They walked in a single file. Some were bare-chested, their shirts used to tie their hands behind their back; many nursing bruises from fibreglass batons wielded by policemen. All 36 men were picked up on January 7 and marched six km to a police station on the outskirts of the coal mining town of Korba in northern Chhattisgarh after a public hearing, held to assess the environmental impact of a thermal power plant, turned violent.
Large projects in predominantly tribal areas (called Scheduled Areas) must comply with a two-step process of public consultation: a public hearing to assess the environmental impact of the project and a crucial village-level consultation – called a Gram Sabha – where villagers and government representatives agree on the terms and conditions of land acquisition.
Yet, documents obtained by The Hindu reveal how officials in Chhattisgarh treat the Environmental Impact Assessment Notification of 2007and the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA) of 1996 as mere formalities and routinely overrule gram sabhas to acquire lands on behalf of industry, prompting a withdrawal of the ‘public' from public hearings. In the past, the Planning Commission and Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh identified the non-implementation of PESA as a factor in increasing tribal disaffection and the rise of the CPI (Maoist).
In Korba, the villagers were protesting against the planned expansion of a 1,320 MW power plant set up by Lanco Amarkantak. “Earlier, we gave our land willingly on the condition that the company would provide us with jobs,” said Laharam Murao, a village leader from Imilibhata. Mr. Murao said the company had acquired 1.5 acres of his land in 2005, but he had neither received any compensation and nor had anyone in his family gained permanent employment at the plant. “This time we said ‘we will not give any land, no public hearing shall take place,'” Mr. Murao said.
District Collector R.P.S Tyagi arrived at about 3 p.m. and, according to the villagers and policemen interviewed, set up a table 50 metres from the crowd and announced that the public hearing had begun.
“We refused to approach the table,” said Shyam Kumar Chauhan, a villager, “but a few people allied with the administration gave their opinions.” Twenty minutes later, Mr. Tyagi said that the hearing was complete and tried to leave when the crowd grew agitated and sought to stop him.
“All the legal formalities of the public hearing were complete. If even one project affected person gives his opinion…the legal requirements are fulfilled,” said Mr. Tyagi in an interview, adding that 24 people had participated in the hearing.