The administration has not been taking any notice of our protest and so we chose to go and organise a sit-in at the construction site. The police tried to disperse us and subsequently opened fire on us.
Police yesterday shot live rounds at tribal protesters gathered at the Kanhar dam site in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh to condemn the land acquisition for the project.
Tribal leader Akku Kharwar, a resident of Sundari village, and eight others were seriously injured in the gun fire. Around 35 others received minor injuries.
"Our demand is to stop construction work of the dam which will cause displacement and livelihood crisis for the villagers. We all sat at the site to register our silent protest against the project", said protest leader Ganbheera Prasad.
"The administration has not been taking any notice of our protest and so we chose to go and organise a sit-in at the construction site. The police tried to disperse us and subsequently opened fire on us. A bullet hit the left side of the chest of Akku Kharwar and he fell unconscious."
The protest was initiated under the banner of Kanhar Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (KBVSS), an anti-dam association, of which Prasad is the president.
Also supporting the protest is the All India Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), an association fighting for the rights of tribals and Dalits, which has strongly condemned the shooting.
Sonbhadra superintendent of police Shiv Shankar Yadav confirmed the shooting, claiming that it took place after a mob attacked the police. Five police personnel were injured in the incident, Yadav insisted in his account of the incident, speaking to Down To Earth.
Dam to flood 87 villages, 2,500 hectares of forest
Village residents had gathered at the dam site to intensify their agitation against the alleged land acquisition for the project. The protesters were carrying the photo of B R Ambedkar to mark his 125th birth anniversary.
Ambedkar was a highly respected Indian jurist, economist, politician and social reformer who campaigned against social discrimination against Untouchables (Dalits), women and labour. As Independent India's first law minister and the principal architect of the Constitution of India, he continues to inspire human rights activists today.
The villagers united in their opposition to the project as it will destroy around 2,500 hectares of dense forests and cause the submergence of 87 villages.
Tribes like Bhooinus, Kharwars, Gondhs, Cheros and Panikas who dominate the region have also not been informed about the environmental and social impacts of the project, according to Mirzapur-based non-profit Vindhya Bachao Andolan - a clear violation of the 'prior informed consent' principle applying to indigenous land seizures.
In 1973, the Central Water Commission proposed a dam on the Kanhar river which originates in Chhattisgarh, passes through Jharkhand and then enters Uttar Pradesh.
The Kanhar dam project was first conceived in 1976 to provide irrigational facilities to Dudhi and Robertsganj tehsils of Sonbhadra district in southeast Uttar Pradesh.
The then Uttar Pradesh chief minister, N D Tiwary, inaugurated the project in the same year. Land was partially acquired between 1978 and 1982 and people received compensation at the time.
However, the project remained a non-starter due to the alleged non-availability of funds for several years. "In 1984 the project lapsed as the funds meant for it were diverted for the Asian Games", said Roma Malik, the deputy general secretary of AIUFWP.
Uttar Pradesh acting 'in contempt of court'
The Uttar Pradesh government finally started construction work on December 5, 2014. Nineteen days later, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) stayed further construction at the dam site after a petition was filed before it by Debadityo Sinha.
Sinha alleged that the project could not be started based on clearances obtained in the 1980s. It required a fresh assessment taking into account the significant environmental changes which occurred in the past 30 years, he argued.
Prasad also insists that the state's attempt to seize the land at this stage is illegal: "According to the new Land Acquisition Act, the right to fair compensation and transparency in Land acquisition, Resettlement and Rehabilitation Act, 2013, has a retrospective clause which states if the acquired land has not (been) used or (were) not in possession for five years, the process of acquisition would have to start afresh."
As part of protest against the state government's decision, the gram sabhas of all the affected villages also filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court regarding discrepancies in the land acquisition process.
In January 2015, Sinha approached the court with a contempt petition against the Uttar Pradesh government for its non-compliance with the NGT's directive. On 4th February 2015, NGT sought a reply from the state government, but the latter failed to comply within the stipulated 10-day period.
On February 21, NGT sought a report from the Union environment ministry within a week and set 4th March 2015, as the final hearing date, according to news reports.
At this hearing, the project proponent was asked to produce the forest clearance report. Since the state government failed to do so, NGT granted them time to produce the valid forest approval at the next hearing on 12th March 2015.
However (for the second time in a row) the ministry failed to comply with the green body's directive. It was first asked to submit a compliance report on 19th February about the progress made by the UP government on the Kanhar dam construction. The matter was reserved for judgement by NGT in its order dated March 24, 2015.
As such it appears that the state's moves to resume dam construction is unlawful and in direct violation of court orders, raising the question: are Uttar Pradesh's police answerable to the law? Or only to an executive acting in open defiance and contempt of court rulings?
Jitendra & Kiran Pandey are staff writers with Down to Earth.
This article was originally published by Down to Earth subject to minor editing by The Ecologist.
Full account of all court orders etc relating to the Kanhar dam.