How to destroy a district

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Nerve centre Janjgir-Champa is situated next to the coal-rich districts of Korba and Raigarh

AS LOUDSPEAKERS announced the conclusion of the public hearing, the mob started hurling abuses. Company executives ran for their lives. A 100-strong contingent of sleepy policemen, watching the proceedings till then with disinterest, suddenly swung into action to ensure the safety of officials.

The scene occurred at Birra village in the nondescript Janjgir-Champa district in Chhattisgarh on 22 September. The occasion was a public hearing for a 1,320 MW power plant proposed by Moser Baer.

More than 1,000 people listened as one by one, the aggrieved presented their views. The crowd cheered when Puri Bai from Siladeh screamed that she won’t give her land at any cost. “Where would we and our children go?” she asked.

Janjgir-Champa, a once peaceful district with 80 percent irrigated land, has now become a hotspot for setting up new industries. The state government has signed around 34 memoranda of understanding (MoUs) for thermal power plants slated to produce around 34,000 MW— almost onefourth of India’s current thermal power production and enough to feed all of north or south India. Chhattisgarh, with a population of 2.5 crore people, currently produces around 5,000 MW, consuming not more than 3,000 MW.

Janjgir-Champa does not have any coal and mineral reserves but became the new focus when neighbouring Korba, known as one of the most industrialised and mineral- rich districts of India, was ranked as the fifth most polluted in the list of Critically Polluted Areas in the country in 2009. This led to a moratorium being imposed there by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) on any further environment clearances being granted in that region.

With good rail and road connectivity to coal-rich Odisha and Jharkhand, Janjgir-Champa is the least forested district in the state and was traditionally known for silk, brass and gold. It has now been bombarded with more than 100 new offers by various business houses. An estimated 40,000 acres, equal to half the area of capital city Raipur, is being acquired for thermal power plants alone. People who first sold the land to power companies at very low prices felt cheated later.

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