Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh: “I used to be a farmer. Now I'm a daily wager. My living conditions are worse than a beggar’s.”
It was 2007 when Vijay Saket, 35, lost his home and farm land in 2007 in the eastern district of Singrauli district, when the Madhya Pradesh government took it over under the Land Acquisition Act 1894 for a smelting plant owned by Hindalco Industries, India’s largest aluminum company.
After being forced to abandon his village of Odgadi, Saket now lives in Khekhada, a village in the neighbouring block, with his wife, four children and grandparents, who brought him up when his parents died years ago. A scheduled-caste family, they owned 1.5 acres of land around Odgadi, where they farmed rice, tur dal (lentil), and wheat.
“Our farm yielded enough grain to feed our family,” said Saket, who now seeks work at construction sites and small businesses. “At times, we could also sell some produce. Now I buy rations from the market.”
Today, not only must Saket—the sole earning member in his family of eight—find a job when he can, which is about 10 to 15 days a month, but he must endure discrimination as a low-caste chamar that he never had to when he worked on his own farm.
“Hum chamaro ko mazdoori tab he malik log dete hain jab koi aur kaam karne wala na ho (Us chamars only get work when there is no one else available),” said Saket, who explains how upper-caste wash their clothes and take a bath if they happen to touch him.
“When I was a farmer, I never faced this much discrimination,” said Saket.
Half his monthly earnings of Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000 go towards his grandmother’s medical care, and the other half for food. “In the last two years, I haven’t bought any new clothes for my children,” said Saket.
A New Town Flourishes, Original Inhabitants Struggle
Odgadi was one of four villages and fields spread over 3,096 acres—the size of about 2,340 football fields—acquired in 2007 for the Mahan Aluminium smelting plant in Bargawan, a town with a railway station.
“The Mahan facility is spread over more than 3,000 acres of land, and includes a beautiful township with landscaped gardens, a supermarket, hospital, playground, ATM and the Mahan Mahaneshwar temple,” says the description on the company website.
While Mahan flourished, the families it displaced struggled, more than half of them scheduled castes (SCs) or scheduled tribes (STs). Saket received Rs 150,000 for his land. “Farming was our livelihood,” said Saket. “Once we handed over our land to Hindalco, we had no other income source.”
In 2012, India’s 135-year-old land acquisition law was replaced by the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act 2013, which under the head “Special Provisions for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes”, included a separate section for scheduled areas, which are those areas inhabited by STs, the only group that has constitutional protection for their land rights.
“As far as possible, no acquisition of land shall be made in the Scheduled Areas,” said the new law. “Where such acquisition does take place it shall be done only as a demonstrable last resort.”
It also says, “Any alienation of tribal lands or lands belonging to members of the Scheduled Castes in disregard of the laws and regulations for the time being in force shall be treated as null and void, and… rehabilitation and resettlement benefits shall be made available to the original tribal landowners or landowners belonging to the Scheduled Castes.”
None of the new safeguards for scheduled castes and tribes worked for the 3,575 families of Odgadi, Dhauddar, Barainia and Gidher—the four villages that lost 25% to 90% of their land to the Mahan plant, as per local estimates.
The ‘New Singapore’
Madhya Pradesh chief minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) declared in December 2020 that Singrauli would be the new Singapore. State officials call it Urjanchal, the land of energy.
Indeed, Singrauli district, four times the size of Delhi, is India’s energy centre, its nine power plants and two captive plants generating about a tenth of India’s coal-fired electricity and supplying power to 16 states. The rich seams of coal that run through an area of more than 2,200 sq km—about four times the size of Singapore—draw some of India’s biggest names to Singrauli, but little has changed for its people, who are among India’s poorest.
A mineral-rich district, bordered by Uttar Pradesh to its north and east and Chhattisgarh in its south, Singrauli has vast reserves of bauxite, granite, coal, manganese, even gold, among a host of other base metals. The government of India and several of India’s largest conglomerates, such as the Birlas, the Ambanis, Adanis, Jindals and Sardas, run large industrial operations here.
But this surge in industrial activity over the decades since Independence has displaced about 200,000 in Singrauli, some of more than 50 million nationwide forced into what experts call “involuntary displacement”. So rapid has been the influx of big business into Singrauli that there are families that have endured displacement up to three times in their lifetimes.
The region is one of India’s “critically polluted zones”, as identified by the Central Pollution Control Board. Mining has wreaked havoc on the environment as pollution and degradation concerns were largely bypassed.
The coal-fired plants have made vast swathes of land unfit for cultivation and in some parts of Singrauli, toxic fly ash, a byproduct, lies in piles five feet deep. Researchers have found children with respiratory problems and low IQ levels.
Promises Unkept, Conflicts Unresolved
Singrauli’s coveted status is of little help to Saket. Throughout his adult life, he has grappled with reality, trying to make ends meet and come to terms with the loss of food security.
Hindalco trained Saket and others in a six-month course for low-grade jobs as part of compensation in its Ranikhet facility in Uttar Pradesh and hired them as temporary workers in June 2013. Saket was made a permanent employee in July 2017. But he faced casteism, he alleged, and complained. In 2019, he was fired on “disciplinary grounds”, he said.
“Slander by senior officials with caste slurs hurt my dignity,” said Saket. “I filed a police report against them. The company didn't take action against those who shamed me but fired me on disciplinary grounds. The police also did nothing.”
“I gave my land for a permanent job and a house,” said Saket. “All I got in return is humiliation.”
Atma Ram Sahu, public relations officer of Mahan Visthaapit and Shramik Sangh (MVSS), an organization representing those displaced, said most of those displaced by Hindalco were not educated and from so-called lower castes. “They had no idea how to deal with the situation,” said Sahu.
Hindalco promised the displaced villagers Rs 96,000 per acre of land, houses for those who lived in the acquired area, jobs for all 3,575 families and a fund of Rs 250,000 for each, the compensation in accordance with Madhya Pradesh's rehabilitation and resettlement policy, 2002.
No more than 357 from the 3,575 families affected were hired as permanent workers, according to MVSS.
“Hindalco also promised regularised jobs to 600 victims of the displacement aged between 16 and 18 once they turned adults,” Narayan Das Vishwakarama, MVSS president. “Now 28 to 30 years old, they still haven’t got what they were promised.”
Sahu said their farm lands commanded “a much higher rate” than the company paid, Rs 400,000 to Rs 500,000 per acre, in 2007.”
‘They Want Everything For Free’
Article 14 sought comment from Ratan Kumar Somani, president and unit head at Mahan Aluminum, emailed him queries twice about the compensation status and texted him. On Somani’s behalf, Yashwant Kumar, head of Hindalco’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) at the Mahan unit, responded. The Indian government in April 2014 had made CSR mandatory for social welfare, charitable activities.
“Hamne bahut saari cheeze di h par inhe bahut bina kaam kiye sab kuch chahye ( We have given a lot of things to these people, but they want everything for free),” said Kumar.
Kumar denied Saket’s claims. “Vijay Saket is mentally disturbed,” he said. “He showed no seriousness about work in a corporate set-up. His allegations of casteist slurs were false. The company employs hundreds of SC and ST people.”
Hindalco kept all its promises, according to Kumar. “We have already met whatever promises Hindalco had made to the displaced people,” he said, adding that work had been assured, whether it would be temporary or permanent was not discussed.
When police cases were threatened against many of the villagers during a protest in 2014, about 1,000 of them came together as the MVSS. Since then, they have requested public hearings and talks with the company, organised protests, hunger strikes and protest marches.
In January 2020, on a complaint by Narayan Das of the MVSS on the Chief Minister’s Helpline, the company said it had employed 498 people in permanent jobs, 1,206 had temporary work, and 426 senior citizens had pensions.
Sahu denied these claims. “Only 375 were given jobs,” he said.
In January 2021, a large group of villagers met Singrauli district magistrate Rajeev Ranjan Meena, Sahu said. “The DM instructed patwaris (rural administrative officers) to verify our claims,” said Sahu. “We tried to contact collectorate officials about the public hearings but nobody has responded.”
Singrauli district magistrate Meena told Article 14: “They (people displaced by Hindalco) can submit a complaint letter. We will analyze and try to act on it.” He had no comment on the progress of his instructions to patwaris.
An Appeal To The Prime Minister
After bouncing between the state administration, Mahan Aluminium, police, ministers and their parliamentary representative, Riti Pathak of the BJP, the MVSS took their case to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
In a five-page appeal sent on 2 November 2019, received by the PMO on 18 November, the miners urged Narendra Modi to help, so they would not reach a point where they “may die of hunger”.
Singrauli district has three seats in the state assembly, one each reserved as SC and ST, and the third, Singrauli city, a general seat. Pathak is the member of Parliament from Sidhi, the Lok Sabha constituency of which Singrauli is a part.
The letter detailed the repeated assurances by the Singrauli administration, Hindalco and elected representatives—20 instances from 2014 to 2019—after MVSS lobbied with Mahan Aluminium, sub-divisional magistrates (SDMs), the police and elected representatives, including Pathak. The MVSS detailed written and verbal reassurances, interspersed with threats of police cases and jail terms.
Mahan Aluminium fired about two dozen workers for participating in protests in 2017, said Sahu. A new SDM on 12 September 2019 threatened to file cases against MVSS officials Das and Nageshwar Jaiswal, according to Das
Das said he and Mohar Singh, another MVSS member, were arrested for a protest in 2019. “Several policemen told us the company pressured them to register the cases,” said Das. “In 2018, three cases were filed against me under section 147 (rioting) of Indian Penal Code, claiming my presence would harm public safety.”
The Risk To Life In Singrauli
Apart from chasing compensation and other promises, those who remained were left to fend with the risk to life from ash-dam breaches, an increasingly common occurrence in Singrauli.
While the heavy pollution levels in air, water and land are a big issue in the region, one particular problem which seems to be getting severe during past year has been the breaking of ash dykes at the power plants and contamination of land and water bodies, Sunil Dahiya, an analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a think tank, wrote in 2020.
Over the last two years three ash dams in Singrauli, owned by Reliance, Essar and National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC), have broken due to “improper management and no timely inspection”, alleged Sahu. “Companies pay Rs 400,000 to 10 lakh for each death caused by broken dams, but never do anything concrete to prevent accidents.”
“Mahan Aluminium built an ash dam in Odgadi barely 50 metres from the residential area,” Narayan Das said.
In 2020, MVSS wrote several times to the Singrauli district magistrate highlighting the risk of ash dams in the vicinity of their homes. They received no response.
“Fly ash has contaminated our water, damaging not only our remaining fields but harming our children and animals too,” said Das.
In April 2020, six people lost their lives due to a breach of the fly ash dam of Reliance’s Sasan Ultra Mega Power Project. In August 2019, a fly ash pond breach at Essar’s Mahan power plant hit standing crops of about 500 farmers in three villages.
No End To Wave Of People Displaced
NTPC received $150 million from the World Bank in 1977, equivalent to Rs 131 crore at the time, to construct the first coal mine in Singrauli. Between 1977 and 1993, NTPC built power plants in Singrauli, Vindhyachal, and Rihand, displacing 6,564 families and acquiring 13865 acres of land.
“Companies promise people in Singrauli big things but fail to deliver,” said K C Sharma, an activist fighting for the rights of displaced people. “For instance, Hindalco promised displaced people land in hilly areas where there are no proper roads and no clean drinking water. ”
In June 2020, the BJP government decided to auction 41 new coal blocks to private companies, of which 21 were in environmentally vulnerable “no-go” areas. In 2009, the coal and environment ministries classified forested areas into two categories—Go and No-Go zones. In No-Go zones, mining was prohibited.
Bandha and Dhirauli coal blocks in Singrauli were among 41 coal blocks auctioned in 2020.
Villagers in Bandha are tussling with the Aditya Birla group’s Emil Mines And Mineral Resources, which won the bid for the Bandha coal block with coal stores of 441 metric tonnes. The villagers, about 5,000 people, have had to give up about 1,915 acres to Emil.
“Meetings between villagers and company officials are still on,” said Sharma. “Compensation per acre of land, a job for each family, a house with road connectivity and clean drinking water and a special package for families to start a livelihood is what is due as per Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act of 2013.”
But the company has not agreed on certain matters, said Sharma, “so there is a dispute in the talks between villagers and company officials,” he said.
Estimates are that the three new Singrauli coal blocks—Bandha, Dhirauli and Suliyari—will impact almost 20,000 people, of which 10,000 are STs, many of whom have no papers to show ownership of any land.
The efforts for fair and just compensation and rehabilitation put in by Das, MVSS and other activists appear to be the only hope for people from marginalized communities.
Saket recently took loans for his grandmother’s medical treatment. “I had to borrow Rs 500,000 from relatives. I barely earn Rs 250 to Rs 300 every day, on the days I get work,” he said. “I don’t know how I will repay my loan.”
(Anil Tiwari is a freelance journalist based in the Sidhi district of Madhya Pradesh.)