Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Mridula Chari - Activists and villagers in anti-dam protests assaulted by police in UP and Chattisgarh

After police firing in Sonbhadra, Uttar Pradesh, marred an anti-dam protest on Ambedkar Jayanti last week, activists have now accused the police of further brutality on the morning of April 18 as it attempted to clear protestors, mostly tribals, from the dam site. The police allegedly attacked protestors with rubber bullets, tear gas and lathis. They chased protestors back to their villages, where they also vandalised their homes.

On Monday, a fact-finding team from the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan released a report stating that the district police and around 500 to 1,000 Provincial Armed Constabulary surrounded the site of the protest and “beat and chased the villagers right up to their villages”.

It is not yet clear how many people were injured in this round of attacks, but at least 14 people from four villages have been admitted to a block hospital in nearby Duddhi. Many women were beaten on their thighs and buttocks. The April 14 attack left 39 people injured, of whom 12 had serious injuries. As Scroll reported last week, one person is still near death in a Varanasi hospital. The police allegedly also seized tents and generators at the site of the protest and burned posters and banners.

Villagers have been protesting at the site of the proposed Kanhar Dam since December 23, following an order by the National Green Tribunal to stay construction until it could hear the case. However, the proposed height of the dam has been increased from 39.9 metres to 52.9 metres, expanding the submergence area and intensifying fears, the report said. Even more shocking, it added, is that affected villages in Chhattisgarh have not even been informed that any part of their land will be submerged.

As the Uttar Pradesh state government continued construction despite the order, villagers on April 14 decided to intensify their protest by blocking the approach to the dam, leading to the first police backlash. After the police firing on April 14, the protest swelled with people streaming in from surrounding villages. All protestors have now been dispersed. Unidentified people cleared the dam site of all machinery on Saturday morning.

Villagers targeted: Police action has been followed with direct threats, both to villagers and to activists who came to the area after the initial news of police firing on April 14. After the protests made front-page news in Uttar Pradesh papers, the district magistrate visited residents of Sundari village, one of several affected, and asked them to make a list of demands, said Gambhira Prasad, an activist leading the protests, but now in hiding.

“The DM said that he would give our requests to the government, so that is going on at the side,” Prasad said. “But we don’t know what will come of that.” The Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan might have an answer. Dominant caste leaders held a meeting in Sundari on Sunday, saying that they would give their consent to the government.

“Most of them were quoting the DM Sanjay Kumar belligerently saying that he had said that all protest and movements should stop,” the report said. “Otherwise he would foist so many cases that they would rot in jail for the rest of their lives and use up all the compensation in paying lawyers.” The Uttar Pradesh government suspended the last district magistrate, Dinesh Singh, for being lax on development work. The police has filed cases against around 956 people in all.

Meanwhile, those who had joined the protests after news of the April 14 firing spread have now dispersed to their villages. Not everyone has been able to leave the area. The police has shut off an area around Sonbhadra, claimed Prasad. “Our guests from Delhi are not being allowed to go away,” Prasad said over the phone. “They had tried to drive their cars back, but were turned back in Duddhi itself.”

Despite repeated attempts, Scroll could not reach the district magistrate. The sub-district magistrate put down the phone after hearing Scroll's query.

Activists under watch: Even as the administration attempts to negotiate with villagers, it continues to target activists who came from outside the affected area to investigate these incidents. Two separate fact-finding teams, one from Delhi and another from Chhattisgarh, went to the site of Kanhar dam on Sunday after reports emerged of the firing on April 14. The Delhi team, which included Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association, and Priya Pillai of Greenpeace, is yet to file theirs.

On Sunday evening, as the Delhi team finished its visits to villages around the Kanhar dam area and headed to another outside the affected area to spend the night, its members were informally detained by a group of policemen. Led by a still-unidentified man in plain clothes, the police searched their car and bags and also attempted to intimidate the car’s driver. “When Priya [Pillai] and I tried to intervene, the man in civil clothes wagged his finger at us and told us, ‘You are women, aapki beizzati hojaegi,’” Krishnan said.

Another member of the team, Debaditya Sinha stepped between them, at which the plain clothes man threatened to arrest him as a Naxalite. “What we need to focus on is why the people are opposing dams,” Krishnan said. “You can’t take away both their land and livelihood. Many tribals collect mahua from forests even if they don’t own land. How will they survive? The government needs to offer them land and rehabilitation in exchange for what they are losing, not just compensation. That is the issue here and that is why they are opposing the dam.”