Reason to cheer? NGT pulls up authorities for violations in TPSP project opposed by Adivasis of Purulia’s Ajodhya hills

Proposed project will not only rob Adivasis of forested areas but also harm two of their major religio-cultural sites

Protest of the Adivasi villagers against TPSP has been a long and tedious one, comprising peaceful processions, marches, letters, deputations, awareness building, gathering information to file claims under FRA, filing a writ petition and an appeal to NGT. Photo by author

The National Green Tribunal (Eastern Zone Bench) May 31, 2024 ordered the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF&CC), the Government of West Bengal and the Union Ministry of Tribal Affairs to file affidavits in the hearing of the case pertaining to violations of conditions in the implementation of Turga Pumped Storage Power Project (TPSP) in the Ajodhaya hills of Purulia, West Bengal. 

The case was filed by Sushil Murmu from Barelahar hamlet of Ranga-Barelahar Gram Sabha in Baghmundi block of Purulia. Sushil is one of the many young community leaders at the forefront of a strong movement challenging the upcoming 1,000 megawatts TPSP project. He was also one of the applicants in the first writ petition filed in 2018 challenging the very process of granting in-principle approval to the project. 

“Our struggle has been going on for almost 10 years but we will not lose hope because we risk losing everything to this project,” said Sushil. Almost 20 Gram Sabhas in the Ajodhya hills region, which will be directly or indirectly affected by this power project, are part of this struggle. 

The proposed project will not only rob the Adivasis of the forest – their source of livelihood – but also cause harm to two of their major cultural and religious sites, Marang Buru and Sutan Tandi. Marang Buru is their main hill god and Sutan Tandi is the site from where the community’s justice deliverance mechanism operates. 

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, or Forest Rights Act (FRA), for the first time in the country’s history provided a space for concerned communities to claim both individual and community rights under certain terms and conditions. 

The protest of the Adivasi villagers against TPSP has been a long and tedious one, comprising peaceful processions, marches, letters, deputations, awareness building, gathering information to file claims under FRA, filing of a writ petition and, most recently, the appeal in front of NGT.

Struggle so far

TPSP is part of a larger project that was proposed by the West Bengal government in 1979 over the four rivers – Bamni, Turga, Handu and Kathaljor. The plan was to set up eight dams on these rivers in close proximity to each other. When the first one – Purulia Pumped Storage Project (PPSP) station – was set up (2002-2008), the villagers were promised a number of benefits. Instead, their fragile and complex forest-dependent existence was upset. 

In December 2021, a divisional bench of the Calcutta High Court reinstated the in-principle clearance of the proposed TPSP project over an area of 292 hectares. The judgement came after the West Bengal government appealed against the 2018 single bench order that had completely set aside the in-principle clearance for the project on the grounds of false consent created by Ajodhaya Gram Panchayat members. The district magistrate had given a certificate of compliance of FRA in 2017 based on these false and incomplete Gram Panchayat meetings with only 21 members, while the Ajodhya Panchayat itself has 10,000 voters. 

Hence, from the very beginning, there has been no effort to inform and take consent of the affected Adivasi forest dwellers as mandated by FRA. 

With respect to the in-principle clearance granted to the project, MoEF&CC granted final forest clearance October 13, 2022, under 19 conditions, of which compliance of FRA was one. This was followed by the West Bengal government’s order dated October 20, 2022, which again stated that the compliance of FRA had to be completed before handing over the land to the user agency (West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company Limited). 

Last year, several efforts were made by Gram Sabha leaders to file claims for both individual and community forest rights. However, there has been no response or cooperation from the state. “We successfully submitted claims through the Baruajara-Bandhughutu-Dulgubera Gram Sabha for 61 individual forest rights (IFR) applications and one for community forest rights (CFR) over an area of 504 acres in May last year to the sub-divisional level committee, but we have not received any update for it yet. We are busy helping other Gram Sabhas file their claims now,” said Dhiren Chanre of the Baruajara village and an active member of the Prakriti Bachao Adivasi Bachao Maanch (Save Nature Save Tribals Platform). This platform has been mobilising and spreading awareness about FRA among communities for a decade.

In August 2013, the Ranga-Barelahar Gram Sabha submitted 89 IFR claims and a CFR claim for 357 acres. The proposed project site covers these areas being claimed by the Gram Sabhas.

Non-cooperation extends to violation

In May-June 2023, two consecutive tenders were issued by the Divisional Forest Office for construction of boundary pillars and felling of trees for the TPSP project. This was in complete violation to the earlier orders issued by the government since the process of rights recognition nor consent has taken place as per FRA. 

The Gram Sabhas immediately convened meetings and wrote about their concerns to a number of state and national authorities. The special secretary forwarded their concerns through a letter to the secretary of the power department. The assistant commissioner for reservation also wrote to the special secretary of the tribal development department of the state. However, they have received no response even after nearly eleven months. 

Since September 2023, the Gram Sabhas have formed voluntary groups for patrolling the forests to alert if project-related work begins in the area.

“The villagers have been showing tremendous courage by resisting the project for so long and I hope the state government will take the corrective measures to record the forest rights,” said Sankar Prasad Pani, the advocate who argued for the recent case in NGT.

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