpada

16. Prafulla Nayak
17. Mayadhar Nayak
18. Santosh Majhi

The team ends its report with an appeal to all sections of the society to think deeply on the question of development which, on the one hand, is causing havoc in the lives of a section of population, specifically, tribals, who have been deprived of the basic needs of life; on the other hand, it is creating an illusion in the minds of unemployed youths of urban setting that they will get some employment. The corporate houses, taking advantage of this sort of desperate situation, are not being hesitant to set one section of the society on the other. The time is not far off when the youths of urban locality will not be the private militia of the corporate houses.

 

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