India Indigenous People Coal
The Pench conflict: Desperate farmers occupy Adani’s Pench coal-power site
May 23, 2022
Farmers occupied and started cultivating Adani's site for its Pench coal-power station in 2021. Courtesy Madhya Pradesh 24

In the first week of June 2021, the farmers of six villages in central India whose lands had been acquired for a coal-power plant reoccupied the land and began to cultivate it. It was a bold move by people driven by desperation. Many were on the brink of starvation. The villagers’ civil disobedience came after months of fruitless meetings with officials of the Adani Group. These negotiations, in turn, followed years of frustration for farmers deprived of traditional livelihoods and promised employment.

This is the first part in a new series of stories about the standoff over Adani’s proposed Pench coal-power station. Last year, AdaniWatch revealed the scandalous background to the project in detail but things have escalated since then.

Part of the scandalous background of Adani's Pench coal-power project - protest leaders were bashed and injured in 2011, allegedly by pro-Adani goons.

The dispute goes back to the late 1980s, when nearly 300 ha of land near the city of Chhindwara in the state of Madhya Pradesh was acquired by a government power utility for the construction of a new coal-power plant. For years, no work on the 1320-MW project occurred. Farmers kept tilling the appropriated land, providing themselves with a living. Importantly, they were not prevented from doing this.

However, when Adani took over the project in 2010, the villagers were prohibited from carrying out further cultivation. This was a devastating blow to people who had no other means of supporting themselves. Adani had effectively cut off their food supply. Compensation for the land, which many regarded as inadequate, had long since been expended. Adani promised jobs to the affected families, but when the project continued to stall, no work was forthcoming.

Villagers cultivate the land they reoccupied in 2021, defying Adani's plans for a coal-power plant. Image Public TV

The villagers’ plight became desperate. The Indian economy had started to slow down in 2018. The national lockdown by the central government in 2020 (due to the pandemic) made matters worse for the poor. All over the country, family breadwinners lost their jobs in the cities and returned to their villages. For the people of the villages affected by Adani’s Pench project, the financial situation went from bad to worse. They decided to remedy the situation.

Pench Thermal Energy - the Adani subsidiary seeking to build a coal-power plant on prime farmland in Madhya Pradesh.

In February 2021, residents of the six affected villages of Chausara, Hiwarkhedi, Dhavri Theka, Dagawani, Dhanaura and Pipariya, met and unanimously decided that they should either be given employment by the Adani Group or be allowed to cultivate the land that was previously theirs. An ultimatum to that effect was presented to the Adani company concerned, Pench Thermal Energy (MP) Ltd, and a series of tense meetings occurred.

Watch interviews given by the farmers to local TV channels when they decided to occupy and cultivate the land:

Farmers occupy the site of Adani’s Pench coal power project:

https://youtu.be/79r9-lUB-os

MP News 24: officials’ response to farmers reoccupying Pench project site:

https://youtu.be/2dy1KQq2GHk

Public 24x7 TV: Desperate farmers demand jobs or the return of their land from Adani

https://youtu.be/2ibu7sNOg1U

MP News 24: Farmers hold firm despite deadlock with Adani

https://youtu.be/YVinxf73JXA

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On 24 February 2021, the village residents met representatives of the Adani Group in the presence of government officials. The farmers raised the following points:

  1. Despite the passage of 32 years since acquisition of the land for the project, including 11 years of ownership by Adani, significant works had yet to commence. The land should therefore be returned to the farmers.
  2. At the time of acquiring the land, the government assured the landowners that a member of every family whose land had been acquired had to be employed at the power plant.
  3. The farmers had been cultivating the land until 2010.
  4. After Adani took over the land in 2010, the farmers were neither allowed to cultivate the land nor given any employment.
  5. In 2010, the farmers were assured that the project would be up and running in 2-3 years. But after 11 years, there was still no sign of that happening.
  6. The farmers’ families have grown in number. Hence, the farmers don’t believe that Adani will employ every youth from their families.
  7. The farmers have no reliable source of income and many of the families are on the edge of starvation.
  8. Hence, the farmers must either be given their land back, or they should be allowed to till the land until the company starts construction of the plant.

Displaced farmers outside the venue for the meeting with officials from Adani's Pench coal-power company. Image courtesy Public TV

After listening to the concerns raised by the farmers and villagers, Devinder Bhatia, an official of Adani Power Limited, responded:

  1. The Company understands the concerns of the farmers and empathises with them. The company knows it is difficult to part with the land which they love so much, and the financial difficulties acquisition of land has created for the farmers.
  2. However, the farmers should also consider the company’s point of view.
  3. It is wrong to allege that the company is not doing anything to start the plant. The company started the work in 2012 but has since faced a number of issues that the farmers may not be aware of.
  4. In 2012, the company started to construct some buildings on the land but then it came to the company’s notice that around 28 ha of land (within the project site) are government owned, and no work could be done on that land.
  5. It took 3-4 years for the company to complete the legal formalities for that portion of the land during which no work could occur.
  6. When the company attempted to start the project work in 2012-13, the government of India cancelled all recent coal-mining licences granted to private companies. Without coal availability the company couldn’t start the power plant.
  7. Another important issue was the availability of water. Work on the Machagora dam (a dam on the Pench river from which water to the power plant was to be obtained) took a long time to get completed. Without enough water, no power plant can function. The company had to regularly appeal to authorities in Bhopal (the state capital) to get it completed. It was finally completed in 2017-18.
  8. While the issues of land and water are now resolved, the issue of coal availability remains. But there may soon be some progress on this front. The (central) government has passed new rules to make coal available. So, this issue will also get sorted out very soon. Unlike earlier, now the states will get the allocation of coal and the state will allocate it to power plants. The company has submitted requests for coal to the state government and the state government has already forwarded the application to the central government.
  9. The company sincerely wants to start the project as soon as possible. Only when the project is complete will the company start earning income and a return on its investment. All the eligible candidates from the affected villages in the area will get employment at the plant. The company is interested in everyone’s welfare. For that, the farmers should work with the company.
  10. What the company is explaining here is for your (the farmers’) own good. So, you people should listen carefully. If the company’s team is sitting in Bhopal and going to government offices every day, you must understand, it is for this permission. The company has no other work in Bhopal.
  11. Most of you are aware that, in February 2020, the company signed a power-purchase agreement with the state government. The government would be needing more electricity by 2025-26. (Experts have contested this claim – see AdaniWatch story)
  12. In March 2020, the lockdown (due to the covid-19 pandemic) was imposed. Just like everyone else, company staff were also confined to their homes. Project work could not commence.
  13. Someone said that a few people came to his house and made some inquiries. That might be related to the environmental clearance (for the project). That is done by an external agency, appointed by the government. The company neither knows them nor does it have any control over such permissions.
  14. By now you (farmers) might have understood that the company is not sitting idle. Without all the relevant permissions from the government, the company cannot start the work.
  15. The company has already applied for all the permissions and licences from the government. The work on the project will start as soon as the government gives the go-ahead.
  16. The company has always cooperated with you (farmers). Hence, you should be a bit more patient and cooperate with us. We should work together for the welfare of all of us.

Most villagers were not happy with the explanations. The meeting was inconclusive. From February to June 2021, many further rounds of discussions took place between the farmers and company representatives in the presence of local government officials.

The farmers' reoccupation of their land generated intense media coverage of their plight. Image courtesy MP 24

The families identified one or two members of each affected family and submitted a list of around 300 names to the Adani company. However, the company’s officials allegedly said employment could not be provided to all of the listed persons in one go, but that it would choose 3-4 eligible people from the list as and when the requirement arose, and that employment would be provided from 2027.

The farmers demanded that all the listed individuals should be permanently employed by the Adani Group with immediate effect. They contended that they had listened to the company’s excuses for the past eleven years and were not ready to wait any longer.

According to the residents AdaniWatch spoke to, the company allegedly told the farmers that some will be employed for a short duration as labourers to cut the bushes that have grown at the project site and to construct a road. The company officials estimated that the expenditure for these works would be around sixty lakh rupees (around USD $81,000).

The fertile farmland that is now the project site for Adani's Pench coal-power plant. Image Ghanshyam

The company added that the land had originally been acquired from a limited number of families. If the families had grown in numbers over the years, the company could not accommodate them all. The company rejected the list of names submitted by the residents for employment. One of the villagers who, fearing repercussions, didn’t want to be named, told this writer that though many people anticipated such a response, it was a shock for those among the residents who had supported the company’s plans.

This event turned the tide and the people of the affected villages joined hands. They decided to take their land back and start cultivating it again. They also clarified that the day the company starts construction, they will vacate the land, provided that people are suitably employed in the company.

In the first week of June 2021, farmers of the six villages started to till the land inside the project site.

The farmers told a TV reporter that many of them had been young children when the land was acquired by the government over thirty years previously. Twenty years later, the government sold the land to an Adani company for a profit. The farmers said they were fed up with Adani's promises to employ them, and that they don’t expect the power project ever to be completed. The value of the land in the area is between two to three million rupees per acre (USD $28-40,000) and the government paid a pittance to the owners to acquire the land on the basis of false promises. So, the farmers said, they were not willing to give up their claim to the land.

Adani's Pench project site - farmland intended for a coal-power plant at the expense of farmers' lands. Photo Ghanshyam

This prompted the administration and Adani Group to call meetings for 8 and 15 June. A translation from Hindi of the minutes of the meeting reads:

In 2011, M/s Adani Pench Thermal Energy (MP) Ltd had purchased 290.245 hectares of land through tender from Madhya Pradesh Electricity Board in Village Hiberkhedi, Dhanora block and village Thavriteka, Chausara, Dagavani Pipariya block Chhindwara to establish a thermal power plant for which on April 28, 2011, a contract was executed in mediation with public representatives and affected farmers.

As the power plant has not been established due to technical and legal issues, the affected farmers are not happy. Hence, meetings were conducted between the administration and the officials of Adani Pench Thermal Power Plant Limited on June 8, 2021, and June 15, 2021. The following points were agreed upon by all the parties:

  1. The farmers will form a Representative Board consisting of two representatives in each of the affected villages – Hiwarkhedi, Dhanora, Thavriteka, Chausara, Dagavani and Pipariya. Sub Divisional Officer will give the written information of this to SDPO (Sub-Divisional Police Officer) Chaurai and Adani Pench Thermal Power Plant Limited.
  2. These representatives, from time to time, will discuss the issues with the affected farmers and the outcome of their discussions would be informed to the local administration and authorised representatives of Adani Pench Thermal Energy (MP) Ltd. As per the contract executed on 28 April 2011, the heirs of the farmers whose land was acquired by the MPEB during 1987-88 to 1990-91 were given an amount of Rs 100,000 per acre (about $1850) as a consolation amount. The farmers agreed to not encroach upon the acquired land or any other land of the Adani Pench Thermal Energy (MP) Ltd nor to interfere in the internal matters of the company. During the disbursement of the consolation amount, the affected farmers had assured that they will fully cooperate with the company. There was another agreement made to this effect between the company and the farmers.
  3. The farmers and the government authorities are aware that the project has been delayed due to technical reasons. Keeping this in mind, the Adani Pench Thermal Energy (MP) Ltd and the farmers’ representatives created a road map in the presence of the local administrative officials. Accordingly, the company will spend fifty to sixty lakh rupees in the current year to maintain the project site, clear the sites of bushes, repair the approach roads and boundary wall and for set up an office. As the work on the power plant is yet to be started, it will not be possible to employ one member from each affected family at this stage. Hence, the company will try to provide direct/indirect employment on priority to the members of the affected families according to their qualifications.
  4. As per the road map, the civil work for the power project will commence in the year 2023-24. Once the work starts, the company will employ one member of each affected family, as recommended by the farmers’ representative body.
  5. As per the agreement dated April 28, 2011, after the completion of the civil work, based on the recommendation of the Representative Board, one member from each affected family will be included in the selection process.
  6. During this time, whenever the company would need workers for maintenance of the machinery and other works, the company would try to provide priority to the members of the affected families recommended by the representative body.
  7. As per the agreement dated April 28, 2011, the company had paid Rs 100,000 per acre to each affected family. It had been agreed upon that the farmers would not create any hurdles in the working of the company. Through this agreement, the farmer’s representative body will ensure that the villagers will neither interfere in the company's works nor encroach upon its land in any manner.
  8. As there is still time for the completion of the project, it was discussed that the educated youths of the affected families should be provided with employment in Adani Group’s other units. The company has requested the farmers’ representative body to share a list of not more than 4-5 names with their credentials (not more than one member from a family) at a time. Based on merit, the company will forward the recommended names to the concerned officials in the group for hire.
  9. On behalf of all the farmers, the farmers’ representative body has given an assurance that the farmers would not encroach upon the company land and violate any rule. In case of any violation of this assurance, the company and local administration would take action against the violators.
  10. Many important approvals – technical, legal, statutory and financial – from the Union and State governments and financial institutions are pending. The company is regularly coordinating with all the relevant authorities for these approvals intending to operationalise the project from the year 2027. With that aim, the company is starting the preliminary works and site maintenance from the current year.

This meeting was held between Adani Pench Thermal Energy (MP) Ltd and project-affected farmers from village Hiberkhedi, Dhanora, Thavriteka, Chausara, Dagavani Pipariya, District Chhindwara, in the presence of local administrative officials. All the parties have consented to the minutes of this meeting.’

This was almost a repetition of what the company’s officials had earlier told the farmers in the inconclusive process of negotiations. As the monsoon-based sowing season was already starting, agitated farmers started cultivating the land that they once owned.

Adani’s claim that the company was waiting for approvals to begin construction are inconsistent with documentation published last year by AdaniWatch. Was this claim a smokescreen to mislead the farmers?

Some office buildings and a boundary wall were all that Adani had managed to construct by July 2021.  Photo: Ghanshyam.

In 2010, the company applied to the Union Ministry of Environment and Forest for environmental approval for the Pench project. An expert committee said ‘the environmental clearance shall be applied only after firm fuel and water linkage and other statutory clearances as applicable are obtained.’ In 2012, the ministry gave the project conditional approval. The letter stipulated that the project was to commence operations within five years and that the company was to submit a monthly compliance report once every six months to the ministry. In 2016, this approval was extended to October 2019.

In October 2018, a Madhya Pradesh government utility sought an ‘Expression of Interest’ from developers that already had necessary approvals and permissions for a 1320-MW thermal power project. According to sources within the utility, Adani Power was the only company that expressed an interest. This shows that the company had already obtained all necessary permissions and clearances.

In June 2019, Adani applied for a five-year extension of the environmental clearance and in October 2019, the ministry partially approved the request and extended the validity of the clearance until October 2022. The approval issued by the ministry said that the plant would be operated using imported coal.

Hence, Adani’s claim that the lack of coal availability from domestic sources caused the delay appears to be a misleading statement designed to pacify the protesting farmers.

With inputs and support from Ankit A

This story will continue in Part 2