INDIA: Police kill 4 citizens protesting land acquisition on CM’s watch

The Police firing, killing 4 citizens, including a minor, in Dadikala Village of Barkagaon Block in Hazaribagh District of Jharkhand, has not come out of the blue. The state authorities were well aware of the popular anger against forced acquisition of villagers’ lands for a coal mine project of the NTPC Limited (NTPC), a public sector undertaking. They knew of the escalating tensions between Company and the villagers over relief and rehabilitation terms.

Showing utter disregard to both public anger and law and order, the NTPC added fuel to fire by starting mining operations in Chirudih Barwadih Village in mid-May 2016. The people protested at the site and also started a Chita Satyagrah (Funeral Pyre Protest) in May this year. The political cost of the protests had forced even Chief Minister Raghubar Das to take note. He had intervened in the issue himself on 16 August 2016, expressing his wish to visit the area in 10 days and offer a new land compensation package to break the deadlock.

He did not keep his promise.

People with their lands at stake, facing improper compensation, started a Kafan Satyagrah (Shroud Protest) demanding the local administration investigate whether the NTPC had obtained the approval of the Gram Sabha, as required by law under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (RFCTLARR Act).

However, the acquisitions in the area have actually been carried out under the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957, and not the RFCTLARR Act.

Areas acquired under this Coal Act, and 13 other Acts specified in the 4th Schedule of the RFCTLARR Act, are exempt, as per Section 105, from having to follow the more democratic acquisition procedures and benefits of the RFCTLARR Act.

But, there is even more to the twist.

The Union government had actually extended the benefits of the RFCTLARR Act to all these 14 exempt Acts through an Executive Order dated 28 August 2015.

This Executive Order is however just that: an Executive Order. It has not made it clear whether the nullification of the exemption would be applicable to acquisitions by the public sector NTPC in the area. The labyrinthine twists in the regulations have made it unclear.

What has been crystal clear throughout is that villagers’ demands have been legitimate, legal, and democratic and until the police firing, completely peaceful and nonviolent.

The demands make even more sense on economic grounds, as the area is highly fertile and produces three crops a year. It is also known as the vegetable basket of the Jharkhand state, with earnings reported to be as high as Rupees 200,000 a year from an acre of land!

What is also clear is that the state government slept over the escalating tensions, instead of defusing the same. The Chief Minister also reneged on his promise to visit the area and offer a new compensation package. This is therefore an open and shut case of dereliction of duty.

The failure of the Chief Minister to follow through and defuse tensions indicts him, and his government, for the killings. The government has failed to uphold Article 21 of Indian Constitution that obligates the State to protect life and personal liberty of every citizen unless taken away “according to procedure established by law”.