Murshidabad (Bengal): Mango and lychee cultivators in Bengal have had a successful year with a bumper crop this time, but the story was different for farmers in the village of Beniyagram Imamnagar in Murshidabad district. For the first time in hundreds of years, say villagers, the area’s famed mango and lychee orchard did not yield any produce.
When this correspondent visited the century-old mango and lychee orchard in June this year, it seemed to have been devastated by a great deluge. Broken branches were scattered and a few trees lay fallen. The mahogany trees near the pond had been clinically cut down, and their massive stumps stood as testament to their lost glory.
In what was otherwise a deserted landscape, a tall electrical tower, locally known as the “Adani Tower”, loomed large. Leafy branches had been placed pell mell at the base of the towers almost as a natural barrier.
Earlier this month, Gautam Adani, the chairman of the Adani Group, met Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Dhaka, after power supply from the Group’s thermal power plant in Jharkhand’s Godda was kickstarted. The Godda USCTPP marked the Adani Group’s entry into transnational power projects. This is India’s first commissioned transnational power project where 100% of the generated power is being supplied to another nation.
Electricity-bearing cables from Godda are passing through several areas of West Bengal, including Farakka in Murshidabad and Malda, before finally entering Bangladesh.
One such tower, supporting these cables, is at the mango and lychee orchard in the village of Beniyagram Imamnagar. It is in the construction of this tower in 2022 that a story lies.
Getting to Jafarganj Bazar in Beniyagram Imamnagar, via Benegram Dadantola, was a challenging task.
The route reflected the poverty of the place, with ramshackle houses and little by way of infrastructure.
Women were seen working in the courtyards, tying bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes) into shape. All was calm when suddenly, startled by the presence of a stranger – this reporter – they began blowing loudly into their conch shells. The sound alerted everyone in the area and within minutes all the men had disappeared in an instant.
Villager Lutfar Rahman, the convener of Jeevan Jivika Bachao (‘save lives and jobs’) Committee, later offered an inkling as to why there was such a reaction. Villagers fear police will arrive at their doorsteps with fabricated charges. Rahman himself is living elsewhere, because he feels he may be implicated in a case suddenly brought by the police.
Why is that?
This is because villagers are engaged in a war of sorts with local law enforcement, who they allege are acting on the Adani Group’s behalf.
It was a while before local young men, realising this correspondent was not a threat, took me to the fruit orchard to tell me why they are suspicious of police and what this orchard has seen. The lights on the high-tension electric tower flickered in the distance.
Asghar Sheikh, a local, began to speak: “The Adani group acquired only 16 cottah of land here from two locals, Syed Ali Mushtaq and Israel. On it, they planned to construct the high-tension tower on that land. We realised immediately that this would result in the complete destruction of the mango orchard.”
The price of this would be enormous.
“A mid-sized tree can give you 30,000-35,000 lychees. Even if the prices fall a lot, you can sell each fruit for at least Re 1. Our three-century-old lychee trees yield no fewer than 1,00,000-1,50,000 lychees. These fruits are the most expensive in the state. All through the year, we look after the trees, irrigate the land, apply manure and spray insecticides. This is our job and our only livelihood,” says Sheikh.
Sheikh says that this fear compelled the village to oppose the construction. “We sought legal recourse by approaching the Calcutta high court. The court was scheduled to deliver its order on the matter on July 4, 2022. However, on July 2, they made a significant move,” Sheikh said.
Who were “they?”
Wasim Khan, a local youth, said “they” were armed policemen and officials who arrived in the morning of July 2.
Already, before July 2, more than 150 trees had been cut from the orchard, said locals. Villagers were thus suspicious of the officials.
They say that even before there could be any dialogue, policemen began beating up villagers, including women and children. Their homes were vandalised and nine women were severely injured. “The police and Adani swiftly occupied the deserted village, setting up camps,” Khan adds.
They used machines to cut down the mahogany, mango and lychee trees and quickly loaded them onto trucks, probably to sell off the valuable timber, says Sheikh.
“They swiftly brought in generators and installed halogen lights so as to be able to quickly clear the entire orchard in an overnight operation,” he adds. Sheikh says that the smell of sap still lingers from the oldest trees that were cut down.
Another villager says that the tall tower which usually takes around a month to construct was built in three days. For those three days, none of the residents could return to the village. When police and Adani officials finally left, villagers who had sought refuge elsewhere began trickling back.
Khan, quoted earlier, says that shortly afterwards, at a time when many of the villagers were injured in the police beating and undergoing treatment at the Jangipur hospital nearby, a group of policemen arrived at the hospital and arrested them. They were kept in jail for 16 days before being let go, Khan claims.
The exercise took away the villagers’ chance to reap a fruit crop this time, they say.
Khan now works at a hotel in Goa, having realised after the lack of crops this year that life has a fruit cultivator will only get more difficult. There are many like him, he says, who are leaving the village to move to other states for better livelihood prospects.
Rights organisation Manabadhikar Andolan member Sukanta Das says that had the high-tension wire passed over a smaller field, it would not have been as big a problem. Once power passes through these wires, trees will not be able to grow on its path. During storms, the danger of such wires getting ensnared in trees and snapping is a real one he says. “I cannot understand why our state police is so eager to protect the interests of a private concern at such a cost,” he adds.
The villages of Dadantola, Ballalpur, Kholakandi, and Samaspur have also seen similar scenes. In Dadantola too, a skirmish between villagers and police led to injuries on both sides. In all these villages, electric towers have been installed.
As more villagers speak to this reporter on the situation, an elderly man asks why Didi – the term for elder sister, used for chief minister Mamata Banerjee – is not coming to their aid and why Narendra Modi, in power at the centre, is missing too. “Who is Adani to dictate our lives? Is there no justice?” he asks.
Locals also raise the issue of a lack of effort on the state government’s part to fix compensation amounts. The average price of a cottah of land in and around the Dadantola area is Rs 5 lakh. However, if that agricultural land is part of an orchard, the price could be even higher. Locals claim that more than 500 acres of land have been encroached upon for the electrical tower. One acre is 32 cottahs in Bengal; 500 would be 16,000 cottahs.
A key member of the corporate communication team from Adani Power, responsible for the Godda sector, spoke to The Wire over the phone, but did not address the charges of violence against villagers. “The matter is pending before the court. We will accept the court’s verdict. We have accepted the court’s verdict before, and this time will not be different. Electricity supply has already started in Bangladesh. We will abide by the law,” the spokesperson said.
So what could the officials have done differently?
Prashant Nandi Chowdhury, a retired engineer of the West Bengal Power Development Corporation, with experience in power supply to remote areas through towers, says caution is key.
“During the construction of any power plant, it is necessary to conduct surveys in advance to identify a power supply route. If the towers were installed directly, by leaving enough space next to the strong embankment at Farakka or by the river, then the poor people who cultivate mango and lychee would not be in danger.”
Translated from the Bengali original by Aparna Bhattacharya.