Koel Karo: a question of votes

Sources say caste politics has a lot to do with the current interest shown by Bihar's Janata Dal (JD) government in getting the 710 MW Koel-Karo hydel project through. Chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav has close links with bhumilhars (landed gentry), who stand to gain most from the project.

The government's move has invited the wrath of villagers from the project's affected areas of Ranchi, Gumia and Sfngbhurn. One million people, 80 per cent of them Munda, Oraon and Kharia tribals, will be displaced by the project.

The struggle against the project began in 1974. In 1994, the Centre decided to pull out of the project. Yadav, however, did not give up, and persuaded the Union government to provide Its 10 crore for the project, which led to fresh agitations. At Torpa village, 95 krn from Itanchl, a 20,000-strong crowd prevented Laloo Yadav from laying the foundation stone.

Local JD activists profess no sympathy for those who oppose the project. Says an activist in Ranchi, "We cannot afford to oppose development projects." On the other hand, as the support base of the Jharkhand parties comprises the tribals who bear the brunt of development, their local leaders are against the project.

Jharkhand Party's N E Horo, a staunch opponent of Koel-Karo, is vocal about forest and displacement issues. He says, "First they tried monoculture in our forests. We cut them down. There was rampant treefefling in Hazaribagh. Now Koel-Karo. We are now organised. Pushed to the wall, people may have to resort to violence."

According to Horo, "Environmental issues will fetch votes." In the coming general elections, there could be a contest between him and Jharkhand Mukti Morcha's Prabhakar Tirkey for the Khunti Lok Sabha seat, which covers dozens of dam affected villages. Tirkey, who has taken a strong stand against the project, says, "The JD's effort to bring in the project will be thwarted by the people's movements.'