Neither Switzerland nor Singapore but a Site of Daily Struggle

Singrauli is the energy capital of India, a place critical to the Modi government's plans for power for all, yet its own people are powerless

At a time when the Modi government is promising 24 x 7 power-for-all, the ‘last man’ and woman in Singrauli must be wondering where they stand in the Prime Minister’s vision. Certainly, none of the steps that have been spelt out towards achieving this goal, have anything to say on their condition.

While, the debate over the Land Acquisition Act continues, the Singrauli region provides a perfect illustration of why the state-mediated transfer of land to private corporations is always preferred by the project developers. It is unfortunate that even after a long history of unfair rehabilitation and displacement, we still need to discuss the importance of social impact assessments, free, prior informed consent and the definition of “public purpose” itself. In a federal democratic polity, it is crucial to understand the regional interest and need to be attentive to local concerns if resource development projects are to truly be in the national interest. It is also important to realise that there are layers of ‘public’ in the bracket of “public purpose”: those who lose their land and livelihood because of such projects and those who are actual beneficiaries residing thousands of kilometres away.

Singrauli, popularly known as the “energy capital of India”, hosts more than 10% of the total installed thermal power capacity of India and presently provides power to 16 states. But Singrauli itself is a geographically isolated and socio-economically backward region of Madhya Pradesh. Approximately 50% of the population still lives below the poverty line.

By 2017, Singrauli alone is expected to feed around 35,000 MW of electrical power to the national grid. In the last 10 years, the Madhya Pradesh government has received massive private investment of approximately 1 lakh crore rupees for the development of thermal power plants and coal mining in the Singrauli region. Perhaps, this is why Singrauli was carved out of Sidhi district as an independent district in 2008, following the inherent tendency of capital to redraw geographical boundaries according to the value of resources. The newly created “spaces” of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh went through a similar process of spatial, political and economic restructuring, to facilitate the smooth entry of industrial and mining capital.

Singrauli has a long history of multiple displacement, and is locked into relations of dependency, serving the ‘national’ interest since the 1960s, while bearing huge social and environmental costs. Since the district was formed in 2008, more than 15,000 acres of land have been acquired, displacing more than 10,000 families. While land has been acquired at a phenomenal rate, there has been no similar progress in rehabilitating people and restoring their livelihood. The government and developers need to understand that R&R is a “project within project” and requires the same effort and attention that is given to land acquisition.

No regional development plan

When inaugurating the Rihand Dam in 1962, Nehru had promised that Singrauli would become the ‘Switzerland of India’. While inaugurating the district in 2008, Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Shivraj Singh Chauhan, claimed he wanted to “develop Singrauli into another Singapore”. But far from being Switzerland or Singapore, for thousands of displaced families, Singrauli today means a long struggle for land and livelihood. The district does not have a proper regional development plan which demarcates coal bearing and non-coal bearing regions so that people can plan future settlement after being displaced, and access alternative land and livelihood. It would not be surprising if one of the recently developed R&R colonies is classified as a coal bearing zone or project area and the State again kicks the displaced families out. The M.P. government has never realised the importance of having a rehabilitation department at the district level, working towards the regulation and monitoring of rehabilitation programs.

What is required is a comprehensive social audit of previous rehabilitation programs. Instead, the priority has been the acquisition and transfer of land to corporations; as well as attacks on organisations like Greenpeace, which has been actively taking up the issues of tribal families dependent on the Amelia forest (Mahan coal mining project) in Singrauli and raising critical questions concerning their lives and livelihood.

While NTPC and Reliance Power have been successful in establishing their projects in Singrauli, both developers have faced hurdles over the last ten years in acquiring land in Northern Karnpura in Jharkhand. In May 2015, the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group decided to pull out of their Tilaiya UMPP project due to the delay in land acquisitions and cost overrun. It is important to discuss why the same developers and similar projects are successful in one state and fail miserably in another state. It is not only governance that matters but also the social preparedness of the community that decides the fate of such huge investments. In comparing Hazaribagh in Jharkhand and Singrauli in Madhya Pradesh, one major contrast lies in the community’s awareness and ability to question the state and assert their rights. With Singrauli’s long history of displacement, people have been worn into submission, and are used to shifting homes.  However, the MP government cannot afford to take people for granted.

Demands for resource sharing

In the context of mining, analysing the way federalism plays out in the natural resource sector is critical, especially given Mr. Modi’s stated commitment to more decentralisation. The resource bearing states have been consistently writing to the Central Finance Commission asking for a “just” resource revenue sharing mechanism between the Centre and States. They have also been demanding a national programme to compensate the states for the irreparable damage caused by mining activities; the royalty paid to state governments is inadequate. Jharkhand has been demanding special status for a decade already. Recently the government revised royalty rates for iron and bauxite, but has introduced no changes for coal and lignite. However, the question is not just devolution of funds to states, but how states translate that into the lives of their people.

More than the “clash of civilization”, clashes over land have the potential to radically alter the existing fault lines in politics and development policies. Almost all Maoist violence is sourced and concentrated on land, especially forest and mining land. The Centre’s approach of providing “development packages” to mining districts when there is a violent crisis is absurd. The question is why such spaces are kept deprived in the first place. No amount of compensation is enough when a robust and inalienable right to livelihood is not built into the idea of compensation. Power for all will be meaningless until the people of Singrauli are empowered.

Shashi Ratnaker Singh is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge