A political storm is brewing in Kerala against Suzlon Energy, the wind turbine major. It is accused of running wind farms in illegally-bought land in tribal settlements and forest lands in the Attappady region of the Western Ghats.
The United Democratic Front (UDF), a coalition of opposition parties led by the Congress, is planning to step up an agitation.
Pune-based Sarjan Realties, which arranged land for Suzlon’s wind farms, managed to buy 600 acres of land in and around Attapady, mainly in Sholayoor and Agali Panchayats since end-2006. Many of these transactions were done by third parties and middlemen other than tribals, who orchestrated multiple transactions on the same land and finally sold it to the company, charged T Radhakrishnan, former forest minister of Kerala and a senior Congress leader, who spearheads the agitation.
Suzlon did not respond to an e-mail sent on Friday last week. An executive of its public relations agency said the matter was pending in court.
According to the prospectus filed by Suzlon with the Securities and Exchange Board of India for an initial public offer of shares, Sarjan Realties is an associate company of Suzlon, promoted by Tulsi Tanti, the chairman, and his family. It is formally engaged in acquiring land for Suzlon’s wind turbines.
“In several cases, the land mafia took signs or thumb impressions from the tribals under the pretext that the signs are for erecting electricity poles in their land and paid only Rs 15,000 to Rs 25,000,” said Radhakrishnan, who recently led a high-profile ‘fact finding’ team of UDF politicians to Attappady.
The issue picked up mass a month earlier, following the Palakkad district collector recommending a probe into land deals in the region in the past few years. Enquiries by the collector and another enquiry by the local Tribal Project Officer revealed that huge tracts of land belonging to the tribals in Attapady were transacted frequently by middlemen and even titles of land were forged in many cases. Under Kerala’s Tribal Land Act of 1975, tribal land can only be transacted between the tribals, who were the original dwellers of the region for centuries. In a related case, the Supreme Court had directed the State Government to cancel all non-tribal land transactions done in the region after 1986.
Attappady has some 6,000 tribal families in 180 settlements spread over three panchayats. Sarjan Realties owns over 240 acres of tribal land, including about 50 acres of forest land. The company currently generates about 35 Mw of electricity and 62 turbines have been installed in the region, said Radhakrishnan.
In Suzlon’s business model in India, turbines and land are sold to its clients. Suzlon undertakes only operations and maintenance of the turbines.
“It is a blatant violation of laws to take away land from poor tribals, using money power and support of government machinery. Not only the deals related to Suzlon, but also other land deals in the region need to be investigated,” said Veerendra Kumar, former Union minister for state and media-plantations industrialist, who was part of a team of UDF leaders who visited Attapady.
The ruling CPI(M)’s state secretariat has defended Suzlon, saying its land acquisitions were legally valid and have the protection of the Kerala Restriction on Transfer by and Restoration of Lands of Scheduled Tribes Act, 1999, which validates the transfer of ST land lots below five acres each, if effected before 1988.
Veerendra Kumar and Radhakrishnan said the Act was not applicable for Suzlon’s deals, since the company acquired land for industrial purposes. Further, it encroached on 50 acres of forest land, without clearance from the forest department, they said.
In June last year, Suzlon had to face similar trouble at the Dhule-Nandurbar region of Maharashtra, where it is setting up Asia’s largest wind farm, of 1,000 Mw. It was accused of buying tribal land without paying adequate compensation.
Suzlon, which posted losses of over Rs 900 crore for the June quarter, is trying to get out of its financial troubles and the issue of rotor blade cracks two years earlier, which cost it many millions of dollars.