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Pench Part 1: Vicious assaults on opponents of Adani coal-power project alleged to be the work of ‘company goons’
Jul 05, 2021
Protest leaders injured by alleged assaults by 'company goons', 2011. Courtesy KSS

A huge coal-fired power plant that the Adani Group plans to build in central India has provoked political intrigue and violence. Questionable conduct by governments of both the Congress and BJP parties has occurred. Vicious assaults on citizens opposing the project are alleged by the victims to be the work of ‘company goons’. Prosecutions arising from these assaults remain unresolved and the perpetrators remain at large. In part 1 of a four-part story, AdaniWatch describes the attacks and how the local residents fought back, embarrassing the government, authorities and Adani on the national stage.

In 2010, Adani took over the rights to build a 1320-MW coal-fired power station – the proposed Pench power station – near the town of Chhindwara in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. (See interactive map for precise location) The project had been stalled for nearly 20 years, having faced resistance from the local community. People whose land had been acquired for the power station questioned the amount of compensation and accused the government of breaking promises to provide them with employment. Protest leaders said that it was illegal for the government to sell land acquired for a public purpose to a private developer such as Adani.

After Adani entered the scene, the protest movement grew and reactions from supporters of the project escalated accordingly.

In May 2011, one of the protest leaders issued a media statement saying that he and his colleagues had been viciously assaulted. They were allegedly waylaid by pro-Adani ruffians and bashed. The victims’ injuries were so severe that hospitalisation was required. The police were hours late to respond when they were alerted of the attack. The victims identified some of the perpetrators as employees and contractors of the Adani company developing the power plant. A subsequent prosecution by authorities has dragged on in the courts. To this day, the culprits remain at large.

In 2015, another protest leader said that he had suffered a similarly vicious assault.  A human-rights organisation described an attack on him and his family as ‘attempted murder’. The initial response of the police was to charge the victim with various offences. Again, the attackers were alleged to be persons associated with the Adani project. Again, the attackers remain at large, and proceedings in the Chhindwara civil courts drag on.

Victims of alleged assaults by 'company goons', Dr Sunilam and Aradhana Bhargava, confront a local official in 2011. Courtesy KSS

In 2012, the heavy-handed treatment of the protesters by the authorities was reported across India when a prominent national figure became involved. The leader of the decades-long movement against the infamous Narmada Dam, Medha Patkar, arrived in the Chhindwara area to lend her support to the movement and was promptly arrested and imprisoned, along with 20 other protest leaders. A heavy police presence across the area was said to be an attempt to intimidate the local populace. Patkar protested in prison by commencing a hunger strike, resulting in a threat by prison officials to force-feed her. When she and her colleagues were finally brought before a magistrate, they were all released, despite attempts by the police to prolong their detention.

In forthcoming stories about the Pench project, AdaniWatch will expose questionable government decisions to provide the Adani Group with the approvals and contracts necessary for the project to proceed. In this instalment, we look at the struggle by a broad-based people’s movement against the takeover of their lands for a coal-fired power plant, providing details of the allegations made by protest leaders against persons linked with the project.

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Protests and Assaults

The plan to set up a coal power plant in the Chhindwara area is over three decades old. In the 1980s, the project was being driven by a government-owned company, the Madhya Pradesh State Electricity Board (MPSEB), which acquired nearly 300 ha of land from farmers. MPSEB was supposed to start building the plant within three years but nothing happened. Farmers continued tilling land that had been officially acquired – but never taken possession of – by the government.

When Adani sought to revive the project, local residents protested fiercely. They argued that they were not consulted by the government before it sold Adani the land that they had been tilling for over two decades. They said the land had been acquired for a government project and that it was illegal to sell it to a private company.  The Nagpur edition of the Times of India newspaper quoted a protest leader saying ‘if the purpose for which land is acquired is not met, then acquisition becomes null and void.’

There were wider concerns about the environmental impacts of the scheme. The protest leaders demanded that the project be cancelled, that the land be returned to the local community, and the plan to redirect irrigation waters to the plant be scrapped. When their demands were met with silence from the government, protests intensified.

One of the leaders of the movement against the Pench coal plant, Dr Sunilam, a physicist and former local legislator. Courtesy Catch News

The response by local supporters of the project was vicious. On 22 May 2011, two protest leaders and their companions were waylaid and bashed in broad daylight. The police were called as soon as the attack began but did not appear for over an hour and a half, long after the damage had been done.

One of the victims was Advocate Aradhana Bhargav, a lawyer providing her services to the protest movement. The other was Dr Sunil Mishra, known as Dr Sunilam, a prominent political figure who was 49 years old at the time. As well as being a leader of Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (KSS, or Farmers’ Struggle Committee), Dr Sunilam was also a former Member of the Legislative Assembly of the state, a physicist, and a former secretary of the Samajwadi (Socialist) Party. He had acquired a reputation as a fighter against corruption. He also faced numerous charges brought against him by government authorities, most of them arising from his long-term involvement in protests against government policies. A statement by a human-rights body says the immediate context of the May 2011 attack was the plan for a protest march organised by the KSS against the project that was scheduled to start on 28 May and to continue until the last day of the month.

Protest march in 2011, including leaders injured by alleged assaults by project supporters. Courtesy KSSDr Sunilam issued a media statement that described the attack on him and his colleagues by ‘goons linked to the Adani power project’. In the statement Dr Sunilam alleged he and his companions were driving back from a meeting when at about 4.45 pm their car was blocked by three other vehicles. They were set upon by about 15 assailants wielding axes, batons, chains and revolvers. One of the perpetrators was heard yelling for the mob to kill Dr Sunilam and Advocate Aradhana Bhargav. Dr Sunilam sustained fractures in both arms as well as injuries to his head and hip, while Adv Aradhana Bhargav also sustained serious injuries. She suffered a head-wound and a fractured arm. Their companions, including three farmers, the driver and Dr Sunilam’s personal secretary, also sustained injuries in the attack. Dr Sunilam’s jeep was seriously damaged by the attackers.

Dr Sunilam’s statement names three of his assailants. Others are alleged to be brokers and contractors associated with the Adani Group’s power project. Subsequently, local farmers blocked the road at the site of the attack in protest. Dr Sunilam joined them and began a hunger strike in response to the lack of action by the police. Indeed, a media report from the time says Dr Sunilam and Aradhana Bhargav were slapped with more than fifty charges by the police, who accused them of ‘obstructing the government work.’

Dr Sunilam and Mrs Bhargav filed a police complaint against their attackers, leading to a prosecution in February 2012.

‘We are awaiting the court’s verdict; we have made our case, and it has been over 10 years now,’ said Bhargav to AdaniWatch in May 2021, explaining that the trial against her attackers is still pending. Dr Sunilam made similar comments in April 2021.

Advocate Aradhana Bhargav and the local community discuss concerns about the power project. Image by Ankit Agarwal

At least one Adani employee, Amolak Singh, based at Chhindwara, was charged and sought to have the charges against him dismissed. The judgment dismissing that application states:

'The prosecution’s case, in short, is that Adani Power Project was to be implemented in the area along with [another project] and therefore, some agriculturalists have moved a rally against that project. On 22.5.2011, at about 5 pm, a meeting was called at village Bhula Mohgaon, in which the complainant Aradhana Bhargava and Dr. Sunilam also participated. After that the meeting they were coming back to Chhindwara by a vehicle. Near village Ner, they were stopped by the crowd, who came in two vehicles led by Poornima Verma and Nikki Jain. Those 10-15 persons assaulted the complainant Aradhana Bhargava and Dr. Sunilam and also caused damage to their vehicle. They also quoted that they were sent by the applicant Amolak Singh, who was the office bearer in Adani Groups of companies at Chhindwara.'

The prosecution was permitted to proceed but, ten years after the alleged assaults, and more than nine years after charges were laid, the perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice.

It seems extraordinary that a blatant attack on prominent public figures could occur with such impunity. However, Madhya Pradesh has a sorry history in such cases. In 1998, in the town of Multai, 24 people were killed when police opened fire on farmers demanding government support in the wake of severe crop failures. Dr Sunilam was present at that protest and was falsely accused of murder by the authorities. It was not until many years later that the trumped-up charges against him were dismissed by a higher court.

The 2011 attack on Dr Sunilam and his colleagues near Chhindwara was condemned by human-rights groups. The Peoples Union for Democratic Rights (PUCR) said: ‘The attack was not the first sign of aggression on Adani’s part. In February Adani’s goons had also intervened at a Jan Sunwai [a public hearing held by citizens] and tried to disrupt proceedings. A students’ fact-finding team that had visited the area last year was also threatened by Adani’s men. The attack by Adani Power Limited’s armed goons is yet another instance of how powerful corporate houses are resorting to organised violence perpetrated through their private mafias to silence those who come in the way of their interests and to break people’s attempts to organise on the issues of land, water, forests. The fact that a prominent person like Sunilam – an ex-legislator – could be attacked so brutally in broad daylight only emphasises the audacity of the state-corporate nexus, and the impunity it provides.’

Despite this brutality, demonstrations against Adani’s project continued.

In 2012, a national figure became embroiled in the Pench battle. Medha Patkar is a renowned environmentalist and defender of human rights in India, having been convenor of the National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), an all-India umbrella group. She came to international attention during the 1980s as the spearhead of opposition to the infamous Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River. In 2012, with several KSS leaders indisposed due to government persecution, she arrived in Chhindwara to lend her support to the campaign against the Pench power plant and river diversion. Upon her arrival she was arrested. Aradhana Bhargava was also detained by the state police.

Medha Patkar, high-profile environmentalist and rights campaigner, joined the fray in 2012. Courtesy Britannica

During this time, the situation in the area was described as tense, with widespread protests by farmers and a heavy police presence. The NAPM said that the state government had deployed large numbers of police to ‘intimidate the farmers, labourers and adivasis [tribals] protesting illegal commencement of work on the Pench Water Diversion Project.’ Patkar and her colleagues were detained by the police when they visited the house of Aradhana Bhargava in the early hours of 4 November. Aradhana Bhargava was arrested at her house on 3 November, the last day of the rituals after her mother’s death a few days earlier. Police arrested several other KSS leaders on the same day, bringing the total number of anti-Pench protesters in Chhindwara jail to 21.

The police did not allow the villagers to meet Medha Patkar and other detainees. The protesting farmers demanded the police release them and commenced a sit-in strike. Patkar and the other detained leaders started a ‘Satyagraha’ (a policy of passive political resistance, including fasting, that was advocated by Mahatma Gandhi against British rule in India) inside the jail demanding their unconditional release. The NAPM statement stated that the detentions were ‘a clear case of conspiracy and collusion between BJP [the ruling party of the state] and Congress [then the ruling party at the centre] in the interest of Adani.’

The Madhya Pradesh unit of Jan Sangarsh Morcha (Organisation for People’s Struggle) issued a statement condemning the incident. It read: JSM ‘condemns the attempts by the MP government to sacrifice precious natural resources to corporate profits and the forcible eviction of farmers at gunpoint. The reality behind the MP government’s much-hyped development through private investment is that corporate loot is being facilitated without any due legal process, while the interests of farmers and other common citizens are being sacrificed.’

The PUCL wrote to the National Human Right Commission seeking its intervention, accusing the then district Collector Mahesh Chaudhary and then Superintendent of Police Purshottam of ‘not even allowing lawyers to meet their clients.’

On 6 November 2012, a habeas corpus petition was filed in the Madhya Pradesh High Court ‘against the illegal arrest’ of Patkar and others. While Patkar continued her fast inside the jail, civil-society groups started protests in different part of the country demanding the release of the detained people. The police, jail administration and the district administration strenuously resisted the granting of bail to the detained protest leaders. The then Chief Minister of the state cancelled a planned visit to Chhindwara, fearing huge protests and backlash. Meanwhile, the administrators of the prison where Patkar was holding her fast threatened to force-feed her.

On 7 November, amid tight security, the police produced Patkar and the others in front of the Chhindwara Chief Judicial Magistrate and demanded that the 21 people be detained a further two weeks. Patkar enumerated the illegalities associated with the detentions and sought an unconditional release of all. The court agreed, telling the police that there was no reason to keep the protest leaders in custody and ordered their immediate release.

Aradhana was in a separate jail, having been charged under stringent sections of the criminal procedure code. She was released two days later.

The next major incident affecting a protest leader occurred on 14 November 2015. According to an appeal sent to the National Human right commission, there was a murder attempt on the KSS block president Sajje Chandravanshi. The document states that following an attack on Chandravanshi at the market square, attackers barged into his house, ransacked it, and tried to kill him. He and members of his family were grievously injured. He had head injuries and fractures to his hand and ribs. Speaking to this reporter in May 2021, Chandravanshi categorically stated that the attack occurred at the instigation of the company. After the assault, police actually arrested Chandravanshi himself. He was charged with ‘voluntarily causing hurt by dangerous weapons’, a charge he alleges is false, and released on bail only two weeks later.

Even though the victim identified eight of the ten culprits, police did not file a First Investigation Report or arrest the perpetrators. The appeal alleges: ‘Mr Sajje Chandravanshi has been targeted for leading the protest movement under Kisan Sangarsh Samiti (KSS) against the construction of Adani – Pench Power Project in Chaunsara village area for the past many years. Construction of 1320 megawatt coal-fired power station in Chaunsara village area has led to forcible land acquisition and water diversion from Pench River endangering the livelihood and common resources of the people. In the past also Mr Sajje Chandravanshi has been harassed by the police. On September 10, 2015 village mahapanchayat (a gathering of a very large number of villagers/local people to discuss) at Mr Sajje Chandravanshi’s house was forcibly stopped and the ‘pandal’ (tent) was dismantled. Police clamped section 144 and also picked up the innocent indigenous tent maker to further dampen the spirit of the people who are bravely fighting against the monstrous multi-national companies in their region.’

Leader of farmers group KSS, Sajje Chandravanshi, in hospital after the attack in November 2015. Courtesy KSS

The Adani Group was approached for comment on this story but failed to respond. In August 2020, it provided comments for an earlier story about its Pench power proposal, but did not address the allegations that assaults had been carried out by ‘company goons’.

Meanwhile, major works on the Pench coal-fired power plant have yet to commence. Adani’s environmental permit for the project expires in October 2022.