Savita is a Community Correspondent and human rights activist from Raigarh, Chhattisgarh. It was in the year 1993, when she was only 16 years old, that she started engaging with social movements and issues. She had to face resistance from her family but she was determined to participate in the regional human rights movements. “My first engagement was with the…
“Toot gaya bhai toot gaya, koila kanoon toot gaya” (It’s broken, it’s broken, the coal laws have been broken). The atmosphere was ripe with a sense of anticipation as the residents of Gare Village, Chhattisgarh joined forces with their neighbours from 13 other villages and took out a rally. Their demand was straightforward: “We will no longer let any private company take away our coal from us.”
In a moment that invoked Gandhi’s Dandi March, the villagers walked to the Gare Open Coal Mines and started digging coal. This was only the first step. The larger plan of the movement is to take back control of its own land and coal resources and set up a co-operative mining society.
The Chhattisgarh government’s estimates that the state has 16% of the total coal deposits in India and contributes over 18% to the national production—the second highest in the country. Most of the coal deposits in the state are of power grade coal. When coal mining operations and power plants are set up, they come with the usual promises of better lives for the residents of the area. More often than not this better life remains an illusion.
Gare is to be home to a new coal based power plant but the villagers of the area are vociferous in their protest. Since 2008, they have been at loggerheads with Jindal Steel and Power Ltd. that has repeatedly flouted laws to get the project on the way.
On 5th January 2008 there was a jan sunvai (public hearing) as is mandatory before projects of this nature are set up. The hearing was scheduled at an area that could not be reached by most residents. Those who did show up to protest the farce of the hearing were threatened and injured in a lathi charge.
“There were cops all over the place. Tight security. 120 people were injured that day… That was it for us, we decided that no matter what, we will not give our land to Jindal,” Says Savita Rath, IndiaUnheard correspondent who produced a video of the people’s movement.
In the course of their resistance there have been some small victories. The National Green Tribunal reviewed all the material present before it and examined the public hearing video of 05 January 2008. And on 20 April this year said, “The public hearing was a farce. The process which should have been followed was overlooked.”
The people of Gare are sure that they will never see the benefits of the power plant that JSPL plans to set up. Instead of allowing private companies to mine coal in the area, they propose to set up a co-operation of 13 villages, which will carry out mining activities. They say that the government can easily pump in the money they give to large corporations to the villagers who can then create jobs and get coal benefitting the villagers. Savita estimates that one acre of land can yield 80 lakh tonnes of coal. “The government gets a royalty of Rs.50 from a private plant but we are willing to pay Rs.500. We are not in this for personal benefit,” she says.
The villagers are determined to not let their land go to ruins. While they agree that the production from their co-operation may not match the scale of a larger Jindal or TATA, it will be a more responsible endeavour in that it will benefit the community and will not be wasteful.
“We wont take an entire village and start mining on it. We will only take small areas of the land, exhaust the resources on it and then move on to the next section,” Savita explains.
The logic behind this is clear. The inhabitants of the coal-rich soil are farmer and depend on that land for their daily bread. I recent times, they have had to give up this land to private mining companies and settle for infertile land or very little money.
“They have to listen to us. If they wont listen to us now while we are peaceful, we’ll shout till we are heard.”
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