"We will die here but not give our land," Bipol Toppo said emphatically. "Land ensures permanent livelihood. Our language, culture and traditions are closely associated with our land. It is our identity," he told The Quint.
Toppo, who is the president of Forum for Gram Sabha, was recently at the forefront of a 100 kilometre padayatra against the proposed acquisition of more than 700 acre land in Odisha's Sundargarh district by one of India's leading cement manufacturers, Dalmia Cement (Bharat) Limited (DCBL).
Thousands of Adivasis from the areas where the land is proposed to be acquired and also other parts of the district had joined the padayatra, which culminated at the Sundargarh collectorate on 21 October. The protesters submitted a memorandum to the district officials and also received a written assurance from sub-collector Dasarathi Saraboo the next day that their concerns would be looked into.
Pramila, who was part of the agitation, said, “We are Adivasi and have inherited land from our forefathers. Land is the only source of everlasting livelihood for the coming generation and it is the real source of language, arts, culture, customs, faith, and identity. Our land, community, culture, arts, customs and faith are more valuable than any job or any amount of money. Therefore, I'm here to save my land and pass it to my next generation and I will never give an inch of land to OCL (the earlier name of DCBL).”
DCBL owns a cement and clinker manufacturing plant in Rajgangpur in the Sundargarh district, and has a production capacity of 5.9 MTPA (million tonnes per annum) clinker and 4 MTPA cement. The company has mining rights in the surrounding areas from where it sources limestone and dolomite required for its plant.
The proposed acquisition of land will increase the availability of raw material for the company, which will help it ramp up its production capacity. DCBL's parent company Dalmia Bharat, in its annual report for the financial year 2021-22, stated that it plans to increase its overall cement manufacturing capacity to 130 MTPA by 2030 from the current 35.9 MTPA.
Gram Sabhas Haven't Given Their Consent
Forum for Gram Sabha was convened in 2017 to oppose the DCBL's land acquisition proposal. According to a draft resettlement and rehabilitation action plan prepared by Additional District Magistrate Abhimanyu Behera, a total of 495 families will be displaced in Rajgangpur and Kutra blocks of the district if the land acquisition goes ahead.
Binay Barla is the convenor of Forum for Gram Sabha and also the sarpanch of Kesramal gram panchayat, which has the two villages of Kesramal and Raiberna under its jurisdiction. According to the administration's own document, 173 families will be displaced from Kesramal if the land acquisition happens as planned. Barla told The Quint, "If people are displaced, their lives will be disrupted and it will also have an adverse impact on Adivasi culture, lifestyle and rituals."
Sundargarh district is a Fifth Schedule area as it has significant Adivasi population. According to the 2011 census, more than 80% people in the Rajgangpur block belonged to the Scheduled Tribes, while in the Kutra block, this figure was 77%. The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 makes it mandatory to get the approval of the gram sabhas before the land acquisition in the Scheduled Areas can go forward.
All the gram panchayats, where the land to be acquired has been identified, received notifications from the district administration in January 2020, which read, “In the upcoming gram sabha, which is scheduled on 26 January 2020, gram sabha should discuss the land acquisition proposal of M/S OCL Ltd. and inform us about the decision.”
On 26 January 2020, gram sabhas were held in all the concerned gram panchayats and all of them passed resolutions against the land acquisition proposal.
When the The Quint spoke with Additional District Magistrate Abhimanyu Behera, he didn't deny this. However, he said that the land acquisition process needs to move forward nevertheless and that the administration was taking steps in that direction.
"You cannot outright reject the proposal. There has to be a basis to it," he said.
He further alleged that the people leading the protests had a hidden agenda and that they were terrorising people against engaging with land acquisition proposal. Calling the concerns of the protesters as baseless and unjustified, he claimed that the state of Odisha had the best R&R (Rehabilitation and Resettlement) policy in the country.
Toppo told The Quint that while the 2013 Act requires consent of more than 80% affected families for land acquisition, about 90% households were against it. He also alleged that due process was not followed while carrying out the Social Impact Assessment study.
Manoranjan Toppo, an agitator and member of Sundargarh Adivasi Manch, an Adivasi rights-based organisation, said, “Our ancestors were great visionaries who fought for autonomy but the government has a problem implementing it even after 70 years of independence ... If this continues with us, we will not sit silently. Government must implement self-governance rules and regulations. If needed we will demand more autonomy to protect our ancestral territorial region and to secure rights over resources.”
The Quint has reached out to Dalmia Bharat for a comment but yet to receive a response. The story will be updated as and when we receive it.