Koel Karo battles on

IN October 1991, when the Cabinet Committee for Economic Affairs (CCEA) approved a fresh budget for the Koel Karo hydro-electric project near Ranchi, it began a fresh chapter in the protests and agitations that have chequered the 20-year history of the project, the longest fight against any dam in the country.

A barricade built across the approach road to the dam site when the struggle first began in 1974, still stands to a side, mute testimony to the fact that the struggle is not yet over. The Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) has taken over the leadership of the Koel Karo Jan Sanghatan (KKJS) that spearheaded the movement in 1974. Their feelings are echoed in the words of Simon Marhandi, JMM member of Parliament from Singbhumr "We may not be able to stop the dam. But we will not allow the work to begin until we are rehabilitated."

So the JMM, with the CPI, CPI-M, BJP, the Congress and others, has begun to accept the dam as inevitable. Among them is Karia Munda, once the leader of the KKJS, who is now a BJP MP. Janata Dal leader George Fernandes, MP from Muzaffarpur, however, refuses to comment on the issue.

The struggle now is for a rehabilitation package that will be acceptable to the people. Tribal MLA N E Horo has been addressing large meetings to mobilise opinion against the project until the rehabilitation is finalised. JMM MP Suraj Mandal too has been active in organising opposition to the resumption of work on the project.

KKJS secretary Soma Munda and other leaders, including Vincent Lakra, D K Guria and David Manjar, have successfully kept the organisation and its following going. In fact, reports of a proposed visit by the Prime Minister to the project site on January 20 brought the local residents to the site to stage a protest. The local people are also convinced that caste politic have a lot to do with the push to get the project underway. The present incumbents of power in Bihar, particularly chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav, have close links with the bhumihars, as also Union power minister Kalpnath Rai. The people see these interests as coinciding with those of the bhumihars who stand to gain considerably from the project.

The CCEA budget includes a Supreme Court commendation for a Rs 130-crore rehabilitation package However, the environment minister has asked for a reformulation of the rehabilitation programme.

The rehabilitation package had been arrived at in 1990 upon a consensus of the National Hydro-electric Power Corporation (NHPC), the Bihar government and the organisations of those to be displaced by the dam. The Supreme Court settlement followed a writ filed by some tribals of villages in the Gumla area in 1984 and was based on another rehabilitation programme offered by the state government in 1986.

The Bihar chief minister in 1984, Chandra Shekhar Singh, had announced that the Koel Karo dam would "come up even if the police had to fire to forcibly evict tribal from their lands". Singh later argued that the Land Acquisit Act would not be applicable in this case, offering, instead, cash compensation to the displaced persons. But in 1986, the state government offered land compensation to 5,006 families. In 1989, another 2000 families were identified for alternate land sites.

Landlords were offered 2 ha and even landless tribals were offered little over 1 ha of land as compensation for the loss of forest produce. The Supreme Court ordered the tribals be allowed tradition khorkar and khundkati rights the new lands. This was the first major judgement by the court the rehabilitation of dam oustees.

About 120 villages are to be submerged over 22,000 ha, displacing over one lakh people. Of the total land acquisition, 12,000 ha are reported to be agricultural land, while 10,000 ha comprise forests.

But recently the Vishthapit Mukti Vahini (VMV), the KKJS, the Samata Sanghatan and the All Jharkhand Students' Union have come together to push up the tribals' protests. A VMV padayatra, which started in Chandil on November 10, culminated 100 kin away at Ranchi on November 20, on which day a seminar was held by the organisation on large,dam projects. The continued resistance has surprised government and politicians alike. The reason probably is, as Karia Munda points out, "the Supreme Court recommendations are not mandatory".

The people, almost 90 per cent of who belong to the Oraon and Munda tribes, are openly sceptical of the government's credibility. And their stance would seem to be borne out by the experiences of those displaced by other such projects in the state. Says Simon Marhandi, himself an oustee: "I am a member of Parliament and my wife, Sushila Hanstak, is a member of the legislative assembly in Bihar. Despite our positions, we are still waiting for our compensation and land after being ousted from our village which was submerged by the Turai dam in Sahebgunje district."

The NHPC, which had originally committed itself to providing jobs to over 6,000 displaced people, has now withdrawn its offer on the grounds that "the Central department of public enterprises has issued a directive asking (NHPQ not ,to commit itself on jobs, since it would affect the viability of the project since the NHPC is already overstaffed."

Today, the NHPC, which took over the project from the Bihar government in 1981, is again pushing hard for resumption of work on the project. An NHPC spokesperson somewhat over-optimistically said, Now all the issues have been cleared and we are ready to start work again."

But outside of NHPC's hopes, there is a grimmer reality not only are the villagers still stubbornly holding out, the corporation itself is unsure of funds for the project.

The estimated cost of the project has escalated from Rs 200 crore Commission, to Rs 390 crore in 1981, when the NNPC took over the project from the Bihar State Electricity Board (BSEB), to Rs 1338.8 crore in October 1991, when the department of power won the approval of the Public Investment Board (PIB) for its revised higher cost estimates. This cost estimate has been okayed by the CCEA as well.

However, the NHPC is still unsure of the sources for the additional funds. NHPC chairman M A Hai admitted recently that "further delay (in the implementation of the project) is apprehended for want of resources". He said that the government has so far disallowed any foreign tie-up and insisted that finances be arranged indigenously.

A senior official of the NHPC affirmed, on condition of anonymity, that "since the government has been pruning expenditure in the power sector, NHPC has continued to face a financial crunch and is unable to take up the project. It has approval from the government to float bonds to raise funds for the project." The matter is still undecided. It has been reported that NHPC has approached the Life Insurance Corporation of India and the General Insurance Corporation of India for investments, but this is not confirmed.

There have also been reports that the installed capacity of the project has been slashed from 710 mw to 580 mw. But this has been denied by NHPC officials. However, the fact is that since the project was first designed, the Central Watbr Cbminission has cleare4 a number of small irrigation works which take away from the hydel project about 15 per cent of the waters originally reserved for it.

NHPC big-wigs who defend the Koel Karo project on the grounds that the predominance f thermal power stations have le to operational difficulties, admit that the delay has given rise not o to cost escalation but also problems of morale. One officer said, "NHPC has a contingent of 200 staffers with a chief engineer and a general manager at Koel Karo. All the upheavals the project has been through, the gheraos and protests, have had an adverse effect on them."

The fact remains, however, that the project is still considered technically sound. Located in the Ranchi and Singbhum districts, the 710 mw project involves the construction of two earth dams - one, 44 metres high, across the South Koel river near Basia, and the other, 55 metres high, across the North Karo river near Lohajima. The two dams will be linked by a trans-basIn channel, with six units of 115 mw each in the underground powerhouse at Lumpu-ngkhel and one unit of 20 mw at Raitoli. It includes 219 kin of 400 kv and 15 kin of 132 kv single circuit transmission lines.

Reports from Chandra Bhushan and Madhukar in Ranchi, Koshy Cherail, Anjani Khanna and Anumita Roychowdhury in New Delhi