NAGAON, Feb 1: In the past one year, the situation in the Mikir Bamuni Grant cluster of villages has remained volatile, with farmers protesting the forceful takeover of their land for setting up a 15-MW solar power plant by Azure Power Forty Private Ltd.
In order to have a first-hand account of the matter, an all-India fact-finding team comprising Prafulla Samantara (recipient of Goldman Prize, also known as the Green Nobel Prize) from Odisha, Leo Saldanha (Environment Support Group) and Bhargavi Rao (Environment Support Group and Centre for Financial Accountability) from Karnataka, and Amit Kumar (Delhi Solidarity Group) from Delhi arrived in Assam a few days back and visited the site. They discussed the issue with the local communities as well as with several State officials, following which the team claimed before the media persons here that the prima facie evidence suggests that the process of acquiring the land in question was mired in several illegalities and violations of policies, laws and regulations – from the nature of land appropriation to construction of a solar power plant through the use of repressive measures inflicted on the community by the police and State authorities.
Significantly, they said the solar power plant is being constructed in the midst of a fertile agricultural land where the remains of last season’s crops can also be seen. The environment and wildlife will also be threatened as elephants keep crossing the village, they said.
Green Nobel awardee Prafulla Samantara asserted that the State must defend its people and not take the side of the company. The land and the forest belong to the people of Assam. The project appears to violate all the existing land laws that had been earned through a long struggle of peasants during the sixties and seventies, he said, adding the sale of land to the company by the erstwhile zamindar family, ignoring the Rayati rights of the farmers, has trampled upon the spirit of the Assam (Temporary Settled Areas) Tenancy Act, 1971.
Leo Saldanha pointed out that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious proposal to generate up to 450 GW of electricity based on renewables, particularly solar, has wide ramifications for the future of India, and also to India’s commitments under the Paris Agreement. The experience of the villagers of Mikir Bamuni Grant in Nagaon district of Assam, however, is indicative of a direct threat to fundamental rights and freedom of the indigenous peoples, considering how the company has been facilitated by the State government in promoting a 15-MW solar park in a prime agricultural land, flouting all constitutional and statutory safeguards.
Evidence gathered by the fact-finding team reveals that the Assam Solar Policy, 2018, has been drafted so as to give advantage to private ventures to grab land by any means, Saldanha said and alleged that the January 2019 notification of the revenue department exempts solar projects, in particular, from the statutory mandate of complying with the 2015 land reclassification law. The 2019 Assam Land Policy acknowledges how extensively land is degrading due to flooding, and advocates public review and critical engagement at the highest level of the government on conversion of agricultural land. This, too, appears to have been flouted, he alleged.
Bhargavi Rao said the police violence against the local community is unacceptable. The bulldozing of standing crops by the power company in December has taken away food security of these families, that too, in a pandemic year that hit agrarian economy hard. The power company must realise this and live up to the highest level of corporate ethics. It is appalling that IFC and CDPQ are funding a project that has led to complete violation of fundamental and human rights and caused violence against women and children, she alleged.
Another team member, Amit Kumar, deplored the capture of land earned by farmers under the Tenancy Act, 1971, and the violation of rights secured by them over years of struggle to end the feudal system. Many such projects are in the pipeline that would endanger not only the land of farmers but also wildlife and environment, he said.