Deadly disputes over environment and land in India’s wealthiest states

Indian protesters hold placards and shout slogans during a demonstration against the killings of protesters in Tuticorin, in Chennai on May 24, 2018.
A protester shot during demonstrations against a copper plant in southern India died of his injuries on May 24, officials said, the 13th victim killed by police fire. / AFP PHOTO / ARUN SANKAR

BANGKOK: Deadly clashes last week in southern India, and farmers’ protests in the west against a refinery and a bullet train, highlight the increasingly fraught disputes over land and environment in the country’s most industrialized states. Police opened fire Tuesday on protesters seeking to shut down a copper smelter run by Vedanta Resources in the southern port city of Thoothukudi, killing 10. Three more persons have since died.
Residents and activists had for years demanded the plant be shut down, saying its emissions were polluting the air, water and soil, affecting people’s health and livelihoods. Vedanta denied the allegations, and said in a statement that it had complied with “all the necessary regulations”. On Thursday, officials in Tamil Nadu state, where Thoothukudi is located, ordered the plant to be shut down. “This government…respects the sentiments of the people (and) is taking steps legally to close down the unit,” chief minister Edappadi K Palaniswami told reporters.

The protests are among several in India’s wealthiest states, where villagers are increasingly taking to the streets against industry-friendly policies they say are taking away their land and livelihoods. Across the country, such conflicts have increased, activists say, as land is sought for industrial use in one of the world’s fastest growing major economies. A 2013 law was meant to protect the rights of farmers and villagers, ensuring consensus over land acquisitions, rehabilitation for those displaced, and adequate compensation. It also requires environment and social impact assessments.

But several states have diluted these provisions to speed up acquisitions for developments they say generate jobs and wealth. In the rush to lure more investors, officials often clear projects too quickly and overlook violations, analysts say. “The more developed states have a reputation for being more business friendly, so they receive more applications for setting up industry, and they clear them faster,” said Aseem Shrivastava, a development economist. “They tend to have a lighter touch with violations to keep investments coming,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Blind eye
Tamil Nadu, among the most industrialized states in the country, is dogged by reports of child labor and abuse of tens of thousands of women workers in its multi-billion dollar textile industry. At the same time, policies that favor industry have driven hundreds of desperate farmers in the state to take their own lives, activists say. “Laws to protect people only exist on paper,” said Geetha Narayanan, an activist in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu state where the deadly protests against the smelter took place.

“In Thoothukudi, people have been protesting for 20 years, and going to court to say public consultations were not held, that environmental impact assessments were not done. Yet the government turned a blind eye until lives were lost,” she said. In the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra, farmers have taken to the streets to protest land acquisitions for a bullet train, as well as a $44-billion refinery and petrochemical project. The $17-billion-dollar high-speed rail link to connect financial hub Mumbai and Ahmedabad, has sparked a debate on the definition of “public purpose”, or the state’s legal right to take private property for public use.
Officials say the train, being built with Japanese cooperation, will cut travel time between the two cities by more than half, to under three hours, helping businesses, and generating more jobs in the areas serviced by the line. Farmers stand to lose 850 hectares of land, and have not given their consent as required, said Sagar Rabari, a leader with farmers’ group Gujarat Khedut Samaj. “This is fertile land that is the only means of livelihood for thousands,” Rabari said by phone. “If we lose this land, how will we live?” Calls to the National High Speed Rail Corporation seeking comment were not returned.

Hold accountable
Gujarat and Maharashtra states account for more than a tenth of the nearly 600 ongoing land disputes in the country, according to data from research firm Land Conflict Watch. Along with Tamil Nadu, they are among India’s most industrialised states, with wealthier and better educated populations – factors that contribute to a greater number of conflicts, said Shrivastava. “While the states are wealthier, the urban-rural divide is wider, which is leading to more dissatisfaction among villagers,” he said.

“But because literacy levels are higher, people are more aware of their rights, follow the government’s moves more closely, and are better able to organize and protest. So we’re going to see more, and more violent conflicts,” he said. In Maharashtra, thousands of farmers are also refusing to surrender land for a proposed refinery of a consortium of Indian firms with Saudi Aramco, the world’s top oil producer.

The earmarked region along India’s west coast is famed for its juicy Alphonso mangoes and lush cashew plantations. The state government has failed to secure even one acre of the roughly 15,000 acres needed, state industry minister Subhash Desai told Reuters. Some of those farmers joined thousands of others in a 180-km march to Mumbai recently, demanding that the government recognize their rights over forests and stop the forced acquisition land for industrial projects.
Other farmers in Gujarat had reason to celebrate this week, as the US Supreme Court agreed to hear their lawsuit against a World Bank agency, which financed a power plant they blame for damaging the environment and their livelihoods. “The government says development is good. But the fact that industries contribute to the economy does not preclude them from following the law,” said Ritwick Dutta, an environmental lawyer who has taken Vedanta and other large corporations to court. “People’s lives are at stake,” he said. – Reuters

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