[The Uttar Pradesh Government has unleashed severe repression on adivasis and people protesting against the proposed Kanhar Dam in Sonbhadra district of Uttar Pradesh. Around 87 villages and vast tracts of forest land will be submerged if the project comes up. The project lacks the requisite green clearances, yet it is being built by terrorising villagers who have not given their consent for land acquisition. The agitation is being led by the All India Union of Forest Working People, which is also a constituent of the All India People’s Forum.)
A Fact Finding team comprising of Kavita Krishnan (Campaign Committee, All India People’s Forum), Abhishek Srivastava (Journalist), Purnima Gupta (Women’s Rights Activist) Deboditya Sinha (Researcher and Petitioner in Kanhar National Green Tribunal case), Priya Pillai (Activist, Mahan Sangarsh Samiti and Greenpeace India), and Om Prakash Singh, CPI(ML), visited the region on 19th and 20th April 2015. Below is a summary of the team’s findings and experiences.]
On 14th April, the police brutally lathi-charged peaceful protesters at a dharna at the dam site. When Aklu Cheru of Sundari village raised a voice of protest against women being beaten by male cops, the police officer Kapildev Yadav opened fire at him. The bullet pierced his chest and came out through his back. The villagers themselves carried the injured Aklu to local hospitals from where they brought him to Sir Sunderlal Hospital, BHU in Varanasi.
The two villagers Lakshman and Ashrafi who brought him to the hospital had vanished by the time he came to his senses in the hospital. Aklu, when he met the team, speculated that the two had either run away or had been arrested by the police. The team later found, on persistent enquiries from the District Magistrate and Superintendent of Police, that the two have in fact been arrested and are in Mirzapur jail – but the DM and SP refused to divulge where and when exactly they had arrested the two.
At Bhisur village, quite close to the dam site, villagers told the team that though the project was allocated long ago, the work started on 18th December 2014, without any of the requisite clearances for community forest rights, land acquisition, etc and that was when they decided to protest against the illegal work. In spite of a stay order from the court, that explicitly says that construction work as well as work on the river bed must be suspended until the Government shows the requisite forest clearance papers, the administration has gone ahead with the dam work. This is why the villagers shifted the site of their dharna that had been ongoing since 18th December, to the dam site on 14th April.
On 21st April, in the early morning, police once again unleashed unprovoked lathi-charge, tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful villagers at the dharna site, most of them elderly men as well as women. The team met 15 of the injured at the Duddhi district hospital, and found that several men and one woman had head injuries; and all the five women and ten men had severe bruises on thighs, buttocks and back. One 70-year-old man with a head injury began weeping saying that he was dependent on a 10-bigha plot of land, and his family could not survive if the project drowned this land. Another man asked how the Government could take away their land without giving them arable land in exchange – “We are not interested in cash compensation, where will we go to buy land?”
Bhagwati Bhuriya from Bhisur village, a single mother of five children told the team that police has been raiding houses in the village, breaking vessels and even beating up children. She earns her livelihood by collecting forest produce and agricultural work. She asked, “If the forest is gone, how will my family, that is dependent on it, survive?” She said that they are unable to go the forest to collect Mahua or tend to their livelihoods since the police has been harassing the villagers.
The police and district administration also behaved in an extremely high-handed and arbitrary manner with the fact-finding team. At 8.30 at night on 19th April, the team was preparing to halt for the night in Baghadu village that is outside the submergence area, where CPI(ML) comrades had offered to host the team. Police drew up in five jeeps accompanied by a man in plain clothes who refused to identify himself, and later falsely claimed to the SDM Duddhi but refused to give a name. He is suspected to be a local tehsildar. The man in plain clothes ordered police to search the belongings of the team, and warned the women members of the team, “You are women, better leave the place or else you will be dishonoured” (a veiled rape threat). When Debaditya, a team member, intervened, the same man ordered the police to ‘arrest him and jail him as a Naxalite.” If the police could behave in such a manner with a team of activists, one can only imagine the kind of terror they unleash against local adivasis. The police eventually forced the team to leave the village and spend the night in Duddhi, where they made surreptitious calls to the hotel to pressurise the manager to deny the team rooms to spend the night.
On the morning of the 20th April, the team visited the Duddhi hospital and met the injured. The police tried to prevent them from doing so, claiming that Section 144 was in place – but this was a false claim, since the Duddhi market was bustling with people.
In the hospital, it became clear that the injured had not been allowed to meet family members and so were deprived of essentials like datun (twigs to clean teeth) and a change of clothes. They were lying on sheets and in clothes stained with blood. Their only source of drinking water was the tap in the toilet. The fan had been kept switched off and windows closed in the severe summer heat. The main switch was turned on, to allow fan breeze, only when team members intervened.
When the team was in the hospital, the policemen mobilised a crowd of around 50-60 people from the bazaar, who raised slogans accusing the team of being ‘anti-development NGOs’ and threatening the team with violence. This mob made a mockery of the claims of the police that Section 144 was in place.
The team met with the DM and SP in Robertsganj, seeking to know why leading activists of the anti-dam agitation were banned from entering the district and were being arrested.