‘British rule was better’: Mandla’s villagers are fighting their displacement for the Chutka Nuclear Power Plant

Many locals were displaced twice in the 1980s for the construction of the Bargi Dam.

ByHridayesh Joshi
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‘British rule was better’: Mandla’s villagers are fighting their displacement for the Chutka Nuclear Power Plant
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It’s been decades since they were moved out of their homes for the construction of the Bargi Dam in Mandla. Now, displacement has come calling again for the residents of this district in Madhya Pradesh, with the government moving ahead with its plans to construct the Chutka Nuclear Power Plant. 

For the government, this is “development”. For residents of the villages surrounding Bargi Dam, about 80 kilometres from Jabalpur, the land is cursed. 

The proposed nuclear power plant will be built on the banks of the Narmada river on 497.72 hectares of land. The land will be acquired from the villages of Chutka, Tatighat and Kunda. It’s a throwback to the 1980s, leading up to the construction of the dam, when the government acquired land from 150 villages. Nearly 12,000 families had been affected at the time.

This time around, the villagers fear the worst.

Forced to leave homes again

Plans for the power plant were announced in May 2009 by the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited. The project will cost an estimated Rs 21,000 crore and the plant will have an initial capacity to produce 1,400 (700 x 2) megawatts of power.

328 Adivasi families are on the verge of losing their homes and land due to Chutka Nuclear Power Plant.

NPCIL has received environmental clearance for the project, but hasn’t been able to convince locals to part with their land.

Dadulal Kudape, 56, is an Adivasi organising the locals against the plant under the banner of the Chutka Parmanu Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti. Kudape’s nine-acre piece of land was acquired the damn. Now, he stands to lose 16 more acres for the plant.

“The Adivasis here were prosperous. Our families had enough means to live, eat and earn,” Kudape says. “But for the last 40 years, our land and families are under attack. We are facing the threat of becoming landless today. We don’t want to move from here.”

Kudape says repeated displacement is the “harsh reality” of their lives. 

Nonelal Kudape, a Gond Adivasi from Kunda village, agrees. He stands to lose his land to the project too. He says, “About 30 years ago, people displaced due to the damn were rehabilitated by authorities. But later, these new habitats were also swallowed up by the dam water. So people were displaced twice — for the same project.”

And with the nuclear plant, these people will now be displaced for the third time. 

‘British rule was better’

One of them is Munna Barma, 42, a resident of Tatghat village. When we meet him, he’s building a boat on the banks of the Narmada. Barma belongs to the fishermen community. He was displaced twice due to the Bargi hydropower project.

“Our elders used to tell us about the British era,” Barma says. “It was a better time, as they didn’t have to face repeated displacement.”

Several families were displaced twice during the construction of the dam.

According to Mandla’s district collector, Jagdish Jatia, 328 families will be displaced from Chutka. This displaced families are being compensated under the National Rehabilitation and Resettlement Policy, he says, and new houses are being constructed for them. 

“There are 600 accountholders who will receive compensation,” Jatia explains. “Each accountholder will receive Rs 5 lakh. So far, compensation money has been deposited in 550 accounts.”

On the other hand, the villagers claim 2,000 people from Chutka, Tatghat and Kunda will be displaced. They are angry and bitter, given their history of displacement, and feel they’ve been cheated in the name of “development schemes”.

Rajkumar Sinha, 55, has been fighting for two decades for the rights of those displaced due to the Bargi Dam. He tells Newslaundry: “We have struggled for a long time for those displaced by the dam. Ninety-five villages in Mandla were affected by it. Those affected received compensation, but they didn’t get land.”

Sinha says at the time, the government had promised jobs for at least one member of every affected family and five acres of land for each family. “But that didn’t happen. That is why people feel they have been duped.”

Jatia says villagers in Chutka are demanding “better compensation”. “They’re asking for Rs 20 lakh in addition to the Rs 5 lakh given to them. They’re demanding bigger houses be built for them, and at least one job given to every family.”

The main source of livelihood here is fishing and agriculture.

The villagers have decided not to allow project officials to enter the villages. “When the project officials came to the village to do a land survey and test the soil, we forced them to go back with all their equipment,” says one of the villagers, Meerabai Marai. At the age of 52, she’s one of the most vocal protesters against the plant.

The mathematics of displacement

Since Independence, around 50 million people have been displaced in India due to development projects. More than one-third (35 to 40 per cent) of them are Adivasis. Many of them have been displaced more than once. 

According to research by Nagi Nalin and Sujata Ganguly of the University of Bielefeld, Germany, over 2 crore people have been displaced in India due to projects related to dams, hydropower, mining, industrial plants and wildlife conservation. 

The displacement of people in the Narmada Valley started in 1980. Broad estimates indicate that one million people have been affected here since then. The biggest blow has been to people in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat due to the Sardar Sarovar Dam — an estimated two lakh were affected. 

The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, says the government must ensure that people, once displaced, are not displaced again for any development project. It also says a Social Impact Assessment of each project must be carried out before the project is rolled out.

Land acquisition and rehabilitation specialist, Dr Preeti Jain, currently works with Delhi-based The Energy and Resources Institute. She says the objective of a Social Impact Assessment is to reduce displacement.

“This helps agencies which acquire land to find an alternative place for the development projects,” she explains. “Quite often, when the officials and personnel related to the project talk to people at the ground level, they get to know about alternatives. People themselves suggest alternatives but the governments and the companies running the projects ignore the social impact. The participation of the people on the ground is negated.” 

Locals have been protesting the proposed plant, barring its officials from entering their villages.

She says this could lead to widespread resentment at the ground level, as currently seen in Chutka. 

Jatia, Mandla’s district collector, says the government is investigating how many of the people displaced during the dam construction will be displaced again. He says these people will receive “double compensation”.

Newslaundry sent a questionnaire to the Nuclear Power Corporation of India Limited regarding the displacement, rehabilitation and compensation of villagers due to the Chutka Nuclear Power Plant. No response was received. This correspondent also met with officials in Jabalpur to ask questions about the project, but they refused to divulge any information.

Fear of health issues and unemployment

Concerns surrounding the plant aren’t limited to displacement. Several villagers are worried about the impact of the nuclear power plant on the local environment and climate, and the possibility of health issues as a result. 

Ramesh Marco, 63, points out, “If there is no threat to the health of people due to the nuclear plant, then why is the Nuclear Power Corporation of India building residential facilities for the plant’s staff at Simaria in Manegaon — 11 kilometres away from the plant? Why can’t the staff stay with us here?”

The Bargi Dam was the first big project in the Narmada Valley.

The general feeling among locals is they’ll have to leave the area once the plant starts operations, whether their land is acquired or not. It’s also obvious the administration and project officials have done very little to allay their fears. 

Locals are also worried about their livelihood and employment. Subhash Kumar is a resident of Paatha village, a few kilometres away from Chutka. He’s been displaced twice in the last 35 years and had to rebuild his house in 2000. There is no displacement of residents of Paatha, but Kumar is apprehensive of employment opportunities drying up here once the plant opens. In that case, he’ll have to move again.

His voice choked with emotion, he tells Newslaundry: “The power plant staff will seal the area around it for security reasons. That will block all the roads for me to go to the river. So when the plant starts functioning, I’ll have to move to another place with my family.”

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