A group of men is sitting under a grove, playing a game of cards at noon. Around them, thousands of acres of land, mostly arable, lie dotted with small hamlets. There are no roads, just dust tracks that wind around low limestone stocks and through dusty fields. This is Lohandiguda, where one of the world’s largest steel companies wants to build a five-million-tonnes-per-annum integrated steel plant.
But the proposed Rs 19,500-crore Tata Steel project in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar district has made little headway since the steelmaker signed a memorandum of understanding with the state government in June 2005.
At the heart of the problem, a number of stakeholders indicate, is a botched-up land acquisition process — a ghost that has haunted the Tatas, most notably in West Bengal’s Singur, the site proposed earlier for the Tata Nano. In Lohandiguda, there is another powerful protagonist: the anti-industry Naxal movement, operating on a territory it calls its own.
Local activists and government officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, allege the land acquisition process, particularly the phase that started in 2007-08, was riddled with procedural flaws. They say revenue department officials, in collusion with the district administration, tried to corner the compensation Tata Steel was giving to land-losers. Some of this, they say, was done by transferring land held by local tribals to outsiders. But the biggest grouse is against how the consensus was manufactured at Gram Sabha hearings, essential for land acquisition under the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) or PESA Act, sometimes even through coercion.
Senior members of the district administration now admit “the initial protests had been taken lightly, and those in charge at that point had been very resistant towards the demand of the locals”. The mismanagement of the land acquisition process also allowed the Communist Party of India, and subsequently the Naxals, to move into the area.
Both organisations fed off this discontent to expand their bases, even as the administration and the steelmaker pushed ahead. Things came to a head in June 2009, when Vimal Meshram, a vocal supporter of the Tata Steel project, was shot dead by Naxal insurgents at a village market.
Tata Steel’s exact role in these events remains unclear, but the company’s website states, “After acquisition fulfilling the necessary processes, the land has been transferred in favour of the Department of Industries, which will subsequently lease it out to Tata Steel Limited.”
In a reply to a detailed set of questions from Business Standard, Tata Steel stated, “In response to the demand raised by the government for the acquisition of land, the entire amount of Rs 69 crore, according to the LA (Land Acquisition) Act, and service charges of Rs 3.5 crore have been paid by Tata Steel.”
“The R&R (resettlement and rehabilitation policy) for the project has been approved by the government after a series of discussions and incorporation of their suggestions made at various levels, from the village level to the district and state levels, which were represented by village sarpanchs, members of Janpad, people’s representatives, political parties, eminent citizens of the area and government authorities,” the statement added.
Bastar District Collector P Anbalagan is hopeful that after years of hanging fire, Tata Steel’s ambitious project may finally get off the ground, with the possibility of compensation to land losers being raised and the overall land requirement being drawn down. The company, according to him, has now agreed to pay Rs 6 lakh per acre for barren land, Rs 8 lakh for single crop and Rs 10 lakh for double crop land, instead of between Rs 1.5 and Rs 2 lakh per acre it had offered during the acquisition period. This is in line with what the National Mineral Develop-ment Corporation paid for acquiring land for its steel plant in nearby Nagarnar, he adds.
Tata Steel has halved its land requirement for the project, from 5,000 acres to 2,500 acres, which would ensure there is no displacement of villages, says Anbalagan. Also, every adult from a land-losing family will be given employment, or provisions will be made for an alternative livelihood.
Though the questionnaire from Business Standard asked specific questions on these numbers, Tata Steel’s statement did not give a clear reply. Instead, it stated, “While selecting the land for the plant, due care has been taken to ensure minimum displacement and more of single crop land with low agricultural yield.”
“As such, approximately 30 per cent of the land of each village excepting one, which is a ghost village, is being acquired, leaving the balance land with the villagers. Though land for the plant is adequate, in view of its size and allied services, attempts are to reduce the area, mainly in its services area,” it added.
Back at the card game under the thicket, farmer Manturam Kashyap takes a break and reveals that Tata Steel paid him a compensation of Rs 9 lakh for his eight acres of land. With the money, he has rebuilt his house, in which he now stays with his wife and two children, one of whom goes to school.
“But when land is being lost, no one will be happy. Tata hasn’t done anything here, so people aren’t happy about that either,” he explains. “We want more money for our land. This little just won’t do.”
Tata says that even though land for the project has not been given, activities in the field of youth development, women empowerment, health and livelihood are being carried out in the area, albeit not in the desired scale.
Yet, it chooses to remain silent on much else, while the fate of Lohandiguda and its villages hangs in the balance, with the Naxals lurking in the shadows.