Raipur, 29 June-2014, Hakeem Irfan/DNA: In ordinary circumstances, Santram Paikara would have grabbed global headlines. After all, you don’t get to hear stories about a poor tribal carrying out land deals worth crores of rupees every day.
Why then the world’s not talking about Santram? Well, it’s because of the Jindals.
When the Chhattisgarh tribal was buying land worth crores of rupees in Raigarh, 280 km from the state capital of Raipur, he was working with Jindal Power – earning a daily wage of Rs 160. That was in 2008.
For five years, the world didn’t have a clue about how Santram was landing up all those big-ticket deals. In March 2014, the Raigarh district administration stumbled upon the answer.
A detailed list of tribal land transactions revealed that even though the deals took place between two tribals, the land was actually in possession of third parties – mostly middlemen or industries in Raigarh.
Jindal Power and its subsidiaries possess at least 108 acres of land in the Tamnar area of Raigarh and adjacent areas. Section 170 (b) of the Chhattisgarh Land Revenue Code, 1959, bars the sale of tribal agricultural land to non-tribals in order to protect the interests of the poor and illiterate tribals.
District magistrate Mukesh Bansal told dna he faced stiff resistance even from within his own department while drawing the list of tribal land transactions.
“The law has been circumvented …and heads will definitely roll. The case is going on in the court and I am convening a meeting with all the revenue officers next week assess the status,” he said.
On criminal culpability in the matter, Bansal said, “We will see that when the court will hear the matter… there are some government officials involved… At least, this list will now stop such land deals in future.”
In August 2009, Santram died under mysterious circumstances. His wife Sushila Paikara, the legal heir to land worth several million rupees, still lives in a two-room mud hut.
“They (Jindal employees) took away my husband’s death certificate, promising me a regular job at the plant,” she told dna.
However, she was not allowed to work at Jindal Power even as a contract labourer. Jindal has allegedly bought around 39 acres of land in the name of Santram at Sarasmal, Tamnar, Rampur and other places, worth several million rupees.
What’s more, the Jindals have created at least four more Santrams.
“Jindal buys land in the name of his poor tribal employees. Some are not even local tribals! They are parachuted from Odisha or other states, which is also against the law. It’s primarily a case of Section 420 of IPC,” says Rajesh Tripathi, a local RTI activist running Jan Chetna, a platform fighting for the rights of tribals for more than two decades now.
Earlier this month, Chhattisgarh ordered that non-locals or companies possessing tribal land should transfer it back to local tribals. About 70 acres of land were so transferred in the Dharamjaigarh area. Many tribals, a senior local official requesting anonymity said, even went for “out-of-the-court settlement”.
A 35-page working paper on ‘Land Acquisition and Transfers for Private Industry’ in Raigarh, prepared by the Delhi-based Centre for Equity Studies and Jan Chetna in December last year, states, “A fairly common practice revealed during surveys involved selling land to tribal employees of a company or a tribal broker, thus making the actual sale legal. The use of this land by the company, nonetheless, remains illegal and obtaining this land via its employees is a clear violation of these rules.”
Sushila’s house is located in the middle of Salihabhanttha village – around 300 meters away from the Jindal Power plant.
The four chimneys throwing out white smoke and the three concrete cooling towers of the plant loom over the village as an ostentatious show of progress and industrialisation. It stands in stark contrast to the poverty, discrimination and underdevelopment in the area.
A long conveyor belt, ferrying coal from the nearest mine to energise the plant, passes through the lush green fields and tree tracks, reflecting Jindal’s presence almost everywhere in Tamnar. A big tricolour waves in the plant premises, amidst gusts of coal dust and smoke. Most of the native residents fall below poverty line and work as daily labourers, either at Jindal Power or the company’s coal mine in nearby Sarasmal village.
“Santram never talked about any land deal till his death. Some villagers did mention about it, but I always dismissed it as a rumour as I knew he had no money. He just earned Rs 4,000-5,000 a month,” says Sushila.
“I just manage to get job 12-15 days a month,” she adds. She has rented one room of her hut for Rs 500 a month, to fund the education of her only son, Om Prakash, 14.
Andresh, a former Jindal employee at its Patrapali plant near Raigarh, is another example. This reporter was detained, assaulted and threatened at Patrapali by a group of drunken men while interviewing a local resident Mohan from Uraon caste, to which Andresh belongs.
“He used to live here on rent and was the sarpanch of the village from 2004-2010,” Mohan said. This reporter was then chased away from the village by the drunken goons. Andresh retired from Jindal four months back and his son Rajat now works as security guard in the company.
“Company officials in the liasoning department asked me to sign some papers and told me they are buying land in my name, I think around 2008-2009. I signed. But I didn’t get any money,” Andresh told over phone.
He has migrated back to his village in Konkuri, in Jaspur district, 150 km from Patrapali, and lives with his nine family members. He earned Rs 22,000 a month as Jindal employee and is now waiting for retirement benefits.
“I don’t know how much land they bought in my name,” he added. As per the 170 (b) list, Andresh has bought land in Sarasmal and Tamnar where Jindal’s coal mine and power plant are located.
Another tribal in whose name land has been bought is Navbodh Pramaat in Janjgir village. Villagers say there’s nobody by that name living there. “Maybe he is an outsider and has been registered here in local panchayat. In fact, nobody of Uraon caste lives in this village,” Shoki Lal, a local resident said. Around 15 acres of land in Sarasmal are registered in the name of Pramaat.
Two other tribals in whose name around 20 acres of land bought after 2008 – currently in possession of Jindal – are Shuru Kishan, a resident of Salihabhanttha, and Asaf Kumar of Tamnar. However, none of them were living in the respective villages. Locals in Salihabanttha told dna that Asaf Kumar now lives in ‘Urja Nagar’, constructed by Jindal for employees, while Shuru Kishan Manjhi works in a canteen at the power plant.
Apart from Jindals, a few other industrialists are also there in the area. They also posses land registered in the name of tribals.
Jindal Group refuted all allegations of wrongdoings in any land deal or property in their possession.
“The land we possess has been acquired through a legal process. We don’t know why the government has put our name in the 170 (b) list. This case will not stand in the court even for a day. We have written our reply to the government,” said D K Bhargava of JPL’s liasoning department, who is also the front man in almost all land deals that take place in Raigarh.
Bhargava also claimed that have submitted the compensation amount against all land owners that is under Jindal’s possession with the revenue department.
“Santram’s wife should approach the government to get her compensation. We have done out part,” Bhargava said.