Guwahati: As Assam’s 15th Chief Minister, Himanta Biswa Sarma took oath on Monday afternoon, residents of Mikir Bamuni, a cluster of villages bordering Karbi Anglong, found armed military personnel roaming next to a disputed piece of land claimed by at least 36 farming families as theirs after 38 hectares (287 bigha) were sold to a solar power company.
Last year, just at the start of a lockdown in April due to spread of the deadly COVID-19 viral infections, a few residents cultivating a variety of paddy and vegetables were notified, leading to protests that led to a slew of litigation. While police officials confirmed the deployment of Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in the area saying that Gauhati High Court had ordered them to do so, locals say their voices have yet again been ignored by the state government.
Sikari Rongpi, a young Karbi farmer who was jailed in October 2020 with COVID-19 deaths peaking across the state for a scuffle in the village is now terrified.
“We blocked their access to the disputed land after they started building an approach through our village. The approach falls on my land and I haven’t been paid anything except for a jail term. Now they have deployed heavily armed CRPF in the village, who do not even understand our language. We are terrified if we ask even our basic rights, we will be shot or taken into custody,” told Rongpi to Eastmojo.
Terror or protection
Incidentally, according to the village residents, the alleged approach road constructed by Azure Power Forty, a New Delhi based multinational solar power company, to secure its access to the plant falls out of the area where the plant is proposed.
“So far, we blocked this entrance. They (company officials) built a fence. Since the morning when the armed personnel arrived, they opened that fencing and are in the process of construction of the road. In the monsoon, they would not be able to use the existing approach because this land is spongy filled with water so now they are eyeing on the village stead to gain access to their plant. We haven’t been compensated for this,” said Rajen Rongpi, a Karbi farmer.
CRPF’s presence in the area has caused panic among the women. On October 8, 2020, Samaguri police arrested 14 persons, allegedly for trying to get into a scuffle with the policemen and company security while they were razing standing paddy crops over 38 hectares (287 bigha) with earthmovers. Later on December 26, five persons were arrested during a midnight raid by armed police officials in which, one pregnant Karbi woman allegedly suffered a miscarriage.
“During this struggle, men and women from both Karbi and Adivasi communities were rounded up and beaten. We are now terrified because the CRPF personnel are heavily armed with a history of atrocities in various parts of Assam,” said Rupta Sing Narpi, one of the persons who witnessed the entire episode of crops being razed on their land.
Samaguri Police Officials, however, cite the recent Gauhati High Court order for bringing in the CRPF.
“We are just following Gauhati High Court’s order which has allowed the company to go ahead with the construction. There have been several incidents in this one area. The CRPF will help in restoring any law and order situation developing in the area during the construction of the plant,” said Officer-In-Charge, K.K. Doley.
Disputed status quo
On March 5, 2021 and March 23, 2021, the Gauhati High Court directed status quo to be maintained in respect with the possession over the disputed piece of land. Incidentally, legal counsels from both sides have their own interpretation of what that ‘status quo’ implies. According to Azure Power Forty’s legal counsel, D.K. Poddar, the status quo was widely misinterpreted by the people to mean a stay on the possession of property by Azure. “However, the High Court vide its later order dated March 17, 2021 disallowed status quo to be maintained thereby, indicating that the possession by Azure of suit property should not be disturbed,” in a press release issued by Azure Power Forty on April 30. The same press release by Azure Power Forty states that at least on two occasions — March 5, 2021 and March 23, 2021— directed the Nagaon District Administration to maintain the status quo in respect of the possession in Mikir Bamuni.
Interestingly, Azure Power Forty in a submission to the court cited that some ‘miscreants’ entered the alleged premises of the solar power plant and threatened the staff “to stop work” on March 3, 2021. On March 23, Gauhati High Court directed Nagaon District Administration to enforce the status quo, following which Azure also filed a police complaint against the miscreants who allegedly trespassed.
Krishna Gogoi, the counsel who has been representing the residents of Mikir Bamuni was appalled by the presence of the security personnel.
“The court has directed Nagaon district administration to maintain a status quo over the law and order situation at Mikir Bamuni. It does not say that the company should start the construction. On top of that the main civil suit regarding the ownership of the land is still with the lower courts, which Gauhati High Court has directed the lower courts to decide. We are going to approach the court again against District administration for bringing CRPF men when it is purely a civil dispute related to ownership of land,” said Gogoi.
Threat of pandemic
Vasundhara Jairath, Assistant Professor who teaches Development Studies at Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati, was shocked by presence of CRPF personnel in Mikir Bamuni area.
“It is shocking that even as India and Assam are going through a terrible pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus and unprecedented number of deaths as a result of the deadly disease, Azure Power has entered Mikir Bamuni with heavy deployment of CRPF personnel,” Jairath, who has been researching on the Mikir Bamuni land dispute, told Eastmojo.
“Besides the condemnable nature of the use of brute force and terror against unarmed peasant cultivators to build what they farcically call a “green” energy plant, they are also putting all the residents of Mikir Bamuni in grave danger by possible exposure to the virus. This gruesome act in such terrible times is absolutely unacceptable, and any health hazards as a result will be solely the responsibility of Azure Power,” she added.
A recent fact-finding report by Delhi Solidarity Group, a group of citizens and experts from different fields who have been working to safeguard peoples’ rights across India, recorded largescale violation by Azure Power Forty and Nagaon District Administration. “Villagers of Mikir Bamuni Grant are protected under the Assam (Temporarily Settled Areas) Tenancy Act, 1971. Tenancy rights in form of Khatians dating back to the 1980s reveal that the villagers and their forefathers are listed as occupancy tenants,” the report stated.
The report found that a few revenue department officials under Samaguri circle unscrupulously showed that the land in question was not cultivated over a decade, even as Villagers claim otherwise. “As is evident from Assam Land Policy 2019, the task of determining if the quality of land is fit for farming or fallow is the outcome of due process that involves a Land Advisory Committee, which in this case has not been followed,” the report stated in a release on April 30.
The report also added the District Judge of Nagaon had prima facie held that the lands were being actively cultivated. “All efforts must be invested to ensure that the rightful claims of the tenants who were cultivating the lands are restored with urgency,” the report quoted the judge.
Azure Power Forty’s solar power project is a part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plans to generate electricity as part of his 450 Gigawatts power production from renewables by 2030. Assam government’s Solar Energy Policy of 2018 aims to develop 590 MW of solar energy by 2020, while Azure Power. Azure Power Forty Private signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Assam Power Distribution Company Ltd (APDCL) to develop 90MW of solar energy in the state.
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