It was the Punjab government’s well-guarded secret for a while. Until, of course, word trickled out, and dirt hit the proverbial fan.
The coalition government of the Akali Dal and Bharatiya Janata Party did everything in their means to browbeat the farmers of a small village called Gobindpura in Mansa district of the state into submission. All fundamental rights – right to speech and expression, right to organise and struggle, right to free movement – were trampled upon by a ruthless police force.
Their lands and houses were expropriated and handed over to Poena Power Company after putting up barbed wire fences. When the farmers protested, they were repressed brutally. Even women and young girls were assaulted and huddled away to police stations. The barricades ensured that they could not show their injuries to the outside world.
That is until the Democratic Front Against Operation Green Hunt Punjab (DFAOGH) came out with a damning fact-finding report on the state of affairs.
Gobindpura has a population of about 2,500, with 40 per cent being agricultural labourers, or belonging to Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes. It has voter strength of about 1,400. Although Karamjit Kaur, a Scheduled Caste woman, heads the village Gram Panchyat, her powers have been usurped by local Akali Dal leaders.
The village is 1,458 acres in area, out of which 806 acres have been acquired by the Punjab government for a private sector thermal power plant. Of the remaining 652 acres, 140 acres have no canal water irrigation facility, or access from either side, being surrounded by plant land on one side and a railway line on the other. Initially, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Badal had wanted to locate the plant in the nearby villages of Bhupal, Tamkot and Khiala. However, after stiff opposition from farmers of that area, the project was shifted to Gobindpura.
In October 2010, the proposal to establish a 1320 MW thermal power plant by Poena Power Company, a subsidiary of Indiabulls Infrastructure Ltd was mooted by Akali leaders of the village.
“Incidentally in Greek mythology ‘Poena’ is a god of retaliation, revenge and punishment. The Latin word “Poena” means ‘pain, punishment and penalty’. The company has been true to its name, at least for the residents of Gobindpura. It has devastated their lives completely,” the factfinding report remarked.
By its own admission, the Punjab government says that multi-crop yielding lands are not to be acquired, and that no land is to be acquired without farmers’ consent. However, the entire land acquired at Gobindpura is irrigated, fertile and multi-crop yielding. More than 90 per cent of the farmers are unwilling to give up their lands.
“It is evident from the stiff resistance offered by the villagers and the necessity to deploy thousands of policemen to crush it, that the government is resorting to forcible land acquisition, brutally repressing all resistance to it.”
In all, 62 families of the village have become landless. Another 123 have been left with very small holdings. Besides the farmers, families of 14 dalit agricultural laborers have also been devastated. The houses in which they were living for the last many decades have been acquired for the power project, rendering them homeless. No compensation has been paid to them on the excuse that the land on which these houses were constructed was not in their name.
The total compensation package ranging from Rs 23.23 lakh to Rs 23.77 lakh per acre, including displacement allowances and no litigation incentive has been announced. This is seen to be meagre. The government is paying Rs 23.77 lakh per acre for 80 acres, Rs 23.54 lakh for 560 acres and Rs 23.23 lakh for 166 acres to the landowners.
In October 2010, when the first notification was yet to be issued, the prevailing price in Gobindpura was Rs 11 lakh/acre for un-irrigated land and Rs 15 lakh per acre for irrigated land. An agreement to sell land at the rate of Rs 15.10 lakh per acre was executed just before the notification was issued. Those who involuntarily consented to the project were promised a compensation of Rs 50 lakh per acre by local Akali leaders. Now they feel cheated. Even Akali leader Balwan Singh admits the inadequacy of the compensation awarded.
In the meantime, land prices in adjoining villages shot up to Rs 30 lakh per acre and the displaced are now unable to buy good land with the amount of compensation received.
Besides a few influential Akali leaders, the ones to have benefited have been property dealers, banks, agriculture service societies, commission agents, and automobile and arms dealers. The banks, agriculture service societies and commission agents got outstanding loans against the farmers recovered from the amount of compensation paid to them. To induce farmers to accept compensation, the administration used all possible tactics, including grants of arms licences. A large number of firearm licenses were issued in the village, in a span of a few weeks.
Establishing of six thermal power plants in a radius of 50-60 km of Bathinda has raised environmental concerns also, due to wide prevalence of cancer in the region.
The project was allegedly awarded to Indiabulls’ subsidiary Poena Power Company, not through competitive bidding, but through the arbitrary memorandum of understanding (MoU) route. The Punjab State Electricity Regulatory Commission had warned the state government against the MOU saying it was “purely aimed at encouraging private investment in generation sector in the state, a step that would result in higher power rates to the consumers.” The Central Electricity Regulatory Commission has also argued in its advice to the Union government that thermal plants set up through MoUs are costlier than those set up under state sector.
The Gobindpura power plant has neither yet obtained an environmental clearance, nor signed a power purchase agreement with the Punjab State Power Corporation Ltd. It seems to have been done deliberately, to avoid embarrassing questions about the cost-benefit analysis of the project.
In carrying out the land acquisition, the mainstay of the government has been repression. Since October 2010, there has been a spate of assaults, lathicharges, indiscriminate arrests and detentions, midnight knocks and even firing. The factfinding team found that people openly complained of cheating, fraud, nepotism,, bribery, political blackmail, intimidation and repression, by Indiabulls, local Akali leaders, and police officials.
Since June 21, the village has become a big jail. All roads leading to Gobindpura were heavily barricaded. Large contingents of armed police were deployed. Strangers were not allowed to enter the village, and villagers going out for various agricultural operations, were invariably questioned and searched. No human rights or labour activists were allowed to enter either.
Last week, state Congress leaders entered the picture and promised that all they would return the land to the farmers if voted back to power. So much for politics.
According to DFAOGH sources, over 150 families have filed affidavits with them saying that they wanted their land back since they had been tricked into deals. The government, for the moment, is on the backfoot – it has called for a meeting with the villagers on September 19.
The farmers, however, are in no mood to be hoodwinked again.