Corporate houses are going to have an exceptionally hard time pushing ahead with large projects, especially infrastructure-related ones, in the face of increasing public indignation. Last weekend saw an agitation over land acquisition that was not the first of its kind, but significant for the way it spread across the State.
What started in Greater Noida as an ostensibly isolated skirmish between farmers of one village and the administration, in a span of just over 48 hours spread across Uttar Pradesh. It was an eruption of acute angst in rural society that was no longer willing to take things lying down.
Going forward, protests such as these will only escalate, be it on the land issue or that of the environment. They are far more tangible as issues than, say, the 2G scam, where spectrum takes on a conceptual space.
Besides, the nature of protests on such concerns has undergone a transformation. Unlike at the time of the Narmada dam or Bhopal agitation, when the impacted community used lawful means of protest, such as dharnas and marches, giving vent to violence is increasingly seen as the most effective tool. In the weekend agitation in UP, this was the common thread — the belief that resorting to violence would keep the administration at bay, something that the Singur and Nandigram incidents in West Bengal have helped legitimise.
The beating back of the mighty Tatas in West Bengal and forcing Tata Motors to go elsewhere to manufacture the Nano car — a project that had considerable national resonance — was in a sense the cut-off point for corporates. It was then that they realised the tsunami effect of people's power.
Today, there seems to be a palpable tension among corporates about the negative publicity due to such situations. After the incident in Greater Noida, the Jaypee Group (which has a considerable presence in the area) was quick to respond to select media coverage on the incident. It categorically stated that land for projects such as the Yamuna Expressway and the Formula One Motor Racing track at Dankaur near Greater Noida “had been acquired and mutually agreed compensation paid to the farmers and there is no land acquisition going on for any project of Jaypee Group in the area”.
In the case of Posco's proposed $12-billion project in the coastal district of Jagatsinghpur, Orissa, a similar story is panning out. After a delay of five years and the Orissa government virtually pushing the Centre for environment clearances, the Posco Pratirodh Sangram Samiti (PPSS) has already sounded a warning to the State Government against resumption of the land acquisition process on May 18.
The Greater Noida incident, where farmers resorted to protests, holds out at least three lessons for companies . One, that people's power matters, post Singur and Nandigram. Two, the belief that violence helps give the protests a bloodier and hence, more forceful, hue. And three, you can count on politicians to jump in to fan the fire the minute they hear there has been a casualty.
In Chhattisgarh's Janjgir Champa district too, there have been flare-ups on the same issues and by the same people — the farmers. The farmers have been agitating against the State government forcibly acquiring their land for a 3600 MW power plant being built by Hyderabad-based firm KSK Energy Ventures Ltd. Then too there had been violence, leading to lathi charges and arrests.
ISSUES OF CONTENTION
India should rethink its policies on industrial development. It cannot afford to alienate farmers.
We need to realise the importance of involving people from the initial stages of a project and benchmarking compensation to market rates. State governments will have to make sure that the land being taken over for industry or infrastructure is of little or no use to its people. Last, but not the least, it is necessary to convince people that safety and environment concerns have been dealt with adequately in the project's vicinity.
If all this does not happen, then inevitably people's power will dislodge projects. And not just private projects, but also public sector projects, be it on grounds of compensation or other factors. The state-owned Nuclear Power Corporation is said to be considering the possibility of shifting its proposed project at the chosen Haripur site in West Bengal in the wake of protests from residents.
NPC's Jaitapur project in Maharashtra is already under a cloud after residents and political activists have stepped up their agitation against the proposed project. The casualties also include NTPC Ltd's 600-MW Loharinag Pala hydel project on the Bhagirathi river in Uttarakhand, which was scrapped after protests from people in and around the area citing religious and environmental concerns. The company had invested nearly Rs 700 crore on the project before it was scrapped. The list is sure to grow.