Kanhai Ram Patel, 41, of Sarasmal, a tribal village, 40 km from Raigarh, has 15 FIRs (first information reports) registered against him in the local police station. This piece of statistic may traditionally match that of a dreaded criminal but Patel, a farmer, is fighting for what he calls "survival and justice".
Patel's village, a cluster of mud huts divided by a single road, is surrounded on three sides by an open cast coal mine of Jindal Power Ltd (JPL). The village seems like a green beach of a black sea of coal. Patel is one of the few villagers who have not given away their land and are fighting against JPL, which allegedly discharges poisonous effluents into his field.
"Whenever I protest along with others, the police register a case against me. Most witnesses in every case are Jindal employees," alleges Patel, while pointing at his lush green field, adjacent to the coal mine. Patel's family and seven other villagers, including four tribals, who own around 38 acres of land, have decided not to yield to any pressure and fight it out in the court.
"They (company) try every possible way to throw us out and take away our land," adds Patel, who is dependent on the produce from his field and rental income from the two shops he owns in another village. In his field, Patel grows fruit and vegetables and has a mahua tree as well. "I want to save this greenery for my progeny. But in sometime I dread this whole village will be wiped out," he sighs.
The last house of Sarasmal village belongs to a tribal labourer, Bal Mukund Rathia, who has given away his land to the company at a meagre compensation of Rs 50,000 per acre. "It was a sort of forced acquisition," Rathia laments. But now even his house is not safe. The compound seems to be an extension of the coal mine, with heaps of soil and rubble dug from the mine by JPL, dumped in the premises.
"Everyday I feel tremors in the house twice, due to blasting in the mine -- my next door neighbour. Some rocks even land on the rooftop or compound," says Rathia, whose family includes a two-year-old child. The water pump outside his house is dry as ground water has depleted alarmingly. The women go to a common water tank nearby, which is installed by Jindal Power as part of its corporate social responsibility. While moving out of the village, heaps of rubble were seen dumped in the fields, which, Rathia said, has not been acquired yet.
"The company wants us to be completely dependent on them and mock us with these sort of water tanks. We installed our own electric motor to pull water from the bore, but the electricity department took it away, demanding submission of electricity bills of Rs 7 lakh. It is just another tactic to harass us," says Patel. The village pond is also polluted due to coal dust and black water emissions from the mine. But, people washing clothes and taking bath in the pond is a common scene. Villagers complain of various water- borne, skin and respiratory diseases.
Raigarh district magistrate Mukesh Bansal told this reporter that there should be a gap of at least 300 metres between the coal mine and nearest residential house and 100 metres from the village pond or the field. "I have not been able to visit Sarasmal yet. But I will definitely go there and take action, if there is any violation," he said.
The government also has not conducted any environmental or health study in the region for more than a decade. Environment and health department officials in Raigarh, pleading anonymity, rued about poor infrastructure and dearth of human resource. The locals have also raised questions on the land acquisition by mining companies including Jindal Steel and Power, while referring to the Panchayat Extension to Schedule Areas (PESA) Act. The Act covers most areas in the mining region and makes gram sabha and panchayat clearances mandatory for such processes.
"Here, the companies have even faked clearances as gram sabhas were held under heavy security and duress in 2008. There have also been instances when they were not held," Patel said. A study conducted by the Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies and Raigarh's Jan Chetna says, in Sarasmal, companies have even threatened or intimidated villagers into selling their land.
"Intimidation includes dumping material on individual's land, blocking access to their fields, cutting down trees, forcibly digging up land and many others. In Sarasmal and Kosampali, we found 26 percent of land were sold or acquired illegally by companies," the 35-page study reveals. "Illegal occupation of land by the company accounts for 22 per cent in Sarasmal and Kosampali."
While, this reporter drove out of the village, passing through the common road that also leads to the coal mine entry gate, security guards of the mine, intercepted. "Where are you from?" they asked. "Delhi," this reporter replied and drove away, before they could ask anything more.