Darkness under a potential power hub town, Janjgir-Champa, Chhattisgarh

An old saying – ‘All that glitters is not gold’ – is apt for Homo sapiens of today as they are obsessed with ‘development’, carrying a pre-conceived notion – how a city should look like. This eventually results a city losing its in-situ natural sheen and district of Janjgir-Champa is witnessing it too. Once surrounded by lush green forests and agro-farms with abundant water from River Mahanadi, this region is on the verge of losing its natural environs. Government’s promises of providing concrete roof overhead, better earning opportunities, improved educational facilities, and above all a prosperous lifestyle, have painted a rosy picture in the minds of common people, especially in the rural stretches. In order to transform Janjgir-Champa as next ‘power-hub’ of the nation, irreversible damage is being done to its ecology and environment.

The rapid growth of Industrial sector, has barely touched the lives of hundred-thousand poor Adivasi communities (lacking any political voice) residing in the peripheral towns and villages. It is relevant to mention here that the region has a preponderance of Schedule Castes, like, Barahar, Moghia, Meghwal, Sansi, etc. According to Census 2011, out of a total population of 1,619,707 persons in Janjgir-Champa, only 13.9% people live in urban areas while 86.1% live in rural areas. Obviously, most of the population is illiterate, engaged in refineries, mining, and power houses as daily wagers, searching for a better future. However, the bigger picture behind this rapid development shows another facet. Fast-track industrialization will adversely affect forests and dependent communities (still a large rural population is dependent on natural resource base).

In December 2017, Environics Trust (E T) undertook a field-based research study, after learning that the region is soon going to be an industrial hub of thermal power, cement, and sponge iron production centre, involving government and private parties, both. The peace of this almost tranquil region was shattered when a JCB backhoe loader started working on this wet brown earth. The crane inched along to carve a neat road on the fertile lands for Marwa thermal power plant, whilst, affected communities helplessly watched road-construction leading to their doom. E T found that almost every industrial plant is affecting minimum of 3-4 peripheral villages, resulting in severe damages to lives, livelihoods and environment.

The agricultural lands, once lush green with paddy cultivation, today stand as barren and fallow except the glean marks. Taking into account the sufferings of affected communities, it became pertinent to oppose and raise voices against the companies and government plans. Local official, hand in gloves with companies, falsely implicated community members in police cases and forced them to surrender their only livelihood source – the land. The findings revealed that neither jobs were given to those whose lands were snatched nor the market price of land was paid. People were thus forced to choose one of the three options – migrate to some other region, stay and suffer the consequences, or commit suicide. And indeed, suicides in the district have been registered, exhibiting frustration and desperation of adversely affected communities, stripped of their only source of livelihood. In his book “India’s Human Security – Lost Debates, Forgotten People, Intractable Challenges” noted writer Prakash Jain stated – “This district once had potential to bring 80% of its land under irrigation, is now thoroughly ravaged by newer industries.”

Bringing technology and power harvesting capabilities to the land, where significant segment of population still requires minimum food security, is accompanied with its own set of problem. Most threatening among these is the possibility of acid rain in the area, permanently affecting soil and its micro-biota, crop, trees, waterbodies, avian fauna, structural quality of certain households, etc.

The major rivers have also taken a toll and average pollution levels have already crossed safe limits, as corroborated by mysterious untimely deaths of fishes in the vicinity. The EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) reports, mandatory for setting up these power plants, seem to be deficient on several major points especially the environment quality, sharply pointing toward the need for cumulative reappraisal of EIA. Coal-generated power in India has come under severe criticism due to emission of Green House Gases (GHGs) and thereby contributing to climate change, yet government and private parties continue to promote these units. Furthermore, associated ancillary issues like health hazards, eco-degradation, shrunken household economy, etc. have been left unaddressed.

Emissions from Thermal Power Plant and fly ash deposition on land in Janjgir Champa

The availability of water from rivers like Mahanadi, Hasdeo, Chourai, Sone, and Sheonath is essential for cereal crops such as rice and maize, spread over vast agricultural fields, with little wheat. Pulses like black gram, pigeon pea and groundnuts too are grown. One is intrigued why industrial units are being set up here, destroying the agricultural fields? Further, the toxic residues released from steel and power plants are polluting freshwater and other pristine resources of the region in a blatant manner, making a mockery of pollution control establishments. With this lopsided development, water for agricultural fields is gradually shrinking whereas water supply to industrial units has increased. Moreover, use of pollutant-infested water for irrigation has introduced chemical toxicity in the food chain, besides pushing farmers out of farming, due to lack of adequate water availability.

Disbursing cash compensation to the project affected people (PAPs) is an ill-flawed policy. Government snatches their lands (a permanent livelihood resource) in lieu of cash, which would last hardly a year or so. What will happen afterward to these families? For tribals, these lands have strong cultural-religious significance as they live with their ancestors and deities in the area since centuries and such values, like the mental trauma, can never be quantified. Land is a finite resource and agricultural land is shrinking due to ever-increasing industrialization, urbanization and infrastructure, repercussions of it will be prominently visible in next few decades, in terms of decreased yield and eventually a vulnerable food security.

A bird’s eye view of coal mining are in Janjgir Champa

Government, supposed to act as a welfare agency of people, has apparently decided to protect interest of only a handful of prosperous elites at the cost of suffering masses, as is being manifested in Janjgir-Champa. Towards the end, I just want to say – “Where once butterflies used to wander over the garden, soon the chemical exhaust will stroll over the town.”

Author – Alisha Khan