India Indigenous People Coal
Pench Part 2: Jobless, dispossessed locals take on Adani’s Pench coal-power project in the courts
Jul 06, 2021
Elderly farmers, despairing at loss of farm to the proposed Pench coal-power plant, now an Adani project. Courtesy Ankit A.

A coal-fired power plant that the Adani Group plans to build in central India has provoked political intrigue and violence. In the second instalment of a four-part series, AdaniWatch interviews local farmers who have been left bereft of both land and jobs by the Adani Group’s proposed Pench power plant.  Some of these farmers have been brought to despair by their plight. In response, community members have challenged Adani’s project in India’s Environmental Court. And, more recently, a fresh wave of protest has been initiated by local farmers, some of whom have occupied the site.

In 2010, the Adani Group 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 languished for 20 years, after a state-owned power corporation acquired farmers’ lands but then failed to carry out major construction works. Similarly, apart from some buildings and a boundary wall, Adani has completed no construction works in the 11 years since it took over the project, leaving locals both landless and jobless. AdaniWatch spoke to several people who had their land acquired for the project to better understand their circumstances. The videos were taken by Ankit A in October 2019.

One couple is close to starvation, saying that suicide is their only option unless the land is returned.

Video by Ankit A

In June 2021, dispossessed farmers occupied the construction site of the proposed coal-power plant and began tilling the soil. The land had been acquired from local farmers in the 1980s. Compensation was paid and jobs were promised. Twenty years later, promises were again made to dispossessed families, this time by the Adani Group company that took over the project. But now the farmers say the land has lain derelict for too long. Compensation funds were exhausted long ago and people are struggling to feed themselves and their families. They want Adani to either provide jobs or to return the land. In response to recent protests, officials of the Adani Group company concerned met farmers’ representatives but the conflict remains unresolved.

Background: unfulfilled promises, abandoned project site

In the 1980s, the Madhya Pradesh State Electricity Board (MPSEB) acquired nearly 300 ha of land from farmers by paying Rs.1500 to Rs. 10,000 (US $33 to US $222) per acre in five villages for the project. The government promised the farmers of five villages whose land was earmarked for acquisition that it would build a power plant in three years and provide a job to each family, along with compensation for the land. While it did pay compensatory amounts, once it abandoned the project, the government effectively abandoned the land. Most of the farmers returned and started cultivating the soil and grazing their cattle once again.

Ashok Koreti (59), a resident of Chausra village whose family lost 52 acres of prime farming land to the proposed plant, said ‘a few small buildings were constructed over thirty years ago. They are all dilapidated now. The project got stalled after a couple of years and was abandoned by the electricity department. No one has used those buildings ever since.’

Video by Ankit A

While the project remained abandoned, the families of the farmers grew, a new generation was born in each household, and the entire community remained largely dependent on farming. People whose land had been acquired for the coal-power station have subsequently questioned the amount of compensation and accused the government and Adani of breaking promises to provide employment to displaced locals. Community leaders have argued that it was illegal for the government to sell land acquired for a public purpose to a private developer such as Adani.

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‘They should not believe in the promised land that the Adani company tempts them with.’

After the Adani Group bought the project site from the government power authority, the land was enclosed within a boundary wall. No jobs have materialised yet, though the land has been occupied by the relevant Adani company for over a decade.

‘Ninety percent of the community here is uneducated and depends on farming,’ said Pramod Verma (22), of Hiberkhedi village, whose father’s land was acquired for the project. Verma trained as an electrical engineer and diesel mechanic to work on Adani’s power project but has been left jobless.

Video by Ankit A

Some compensation was given by Adani to the locals for their land. They received approximately Rs 1 lakh per acre (US $1370) for land now within the project site. Locals say that the Adani company promised to build the power plant in 4-5 years and provide a job to a member of each family affected by loss of land.

Balakram Verma lost land to Adani’s proposed power plant but says compensation has been inadequate.

Video by Ankit A

AdaniWatch has obtained a copy of a Hindi agreement reflecting such compensation paid to a local resident named Sukhmati, who received compensation for around nine acres of farmland. For additional land that it purchased through local brokers, Adani paid Rs 5-6 lakh per acre (about US $7500) in line with local market rates, said Kamlesh Chandrawanshi, a resident who has been part of the movement against the project.

Incidentally, the following year, the Madhya Pradesh government declared that for projects where land had been acquired 2-3 decades prior, new licensees such as Adani would have to pay Rs 8 lakh per acre (about US $11,000) as compensation to those whose land had been acquired. Adani, however, did not pay any further compensation to the locals.

In 2013, India legislated a new Land Acquisition law, which declared that land acquired for a project that was not completed in five years was to be returned to the landholders. It has been well over five years since the Adani Group took over the project, and over 30 years since the land was originally acquired, and the locals remain without land or employment.

Dispossessed farmers told AdaniWatch that the compensation money that they received from the company ran out very quickly. Some had had medical expenses; some saw the amounts divided among large families. There was no way it could last any of them more than a few years. Soon the amounts dwindled, and the former landowners were left helpless, with no employment and no land to farm. Those who are able now work as daily-wage labourers, toiling on others’ farms or on construction projects. Several said they have trouble finding work, often spending days at a time without any work (and therefore without pay).

The Prasad couple lost their 18-acre farm to Adani’s proposed power plant and now have no means of making a living.

Video by Ankit A

Locals challenge Adani’s Pench coal-power project in the courts

The community in the Chhindwara area has not been passively accepting the imposition of a large, polluting power plant and the associated land acquisitions. Along with the protest movements described in part 1 of this series, court actions have been mounted.

Abhay Lal Koreti, 49, is fighting Adani’s proposed Pench coal-power plant in India’s national environmental court.

Video by Ankit A

In February 2013, community representatives and campaigners led by the likes of Medha Patkar and Advocate Aradhana Bhargav challenged the project in the National Green Tribunal (NGT) – India’s environment court. They alleged that Adani Pench Power obtained its environmental approval through ‘falsification, concealment and misrepresentation of facts and information’ and that the Ministry of Environment and Forests ‘overlooked the blatant violations of the EIA Notification 2006 at nearly every stage’ while granting it. They also alleged that the Adani Group company had violated various provisions of the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. For instance, public hearings mandated under the rules for conducting Environment Impact Assessments were not conducted in accordance with the law, and that the Ministry had failed to consider the likely impact on the ecology of the area.

The petition further pointed out that potential impacts of the project on the Pench Tiger Reserve, and a tiger corridor between the Kanha Tiger Reserve and Balaghat Forests, had not been addressed by committees involving local people that are legally mandated under the relevant legislation. The petitioners further alleged that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report submitted by the Adani Group company prioritised the group’s business interests over consideration of the likely impact of the project on the area’s ecology.

Another allegation was that the compensation to farmers for loss of their land was not adequate and that commitments made 25 years earlier – including employment for displaced farmers, electricity at a concessional rate, right-of-way for villagers whose land was adjacent to the boundary-wall of the project site, and development of a school and hospital for villagers – had not been delivered.

The fertile land within Adani's boundary wall - a massive coal-power plant is planned here. Image Ankit A.

A Fresh Wave of Protest

In December 2018, the government changed in Madhya Pradesh. The government led by the BJP since 2003 was defeated in state elections by the Indian National Congress. Kamal Nath, a senior leader of the Congress who is from Chhindwara and had earlier been elected to Parliament from that constituency, became the Chief Minister of the state.

Badgu Verma, 65, calls on leading politicians to support people displaced by the power project.

Video by Ankit A

‘While campaigning, Kamal Nath came and told us that the plant will be completed soon and we will be given jobs,’ said Kamlesh Chandrawanshi, speaking to AdaniWatch in April 2021. However, despite strenuous efforts by the Kamal Nath government (as AdaniWatch can exclusively reveal in forthcoming instalments of this series), the project remained in limbo. In March 2020, the Kamal Nath government lost its majority in the state assembly and the BJP took over once more.

Following this, the residents of the five villages who had had their land acquired started a fresh agitation. This resulted in a meeting of the farmers with Adani’s officials in February 2021, recounted here by Chandrawanshi.

‘Just before the Kamal Nath government was formed, we were given an assurance by him that the plant will be built soon. This was the promise on which he won the election. But after the election, he forgot the issue. At the time, we spoke to a local Congress leader – Amit Saxena. We told him either get the plant built or return the land. He said it would take some time and he would consult with Adani and get back to us. After speaking to them, he said, he would have to talk to Kamal Nath. Then we don't know whether he spoke to him or not,’ he said.

Staff quarters constructed on the Pench site in the 1990s, now derelict. Image Ankit A.

‘We saw that these leaders were not being honest, so we organised ourselves around the slogan of famer unity. There was a two-day protest by the farmers of the five villages from whom land was acquired, then after various rounds of meetings and negotiations we ended up speaking directly to the representatives of the company. We hadn't called any of the political leaders to this meeting but Amit Saxena called us and joined the meeting as well. An Adani executive from Bhopal attended the meeting with us. This was on 24 February 2021. The district administration was present at the meeting as well.

‘We told the company representatives the same thing that we have been telling the authorities. We have been lied to for 32 years that a plant is going to be built. Our land has been taken away from us for the past ten years. False promises of giving us jobs were made. But none of it has materialised. People here are dying of hunger. There is no employment available, nor can they farm since their land has been taken away. Even the company has been lying to us and has not been able to build the plant. So we said we must be given the land back. We are farmers and we will be able to get back on our feet by farming the land. When you are able to build the plant, then we will give up the land for the jobs that you promised. We had already agreed and given the land to build a plant earlier. We don't mind, but this impasse has to end.

A villager takes his animals to graze on land planned for the Pench coal-power plant.  Image Ankit A.

‘They said the plant will be made by 2025, but we called it out as a lie and demanded our land back. They have repeatedly been saying such things to us and not made progress. What are we supposed to do till then?

‘The company has captured close to 800-850 acres of land. Along with the original 750 acres, it bought more land in the name of local brokers and agents at the time [around a decade ago] that it has captured into its project site within the boundary wall. The company paid Rs. 5-6 lakh per acre [about US $7500] as per the going rate at the time. This is at the same time that the company paid Rs. 1 lakh per acre as compensation to the project-affected people.

‘At the meeting the company executive said we would have to wait till 2025. We asked what are we supposed to do? In between this, the political leaders who were present spoke up, led by Amit Saxena, and tried to mediate. But we refused to accept any of the company's promises and demanded that some solution should be found. We had gone with Amit Saxena because he was the one who had managed to get us Rs 1 lakh per acre [US $1370] compensation initially at the time when Adani had first acquired the land. But we were not ready to make a compromise with the company.

‘It had already been a few hours and the people present were getting agitated and wanted to go and stage a protest at the project site itself, occupying the land. At that juncture it was decided on the company official's request that we would give them a month's time and a meeting was set for the following month. However, by then lockdowns had started due to the second wave of the covid pandemic and the meeting still hasn't taken place.’

Long-term campaigners against the Pench project, however, were unimpressed with these negotiations. Advocate Aradhana Bhargava and Sajje Chandravanshi expressed scepticism at any fruitful outcome being achieved for the farmers through such meetings mediated by Congress leaders such as Saxena.

‘We don’t believe in any meetings with the company officials. Some of the people had gone to a meeting which was attended by the company executives and its local brokers but nothing came of it.’

‘He hasn’t lost any of his own land’ Bhargava said of Congress politician Saxena. ‘The majority of the people are with us and stand completely against the project coming up. We want that the land must be returned,’ she concluded, emphatically.

Construction of Pench power plant yet to begin

In 2016, the dam on the Pench River was completed, fully submerging six villages and adversely affecting another 25. But when it comes to the proposed coal-fired power plant, Adani has managed only to build a boundary wall and some administrative buildings. The land on which the project is to be established remains largely undisturbed. In its six-monthly compliance reports filed with the Environment Ministry, the company repeated the same explanation on every occasion, that ‘financial closure is yet to be achieved and thermal power plant construction work is yet to start.’

Inside Adani's Pench boundary wall - fallow land. Outside the wall - thriving crops. Image Ankit A.

Adani has told community representatives that major works will start soon and that the power plant will be up and running by 2025. But with the reputation of Adani’s Pench proposal tarnished by the brutal assaults on local community leaders, with local protesters demanding the land back, with litigation pending in India’s environmental court and Supreme Court, and with the coal industry under pressure in India, it is possible that major works on the Pench power station will never get underway.