‘The state is protecting industrialists at the cost of tribals’
‘We want justice. The government can’t keep quiet for long’
‘The complainant is always a police officer. So how can there be any justice?’
IN INDIA, the system operates in such a way that you are either part of the system or co-opted to become a part of the system,” says activist Sunilam. “If not, you are either killed or cases are fabricated against you.”With 133 cases registered against him and multiple attempts on his life, it’s safe to say he knows what he is talking about.
As founder-president of the Kisan Sangharsh Samiti (KSS), Sunilam has been actively working with farmers against unjust land acquisition by the Madhya Pradesh government.
For his role in the kisan andolan of 12 January 1998 at Multai, the then Congress government lodged 66 false cases against him. “Under the banner of KSS, we had organised a rally where over 75,000 farmers protested the destruction of their farmland by the state government,” says Sunilam. “As the agitation gathered steam, the state government thought it could crush and discredit the movement by killing the leaders. They believed that the farmers can be taught a lesson.”
The police opened fire on the protesting farmers, killing 24 and injuring 115 persons. Sunilam, who was also injured, was arrested from a hospital. But instead of being produced in front of a magistrate, he was tortured for three days, after which he was imprisoned for three months. “They also tried to kill me. They would say, ‘24 have died you will be the 25th’ but because I was a well-known figure and the people knew I was in police custody, they could not kill me.”
What the former MLA finds shocking is that in violation of the law, no case was filed against the police for the shooting, nor has there been any investigation. Instead, he has been running from one court hearing to the next.
The system seems to be working against the activist, despite being injured in a planned attack, where he broke his arm and received multiple stitches on his head, a police case was filed against him in Chhindwara. More recently, he was charged in a rape case where as the acting MLA, he arrived at the scene of the crime five hours after the event.
With 16 pending cases and a CBI warrant for his arrest, Sunilam has come to one conclusion, “What they have started doing is registering cases against me and not informing me. In spite of having a CBI warrant in my name, I am moving around freely. Everyone knows where I am, but the reason they haven’t arrested me is that they have registered these cases to malign me but at the same time it gives them leverage; they can use them to arrest me when I become too much of an inconvenience.”
Avalok Langer is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.
Popular farmer leader and ex-MLA from Multai, M.P. Dr. Sunilam has been sentenced to life prison today in a case as old as 14 years relating to the incident of police firing in Multai on protesting farmers way back in January 1998 in which Sunilam was charged with 66 fabricated cases.
All in all he was facing more than 100 fabricated cases and this was basically due to his relentless struggles for the rights of farmers. Last year he survived in a life threatening attack on him by hired goons of Adani-Pench Power Plant Ltd., the company that was allotted farmers land illegally 22 years after acquisition. The court’s decision today is basically a result of corrupt collusion among corporate, legislature, executive and lower judiciary. Ironically, anti-graft crusader Arvind Kejriwal and Anna Hazare have not uttered a single word since yesterday against court’s decision to implicate Dr. Sunilam in false case and life term given today.
This is more important because Sunilam was a core member of Team Anna and till last anti-graft stir, he could be seen continuously on an off screen with the team in his brand green muffler. Neither a word of protest has come from Mulayam Singh’s Samajwadi Party that was once solely represented in Madhya Pradesh by Sunilam who was MLA from Multai seat.
Below is the letter sent last year by Dr. B.D. Sharma on behalf of people to erstwhile MOEF Jairam Ramesh against Power Project in Chhindwara, M.P. This memorandum of assertion is very critical at this stage to understand the technicality of the case and politics related to Sunilam’s conviction.
Shri Jairam Ramesh
Union Minister for Environment and Forest
Subject: Memorandum of Assertion against Power Project in Chhindwara. M.P.
1. The Issue
It is my proud privilege to forward to you the Memorandum of Assertion adopted by more than a thousand people on May 31, 2011. They were representing countless denizens of scores of villages in Chhindwara District of Madhya Pradesh. I am an eyewitness to people’s unshakable resolve not to allow their Mother Earth to be ravaged by the gold-diggers and fortune seekers in one of the richest forest areas in our country.
The story begins in 1986 with a Government Resolution to establish a Thermal Power Project in this remote region under the aegis of M. P. Electricity Board. The land acquisition proceedings were started under the aura of State’s authority with no dialogue before or after thereof with innocent people facing the prospect of landlessness. It is a universal experience that paltry compensation in acquisition proceedings vanishes in no time; and all other promises prove to be a mirage. The acquisition proceedings in court rooms, hallowed with the aura of the Raj, end up virtually in meek submissions for mercy before mai-bap sarkar. While land owners get paltry amounts as doles, no one cares to note that even that draconian law has a place for ‘persons interested’ such as informal tenants, share croppers, agricultural workers. Similarly no one cared to share with the people the scenario after commissioning of a Power Project such as flying ash destroying extensive green fields and polluted water rendering land unfit for agriculture. Some palliatives were promised like rehabilitation grant and service to one member of each affected family.
Ironically nothing moved on the ground about Power Project after land acquisition for reasons not known to the people. The farmers, therefore, continued to cultivate their lands and deal with the situation when time arrives. To their utter surprise, one fine morning MPEB itself was wound up leaving no message to the affected. Similarly all was quite on government side which is supposed to be the custodian of acquired lands not used for purpose designated.
2. The Public Hearing
Ironically after more than 20 years, one fine morning people learnt through word of mouth that concerned lands were sold out to Adanis for Power Project at a fabulous price of Rs 13.5 lakhs per acre. This firm had earned notoriety in Chandrapur and was expelled there from. It silently moved into this area and took possession of some land without showing the courtesy of meeting the people in continued possession after land acquisition. In fact even the administration, which executed this transaction, did not consider it worthwhile even to talk to the people in possession of land, not to speak about sharing their concern after the new takeover.
I am happy about your Ministry noting the basic flaw about sale being finalised and possession being allowed before public hearing on environmental viability. You also assured a delegation of farmers led by Medha Patkar and Dr Sunilam, Ex MLA that since the Ministry has not given environmental clearance no construction can take place in the area. I am also sorry to note that even after the Collector Chhindwara assured a delegation of Jan Sansad that no work will continue in the area, the work is continuing unabated. Thus Adanis have not cared to go by the advice of the Ministry as also civil administration and are indulging in illegal activities.
I am also sorry to note that notwithstanding the best intentions of the Ministry public hearings are generally taken as a ritual to satisfy the ‘ego and fads’ of so-called environmentalists. The end result in such hearings depends on the relative strength of people concerned vis-a-vis interested party and sensitivity of administration.
I must invite your attention to the fact that the place of public hearing is crucial in achieving its real objective. The people are at their best in the known surroundings of their own village. They are generally ill at ease in administrative establishments with visible aura of State authority. Last but not the least, if public hearing is organised in the arena of interested party it is bound to degenerate into a ritual with results being known well in advance.
I am pained to observe that the public hearing of Power Project held on November 6, 2010 blatantly violated credibility test. It was not held in the known environment of people concerned. Nor did organizers think of the second choice, some sarkari establishment, notwithstanding serious psychological limitations noted earlier. Lo and behold, the public hearing was held in Adani’s own compound, whose occupation is disputed. It was also serviced by his own people. A bevy of musclemen were in attendance in this hearing to ensure that there are no dissenting voices. The inevitable result was that simple farmers could hardly present their side with ease.
3. The Changing Perspective
I wish to place before you the fact that much water has flown under the bridge since the land was acquired some 22 years back. A new generation of youth has appeared, especially in areas with rich natural resources, who have witnessed the trauma of displacement. They are rejecting the principle of eminent domain of the State and asserting principle of eminent domain of the community in the form of Gaon Gana Rajya or Village Republic. The people who had lost their land de jure but continued to occupy the same due to the state of indecision have in the mean time become highly articulate in self defense. The movement in this area got intensified after the disputed public hearing noted above. It culminated in a long march covering all the affected villages. The articulation of their side on all aspects of the proposed project was fabulous.
4. Bid to Capture at any Cost
It is clear that such articulation from people’s side is not acceptable to those engaged like Adani in capturing resources virtually in the style of fabled ‘Gold Rush’ of western frontier in United States. The two top leaders of the movement, Dr Sunilam and Advocate Aradhana Bhargava, were beaten up by the goons in their bid to liquidate them on May 22, 2011 when the group was returning after making preparations for the forthcoming ‘padayatra’. Each one of them had a fractured hand besides other injuries. The police came after two and half hours of the information being personally given to the S.P. Chhindwara. To cap it all, a simple inconsequential case has been registered by the police merely as a formality under Section 323 IPC although it was a clear case of attempt to murder under Section 307 of IPC.
5. The Great Omission
Lastly, I will invite your attention to some crucial aspects of environmental public hearing. The environmental projection has to be with reference to the scene that will emerge after the Project is commissioned. In the case of an industrial project the present is no indication of even the proximate future, not to speak of long term implications. In Bailadila Iron Ore Project of Bastar only six persons were formally displaced but it ravaged scores of villages and polluted the Shankini River for one hundred miles denying the people even simple drinking water.
I took up this issue in 1970s as Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs in pursuance of a Minute of Smt Indira Gandhi dated 19.6.1974 addressed to the Home Minister:
The Licensing policy and project-formulation for big industrial and mining complexes hardly take into account the local simple tribal situation. New vested interests are being created in these areas. A balanced relationship between the traditional economy and the modernised sector has to be built by introducing an element of local participation wherever possible and advanced planning for all-round development in the entire region.
It was formally decided by the Union Government that the likely zone of influence of an industrial project must be identified concurrently with the project proper and a comprehensive plan of action should be prepared for the Project and its zone of influence which should ensure life with dignity on terms of equality for all people located in the Zone. The first clearance of the Government of India in terms of the above formulation was accorded to Malanchakhand Copper Project in M.P. subject to fulfillment of above conditions. Similar exercises were also under taken for the existing projects. It is sad to note that such crucial decisions got buried in official files. The nation is paying heavily in the form of unprecedented unrest in resource rich areas, tribal and non-tribal, of our country.
6. Concluding Action Points
In conclusion it is clear that
1. The meeting held on 6.11.2010 about Power Project cannot be deemed to be a Public Hearing for the purposes of environmental clearance of a Power Project in Chhindwara by MoEF;
2. You may advice State Government to remove the structure illegally constructed on the farmer’s land by Adani and restore land to the its owner-farmers;
3. You may consider black-listing a company which has started its innings with indulging in illegal activities from day one in violation of the law of the land and ignoring the advice of the Ministry as also the District Magistrate.
4. You may review the scope of the Public Hearing in general which must cover not only the proximate situation but the also the likely Zone of Influence as was decided by the Government of India in 1975;
5. You may advise the Government of MP to review the Chhindwara Power Project making a realistic projection not only of Power Project but also its Zone of Influence. Moreover, the issues raised by the people not only in Chhindwara but in the neighbouring areas including Pench in Maharashtra must also be thoroughly considered in consultation with the people; and
6. A public hearing, if any, in the real spirit of this may be held only after all the above conditions have been fulfilled.