Local police opened-fire at a gathering of 1500 people protesting the construction of the Kanhar Dam at 7 am on 14th April. Residents of the area, a majority of whom are tribals and Dalits, have been at loggerheads with the administration since 1973 when the Dam was originally conceived as an irrigation project. They feel that they have been repeatedly cheated out of proper rehabilitation and resettlement by the government. Akkukharwar from Sundari village, a tribal leader of the movement, took a bullet and several others were grievously injured. It was a travesty as protestors stood their ground, holding photos of B.R. Ambedkar as they were commemorating ‘Save the Constitution Day’ on his 125thbirth anniversary.
After an initial round of land acquisition between 1979 and 1982 the project failed to take off and was completely abandoned by 1989. Even though many gave up their land right in that period, they were never rehabilitated to a new area and so continued to live there. There were failed attempts to restart the project in 2011 and 2012, but the construction work suddenly resumed on 5th December 2014 despite the fact that there were no fresh social and environmental impact assessments (EIA) in place.
Since then, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) has issued a stay order on any further construction until a fresh round of EIA and clearances are sought. The order came on 24th December 2014 after concerned activists from Vindhya Bachao and People’s Union for Civil Liberties filed a petition pointing out that the Uttar Pradesh Government’s actions are technically illegal. Over February and March 2015 the NGT also failed to get responses from the State government and Union environment ministry when queried on the status of forest clearances. There are two legalities that are particularly applicable to the Kanhar Dam Project.
The project requires fresh clearances as per the provisions of the EIA notification, 2006. A letter from the Ministry of Environment and Forest dated 15th January 2008 says: “It is advised to the State Pollution Control Boards not to grant/extend/revalidate No Objection Certificate/Consent to Establish without advising the proponent to seek environment clearance under EIA Notification, 2006.” Projects cannot be resumed without this.
The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 has a provision which says that if the acquired land is not used for the intended project; acquisition processes are delayed or compensation processes are not carried out within five years, the acquisition process stands null and void and has to be re-done to resume the project. This also means that consent needs to be re-established and fresh rehabilitation and resettlement offers need to be made according to current standards.
Should the government resolve to construct the dam, which aims to provide irrigational facilities to the nearby tehsils, it is estimated that 87 to 111 villages will be displaced. The Kanhar Dam is located in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonebhadra District near Sugawan village in Dudhi Tehsil. The region borders Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand and is home to tribal communities such as Bhooinus, Kharwars, Gondhs, Cheros and Panikas. It is also rich in biodiversity.
“These communities are confused and scared at the moment because no one knows what will happen. Residents were recently offered a compensation of INR 7 lakhs. They get 2 lakhs on filling the paperwork and 5 after showing proof that their house is demolished. Touts and strongmen constantly threaten and bully villagers, telling them to take the compensation and leave otherwise they’ll be left with nowhere to go when their houses are bulldozed,” explains Anshuman Singh, Video Volunteers’ State Coordinator in Uttar Pradesh. He has made a few visits to the site to assess how best the organisation can support the on going movement.
Rights based organisation worry that the dam with a proposed height of 39.9m may be linked with the nearby Rihand reservoir. Should this happen, it is suspected that the water will be siphoned off for industries in the neighbouring area as opposed to being used for irrigation, exactly what happened after the construction of the Rihand dam. Water from the Rihand reservoir currently feeds the Thermal power stations in Singrauli, Madhya Pradesh, an area rife with its own set of violations of environmental and legal safeguards.
It is alarming that the ruling Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh is so blatant in violating the very laws it purports to safeguard at the centre. They have been vociferous in their opposition of the recent Land Acquisition Ordinance passed by the BJP-led Centre Government. The government has cracked down several times on peaceful protestors in the area, resorting to intimidation methods like the use of fabricated cases against those opposing the project and heavy police and paramilitary presence to protect the construction of the dam.
The project affected community is however steadfast in its refusal to budge.
“Since the time of our illiterate ancestors, we’ve been cheated enough times. Now we’ll stay and fight,” says Viswanath Singh, one resident.
This piece was first published on Video Volunteers.