Lutfar Rahman is a seventy-year-old orchardist from West Bengal who opposed the route of an Adani transmission line taking electricity from Adani’s power station at Godda across the border to Bangladesh. This is an account of the harassment Lutfar faced from the police, the state authorities and the relevant Adani company, part of a wider move to intimidate a community that had mounted a campaign to protect its productive fruit trees from the transmission line. (It is believed that the Godda coal-power station is the ultimate destination for coal from Adani’s Carmichael mine in Australia.)
When an Adani company proposed to carve a swathe through orchards in West Bengal, India, in order to lay a high-voltage transmission line, the local community mobilised. One of the leaders was Lutfar Rahman from Dadantola village, a seventy-year-old owner of mango and lychee trees, who initiated a petition to the local authorities.
The Adani Group’s 1600-MW power plant at Godda, Jharkhand, was authorised to supply ultra-supercritical thermal power to Bangladesh, and to lay 400,000-volt high-tension transmission lines across Lutfar’s land. The Adani project involved clearing approximately 1000 bighas (about 250 ha) of mango and lychee orchards in several villages in the Beniagram and Imamnagar Gram Panchayat areas of Farakka. The relevant company was Adani Power (Jharkhand) Limited (APJL).
Rahman suggested that, in order to protect the human settlements and their livelihoods, the Adani Group’s proposed high-tension wires to Bangladesh be laid along an uninhabited route 10 to 15 km away from the orchards. A ‘People’s Committee against the Plunder of Land, Life, Livelihood and Nature’ was set up as a platform for this mobilisation. Zubair Ali, an affected farmer from the neighbouring village of Gholakandi, was one of the two joint convenors of this committee. Lutfar Rahman was the other.
Thanks in part to Lutfar’s efforts, a mass petition was submitted to the DM, the SP, the SDO, the SDPO, the BPO and the police IC, (district magistrate, superintendent of police, sub divisional officer, sub divisional police officer, block police officer, and inspector in charge, respectively) on 24 March 2022. Lutfar says, ‘my initiative enraged them; this is why the Adani company’s men, the police and the civil administration have subjected me and my family to non-stop, unlimited, harassment and torture.’
The police brought pressure to bear on Lutfar’s son Arafat Ansari, who was employed by the police, so that he would persuade his father to stop resisting the clearing of the orchards. Says Arafat, ‘the orchards are our main means of sustenance. Giving permission to clear them is tantamount to committing suicide. Naturally I could not get my father to consent to their destruction. This infuriated them. They dismissed me on 5 April 2022 from my job as a civic volunteer after nine years of service. Since then, I’ve been jobless for twenty months.’
The family’s resistance to the destruction of their mango and lychee orchards fueled more than the dismissal of Arafat from his job. Members of Lutfar’s family, male or female, young or old, have been targeted with a cascade of criminal cases, which were also used as pretexts for arrest.
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The mass petition urging the authorities not to permit the destruction of the orchards was signed by many others, including Lutfar’s neighbours. Subsequently, however, one of Lutfar’s neighbours turned against him (or was made to).
‘Under pressure from the police,’ said Lutfar’s lawyer, Zia-ul Ali Khan. ‘[The neighbour] filed a false case against Lutfar Rahman and others claiming that his [family members] were fraudulently coerced into signing the mass petition.’
Police acted on these claims, jailing members of Lutfar’s family. The issue was settled, at least temporarily, in May 2022 when the neighbour stated to the court that he had no objection to the accused being granted bail. As a result, all seven accused, including five members of Lutfar’s family, were given bail.
(The case is Farakka P.S. case no. 199/22 dated 14 April 22.)
Meanwhile, the mobilising of a mass movement on this issue seemed to be treated as a heinous crime by the state. The community’s actions triggered a series of cases against Lutfar and his associates.
The lawyer Zia-ul Ali Khan explains, ‘after many petitions and requests that were systematically stonewalled by the police and the civil authorities, a desperate Lutfar Rahman filed a writ petition on 18 May 2022 at Calcutta High Court (regn no 9159/2022). Angered by this, in a bid to ‘teach the orchard owners a lesson’, Sourav Modi, the in-charge of APJL, filed a case (no. 177/22) against several persons, including five members of Lutfar’s family, on 3 June 2022 at Farakka police station.’
Modi’s case alleged that Lutfar’s men assaulted APJL workers and robbed them of Rs 50,000, that they destroyed an APJL drone, and that Lutfar seized Sourav Modi and brandished a machete near his throat, threatening to kill him. Lutfar and the other defendants denied the charges. Zia-ul Ali Khan goes on to say, ‘although the lawsuit, referencing eight sections of the criminal code, alleged that non-bailable offences had been committed, the Jangipur Mahakuma court took into account the evidence available and granted bail to Lutfar and the others accused on 6 June 2022.’
The next move by the authorities was swift and ruthless. APJL agents and the state government’s police mounted a joint operation on 2 July 2022, felling the fruit trees.
Some women from the villages started a sit-in agitation in the orchards. Witnesses who were present reported that some bees kept in the orchards for honey production stung a few policepersons and that, enraged by this, the armed police force, several hundred strong, went on a rampage.
In the face of this onslaught, virtually all the villagers fled the scene. Thus, Farakka was spared major violence that day. Even so, several people on both sides were injured, including Wasim Akram, one of Lutfar’s five sons. Wasim and seven other injured persons were taken to the primary health centre of the Beniagram block. Wasim, who is a certified engineer but is unemployed, was being moved by the doctors to the Jangipur Mahakuma hospital. As soon as they left the Beniagram block health centre and proceeded towards the hospital, when they were about one and a half kilometres from the primary health centre, the police stopped the ambulance.
‘They prevented me from being moved to the Jangipur Mahakuma hospital,’ says Wasim, ‘and transported me instead to Farakka police station, where they took me into custody. I was left in the lock-up all night without any medical care.
‘The police snatched the referral document authorising the doctors to move me from the Beniagram Block health centre to the Jangipur Mahakuma hospital, tore it up and threw it away. The seven other persons who were injured were picked up by the police and placed in the lock-up, like me, and left untreated all night.’
The following morning, the police station granted bail to four of the injured. Wasim and three others were presented at Jangipur Court.
Eleven women who were being chased by the police on 2 July had taken refuge in Asgar Ali’s house in the orchard. The police broke open the doors of that house, beat the women up and took them to the police station. They released them in the middle of the night.
Once the police had removed all the inhabitants from the villages and the orchards, men hired by the Adani company began working 24x7 from 2 July onwards, using generators. They felled the trees, cleared the orchards and laid the high-tension electric lines. In the writ petition (WPA 99/23) filed on 20 March 2023 on behalf of the affected farmers at Calcutta High Court, their advocate Shamim Ahmed stated, ‘the Block Development Officer (BDO) and the inspector in charge (IC) played the role of Adani’s agents. … On 2 July, the police force led by the IC served as Adani’s private armed guards.’ He said that instead of doing their duty and enforcing the law, the police abused their powers.
Asked to respond to this, IC Debabrata Chakraborty said ‘I shall not comment on any matter that is sub judice’.
This was not the end of court actions by the police against the protesting farmers. At the Farakka P.S., Sub-Inspector Salma Farida filed a case (PS Case no. 212/22) on 3 July 2022 against 49 farmers alleging that they had assaulted the police, citing 13 non-bailable sections of the criminal code. The accused included Lutfar and six of his family members – his elderly wife Roshanara Bibi, their unmarried, unemployed, graduate daughter Kamarunnisa, and four of their sons. Salma Farida alleged that they had damaged police shields, helmets and motorbikes, and that several police personnel were injured during their assault. On 24 July 2023, Lutfar’s family was granted bail on condition that they would appear at the police station twice a month. As a consequence, for a long time, all members of this family had to report to the police station, having to spend the entire day in front of the police station twice a month. This caused them financial hardship and was an affront to their dignity.
Lutfar Rahman’s was the first voice that spoke up against the joint operation by the police and APJL.
‘Ignoring the orchardists’ objections,’ Lutfar says, ‘they annihilated the flourishing mango and lychee trees and turned prosperous farmers into beggars, overnight. They forcibly destroyed our orchards on 2 July 2022 so that they could lay 400,000-volt high tension wires from here to Bangladesh.’
When AdaniWatch visited this defiant septuagenarian, he was living in a dwelling only partially completed. Hoping to arrange adequate accommodation for his family of eight on this three-cottah plot of land (about 200 square metres), Lutfar demolished his cottage in 2021 and tried to build a proper house. As late as June 2022, there were 24 lychee trees, 13 mango trees and 8 mahogany trees on Lutfar’s two-bigha (about one third of a hectare) orchard. The Adani company’s men felled 21 of these 45 trees as part of their much larger tree-felling operation. The remaining trees are scheduled for felling at a later date.
The family used to be prosperous thanks to their productive orchard. They have now been reduced to poverty. The eldest son, Saddam Hosein, used to collect toll tax for a contractual organisation, which dismissed him when he was named in a police case as one of the accused. He has at last been able to persuade them to give him his job back. When his younger brother Arafat Ali Ansari was dismissed from his job with the police, the IC refused to comment on the issue.
The income associated with their property was what gave Lutfar the confidence to embark on the project of building a new house. Another source of his confidence was the monthly salary of his son, Arafat, who had been working for the Farakka police.
Since the orchards have been cleared, and with Arafat’s job gone, the family has had no steady income. The prospect of insolvency has forced them to stop working on their half-built house. There is no proper floor; the walls have no plaster or paint; the roof has not been water-treated. There are effectively no doors or windows either. What stands is a skeletal frame. To make the place minimally usable, the family has been using bamboo splits and jute to somehow cover the holes in the walls to stop the cold and the rain as best they can. This insecure structure has been their abode for the last two years.
Lutfar’s second-eldest son, Yusuf Ansari, works as a mobile repair man and is barely able to make ends meet. Yusuf’s other brothers, Wasim Akram and Taslim Ali, are certified engineers who hold diplomas, and their sister Kamrunnisa holds a bachelor’s degree. The three of them, along with Arafat Ali Ansari and Wasim Akram, are currently unemployed. The police have identified them as alleged felons. They therefore cannot hope for any type of public-sector job. Their alleged-felon status also makes it exceedingly difficult for them to be employed in the private sector.
One precondition for such employment is a character certificate from the police. As soon as the police complete their investigation and submit the charge sheet for a lawsuit to the court, the court is able to begin its deliberations concerning the case. If this happens reasonably soon, it mitigates the trouble for those accused.
The advocate Zia-ul Ali Khan says, ‘it is normal for a charge sheet to be submitted to the court within two or three months. But the police have taken 18 to 20 months to submit the charge sheet in two of the three cases filed against Lutfar Rahman and his family. Even after 19 months, the police have not yet submitted the charge sheet for the case filed by Sourav Modi, the APJL in-charge. As a result, the trial has not yet commenced.’ This is another example of apparent vindictiveness on the part of the state authorities.
As if the harassment in connection with the lawsuits filed by APJL and the state were not enough, Lutfar has faced stonewalling in his efforts to secure adequate compensation (see the previous AdaniWatch story on the matter). The amount awarded by the District Magistrate (DM) on 5 August 2022 was the equivalent of US $4800 – an amount Luftar found derisory, given the permanent loss of land and livelihood he has suffered.
On 27 September 2023, after approaches to the courts and a lengthy period of obfuscation by local authorities, Lutfar had a win in the Calcutta High Court, which set aside the DM’s decision and ordered a reconsideration of the matter. The court also ordered that a land-survey report of Lutfar’s orchard should be provided to him, that he should be given sufficient notice before a future hearing, which should be conducted fairly before compensation is recalculated. After a long delay by the DM in responding to this order, Lutfar finally received a letter from the DM dated 28 November 2023, directing him to specify his demands by 30 November. It had taken the DM 62 days to respond to a court order but he was now seeking a response within two days!
This has raised questions about the DM’s impartiality. The advocate Anirban Sarkar says, ‘the High Court has ordered the administrator to arrange for a fresh hearing. That the administrator, instead of complying with this order, has written to Lutfar on 28 November 2023 and told him to specify his demands is inappropriate behaviour on his part.’
Trinamool Congress, the political party that rules the state, rode to power having led a struggle on behalf of peasants in the towns of Singur and Nandigram who were unwilling to part with land which the government intended to hand over to the Tata Group for industrial development.
AdaniWatch has reported that the local MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly of West Bengal), Manirul Islam, of Trinamool Congress, who was elected as the Farakka MLA after promising to protect the interests of the people, said on 1 August 2023, ‘since I am busy setting up a three-tier panchayat board, for the moment I will not comment on the issue of the mango and lychee orchards of Farakka being cleared to enable the Adani Group to lay their electricity lines’. On 5 December 2023, he adopted the same stance, saying, ‘I will not comment on the issue of the mango and lychee orchards being cleared or the issue of whether Lutfar’s son will be reinstated as a civic volunteer’.
Sources inform us that Manirul Islam and the local IC Debabrata Chakraborty have assured the family that Arafat Ali will be reinstated in his job with the police provided that the family does not say anything against the Adani Group or the police or the local administration. Local residents claim that Lutfar and his family are being coerced into silently accepting their fate.
When asked about these matters, Manirul again refused to comment. Lutfar’s lawyer Zia-ul Ali Khan says, ‘despite the convention that they should file charge sheets within two or three months, the police in the case of this family have failed to file charge-sheets in court even after 18 to 20 months. The idea that they will take Arafat Ali back into his former job is not credible at all.’
Meanwhile, Lutfar Rahman remains defiant.
‘The District Magistrate is yet to comply with the High Court’s order. The court ordered that the land survey report of my orchard should be handed over to me by the DM, that I should be given sufficient notice before the hearing, and that I should be given a fair hearing by the DM and the APJL officials before re-issuing my compensation order with a recalculated amount. I have yet to receive a copy of the land report and no further proceedings have started.’
Lutfar and his family have clearly paid a heavy price for opposing an Adani project. The attitudes of the state government and his local member of parliament have added salt to the wound.
The author is an independent journalist based in West Bengal. Translated from the Bangla by Abir Dasgupta.