Abir Dasgupta & Geoff Law

  • Dirty Tricks and Coercion Used to Acquire Land for Adani’s Godda Power Plant

    In July 2020, an ABC report brought the dispossession of Indian villagers for an Adani power plant to national attention in Australia. The power plant is located at Godda, about 400 km north of Kolkata. Upon completion, it is intended to be the destination for coal from Adani’s mine in Queensland. Here, AdaniWatch reports on the dirty tricks used to acquire the land farmed by indigenous people for generations.

    ‘We were charged by the police with their batons,’ said Suryanarayan Hembrom. ‘Most of us were beaten on that day.’

    This is what happened at a public hearing that was testing whether landowners would consent to the acquisition of their land for Adani’s massive Godda power station. Suryanarayan was one of those landowners. He was there to state his opposition to the taking of his land by Adani. The meeting was supposed to be a civil affair. Instead, opponents of the project were prevented from entering. And when they protested against their wrongful exclusion, they were assaulted by police acting as ‘enforcers’ for Adani.

    The construction site for the Godda power station is located about 400 km north of Kolkata in the Indian state of Jharkhand. It is the power station for which the coal from Adani’s proposed Carmichael coal mine is intended.

    Adani’s slogan is ‘growth with goodness’ and the company rejects accusations of involvement with the coercive methods employed at Godda. Nevertheless, the tactics used to acquire land from indigenous farmers at Godda between 2016 and 2018 were nothing short of bullying. Effectively, the land was forcibly seized from its traditional owners by public officials on behalf of Adani.

    AdaniWatch visited the Godda area in February 2020, not long before the COVID-19 lockdown, and spoke to local villagers about their experiences at the hands of Adani and the state government. These people are Adivasis – the indigenous inhabitants of this part of India, and their status is supposed to be protected by law. Delivered in Hindi, their accounts of the events that dispossessed them were animated. Despite years of setbacks, these people remained feisty. Suryanarayan explained the ways in which local opposition to loss of land was expressed.

    ‘It was in 2016 that we first got to hear of the project’, he said. ‘At that time, we had called a meeting in the community, and in our discussions we realised that if the plant is built and the company gets settled here, we will lose everything.’

    Suryanarayan Hembrom (centre, front): 'From the district court to the high court to the supreme court to the after-life. We cannot stop fighting.' Photo Geoff Law

    In June 2016, the process of land acquisition began. The government called for affected people to come forward with relevant documents so that claims for compensation for loss of land could be assessed. In response, the villagers held protest meetings to oppose the process. There was great solidarity within the community.

    ‘The government officials who came from outside, we blocked them from entering our villages altogether,’ Suryanarayan said. ‘Though they were the ones who had called these meetings, none of them could actually attend them.’

    The next major stage in the struggle came with public hearings on 6 December 2016 and on 5 March 2017. The first was to secure the required consent of three quarters of the landowners, as required by the Land Acquisition Act of 2013.

    ‘What happened here was the company rigged the public hearing,’ said Suryanarayan. ‘The locals were given red cards, and outsiders – people brought from outside the state and paid – were given green cards. There were no official stamps or signatures on these cards either, it was done in the same way how parties rig elections. Only those with green cards were being allowed in, none of the actual landowners of the area were allowed in.’

    It was when the landowners realised what was occurring that the confrontation with the police occurred. With dissenters excluded and subdued, the meeting proceeded and the staged provision of assent was treated as legitimate by both the government and the company.

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  • Adani and the Elephants of the Hasdeo Aranya Forest

    In India, a conflict between various state governments and the central Modi government is developing over Modi's determination to proceed with a controversial auction of 41 coal blocks. In the state of Chhattisgarh, a proposed elephant reserve in the Hasdeo Aranya forest could prove crucial to whether coal mining in these biodiverse forests proceeds. But if the reserve is compromised to enable mining it will worsen human-elephant conflict for the indigenous Adivasis.

    UPDATE (August 2020): Since the article below was published, the Modi government has dropped several coal blocks from its proposed auction due to pressure from conservationists and state governments. In Chhattisgarh, five blocks in the Hasdeo forests were dropped, but three coal blocks elsewhere have been substituted.

    ‘The previous government had proposed only 400 square kilometers for the elephant reserve. My government has expanded this to 1950 square kilometers. This is the biggest in the world.’

    So said the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Chhattisgarh in April 2020, referring to his government’s plan to resolve the conflict between conservation and coal mining. In response, conservationists fear that the reserve will be hemmed in by Adani’s coal mines, becoming ‘an open-air elephant prison’.

    Chhattisgarh is a central Indian state where great masses of coal occur beneath one of India’s greatest tracts of forest. Adani is already operating a large coal mine in the area. It has been criticized for degrading the land and water on which the local people depend but now plans to develop a string of new mines in the Hasdeo Aranya forest. To investigate the growing controversy over the company’s actions, I visited the area on behalf of AdaniWatch in February 2020.

    How Mining Has Worsened Human-Elephant Conflict

    The Hasdeo Aranya is part of a large forested corridor that stretches over 1500 kilometers through central India. The area is a traditional home of the Adivasis, India’s indigenous peoples, and is habitat for hundreds of elephants.

    On the highway that passes through the Hasdeo Aranya, I pass periodic signs posted by the local forest department that say ‘beware: elephant affected area’. The framing of the message makes it clear who the administration sees as the interlopers.

    Roadside warning sign about elephants, Hasdeo Aranya forests. Photo Abir Dasgupta

    Nevertheless, this part of India is historically known for its elephants. According to government sources, central India holds 10% of India’s total population of about 27,000 wild elephants. Meetu Gupta is a member of the state’s Wildlife Board and runs Conservation Core India, a conservation NGO in the state’s capital Raipur. She tells me that local folklore says that elephants from the region were once sent across the subcontinent. Traditional houses are designed to account for the proximity of elephants – granaries were fortified against breach; the houses all have a side door specifically meant for families to escape if a tusker takes interest.

    However, the elephants largely avoided human contact, and vice versa, because the passages for elephant travel avoided human settlements. Only in recent decades, as the area has become increasingly industrialised, has the problem begun, Gupta says. Various reports based on government data say that 325 people and 70 elephants have lost their lives during encounters over the last five years.

    In the Hasdeo Aranya, the Adivasi residents and local campaigners agree that increasing development is to blame. One activist accompanying me, who requested anonymity, says that the Forest Department has deliberately avoided formally identifying the elephant passages precisely, despite knowing them well. Later in the day, as we visit the a coal mine, such a passage is pointed out to me by Ramlal Kariyam – a member of HABSS (Hasdeo Aranya Bachao Sangharsh Samiti, which translates as the committee for the fight to save the Hasdeo forest), an organisation set up by the Adivasi residents of the region, and a resident of a village that will be lost if mining extends into the adjacent block. He understands the animals’ plight – ‘they are forced to walk around the mine and come close to the road’.

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  • A pugnacious local opponent of Adani's Godda power station

    In January 2020, Indian news media reported that a cloud of uncertainty hung over the future of Adani’s power project at Godda. Provincial elections had just been held and a new government had been elected in the state of Jharkhand. Spokespeople for the new government were quoted saying that they would take a fresh look at the approval for Adani’s power station because of the controversial confiscation of farmers’ lands that had enabled the project to proceed.

    This political development had potential ramifications for the Stop Adani campaign in Australia. The power station that Adani is building at Godda is the intended destination for coal from its mine in Queensland. The plan is to export the coal 10,000 km to Godda, burn the coal, and export the power to Bangladesh, a cumbersome financial strategy. As Tim Buckley of the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis says ‘Importing coal from Australia and then railing it 700 kilometres past the largest coal reserves in India would simply make any electricity produced at Godda too expensive. The logistics of the proposal can only work because the power-purchase agreement allows Adani Power to pass the full cost of importing the coal onto Bangladesh.’

    This means that, if the Godda power station were halted, Adani’s entire business plan for its Queensland mine would collapse.

    Given the high stakes involved, AdaniWatch went to Jharkhand on a fact-finding mission in February 2020. First stop was the provincial capital, Ranchi, 1200 kilometres south-east of New Delhi and still more than 300 km from Godda. Indian journalist, Abir Dasgupta, set up a series of meetings with local campaigners and lawyers, as well as an interview with Pradeep Yadav, a high-profile leader of the campaign against the government’s seizure of land from local villagers for Adani’s project.

    Yadav is a member of the Jharkhand Legislative Assembly and has been a member of the State Cabinet in previous governments. His native village lies within five kilometres of Adani’s construction site at Godda. According to Yadav, there are over 50 villages within that radius of the power project, all with a population of about 1000. It’s a densely populated area because of the fertile land that enables numerous crops to be produced each year.

    Yadav Pradeep. Photo by Telegraph India

    Yadav’s uncompromising opposition to the seizure of villagers’ lands did not win him friends in high places. In April 2017, he was arrested at a dharna, a sit-in, near Adani’s proposed construction site where he had been on a hunger strike for 22 days. He was charged with an assortment of offences and spent six months in prison. After his release, he continued the campaign but was hit with further allegations, including a charge of sexual harassment. Yadav maintains his innocence and says the charge was part of a conspiracy against him in the run-up to last year’s elections. At the December 2019 poll, Yadav was re-elected to the Legislative Assembly of Jharkhand.

    He agrees to meet Abir and me at the government bungalow provided for him as a member of the assembly. When the message from Yadav comes through, it’s already after 8pm. We drive back and forth through the darkened streets of the government quarter, our driver frequently stopping to ask stall-holders and passers-by for directions.

    Eventually, we find the house and Abir and I are shown to a dimly-lit patio where we meet Yadav. He’s a burly man with a pugnacious manner. It’s obvious that there will be no sugar-coating of the situation from him. We sit down in the chilly night air and Yadav gives us a run-down that lasts over an hour. He describes the process by which the land was seized from the villagers, the impacts on their water supplies, and the deals done regarding the use of the power. These are all issues on which he has worked for over five years. Speaking Hindi, he patiently enumerates them for what must be the thousandth time. When Abir asks him about the protections that are supposed to be provided by various independent constitutional bodies, Yadav’s reply is blunt.

    ‘It was their government’, he says. ‘I think they “managed” all of these bodies.’

    The state government Yadav refers to was led by the BJP, the party that is also in power in New Delhi, the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The closeness between Modi and Adani goes back to Modi’s time as Chief Minister in the state of Gujararat and is notorious. It seems that, even way out here in Jharkhand, the BJP is looking after Adani’s interests.

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