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Retired schoolteacher takes Adani to court over land grab at Godda
Jul 13, 2022
A gentle retired schoolteacher who believes in Ghandian principles is taking on Adani's colossal Godda coal-power project in the courts. Chintamani Sahu believes the land acquisition was carried out in an illegal and thuggish manner. Image the author

Chintamani Sahu, 72, is spearheading a legal challenge to the Adani Group’s massive coal-power station at Godda. Having refused to surrender the land on which his ashram stands, he has led a group of refuseniks to file a case at the state’s High Court. They argue that the acquisition of land for the project was illegally carried out. Today, as the power plant’s skeleton hulks over his ashram, and the government stalls the case, Sahu is undeterred.

Above, Sahu stands on the terrace of his Ashram at Motiya village. Adani’s Godda power plant is taking shape in the background.

‘I am a Gandhian. I believe in truth and non-violence,’ says Chintamani Sahu, 72. A retired schoolteacher, Sahu lives in Motiya village, a few kilometres from Godda city in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. He owns a small plot of land where alongside his home and small farm stands an ashram. He has also obtained a masters degree in Gandhian Philosophy from the Bhagalpur University.

Multi-billionaire coal baron, Gautam Adani, and his wife, Priti, visit the controversial and destructive Godda coal-power project in January 2021.

Sahu has been forced to wield Gandhian weapons of truth and non-violence against a 1600 MW coal-power station that the Adani Group is building across the road from his ashram. Adani sought to acquire his land, but Sahu declined to part with it.

He holds that the land acquisition for the project is entirely illegal. First, he says, the land was acquired under the pretext that it is for a ‘public purpose’. The power plant, however, will supply electricity to Bangladesh, using coal mined by Adani in Australia. No power from the plant will be provided to Indian people, so the public purpose served is unclear.

An example of the lush, fertile farmland that has been destroyed by Adani's Godda coal-power project. This photo was taken literally just over the fence from the construction site, next to the tidy village of Gangta. Image Geoff Law

Second, he says, there were numerous procedural violations in the process of land acquisition, and the resistance by the local people was met with police violence.

Finally, he says, the land of the entire area is protected by a law designed to prevent expropriation of Adivasi (indigenous tribal) land by non-tribals, and this law has been violated in acquiring land for the power project.

Sahu, along with seventeen other co-petitioners, has approached the Jharkhand High Court in the state capital, Ranchi, with these arguments in a writ petition.

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‘There have only been a couple of hearings at the High Court,’ Sahu said. ‘Then another hearing was fixed for after the government response, but no response has arrived in over two years. Initially the case stalled because of covid, but even after the second wave of covid passed, the government still hasn’t responded. I am ready to argue in court even by myself but the case is stalled as there is no response from the government.’

Yet he remains hopeful.

The gargantuan skeleton of the Godda coal-power project as seen from Sahu's ashram in February 2020. Image Geoff Law

‘I believe in the court,’ he says. ‘This country has the rule of law and a constitution. We will get justice eventually.

‘We don’t believe in governments and politicians so much. It is the government that has brought the Adani Group here to set up this project. There was no good reason for it, but the government claimed it is for a “public purpose”. Jharkhand’s own electricity policy was violated. Land-acquisition laws and procedures were violated. The district administration worked hand in hand with the company to rig the public hearings. There was violence against those of us resisting land acquisition. So we don’t believe in the government so much, but we believe in the courts. That is why we are fighting before the courts in the first place.’

As a legal petitioner, Sahu keeps his distance from political movements led by campaigners but he sees their value.

‘The people can only conduct a movement to raise awareness and try and persuade the government about the issue. The movement’s job is to raise an issue non-violently before the government. A lot can happen through a movement.’

The grotesque impact of Adani's sprawling Godda coal-power plant on a once fertile, populated landscape. Sahu's ashram is towards the top of the image. Picture by Google

During a recent convention at Godda that heralded a new beginning for the movement against the violations caused by the Godda power project, Sahu says ‘this is a hopeful development. Previous attempts at movements failed because governments at the state and the centre both supported the project. They (those running the movement) would have to see if this has changed with the new government in the state that has been in power since the end of 2019.’

‘However, I am on the legal side of the issue,’ Sahu continues. ‘I am in the legal track. As a Gandhian, I have certain ethics regarding activism and movements. When I am before the court, it would not be correct for me to also run a public campaign on the subject. I have approached the court. Let the court decide the matter. When the government didn’t listen to my grievances regarding my land being proposed to be acquired, I approached the court, and I believe in the court. If others in the area are running a movement on the same subject, I hope their methods achieve their goals.’

Yet his goals are not different.

‘Our victory is if the work on the project stops and the land is returned to the farmers. If the court orders a stay on the work on the project, that would be our first step to victory,’ he says.

Sahu recently lost a friend and co-petitioner. Ramjivan Paswan, whom Adaniwatch met in 2020, passed away in July 2021.

Ramjivan Paswan (centre), a stalwart in the campaign against the Godda coal-power project, died in July 2021. Image Geoff Law

‘While he was alive, Ramjivan Paswan was my co-petitioner and we worked together on this case,’ says Sahu. ‘His was the first name in our petition. His death affected me terribly – he was my friend. Circumstances brought us together in this fight. His loss was a big one. We were the two bulls pulling this bullock cart and now I am alone. Obviously, I am weakened.’

Breaking down, Sahu elaborated emotionally, ‘this (lawsuit) has become my life’s work. This is my last struggle. I am 72 now though I still feel young and ready to fight. The day the project ends and the land is returned to farmers, I can take my last breath. I have a lot of love for the people of this region. I set up an ashram for this area two years before the company came here. It was my effort at service to the people of my homeland after my retirement. This is what I wanted to do until the end of my life. It is this ashram that the project wants to acquire. I have nothing against electricity or against Adani. I don’t want my life’s work destroyed.’

He has asserted his Gandhian ethics even at the most critical moments.

‘When the police assaulted the local people here during the protests, the local residents prepared themselves to fight back and assault the police in response’, he recounts. ‘At that time, I stopped them. I told the policemen to run and save themselves. These are the same police officers who had been violent towards me too.’

Sahu is a hero for his neighbours.

‘I have told the people here that I might even be killed also because of this struggle,’ he says. “I have told them that even if this happens just carry the struggle forward. Don’t do any politics over it. I am not afraid to die. Once, when some outsiders’ vehicles had come near my ashram, all the people of the village had rushed to check on me in the middle of the night. That is the trust and love towards me that I experience from the community. I have been a teacher here. This is why I wanted to give back. That is why I built the ashram.

Now this struggle is my way to give back.’

The author is an independent journalist.