Friday, September 01, 2006

Dhurli and Essar - The face of development

Dhurli is a nice little village nearly 14 km from my hometown Bacheli. When I was young, a favourite pasttime in the summer holidays used to be to go cycling down from Bacheli to Dhurli, catch up with our friends at Bhansi en-route, go further ahead and rest in the banks of the river Shankani. After plucking ‘aam’ and ‘imli’ we used to return home late in the afternoon. It used to be the same routine for many years. Fun, enjoyment, and of course getting punished when we returned back. Dhurli used to be the same old charming village for us till I passed out of college in 2002. Things are changing now.

I first came to know about essar in 1995, when the central government decided to lease out a couple of mines in the Bailadila range to essar. There were agitations against the attempt to privatise the mines as the then running mines of NMDC (dep 5 and 14) were not suppossed to last more than 20 years. My school was closed for a few days, and there was genuine anger among the workers of NMDC. Luckily good sense prevailed and the central government went back on its decision.

Dhurli and Essar remind me of two contrasting images from my childhood. One reminds me of life, of nature, of joy, of frolic, and of creation. The other of death, privatisation, anger, of agitation and destruction. 12 years later, I find these two seemingly unconnected pieces of my life joined together. Essar has signed a MOU with the state of Chhattisgarh for a 3.2 megaton steel plant with an investment of Rs. 6000 crores. Dhurli is going to be the location of the steel plant. The Raman Singh government showcases this memorandum as one of its major achievement and it is always in bold underlined letters in the state of Chhattisgarh advertisements in national magazines.

Unfortunately, things are not as beautiful as the state of Chhattisgarh wants us to believe. When an individual from Raipur made a routine RTI application to check the contents of the MoU, his request was rejected. The grounds for the rejection is that the MoU between the state of Chhattisgarh and Essar (or Tata)
cannot be shown to any third party. Exactly who constitutes a “third party” is not defined. It is also not explained how the citizens of the state who will be losing their land and livelihood for this project can be classified as a “third party”? Since the RTI act says that any information that can be accessed by legislators cannot be denied to individuals, hence it is safe to assume that amajority of our legislators including the MLA of Dantewada is in dark regarding the precise contents of the agreement. Nobody knows exactly what we have promised to essar, what is so secretive about the whole affair? Rumours abound in the absense of transparent information. Suggestions are being made in a section of media that the notorious “Salwa Judoom” campaign in Dantewada is actually funded by the industry, that the state is blind to the plight of its own citizens because that is part of that “top secret” MoU. Some say that the Bailadila mines will be given to these investors if NMDC fails to meet the requirements of the steel plants.

Now exactly how the state treats the “third party”, its own citizens. Dhurli is connected by both road and a railway station. Almost all its inhabitants are engaged in agriculture. Last year, one fine day, three representatives of essar came to the village and said to them, “Yahaan par essar ka steel plant banega. Aap yeh zameen khaali kar do” (Essar steel plant wil come up here. All of you must vaccate this land). The villagers didn’t know whether to take it as a joke or not. They had a meeting that night and it was decided that having lived in that place for last 12 generations or more, they are under no obligation to vacate their land. A delegation met the collector after a few days and he used the exact same language as the essar people. He informed them that a decision has been taken in Raipur and Dhurli was chosen as the location of Essar’s 3.2 MTsteel plant. Their jan-pratinidhi will tell them the exact price of their land. No more arguments.

The jan-pratinidhi did come. During those times I had a talk with one of the jan-pratinidhi’s man, and laughing, very proudly he said to me, “Bhaiya, in logo ko jitna kam me mana sakenge, hamare netaji ko utna hi zyada faayda hoga. Ab tum hamare netaji ka kamaal dekhna bas. Inke kahne par to yeh log apni jaan tak de denge“. (The less the villager’s get for their land the more will our leader gain. Just see the power of our leader, these people will even lay down their lives for him). How and what will the jan-pratinidhi gain, he didn’t explain that to me. The price offerred to them was Rs. 80000 per acre and Rs. 10000 per mahua tree. Each full grown mahua tree gives the owner more than Rs. 20000 in a single year. Rs. 80000 per acre is a ridiculous price by all counts for agricultural land. Obvious to everybody and to the surprise of the jan-pratinidhi, the villagers refused the bargain. That was the start of a long drawn battle between the villagers and the administration.

There is nobody except the gram-sabha and village elders to argue against the project, and they are facing considerable harassment. Not only were they beaten and threatened in the past, last week on 25th august four of them were arrested and put in jail just before a proposed gram-sabha meeting. The media was not allowed to cover the event. Nobody knows what is going to happen in Dhurli. The events of Kalinganagar in January 2 2006, when the Orissa state police killed 12 adivasis as a new year gift to the tatas comes to my mind. Is Dhurli going to become another Kalinganagar? Will the national press take notice of it only when something terrible has happenned?
If we don’t stand up now for the people of Dhurli, we will be betraying ourselves, we will be betraying humanity, we will be betraying the concept of development as a whole. The fact is that more than 1100 people of Dhurli don’t want to leave their land for the steel plant. Even as I write this they are under terrible pressure to accept the deal. It is a question of their life and livelihoods. Dhurliwasi’s point is simple. The money they get will be finished within a few months, they don’t know anything other than farming, so what will be their source of livelihood after that? Meanwhile essar has already acquired land in nearby villages and started their work, so sure are they of subverting any kind of opposition against the project. And the way that our executive, judiciary, legislature and media are behaving, perhaps essar is right. The question is why is essar doing what it is doing? How can they even think of making money out of the blood of those people? Let us all ask these questions to the Chhattisgarh government and Essar.

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