Mamata Banerjee’s ‘Model’ To Gather Land For Industry Bypasses Critical Requirements Of The Law

SNIGDHENDU BHATTACHARYA
 
27 Apr 2022 11 min read  Share

A coal-mining project in India’s largest mining lease in West Bengal’s Birbhum district is the first industrial investment that requires large tracts of land in the state since the violent anti-displacement movements in Singur and Nandigram. The government of chief minister Mamata Banerjee—who built her political career on protests against land takeovers by the State—will do this by dodging a nine-year-old law that requires public meetings of stakeholders, publication of a social impact survey and impact-mitigation plans.

A tribal agitation against the proposed mine in India's largest coal block. Birbhum, West Bengal

Kolkata: Moynamoti Soren, a homemaker in her mid thirties and a mother of two, was a daily attendee at the sit-in demonstration in an open field in Baromeshia village, located 220 km northwest of Kolkata in the southwestern district of Birbhum. The peaceful demonstration that began on 23 February 2022 was still continuing when this story was published, with a few hundred mostly Adivasi residents of nearby villages in attendance every day. 


Soren would not part with the 3.3 acres of land her family owns in neighbouring Dewanganj village, where her four-member family lives. She began to visit the Baromeshia protest to add her voice to the growing concern among the region’s Adivasi villagers about displacement and dispossession. 


Baromeshia and Dewanganj are among 12 villages that will be affected by the Deocha-Pachami coal mining project to be undertaken by West Bengal’s Mamata Banerjee government. India’s largest coal block is located here, sitting under layers of basaltic rock, with estimated coal reserves of 1,198 million tonne of coal, and 1,400 million cubic metres of basalt.

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To put that in perspective, the state power utility that generates more than half of West Bengal's annual requirement of 9,000 MW of power through its six thermal plants uses 24 million tonnes of coal per year. In 2019, India used 687 million tonnes of coal for all its thermal power plants  and the Deocha-Pachami’s coal reserves is 1.74 times bigger. 



The project will entail chief minister Banerjee’s first-ever large scale land pooling for industry. It will also be the state’s first large scale industrial project since the violent protests of 2006-07 against land acquisition in Nandigram and Singur during the tenure of the previous Left Front government.       


The project is critical for Banerjee, who ahead of the 2021 assembly election had declared that employment generation would be the focus of her third term if she returned to power. 


“Mining in Deocha-Pachami will draw an investment to the tune of Rs 35,000 crore,” Banerjee said in February. “People will get power at cheap rates for another 100 years.” In his budget speech, state finance minister Chandrima Bhattacharya said the mining project “will transform the economy of not just the region but the entire state and beyond”. 


Waiting For A Public Hearing That Will Not Be Held

At ground zero, there was disbelief and uncertainty among the more than 3,000 families who will be  displaced by the project. 

 

Moynamoti’s husband Mangal farms their land for six or seven months a year when rain water is available. In the winter, he works in local stone quarries and crusher units. Their children Joseph and Kalyani study in class 10 and nine, respectively. 


The rehabilitation package on offer from the state government includes prospective employment for Mangal as a junior police constable, a job he does not want, Moynamoti said. The remainder of the rehabilitation package includes a 700 sq ft house in a ‘rehabilitation colony’ for displaced families, and land purchase at Rs 39 lakh per acre. 


An alternative plot of farmland was not an appealing offer either, without clarity on the availability of potable and irrigation water and without the familiarity with their land that helps optimise yield. 


“Where is the public hearing? When did or will it happen?” an exasperated Soren asked. 

 

No one has told her yet, but there will be no public hearing. 


Bypassing Public Hearings, Social Impact Assessment

The government's land gathering process will not invoke the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013.  Birbhum district magistrate Bidhan Chandra Roy confirmed to Article 14 that land for the mining project will be directly purchased from individual owners as per the rehabilitation package announced.  


The West Bengal Power Development Corporation Ltd (WBPDCL) will purchase the land from land-owners. The mine will be a captive resource for WBPDCL.


Under the land acquisition law, state governments are required to conduct a social impact assessment survey, of which a public hearing for all stakeholders is an integral component. The report of such a survey is required to be published and placed before an ‘independent, multidisciplinary expert group’ for evaluation. 


A 2017 paper by public policy think tank Center For Policy Research found that several states had brought about changes that “severely compromised” the 2013 land acquisition law’s clauses on consent, social impact assessment, food security and higher compensations. These changes restricted the applicability of the 2013 law at the state level. Nationwide, in several cases of land pooling, state governments bypassed the law entirely (for example, here and here), opting instead to enter into purchase  or lease agreements with individual land-owners.


“There is no land acquisition Act involved,” said Roy, the district magistrate, about the Deocha-Pachami project. 


In fact, the state government did conduct a social impact assessment survey in 2021, but its report was not published. No public hearing was held.  

 

According to the state government, about 21,033 people from 4,314 households in 12 villages will have to relocate for the proposed mine planned over 3,294 acres of land, about the size of 43 Yuva Bharati Krirangans, India’s largest football stadium.


The existing 285 stone crushing units and nine or ten active stone quarries having an informal workforce of 3,000 will also have to shut.


The government had initially announced a Rs 10,000-crore relief and rehabilitation package in November 2021. Later, in the face of growing protests, it unveiled a package with better components in February 2022, including raising the purchase price per bigha of land from Rs 9 lakh to Rs 13 lakh, and offering 700 sq ft homes instead of 600 sq ft ones. 


A senior state bureaucrat said that as no specific legislation had been invoked in the land gathering process, project-affected families could not drag the government to court alleging faulty implementation of the rehabilitation scheme. 


“Without any Act having been notified, there is no scope to monitor if the standard procedures of (holding a) public hearing and (obtaining) free and informed consent are being followed,” alleged Kolkata-based economist and political activist Prasenjit Bose.

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“There is no standard to compare with.” 


In February, Bose, and eight other activists spent a week in Rampurhat jail after the Birbhum district police booked them under various charges including attempt to murder a pro-mining leader. The arrest was made after Bose addressed a protest gathering at the proposed mine site on 20 February. 


Mamata’s ‘New Model’ For Large Projects In India 

In July 2020, the chief minister promised that at Deocha-Pachami her government would create “a model for India to execute large projects”, that the mining project would be undertaken in phases, “with full public support”.

 

By mid-March 2022, as various aspects of the model revealed slowly by the government emerged, local residents and human rights activists expressed grave concerns. There was scope for unfair practices forcing people to relocate, they said.


On 16 November 2021, the state power department issued an order announcing the mining project plan and a rehabilitation package for those who would be affected. 


Based on this order, on 6 December, the district magistrate of Birbhum wrote to the district registrar, requesting him to restrict further transfer of lands in 10 specific mouzas. A mouza is the smallest revenue unit of a district. 


Subsequently, the government blocked registration of properties in these 10 mouzas.  

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“This means the residents of the area could now sell their land only to the government,” said Jagannath Hembram, an organiser with the Birbhum Jami, Jiban, Jibika O Poribesh Bachao Mahasabha (grand forum to protect Birbhum’s land, life, livelihood and environment, or the BJJJPBM), an umbrella group spearheading the anti-displacement movement in Deocha-Pachami.

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One hundred and fourteen individuals from families losing land were approved for appointment as junior constables in the police department and will be sent for training soon, Roy said. Proposals to appoint another 200 persons will be processed soon. “People are showing interest,” said Roy.


Vulnerable To Coercion

Anti-displacement activists alleged that most of those who would not lose their residences had agreed to part with their land. A few families that accepted the compensation told Article 14 they were losing only their farmland.

 

The Salui family live in the Deucha area and owned about 1.5 acres of farmland in Dewanganj village. There are four shareholders to the land—Salui, his married elder sister, a cousin brother and a cousin sister. Their residence did not fall within the proposed project area. For their farmland, the Saluis were paid Rs 39 lakh per acre, and also received a government job each for the four shareholding families. 


“My wife Maya and nephew (sister’s son) have got their appointment letters. They are awaiting training,” said Koushik Salui. “The appointment letters for my cousin brother and son of the cousin sister are in process. We are very happy with the compensation.”

 

A senior bureaucrat in the state secretariat argued that by opting to gather land through individually negotiated purchase deals with land owners, the government has been able to offer some flexibility in the rehabilitation scheme. 


“Though there is a standard package announced, there remains scope for making slight changes,” said an IAS officer who requested not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. For example, he said, a family living under the same roof but having separate kitchens were considered multiple families, allowing multiple persons to get government employment on compassionate grounds. “Implementing an Act means one size fits all,” he said.

 

Activists alleged, however, that this model implied that landowners unwilling to part with their land were left without the legal protection envisioned by the 2013 land acquisition law. 


According to the state power department order dated 16 November 2021, the “tentative land requirement” for the project was approximately 3,294 acres comprising various categories including forest land (203.64 acres), government-vested land (655.98 acres), land belonging to other departments of the government (27.34 acres), etc. Land to be procured from private owners totalled 2,267.44 acres in 10 mouzas.


“What happens to the person whose land has been surrounded by plots sold to the government, or access to a plot blocked by land sold to the government?” asked human rights activist Ranjit Sur, general secretary of the Association for Protection of Human Rights (APDR), the state’s largest human rights organisation. “They are vulnerable to coercion.”  


Sur alleged that by bypassing the land acquisition law, the government had bypassed the provisions of a social impact survey that would necessitate ameliorative measures. 


‘Mamata Once Took Part In Anti-Displacement Movements’

Environmentalists have raised concerns that the project will be, at least initially, an opencast mine. This refers to surface mining, as opposed to underground mining through tunnels.  


According to a Geological Survey of India document of 2013, “this is not easy to mine with the current available technology of both underground as well as opencast mining,” that technologies for underground mining of such thick layer of coal seam was not available, and that the underground mining should start after the top layer had been mined by opencast method. 


“There is a striking lack of information regarding the project on the public domain. There is no news of a detailed project report having been prepared or any environmental impact assessment study conducted. Opencast mining of such a large scale is surely going to have an impact on the environment,” said green activist Naba Dutta, who heads Nagarik Mancha, a civil society organisation. 


“The beginning of the land gathering process despite the prevailing uncertainty over the pros and cons of the project is uncalled for,” he added, “More so from a leader who has taken part in movements against displacement.”   


Storming to power in 2011 as the leader of the anti-displacement movements in Singur and Nandigram, Banerjee did not agree to acquisition of land for any private industrial project during her 11 year rule as the chief minister. Even the authorities of the Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) and the Border Security Force (BSF) have repeatedly alleged non-cooperation from the state government towards acquiring land for central government projects. 


Now, faced with the challenge to gather land, Banerjee has found her own way. 


“It’s the best and most humane compensation package the country has seen,” said the TMC’s Birbhum district unit president Anubrata Mandal. “The package cares for every section of the society and every family. Even people who lived on government land as encroachers are being given freehold titles to make them eligible for compensation. Casual workers at local stone units and sharecroppers are being taken care of,” he said. 


The Deucha project was highlighted during the state’s flagship biannual Bengal Global Business Summit that was held in Kolkata on 20-21 April. 


Chief minister Banerjee did try to negotiate with the agitators. She received a group of them at her chamber in the state secretariat on 13 April, following which the Mahasabha announced a “temporary withdrawal” of their demonstration the following day. 


On 17 April, after a majority of the local residents put pressure on the Mahasabha’s leadership, the sit-in demonstration resumed. The next day, the agitators did not allow the district magistrate and the superintendent of police to enter Dewanganj where they were scheduled to hand over appointment letters to some of the willing beneficiaries of the rehabilitation package. 


“The administration did step back that day but we know what’s coming next,” said a leader of the BJJJPBM. He said the ruling party would likely try to pitch the willing families in the project-affected villages against those participating in the demonstrations. 


The agitation, he said, would continue. 


(Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an author and independent journalist based in Kolkata. writing on politics, policies, environment, human rights, data, history and culture.)