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The Pench Conflict: A brave campaigner defies Adani, police and assailants
May 27, 2022
A brave public advocate defies Adani, police and assailants

Aradhana Bhargava, an advocate, has championed the rights of farmers against an Adani coal project for over 10 years.  As a result of her vocal opposition to the proposed Pench coal-power plant, she was allegedly assaulted by ‘company goons’ in July 2011. The police and government have repeatedly tried to intimidate her. But she stands up to them and generally prevails in the courtroom. Serious work has yet to commence on the languishing project. In this interview with AdaniWatch, she speaks in detail on the conflict surrounding the proposed coal-power plant.

The Adani’s Group’s proposed Pench coal-power project in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh (MP) has been embroiled in controversy for over 10 years. The relevant Adani company is Pench Thermal Energy (MP) Ltd, which has government approval to construct a 1320MW coal-power plant in the Chhindwara District. The following story quotes Adv Aradhana Bhargava directly from her interview:

Adani's coal-power plant threatens environment, animals, jobs

'Thermal power plants badly pollute the water of surrounding areas. The Machagora dam, which is adjacent to the plant, supplies drinking and irrigation water to a large area of Chhindwara. The ash from the plant will destroy crops in the surrounding 20 square kilometres. The area will become uncultivable. It will pollute the water in the reservoir and the groundwater. This will adversely affect the health of people, animals and the ecology so most people in the district oppose the plant.

Coal-power plants can badly pollute water supplies and land as well as the air.

'There are 28,000 fishermen in Chhindwara. The discharge of hot water from the plant will kill the ecology of the reservoir and the fish population will perish. Thousands of these illiterate fishermen will become unemployed. 

'A large number of people will be affected. What is the use of such a project? Madhya Pradesh already produces double the electricity that it consumes.' (See the story by AdaniWatch on this.)

'People in rural areas are not well educated. But they are good at farming and animal husbandry. About 75% of the people (in Chhindwara) are engaged in agriculture. There are a lot of tribals in the area. If the (coal-power) plant is built, none of these villagers will be employed there because they can’t do such jobs.'

The Yadav couple, driven to despair and starvation by the loss of their land to Adani's Pench power project (see AdaniWatch interview from July 2021). Image Ankit A.

A vicious assault on dedicated community representatives

'Dr Sunilam and I were attacked (see AdaniWatch story). I was severely wounded and had many stitches on my head. My hand was fractured. But the police charged the culprits with mild offences instead of charging them with attempted murder. They have written one vehicle number on records and changed it four times in court. Their idea is to draw out the cases and keep us silent. The government uses the police force to silence activists like us.'

Aradhana Bhargava and Dr Sunilam after the brutal assaults they suffered in 2011, allegedly at the hands of 'pro-Adani goons'. Image KSS

Intimidation by the police and government

'The British government enacted The Police Act in India in 1861 to suppress the opposition against the regime. It was never amended. Even today, our elected governments use that 1861 law and the police force to threaten people. The government wants to hand over our natural resources to big corporate houses. Those who are opposing it are threatened and intimidated by the police.

'The government has filed 66 legal cases against me. All of them were false cases to intimidate and implicate me. Immediately after my mother’s death, they arrested me from my house and put me in jail. In court, the police said that they arrested me from the dam area.

'I told the court that it is a false allegation and that is why they did not produce me in the court and my signature is not on the documents. The judge said ‘you refused to sign the papers’. I countered that if that was the case, it would have been mentioned in your order. It is not there.

'Then the court gave me bail with the precondition that I should not enter the vicinity of Adani’s power plant or the Machagora dam.

'I went to the National Human Rights Commission, questioning this order. When the commission called for the files of the case against me, all the files vanished! To date, nobody knows how the files disappeared. This is how the administration and the government officers work here.

'They filed cases to intimidate me. They did the same with Sajje Chandravanshi also. (This is in reference to another community advocate who was bashed, again allegedly by company goons.)

Sajje Chandravanshi  in hospital after a brutal assault, allegedly by supporters of Adani's Pench coal-power project in 2015.

'They wanted us to stop speaking against Adani. But every time we could prove our innocence in court and the court freed us. As of today, no legal cases are pending against me and Sajje in any court. Whenever we peacefully protest against Adani, the police detain Sajje and keep him in the police station. This is against our fundamental rights and in complete violation of the law of the land.'

(Story continues below)

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Government mounts court actions against desperate, starving farmers

'On 19 July 2021, the sub-divisional revenue chief of Chaurai issued legal notices to 20 farmers of Hiwarkhedi village, accusing them of trespassing on the land. But the notice did not identify the complainant, who owned the land on which the farmers were alleged to have trespassed, the survey numbers of the land, and so on.

Desperate villagers cultivate the land on the construction site for Adani's Pench power project.

'The farmers filed an appeal against this before the sub-divisional magistrate (SDM) on 20 July and a hearing was scheduled for 10 August 2021. After giving the date for the hearing, the same SDM came and threatened people, asked them to vacate the land, obtained their signatures on blank papers, and said he was seeking an amicable solution. We fail to understand whether this sub-divisional magistrate is a government employee or on Adani’s payroll? As per the rules, the SDM should have measured the land in the farmers’ presence and should have explained to them whose land they had encroached upon. But this government official is working to favour Adani.

'The land was and is in the possession of the farmers. The produce of this land is their means of sustenance. Farmers even procure cattle fodder from the same land. [Over the years] Adani has only built a boundary wall.'

Land grabbed for 'public project' sold to Adani

'In 1988-89, the land was allocated to construct a power plant, a residential colony for the employees of the plant, and an ash pond, according to government documents.

'Even though the Madhya Pradesh Electricity Board acquired the land, it never took possession of the land. The MPEB filed legal cases against the farmers, but it failed to take possession. As of now, the farmers have possession of their land (see parts 1 and 2 of this series). The farmers kept tilling their land and they are doing so even now.

'The government acquired this land for a public-welfare project and later sold it to a private company at a higher price. If the government acquires land from the public, it is illegal for the government to sell the land to a private company for that company to make a profit.'

Adani 'encroaching' on other people's land

'Here the people are innocent. Adani has encroached upon people’s land, not the other way round.

The Adani Group has been accused of 'capturing' land illegally for its Pench coal-power project.

'The Adani Group captured Baij Verma’s land worth millions of rupees without paying him any compensation and constructed multi-storey buildings there. Baij Verma’s son is herding others’ cattle to earn ₹1000 (USD $13.50) a month. 

'Adani had also captured government land, a public thoroughfare, pasture lands and even a burial ground. All this land got registered in Adani’s name on a Sunday night. 

'When Adani captured the government bushland, the then sub-divisional revenue officer of Chaurai ordered the company to vacate the land and demolish the illegally constructed buildings within a month and imposed a fine of ₹600,000 (USD $8075) on the company. Adani influenced the government officials and won the case in court.

'Adani has captured the land of another poor man named Rakesh Verma. Rakesh’s land was never (legally) acquired. Even today, the land records are in his name.

'The Adani Group influenced local politicians and government officials. The farmers did not sell their land to the Adani Group. They don’t know Adani and have nothing to do with him. They were cultivating their land and will continue to do so.'

Backing for Adani's coal project from a major political figure

'The farmers don’t know whether the Adani Group paid the ‘consolation amount’ to the farmers or if someone else did. Our elected representatives, from the smallest local body to the state legislative assembly, spoke to the farmers and said "many of you have lost your crops. So Kamal Nath [then the Member of Parliament representing Chhindwara Constituency] sent one hundred thousand rupees (about $1300) to each for each one of you. You should sign these papers and accept the money." The farmers did. No one from the Adani Group was present.

(Kamal Nath has been a strong supporter of Adani’s Pench power project, particularly during his term as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, as an earlier story by AdaniWatch explains.)

Kamal Nath, former Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh who gave strong backing to Adani's proposed Pench coal-power plant. Image Flickr2

'By giving small sums as consolation amounts, no one can become the owner of the land. Nobody had asked for it but they paid. With such a pittance, nobody can survive for long. If the Adani company had paid this amount, that doesn’t make it the owner of the land. If the Adani company’s intentions were good, it would have made all these agreements in Hindi, not English. Forget English, most of these farmers can’t properly read even Hindi. In that area, there is not a single person who can read English. Knowing all this, why did Adani ask farmers to sign documents written in English?

'This was a conspiracy by the government to support Adani. They were trying to fool the farmers. If it was known to the farmers that Adani was paying them one hundred thousand rupees each for every acre of land, they wouldn’t have accepted it. 

'Most of the people who went there to distribute the money were from the Congress party and all of them were Kamal Nath’s supporters. They told the farmers that the money was sent by Kamal Nath. If it was not, why didn’t someone from the Adani Group go to the farmers and distribute this money?

'In Chhindwara, there is no BJP. Even Congress is irrelevant. It is only Kamal Nath and he is the party and the only leader. The people of Chhindwara say Kamal Nath is ours and Kamal Nath says I belong to the people of Chhindwara. Nobody from here knows Shivraj Singh Chauhan [the state Chief Minister]. His government might have sold the land to Adani. But everyone knows it was Kamal Nath who wanted this project to happen from the start. No BJP representative ever met the farmers regarding this project. It was only Kamal Nath. That is also one reason why farmers believed it was Kamal Nath who was helping them by giving this consolation money for crop loss

'Even when Adani started destroying the standing crops, people called Kamal Nath and his son Nakul Nath. They called all politicians. People agreed to sell the land initially because it was Kamal Nath who asked them. It was said that there will be a power plant built by the government and a member from every affected family will get a job in the plant and the electricity will be sold to them at a nominal price. It was said that it was a project aimed at public welfare.

'Now the land has been sold to an Adani company. We have to look at the intention. Adani is a private businessman. His company will produce electricity and sell it to the government for a profit.'