On a day when all political parties were busy paying homage to Dr Ambedkar, the spot of a peaceful environmental protest and Ambedkar Jayanti celebration by some villagers in Sonbhadra district, Uttar Pradesh turned into a firing zone by policemen.
The protest was against the construction of Kanhar Dam, a project conceived and approved by Central Water Commission in 1976 at an estimated budget of Rs 27.75 Crore. The dam was intended to provide water for irrigation purposes to Dudhi and Robertsganj tehsils of Sonebhadra district. Kanhar River is a tributary of Son River and passes through Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh. Though the initial work was started, the construction has been stalling for a few years now. Apart from the vociferous protest from tibal communities, the project also faced funding problems. In spite of repeated attempts by the previous Mayawati government and the push given by Shiv Pal Yadav of the present SP dispensation, the project has seen minimal progress.
On 14th April, villagers had gathered at the dam site to step up their agitation against the land acquisition for the project. The protesters were carrying the photo of B R Ambedkar to mark his birth anniversary, when police opened firing. The protest was initiated under the banner of Kanhar Bandh Virodhi Sangharsh Samiti (KBVSS), an anti-dam group.
If the dam is built as planned, not only villages submerge and tribals be displaced, the forest cover in the area is also at the risk of being diminished. The proposed dam falls under the Renukoot Forest Division, which is one of the densest forests of Sonebhadra with a tree density of 652 per hectare. The dam will affect several lakh villagers and cause considerable impact on environment, wildlife and livelihood of tribals, in addition to the loss of biodiversity.
Environmental clearance was given to the project in 1980, as per official records of Ministry of Environment and Forests. Since the dam requires removal of forests, the project doesn’t even any forest clearance under Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. More than 34 years later, the environment clearance means nothing.
The project requires a fresh environment clearance under EIA Notification, 2006 and all the studies done again to assess whether the project is viable or not with respect to the present scenario. The Uttar Pradesh government has started construction work on December 5, 2014, after which, a petition was filed at the National Green Tribunal (NGT) by Debadiyo Sinha, an environmental activist associated with Vindhya Bachao Andolan, a non-profit in the region. NGT gave an order on 24th December 2014, which prohibited the UP government from any construction activity in absence of environmental and forest clearances.
At this hearing, the project proponent was first asked to submit a compliance report on February 19 about the progress made by the UP government on the dam construction. Since the state government failed to do so, NGT granted them time again to produce the required approvals at the next hearing on March 12, 2015. However, for the second time consecutively, the UP government failed to comply with NGT’s directive. As of now, the matter has been reserved for judgement by NGT in its order dated March 24, 2015.
The continued forceful acquisition of land for the project is a blatant violation of the standing provisions of the Land Acquisition Act of 2013, which said any land acquired would revert to the original owners if the project did not start within a stipulated time frame.
Though the ruling Samajwadi Party has always spoken about supporting poor farmers and has been protesting against the Land Acquisition Act proposed by the NDA government, its continued violation of the NGT order and lack of seriousness on the issue is representative of its double standards. Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav even declared 6th December (Dr Ambedkar’s death anniversary) as a public holiday in the state on the day, possibly with an intention to woo Dalits. However, he has remained silent on the unfortunate incident.
During his recently concluded trips in France and Germany, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said “The whole world is posing questions to us. Those who have destroyed climate are asking us questions. If anybody has served the nature, it is Indians.” He further added that “India is the only country which has served the nature the most as Indians even treat even river as mother and worship trees”.
However, BJP’s government decisions over the past one year speak otherwise. Many environmental and forest clearance laws such as the Forest Clearance Act, National Green Tribunal act, proposed Land Acquisition Act, etc have been diluted to accommodate projects which could have devastating ecological effects in the regions.
If India is indeed serious about preserving nature, and treating rivers as mothers and trees as gods, then our governments should take cognizance of such environmental protests at ground zero and not just make grand statements in international platforms.
This piece was originally published on the News Minute