Saturday, November 27, 2021

State and Bhangar

Bengal government must address concerns on power plant, not send in police.

Written by Bolan Gangopadhyay |
February 7, 2017 12:04:55 am
Bhangar, Bhangar land violence, kolkata land violence, power grid construction, bhangar road blaockade, bhangar deaths, PGCIL, Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd, indian express news, indian express opinion, india news, kolkata news The 13.5 acres of land on which the Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL) has chosen to set up a power grid substation belonged to farmers. This lowland area is full of fisheries and farmlands which yield four crops a year.

The assembly constituency of Bhangar in the South 24 Parganas district of Bengal has been in the headlines for the growing popular movement against the construction of a power grid substation in the area. Since the protesting villagers organised a massive road blockade on January 11, the media’s attention to the movement only increased with stories of police raids and ransacking, arrests and the persistent refusal of the protesters to let the police enter their villages.

The death of two villagers, Alamgir Hossain and Mafijul Haq, from bullet injuries on January 17, was a particularly poignant moment in the movement. The recent arrests of several activists and villagers associated with the Committee to Save Land, Livelihood, Ecology and Environment, a body formed by the villagers with the help of others to coordinate the movement, have further aggravated the situation. The villagers complain of daily intimidation by the state police, aided by local Trinamool Congress strongmen. They are even more agitated by the discrepancy between the verbal assurances made by leaders of the state government that the substation will not be built, and their experience that the construction work for the same is proceeding within the boundary walls of the acquired land.

The 13.5 acres of land on which the Power Grid Corporation of India Ltd (PGCIL) has chosen to set up a power grid substation belonged to farmers. This lowland area is full of fisheries and farmlands which yield four crops a year. In this rather densely populated locality, farming and fishing are the main sources of livelihood. The general economic condition is not poor. Adjacent to the sprawling New Town-Rajarhat neighbourhood of Greater Kolkata, which has seen a real estate boom in the last decade, these villages are located near Kolkata.

The decision to set up the 400/220 kv, SF6 gas-insulated Rajarhat Power Grid substation was taken in 2012. It was only after they had been induced to sell their lands below the market price that the people of the concerned villages came to know in 2014 that the proposed construction on their land would be a power grid substation, and not a distributing substation, meaning that it would not have any effect on improving local electricity supply. On several occasions since 2014, the villagers have submitted their questions and objections in writing to the local administration, and sought clarification on the difference between distributing and power grid substations. But the authorities did not care to answer those queries.

Last October, the PGCIL authorities agreed to a meeting in the BDO’s office with the villagers where the latter put forward their three main demands, asking for: One, a written document from PGCIL, clarifying that it was indeed about to start a power grid substation in the specified land; two, a formal clearance certificate from the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change; and three, a written assurance from PGCIL that SF6 gas would not cause harm to local practices of fishing and harvesting or to animals and humans in the future. Till date, they have not received any answer.

In the absence of any clear and definitive answers in writing from the authorities, local concerns have been heightened. The perceived dangers of using SF6, a most potent greenhouse gas, and of being exposed to an allegedly high-level electro-magnetic field have been at the centre of local conversations. Scientific theories and counter-theories have been hurled at each position, and the strange silence of the government and the PGCIL has certainly added to the villagers’ fears of health and environmental hazards.

The crucial point to note here is the sheer sidestepping of the consultative process that should be a political minimum in any democratic structure. The very fact that PGCIL can choose to set up a power grid substation without organising a meeting with the gram sabha and explaining the details of the plan in the local language exposes the deep authoritarianism in the state’s notion of “development”. The systematic neglect by the authorities of the legitimate questions of the villagers is, perhaps, powered by the faith that sending a police force will make up for the lack in scientific explanation and community consultation.

The writer is a Kolkata-based human rights activist

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