Orchardists in West Bengal have tackled an Adani company in court, arguing that the installation of a high-voltage transmission line last year destroyed hundreds of fruit trees. Compensation has either been inadequate or non-existent, they say. When the transmission line was pushed through, state police assaulted and injured the protesting orchardists. Legal counsel for the orchardists say that laws were broken by the police and the Adani company concerned, and that the state government of the Trinamool Congress is at least partially responsible for the brutal attacks (including on women and children). The local state member of Parliament told AdaniWatch he was too busy to comment on these incidents. The transmission line takes electricity from Adani’s Godda coal-power station (a destination for coal from Australia’s Carmichael mine) to Bangladesh.
A mere fourteen months ago, 250 hectares of orchards at Farakka in northern West Bengal, on the bank of the Ganges River next to India’s border with Bangladesh, were lush with greenery. That landscape has now been reduced to a heap of desiccated carcasses of mango, lychee and mahogany trees. The culprit is a high-tension electricity transmission line carrying power from Adani’s Godda coal-power plant to Bangladesh.
The orchards are in 10-12 localities in the administrative areas of Beniagram, Imamnagar and Ballalpur Jafarganj. They are now fragmented by the transmission line. Trees which provided flowers, fruit, nutrition, oxygen, greenery and livelihoods have been lying dead for the last fourteen months. Two ultra-supercritical coal-power units of 800 MW each have been built at Godda in the neighbouring state of Jharkhand. Adani Power Limited has been supplying 400kV electricity over Farakka to the power grid in Rangpur, Bangladesh. On the basis of the agreement between the government of Bangladesh and APJL, approximately 150 km of transmission line have been established.
The unequal battle between Adani Power (Jharkhand) Limited (APJL) and the fruit farmers of Farakka shows no signs of abating. The destruction is incomplete. Many more fruit-bearing trees are marked for felling at a time of the Adani company’s choosing. It is as if the death sentence has been issued, and one is merely waiting for the executioners to do their job. As the farmers watch their doomed trees and wait, their situation becomes more desperate.
The farmers allege that, in the run-up to the destruction of the orchards in July 2022, their objections were ignored, laws were infringed, and the Supreme Court’s rulings regarding conservation of the environment were violated. Overwhelming force by the police was unleashed to force residents out of the area and quell all resistance.
These farmers depended on mango, lychee and mahogany orchards for their livelihoods. They have no other resources. The 400kV high-tension wires extend over 13 kilometres in this area, putting many orchards and residences at risk. The farmers in distress, after appealing in vain to various sections of the government, have now turned to the High Court in Kolkata for justice.
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Two public-interest cases filed by a total of 253 persons from Farakka are currently being heard by the division bench of Chief Justice T.S. Sivaganan and Justice Hiranmay Bhattacharyya of Calcutta High Court. On 1 February 2023, Public Interest Case No. WPA (P) 38/23 was filed by Rafiqul Momin, Zobair Ali and 35 other farmers of Gholakandi village, along with the Association for Protection of Democratic Rights (APDR) and its General Secretary Ranajit Sur. Jhuma Sen is the legal counsel handling this case.
A month later, on 27 February 2023, the lawyer Shamim Ahmed filed another public-interest case, No. 99/23, on behalf of 216 affected farmers, including Muktaar Sheikh, Saibur Sheikh, Taimur Rahaman and Asafuddoulah. Gulshanwara Parveen, a junior counsel assisting Shamim Ahmed, told this reporter that the division bench has decided to hear these cases together, since they largely raise the same concerns. The last substantive hearing in the case took place on 29 August, when the court was informed that APJL has filed a written response, and the central government, represented by the Additional Solicitor General, sought time to file its response. Since then, the case has been adjourned on six subsequent dates of hearing, the last of these being 9 October.
After appealing to the government at various levels but receiving no relief, Lutfar Rahman, a septuagenarian orchardist of Dadantola village, filed a writ petition at Calcutta High Court on 18 May 2022, Case No. 9159/22, seeking removal of the dangerous high-tension wires that APJL has laid over fertile orchards and populated residential areas, and demanding suitable compensation for the damage caused. Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya, on 5 July 2022, issued an order directing the District Magistrate (DM) of the Murshidabad district to consult all stakeholders and to arrange for the disbursal of adequate compensation within eight weeks. After issuing this order, he closed the case.
Lutfar Rahman’s counsel Ziaul Ali Khan said, ‘the DM chose 25 July and 2 August 2022 as the dates for meetings at which the issue of compensation would be discussed and settled. The first session was scuttled without any resolution. The DM convened a second meeting on 2 August, but he himself failed to attend it.’
‘As a consequence,’ Ziaul continued, ‘neither APJL nor the DM ever issued a concrete, reasoned decision regarding the compensation amount to be paid to Lutfar Rahman.’
Following Lutfar’s example, a total of 34 affected farmers from Dadantola village, including Zobair Ali and Rafiqul Momin, filed another writ petition on 25 August 2022 at Calcutta High Court, seeking the same relief. In this case, Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharyya issued an identical verdict. Zobair Ali said ‘the DM has yet to implement that verdict’.
Lutfar Rahman approached the court again on 30 November 2022, filing a writ petition before Justice Shubhra Roy’s bench at Calcutta High Court, Case No. 26565/22. This second approach was made because on 20 August 2022, at long last, the Farakka BDO (Block Development Officer) handed Lutfar a compensation order signed by the DM, dated 5 August 2022, in which he was granted Rs 400,000 (US $4800).
Lutfar comments: ‘Without giving me a chance to speak, the DM has arrived at the figure of Rs 400,000 as the purported value of my mango, lychee and mahogany orchards along with the price of the land, which in reality would have been closer to Rs 40,000,000 (US $480,000). Even the market price of the forcibly felled trees as timber is over Rs 2,000,000. I have therefore rejected this unfair compensation and have filed a petition in which I seek cancellation of this illegitimate order and a fresh hearing. I submitted this petition at the DM’s office over a year ago, on 26 August 2022. But the DM has not yet responded.’
Understandably tired by this unequal battle, the septuagenarian Lutfar Rahman is frustrated and deeply disappointed.
On 27 September, the Calcutta High Court’s Justice Sabyasachi Bhattacharya set aside the 5 August 2022 compensation order by the DM, accepting Rahman’s argument that he had not been heard before determining the amount. The judge’s order notes that the local administration’s survey report and APJL’s written submissions, which had both been taken into consideration to determine the compensation amount, had not been served on Rahman, and he had thus been unable to respond to them. The judge ordered that the DM reconsider the matter and provide Rahman with the survey report, APJL’s written response, and any other documents on which the DM will rely, well before scheduling a hearing where Rahman can appear and make his case. However, the case was decided merely on procedural grounds, due to Rahman not having been heard. The judge made sure to note in his order that the Court did not go into the merits of either side’s case, and that Rahman’s allegations cannot be deemed to have been admitted.
This is not the end of these cases. The orchard owners allege that, in order to deal with their total unwillingness to part with their orchards, the police, acting apparently on behalf of APJL, assaulted the villagers, not sparing the women and children, forcibly evicting nearly the entire population of the orchard-adjacent villages, and felling the trees. Even after 14 months, they claim, they have not been given fair compensation. On the contrary, they allege, three separate criminal cases have been slapped on them, in which a total of 80 farmers stand accused. The allegations against them, they say, are false.
Referring to one of the complainants in these alleged false cases, the counsel Ziaul Ali said ‘Yasin Ali of Dadantola was forced by the police,’ Counsel Ziaul Ali said, ‘to initiate the first false case against some of the agitating farmers on 14 April 2022 [Farakka PS Case No. 119/23].
‘The APJL project in-charge Sourabh Modi filed the second false case against another set of agitating farmers on 3 June 2022 [PS Case No. 177/22]. One month later, the police force itself, on 3 July 2022, filed a third false case against many agitating villagers [Farakka PS Case No. 212/231].’
Yasin Ali later filed an affidavit in court to the effect that he and Lutfar Rahman had arrived at an out-of-court settlement. Salma Farida, sub-inspector at Farakka PS, claimed, in the suo moto case she filed, that the agitators had attacked the Block Development Officer of Farakka PS and the police force led by the IC (inspector in charge), injuring several police officers. The APJL project manager Sourabh Modi claimed, in his FIR, that the accused had tried to murder him and his staff with scythes and had robbed them of Rs 50,000 (US $600).
Apart from the allegations and counter-allegations, one pertinent fact stands out: after being arrested, released on bail and repeatedly forced to show up at the police station, the affected farmers are now compelled to be present at court on the dates chosen for the hearings. For ten months, twice a month, they have been forced to set aside the work of earning their daily bread and wait at the police station all day long. Whenever there is a date set for a hearing, they have to travel 60 km to reach the Jangipur subdivision court and wait there.
When locals resisted, police attacked
The Farakka PS area is situated in the Murshidabad district in West Bengal, adjoining the district of Malda, and the state of Jharkhand. Close to Bangladesh, in 12 villages near the banks of the Ganges, mangoes and lychees have been grown on a large scale for more than 100 years. It had been a lucrative enterprise. In early 2022, however, these orchards were visited by some unfamiliar men. The farmers later learnt that these men were APJL officers.
APJL allegedly offered to buy the orchards for a song; otherwise the 400kV transmission line would be pushed through by force. It was clear that 250 ha of orchard land would be destroyed, many trees would be felled, the electromagnetic field of the wires would have impacts, the environment would be endangered, and local livelihoods jeopardised. These anxieties prompted the orchard owners to file a petition at Farakka PS in January 2022. Later, mass representations were made to the government of West Bengal at several levels.
Certain farmers who were illiterate in Hindi were allegedly forced by threats and disinformation to affix their thumb impressions or their signatures on APJL documents in Hindi. APJL’s staff then began to build a tower in preparation for the installation of the 400kV high-tension wires. A resistance organisation was formed, the ‘Jomi Jibon Jibikaa Prokriti Luth Birodhi Janoganer Committee’ (People’s Committee Against the Plunder of Land, Life, Livelihood and Nature). Lutfar Rahman and Zobair Ali of Ghola Kandi were joint convenors. Under this committee’s leadership, the orchards were guarded day and night, and non-stop sit-ins were held in the orchards. The farmers submitted several memoranda to the Chief Minister, the DM, the Farakka BDO and IC, requesting them to arrange for these trees to be spared and for an alternative route to be used for the transmission line. The appeals were rejected.
On 2 July 2022 a huge police force, led by the IC of Farakka PS, Debabrata Chakrabarti, and the BDO Junaid Ahmad, took up positions surrounding several villages and orchards. There was a clash between the police and the farmers who had been patrolling and taking part in the demonstrations. Many people on both sides were injured. The ferocious police action decimated the resistance movement. Many of the terrified villagers left the area and sought refuge elsewhere. Taking advantage of their distress, with a huge police contingent present, men hired by APJL kept generators running and worked day and night to install the transmission line.
The single-storey house of Asgar Ali, a daily wage labourer from Dadantola, lies on a small plot of about 375 square metres within one of these orchards. It cost him a great deal to build this house, his family’s only asset. The house is five metres high. The 400kV high-tension wire has been installed about 10 metres above the house’s roof.
‘Because of the extremely high electromagnetic field of the transmission line’, said Ali, ‘we are unable to put our clothes out to dry. My wife and I have four children. Getting a second storey added to this house is now out of the question.’
This is why Ali’s wife, Shefali Bibi, and her family joined the resistance movement. When the police launched their attack on 2 July, 10 women from neighbouring families escaped and took refuge in Shefali’s home. Shefali said, ‘a police force led by the IC invaded our house, smashed our door, started beating me and the ten other women, and took us to the police station. The beating left me black and blue. I was unable to do any domestic work for two months. The police even beat up my twelve-year-old child.’
In Dadantola village, Abdul Qadir has a household of six people, including his paralysed mother. Four mango trees have been felled from his two orchards situated between two towers. Further trees have been marked for later felling.
Abdul Qadir’s wife Shamiyara Khatun showed us her right hand and said, ‘the policemen beat me up and broke my hand. My mother-in-law is completely paralysed. I have to bathe her, move her in and out of bed, turn her over. After the police broke my right hand, I too have become more or less disabled. The Adani company cut the trees in our orchards and the police broke my hand.’
Rezaul Momin of Gholakandi village is another affected farmer who was involved in the demonstrations. His wife, Shabana Khatun, told AdaniWatch ‘now that they have cleared the orchards, people here are having trouble making ends meet. I can’t even roll bidis [a local cigarette rolled in betel leaves; rolling bidis for sale is often an economic activity of last resort in rural India, particularly for women] and earn the bare minimum I need to feed my children. The police beating has left my fingers injured. It is hard for me to tie the bidis’.
Roushanara Bibi (55) and many others have similar stories to tell. Roushanara tells us ‘that afternoon, the police beat and arrested eleven women from Shefali’s house and six women from other places, seventeen women in all. We were kept in the lock-up, without any medical aid, until 12.30 am that night.’
They were later released from lock-up on bail and required to appear at the station for four days in a row immediately after their release.
Since April 2023, Adani’s Godda coal-power plant has been supplying electricity to Bangladesh at half the wattage specified in its agreement. Even this magnitude, say the orchardists, is causing the lychees to shrink and to lose their flavour. They say that farmers whose orchards have remained unaffected are earning Rs 35,000 to 45,000 per lychee tree (around US $500). Orchard farmer Rafiqul Islam tells us, ‘when it rains, we normally go to the orchards with an umbrella; placing a tester on the umbrella rod shows that we are running the risk of being electrocuted.’
Spraying of chemical-fertilisers and pesticides is carried out to increase the productivity of the lychee and mango trees. Such work involves climbing the trees. Lutfar Rahaman says, ‘even at the current wattage level, there are electric shocks. Once the full wattage is reached, nobody will be able to climb a single tree.’
As losses mount, farmers become migrant workers
Meanwhile, the felling of many trees and the marking of other trees for later felling has left the lives and livelihoods of over 10,000 people in the area in serious jeopardy. Rezaul Momin of Gholakandi village used to own 23 trees in all – 18 lychee trees and five mango trees. They have lost eight trees to the hatchets, and the 15 that remain have been marked for later felling. Their household comprises 19 people, including his brother, mother, wife and children.
‘The orchard used to keep us afloat,’ said Rezaul. ‘That is now out of the question. Earlier this year, a cousin of mine and I started as construction workers in Chennai.’
Many other orchard owners have also been forced to become itinerant migrant labourers.
In his 173-page petition submitted to Calcutta High Court, counsel Shamim Ahmed writes, ‘on 2 July 2022, the IC-led police supposedly working for the state government abandoned their legal and constitutional responsibilities and duties and turned into APJL’s private armed guards. The BDO and the IC played the role of the Adani company’s agents and put pressure on farmers to sell off their orchards.’
In the petition, Ahmed says, ‘the orchards were cleared by force, and men worked round the clock to lay the wires. In order to legitimise these illegal actions, the BDO and the police officers forced farmers to sign on APJL letterhead pads.’
The multiplicity of organisations trying to help the affected farmers in Farakka led to the agitation losing steam. This was the reason that the APDR took an initiative to revive the movement. The People’s Committee called for demonstrations, deputations and a public gathering on 14 February 2023. Prior permission was obtained from the BDO for these actions. Despite this permission, from the night of 13 February onwards, the entire area was besieged by police. Policemen went from door to door, warning residents that they would face dire consequences if they came out of their homes. According to many of the affected people, this situation was worse than an officially-declared Emergency or a curfew. There was a cemetery-like silence over the area at dawn on 14 February. Roads that were supposed to be filled with demonstrators chanting slogans were deserted. It was not possible to carry out the planned (and officially permitted) demonstrations, deputations and public gathering. While the villagers tell me this, they cast terrified glances in every direction. They are sure that undercover spies working for the police or for the Adani company are lurking nearby, ready to alert the Gestapo-like forces in Farakka that trouble is brewing again.
Approached by telephone for a response to the allegations against him, the IC Debabrata Chakrabarti listened to the allegations and hung up without saying anything.
In the cases filed at the High Court and in other contexts it has been alleged that the bruising assaults committed on the orchard farmers were made possible by help from the ruling party in the state of West Bengal (the Trinamool Congress) and the police. In response to this, Manirul Islam, the Farakka MLA who belongs to the TMC, said, ‘the work of setting up panchayat boards is keeping me busy. I have no time right now to think about other issues.’ (AdaniWatch has previously reported on the friendly relationship between the West Bengal Trinamool Congress and Gautam Adani)
Referring to a report by an expert committee filed at the Supreme Court in connection with a 2015 case, Shamim Ahmed said at the Calcutta High Court, ‘a single fruit-bearing tree costs at least Rs 745,000. Half of the 216 farmers on the High Court’s list have received no compensation at all. At what rate have the other half been compensated?’
Motajul Huq lost nine mango trees to the felling operation. He claims that he is owed Rs 13,410,000 for the trees plus the land (US $161,000). But he was paid only Rs 100,000 (US $1200). Shamsunnehar Bibi says that nine mango trees were felled in her orchard, so her loss also amounts to 13,410,000. She has been paid only Rs 320,000 (US $3800) by way of compensation. Of the 35 affected farmers in another case, not a single one has received a penny. That list includes Zobair Ali, whose orchard used to have 27 mango trees and eight lychee trees. Of these, 16 mango trees and four lychee trees have been felled. APJL’s men have marked the 15 remaining trees for felling. Zobair says, ‘I have not received a single rupee.’ The 34 other petitioners have a similar story to tell.
On seeing the plight of these orchard farmers due to the actions of the Adani Group and government forces, many human-rights organisations, farmers’ organisations, political parties and lawyers made a beeline for Farakka. Right now, the affected farmers are unable to find them.
A petition filed at Calcutta High Court by Jhuma Sen, counsel representing Ranajit Sur (general secretary of APDR) names the state government, the central government, Adani Power Limited, and others in a total of 11 respondents. This 200-page petition alleges that high-tension wires have been drawn by force over mango and lychee orchards destroyed in violation of the 1885 Telegraph Act, the 2003 Electricity Act, the 2006 Trees Act of the state government, the 2015 directives issued by Power Ministry of the central government, and several other laws and regulations. It is alleged that the trees were destroyed without any prior agreement with the owners and without paying compensation.
In his public-interest petition filed at Calcutta High Court, Ranajit Sur says, ‘if, following the first plan, the wires had been taken 25 km away from the current route, such massive devastation could have been avoided. This project has been pursued in violation of state and central laws and all pertinent rulings of the Supreme Court. This anti-people and illegal project must be cancelled. Furthermore, compensation must be paid in accordance with Supreme Court guidelines.’ He has made several additional demands along similar lines.
The author is an independent journalist in West Bengal. Translated from the Bangla by Abir Dasgupta.