You can lease a river in Chhattisgarh for 22 years. At just Rs. 1 per annum. While thousands go thirsty
IN MAHMARA village of Durg district in Chhattisgarh, Ramoram Thakur, 70, recalls how as a boy he would sing and hear folklore about water, fishermen and farmers of his village, tucked into the western edge of Sheonath river. However, such legends have a tragic ending nowadays.
Seated near a babul tree in the community choupal, the old man shares stories with children about how the river passed onto the hands of a private company, which denied villagers water for drinking, washing and irrigation, stopped fishermen from casting their nets and prevented locals from taking sand from the riverbed.
“Their barrage drowned a cremation ground on the banks. Dozens of village located downstream were left with little water. What belonged to us for centuries is no longer available for our use,” he laments.
Thakur is talking about the Sheonath, the first river to be handed over to a private group, Radius Water Limited (RWL), in 1998 by the government of undivided Madhya Pradesh through its undertaking, MP Aydhyogik Kendra Vikas Nigam Ltd (MPAKVN), now Chhattisgarh State Industrial Development Corporation (CSIDC). Despite major losses to the government, the state didn’t scrap the deal nor could it help the thirsty villagers.
Since then, Chhattisgarh has seen hundreds of companies investing in the state and many vying for the river waters. In a recent deal, the Water Resource Department (WRD) gave its nod to 141 private and government projects for which it will be supplying nearly 2,600 million cubic metres (mcm) of water from rivers every year. Interestingly the state supplies only 2,000 mcm of water for irrigation every year.
Carved out of Madhya Pradesh on 1 November 2000, Chhattisgarh wasn’t a water-scarce state. According to unofficial estimates, the state has 32,000 ponds. With major river basins — Mahanadi, Godavari, Narmada and Brahmani Kachar — and several major rivers — Kurkut, Mahanadi, Kharun, Sheonath, Indravati, Jonk, Kelo, Sabri, Hasdev, Peri, and Maand — water shortage was never an issue.
But the priorities have changed. Earlier, dams were built to store water for irrigation. Now, they are being constructed for supplying water to industry. In fact, the Chhattisgarh government openly declares that it is committed to giving water to industries throughout the year but not to farmers for rabi crop.
THE SALE of Chhattisgarh’s rivers began in 1998 when the then MP government handed a 23.6 km stretch of Sheonath river in Durg to RWL, pleading shortage of funds for supplying water to industries. In a shocking story of “corruption and favouritism”, as an Assembly nominated committee discovered later, the Rs. 9 crore project was signed on 5 October 1998 between MPAKVN and RWL on a build, own, operate and transfer (BOOT) basis. The plan was to build a barrage on the Sheonath to supply up to 30 million litres per day (mld) to the Borai Industrial Centre. Construction was completed in two years and operations began in January 2001.
“We got to know about the sale of the river only when RWL began harassing us,” alleges Khemlal Sahu, a farmer in Mahmara. “Almost 25 percent of the villagers are fishermen. They were stopped from fishing. Soon, fencing around the 23.6 km stretch began. Iron gates were erected on both sides of the barrage to prevent locals from approaching the river.”
The deal inherited by the CSIDC gave RWL exclusive access to the river water for 22 years. It also held control rights over the supply of water to the Borai Industrial Centre and the CSIDC was obliged to provide land free of cost. CSIDC also handed over its entire infrastructure in Borai, and assets worth Rs. 5 crore to Kailash Soni, owner of Kailash Engineering, for a lease of a token Rs. 1 per year for establishing a water supply project on BOOT basis. The CSIDC was to purchase water from RWL and later sell it to the industrial units in Borai.
Though there was a lack of sufficient demand for water, then MPAKVN managing director GS Mishra signed the agreement with RWL. Back then, Borai had two large and medium-scale industries, and their combined water requirement was between 1.14 and 2.5 mld, while the CSIDC had to compulsorily shell out money for 4 mld. Adding to the losses, CSIDC purchased water at Rs. 15 a cubic metre (1,000 litres) from RWL. However, it sold water to industries at only Rs. 12 a cubic metre. The agreement meant that CSIDC would incur a loss of 20 percent on every unit of water it sold. Increase in both supply or demand would mean higher losses. Adding to the toll was Hindustan Electro Graphite (HEG) that was to buy almost 90 percent of the CSIDC’s water sales but reneged on its agreement.
While CSIDC continued to incur losses, public outrage fuelled by continuous harassment of people by RWL saw several NGOs participating in the agitation. Those who joined the protest included villagers from Mohlai, Boludi, Malood, Kotni, Piperchadi, Kekro Koli, Bedwa Pathra, Vagrum Nala and Basik Hai — all affected by the drying up of the Sheonath downstream.
The Nadi Ghati Morcha (NGM) started a movement from Durg that reached Raipur and then Delhi. Roadblocks and rallies were held. The ferocity of the protests finally forced the then chief minister Ajit Jogi to announce the “abrogation of the RWL contract” on 2 April 2003. However, he didn’t keep his promise.
|FOR A FEW LITRES MORE
The industrial revolution is coming at a heavy price
paise is the price Jindal Steel and Power Limited pays for every 1,000 litres of river water. Other companies are charged about Rs. 3 for the same
is the stretch of Sheonath river controlled by Radius Water. The area has been fenced and villagers are prohibited from using the water
million cubic metres drawn annually by Jindal Steel from Kurkut river. The agreement, signed on 14 January 2008, will be renewed after 30 years
|Rs. 185 cr
revenue loss suffered by the Chhattisgarh government during 2007-08 because of “undue benefits” provided to private companies
million cubic metres allotted annually to companies investing in the coming years. In contrast, agriculture and irrigation will get only 2,000 mcm
NGM coordinator Gautam Bandhopadhyay says, “People had plenty of fresh water for cooking and working. But they don’t have rights over the common property. RWL may have invested money but the villagers who are living in the area for centuries have invested resources and have equal rights on the water.”
n 2003, the state Assembly constituted a Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to probe the privatisation of Sheonath. The committee presented its report on 16 March 2007 lambasting both CSIDC and RWL for signing a deal that caused loss to the state exchequer and harm to villagers.
THE GOVERNMENT vowed to cancel the contract “within a legal framework” and pay compensation to RWL for the lease period after the legal department and the Advocate General give their opinions. The legal department reportedly said, “If the government ends the contract, it has to pay a compensation of Rs. 400 crore.” Since then, nothing has changed. RWL continues to manage the barrage and the reservoir while the spate of public protests too has declined and so has their impact.
Ramchandra Singhdeo, who was the irrigation minister when the deal was struck, says, “Without the knowledge of the irrigation secretary, engineer-in-chief and myself, the CSIDC managing director signed a deal that proved detrimental to both villagers and government. We sought action reports from the government over the PAC’s recommendations but the usual reply was: the legal department is looking into the matter. I don’t know why the government is reluctant to scrap this deal.”
Current CSIDC MD Devendra Singh says the contract can continue as it has started to reap benefits. “Earlier, CSIDC was making losses. But now we are selling 8-9 mld of water to half-a-dozen big and small companies at beneficial rates,” he says. Singh is quick to add that scrapping the agreement would mean CSIDC paying Rs. 36 crore to RWL as compensation.
Water Resource Minister Hemchand Yadav concedes the deal between CSIDC and RWL was “flawed and skewed” in favour of the latter. The government is willing to scrap the contract and pay Rs. 10 crore to RWL as compensation. “This deal affected several villages and the government. I guess the controversy will die in a year,” he says.
But will RWL accept Rs. 10 crore? “If the contract is stopped before its term, the termination clauses have to be fulfilled. But nothing like that is going to happen,” says a defiant Pramod Agrawal, RWL project director. Lashing out at the PAC, he says it has no jurisdiction over the issue, which is in the domain of the public undertaking committee. “But the public undertaking committee was never formed by the state Assembly. Even PAC members never talked to us. It’s a farce. We reject it,” he says.
Agrawal says three other projects — New Capital Water Supply, Siltra Industrial Estate Water Supply and Urla Industrial Estate Water Supply — were also privatised “and if our project is terminated, these projects too should be abrogated. Why isn’t anyone talking about these projects? We are convinced the government or the CSIDC don’t have the money to compensate us and abrogate the agreement”.
Agrawal denied that villagers are being stopped from using the river water. “It was on the orders of the CSIDC and sub-district magistrate that revenue department officials uprooted the villagers’ water pumps. We didn’t allow fishermen to catch fish because we were following police orders. The police wanted them to stay away from our power sub-station fearing violence.”
MEANWHILE, TROUBLE was brewing in Bonda Tikra village, Raigarh district. Shanti Bai and her husband Shauki Lal, both daily wagers, were living happily in Bonda Tikra, located on the banks of Kelo, a tributary of Mahanadi, until a check dam and intake well were constructed by Jindal Steel and Power Ltd (JSPL). “I didn’t know how precious water was until it was snatched from us,” says Bai.
In 1996, JSPL tried to draw water from Kelo for its sponge iron factory and power plant. However, the government refused permission saying it would cause water shortage. JSPL mounted pressure and it soon erected a stop dam and began drawing 35,400 cubic metres of water every day.
The structures hampered irrigation in 14 villages downstream. “In summers, we usually dig the riverbed with our hands and draw water in plastic jugs. Now, the water pump sucks all the water while we struggle to get a drop,” says Bai.
To protest against JSPL’s dam and intake well, locals sat on a seven-day hunger strike in 1998. When the rest of the country was celebrating Republic Day, Satyabhama, an Adivasi woman, became the struggle’s first ‘martyr’. “Her death won’t go waste. Our resistance will continue,” vows Bai. “But our struggle’s success depends on whose side the government decides to take.”
Almost 13 years have passed since the fight to restore the river flow began. The intake well and the check dam still stand on the river Kelo protected by JSPL guards.
The success of Sheonath and Kelo spurred a series of private projects that saw villagers pitted against government and private firms. Private barrages and dams over many rivers have come up since then. Kurkut in Raigarh, Sabri in Dantewada, Kharun in Raipur, Hasdeo in Korba and Champa, and Maand in Janjgir-Champa have been handed over to private players.
Almost 60 km from Raigarh, Ghanau Ram Gariya, 62, along with dozens of tribals in Burbhona village, is waiting in line to collect subsidised rice not from a rice depot but from an official sitting inside a community dispensary. “This should tell you the state of affairs in our village,” says Gariya, a farmer-turned-casual labourer.
Till 2007, Gariya and other tribals grew melon and cucumber on Kurkut’s banks. Rabi farming was also done in April, May and June. However, a huge barrage and a dam that was built 35 km upstream at Rabo village soon choked the river flow. The water was being fed to 1,000 MW JSPL power plants at Tamnar. Soon, farmers living in 12 villages, including Jampali, Kikricholi, Dehjari, lost their water source.
“Since then, we have to migrate to other villages in the summer. Do you know how it feels when you don’t bathe or wash your face for weeks at a stretch?” asks Gariya. Last summer, a group of villagers headed for Rabo dam seeking immediate discharge of water from Kurkut. JSPL employees allegedly thrashed them with bamboo sticks. The distraught tribals and villagers wrote a letter to their MLA, Anand Kumar Patel, seeking immediate discharge of water. The MLA managed to get water released only once in 90 days of the harsh summer.
“That was the time when we cursed ourselves for not joining the agitation led by Rabo villagers. It taught us a lesson,” says Vedran Dhandsena, one of the village heads. He is referring to the agitation in which villagers of Rabo, where a dam and a barrage was built, had protested the construction of mega structures in the village and the agreement that allowed JSPL to draw 54 mcm of water every year from Kurkut and release only 7 mcm per year.
In 2004, when JSPL started acquisition of additional land in Rabo for its power project, residents of 15 villages started an agitation with tough resistance coming from Rabo village where the dam was to be built. The dam would submerge almost 350 hectares of forest land and affect thousands of hectares of irrigated land.
Rabo villagers spearheaded the protest and blocked roads leading to the project site with tree trunks and rocks. They also patrolled the entrance to the village for several nights. And soon public outrage pushed the government to order a halt on the work at site on 4 November 2004.
“But with government officials’ patronage, Jindal resumed work within a week,” recalls Champi Bai, who became famous for grabbing a revenue official by his collar during the protest. She says the government didn’t hold any public hearing when JSPL got clearance in 1997 for the first phase of the power project in Tamnar. “From the beginning, the government has worked to benefit the company,” she says.
The government not only gave up on the ownership of the dam but also charged JSPL a paltry 90 paise for every 1,000 litres when other firms pay around Rs. 3 for the same.
“This is just another example of how the government ruined its resources, favoured a private company and harmed tribals of a dozen villages,” says Ramesh Agarwal, 55, an activist and founder of Jan Chetana, which monitors mining, water and industrial projects in Raigarh.
The agreement dated 14 January 2008 signed with the JSPL, a copy of which is in TEHELKA’S possession, reads, “The company shall pay to the government rates for water drawn by it from the said natural or government water source at the rates fixed by the WRD order No. 1819/7-A/WR/TS/IWS/02/D-4 Raipur dated 21.03.2006, which is 90 paise only per cubic metre.”
THE JSPL management says it owns the dam without which “we couldn’t get 70 percent of the money from banks as loan”. “Banks give a loan only when the structure is yours,” says Pradeep Tandon, senior vice-president, corporate affairs, JSPL. Last May, the government revised the rates and JSPL would be paying Rs. 2.80 per cubic metre, he says. Asked about the tussle between JSPL and villagers, he says the people’s anger should be directed against the government and not at the JSPL, because “we only work under government rules”.
There are other instances when companies have guzzled water without any proper agreement with the government. According to the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report for the year ended 31 March 2009, National Thermal Power Corporation has been drawing water from a canal in the state for the past 11 years without any agreement. “The penalty charges for the unauthorised withdrawal amounts to Rs. 316.26 crore for the period between June 1998 to March 2009,” the report says.
In its previous report, the CAG had lambasted the CSIDC for “causing a revenue loss of Rs. 22.09 crore due to the supply of water at lower rates, non-revision of usage charges and delay in execution of lease deeds” even as the report said that the Chhattisgarh government suffered a revenue loss of more than Rs. 185 crore during 2007-08 because of “undue benefits” provided to various companies such as “allotment of land and water at reduced rates”.
Despite the CAG’s adverse report and people’s protests, the government seems undeterred. In fact, it gave its nod last year to thermal power plants in Raigarh, Jangjir and Champa districts. In their project reports, most of them made it clear that they would be drawing water from the Mahanadi. It won’t be long before villagers living near the plants lose out on water.
In southern Chhattisgarh, a large portion of Sabri, which flows through Dantewada district, is under the operation of Essar Steel Chhattisgarh Ltd and Tata Steel. Both draw almost 100 mcm of water every year. Essar has a pipeline network from Dantewada to the port of Visakhapatnam. Essar sends iron-ore through this pipeline with the force of the water from Sabri.
According to the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Mahasabha (ABAM), an umbrella organisation of tribal groups in Bastar, people had raised the issue of water shortage in the villages of downstream Sabri at several public hearings, “but government officials never listened to our pleas”. However, Essar denies the accusation. “Our intake of water does not affect local availability in any manner,” says Parikshit Kaul, joint general manager, corporate affairs.
According to a WRD report, almost 2,600 mcm per year has been allotted to industry while the state offers only 2,000 mcm for agriculture and irrigation, pushing many to think that Chhattisgarh will soon have a distinctive status and its industrial water use will far outstrip that of agriculture.
“Industries are the priority of the state government. This is not a democratised development. If this continues, a large part of the population could start a new kind of resistance that will have far-reaching consequences,” warns activist Agarwal.