Stories from Sipat calling an India beyond coal

October 22, 2012 12:29 pm

While people in Delhi are screaming over increased electricity bills, Sipat’s (a small town in the state of Chattisgargh) families quietly brood by the 2980 MW National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) Power Plant in Bilaspur. The first notice of the power plant’s construction in the year 2000 brought with it a hope of a brighter future for Sipat’s 8 villages. The NTPC promised monetary compensation for land, jobs for those being displaced, better housing and free electricity[1]. Not only did Sipat’s people lose parts of their ancestral land which they have relied on for more than 100 years, they had to share an already scarce supply of irrigation water, witness deposits of fly ash on their standing crop and watch the cracks in their mud houses.

It took NTPC more than 8 years to build and operate the plant. An outsider would probably say the project was delayed because of the trivial and irrelevant concerns of locals for the silent trees and animals, but for Udai Kumar Khart it was a losing battle to save his land. He did not have any legal documents to prove that his forefathers had been cultivating this land for generations and the bribe he would have had to pay to get forged papers was the same as the compensation being paid. Four months into the court case Udai surrendered his land after realizing that fighting the system was a waste of his limited savings. He lost both his land and any hope he had left of being compensated by the NTPC.

For Kutella Bai a widow, the news of land acquisition was the last straw in the hat. After her husband’s death, her in-laws were already trying to get hold of the 75 decimal land (0.75 Acre) her husband owned. The compensation money came in accounts of her eldest brother –in-law, who refused to part with it. She lost all she had; from a farmer she became a landless agricultural labour on her own land.

The compensation created an awkward situation for Deenath. With his 3 sons, Deenath used to cultivate 3.5 Acres of land. Under the compensation package however, only one job could be offered to one member in a family. As he failed to take a decision, his sons decided to litigate the issue, but to no avail – before the court could even decide who in Deenath’s family deserved the contractual job, the NTPC declared that there was no longer a need for unskilled labour in their plant. Deenath lost his ancestral land, his family and their happiness.

As the plant became operational, demand for unskilled labour declined and most of the villagers have lost the jobs they were promised. Perhaps the NTPC is right in saying that running a power plant is challenging work and that they need skilled and trained engineers and not farmer-turned-labourers. It has employed 7 ITI graduates and 253 semi-skilled labourers in the span of 10 years from nearby villages but even they were all contract employees. But how can one expect to find engineers from villages with no teachers in primary schools? Being a secondary school graduate is in itself an accomplishment for the youth here, and going to a professional college still a distant dream.

The increasing pollution from the plant has started to show its effects on the health of local labourers working in the plant and on the health of the villagers. The small, local, solar-powered primary health centre is not equipped to treat such cases and the Apollo hospital in the NTPC township is beyond the workers’ and villagers’ reach.

As farmers in other parts of the country are busy in harvesting their crops, Shiela Bai from the Rakh village was preparing for extreme winters ahead. A new phenomenon which was unknown to the residents, until NTPC started depositing fly ash in the ash pond. She narrated how the water from the pond would seep in their houses and fields. Last winter there was knee-deep water in their houses and fields. With anger in her voice she described the agony of building 3 houses in last 6 years. Her ancestral house was first demolished to make the Ash Pond. In 2010 as the water from Ash Pond filled her house, the mud walls developed cracks and they had to move again. With their field submerged under the pond and pipes carrying liquefied ash, she had no option but to build her house outside the village, just opposite the dam.

People from nearby district Janjgir-Champa have their own reasons for cursing the power plant. Already hit by erratic and insufficient monsoons, farmers could not cultivate crops in Rabi season from 2007 to 2010 as there wasn’t any water left in the dam and subsequently in the canals. The water shortage coincides with government’s decision to supply water to NTPC from the Hasdeo Barrage, life line for farmers in the district.

However people have not lost hope. They still dream of a brighter future, a future powered by solar power. Ghasin bai from Sipat had a simple solution to the complex problem of electricity generation. She described how generating electricity from solar panel is simple and better for locals as no one would be displayed for huge power plant, how fear of high tension transmission wires would be eliminated. In her words “Jahan zarrorat hai wahi Khabma laga diya aur bas usi se bijle mil sakti hai” meaning “all one needs is a pole and a solar panel and electricity can be generated where it is needed.”

It is an irony that NTPC is fulfilling its promise of free electricity for PHC and public places through solar energy. Just 2 kms away from its plant, the village is lit using a clean and sustainable source our Sun, leaving us pondering when would our government listen to citizens like Ghasin Bai and look Beyond Coal to meets India’s increasing power greed.

[1] As told by locals, each household was promised free electricity to light a bulb in their homes.

The stories have been gathered by Renuka from 350.org in Delhi during her recent visit to Chattisgargh. The picture above shows the power plant and a solar street light in the same picture. NTPC owns both but the local people can see that decentralized solar energy is much safer than the mammoth power plant in Sipat.

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