Eastern Times, Nagaon Town, Assam : For over a year, the situation in Mikir Bamuni Grant village of Samaguri Revenue Circle, Nagaon, Assam has been a cause for serious concern for indigenous people and farmers who have been protesting against forceful takeover of their land for setting up a 15 MW solar power plant by Azure Power Forty Private Ltd.
As no local elected representative or district official was responding to their grievances, an appeal was issued by the local communities for help. In response, an All-India Fact-Finding Committee (FFC) was constituted by Delhi Solidarity Group. Prafulla Samantara (recipient of the Goldman Environmental Prize, also known as Green Nobel Prize) from Odisha, Leo Saldanha (Environment Support Group, Bangalore) and Bhargavi Rao (Environment Support Group, Bangalore and Center for Financial Accountability, New Delhi) and Amit Kumar (Delhi Solidarity Group) who were part of this FFC, visited Mikir Bamuni to meet with met with local impacted communities, and also went to Nagaon to meet with district, police and revenue officials during 27 to 29 January 2021. Based on this visit, gathering of evidence and extensive research of the region, the Committee has issued: “The Anatomy of a Solar Land Grab – Report of a Fact-Finding Committee relating to Human Rights Violations, and Environmental & Social Impacts of 15 MW Solar Power Plant being established by Azure Power at Mikir Bamuni Grant Village, Nagaon, Assam” and the same was released today in the presence of local villagers and leaders of the ongoing movement against the land grab.
The report establishes that Azure Power was assisted by district authorities, revenue officials and police in forcibly taking over land that was being cultivated by the villagers, and in abject violation of judicial orders, and also laws and policies.
The construction of the solar part was undertaken with blatant abuse of police power, employed to terrorise local people into submission, and this including a variety of serious human rights abuses.
Despite widespread media coverage in local dailies, no action has been initiated against the guilty officials by the State Government. Shockingly, the high office of His Excellency the Governor of Assam has been found to be involved in authorising the illegal transfer of land to Azure.
The report further establishes that the solar power plant is being constructed on fertile agricultural land that has been cultivated for decades, and was full of standing crops, and which was illegally destroyed by Azure. The local agricultural officials have illegally and fraudulently made a case that there was no cultivation for over a decade, to justify the illegal transfer of land to Azure.
The FFC also discovered during 2 of its 3-day visit to Mikir Bamuni, that elephants crossed through the village, their passage was blocked by the solar plant, and thus this constitutes an active elephant corridor and ecologically sensitive region.
FFC member and senior leader of National Alliance of People’s Movements, Prafulla Samantara pointed out that the “Assam Government, especially the district administration of Nagaon, has played a crucial role in this corporate capture of resources dispossessing indigenous and adivasi people of Mikir Bamuni from their lands and livelihoods.
Actions of police officials to assist this forcible takeover of land by Azure Power has resulted in blatant violation of human rights of those cultivating the land. The Assam government has served the interest of Azure Power at the cost of human rights, livelihood, and fundamental rights of villagers”.
Amit Kumar, a researcher based in Delhi who has extensively researched land and environmental laws relating to industrial corridors and mega infrastructure projects, highlights the legal violations in this case.
“The Assam (Temporary Settled Areas) Tenancy Act 1971 clearly states that the land should have been transferred in the name of occupancy tenants, the farmers of Mikir Bamuni Grant in this case. We were shocked to learn that these lands were first transferred to descendants of the original land grant landholder, occupancy tenant’s rights over the land were deliberately ignored, and then the purchase of this land by Azure Power was accommodated by revenue officials. Further, there is a blatant violation of the Assam Fixation of Ceiling on Landholdings Act 1956.
At no point did the state revenue officials stop the illegal appropriation of such fertile agricultural land situated in the midst of active elephant corridor.”, he stated.
He went on to add, “During the colonial era, Britishers sold huge areas of lands to big Zamindars terming the land as “Waste and uncultivated”. This rich land was cultivated for generations by indigenous communities. Now the Assam government is dispossessing the indigenous people of Assam from the very same land, by facilitating illegal transfer of these very lands which ought to settle in favour of cultivators.”
Leo Saldanha of Environment Support Group highlights, “Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promotion of 450GW of energy production from renewable sources is fraught with various inconsistencies, particularly the lack of appreciation of various details relating to finance demanded, and social and environmental impacts. It appears that the message to State Governments is to assist the transnational and national private sector to secure land in any manner.
If how Azure Power has grabbed land in Mikir Bamuni is any indication, one can expect such land grabs across India, all in the name of meeting the Paris Climate Agreement targets, and in making India a major producer of solar energy.
Such so-called ‘Just Transitions’ which are claimed as responding to challenges of Climate Change, are completely outside the purview of India’s environmental laws despite specific directions from Supreme Court and National Green Tribunal that such projects must be subordinated to environmental clearance review”.
Bhargavi S. Rao of Environment Support Group and Centre for Financial Accountability points out that “the diversion of cultivated lands that fail in an active elephant corridor to Azure Power’s solar park, is perhaps only the beginning of a transformation of the Nagaon region to industrial infrastructure. There has been absolutely no consultation with local communities.
The fact that we found elephants moving through the villages on two of the three days we were at Mikir Bamuni, exposes the Forest Department consented to the project when they should have declared the area an ecologically sensitive elephant corridor to protect elephants.
We have also met with women and children and heard very disturbing accounts of how they were terrorised by the local police and company officials. They are traumatised, and yet no one from State welfare agencies, or human rights commissions had reached out to them till when we visited the site.”
This FFC Report demands that the Assam government must immediately halt the construction of Azure Power solar plant and take steps to recover the land, restore it to the state it was prior to construction of the plant and hand it back to the tillers of the land.
The FFC holds that the cost of this operation must be borne by Azure Power in consonance with the ‘polluter pays’ principle. In addition, an enquiry must be initiated into the human rights excesses and the illegalities and fraud perpetuated by state officials to facilitate the unlawful transfer of land violating judicial directives.
The report also asserts the immediate need for the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change to bring solar plants and other renewable energy projects under social and environmental review as directed by the National Green Tribunal (South Zone), a decision confirmed by the Supreme Court of India.
Further, the FFC recommends to all the financiers of Azure Power’s Mikir Bamuni solar plant to critically evaluate basis for financing, and take necessary action for violations of various safeguards the company wrongly claimed it adheres to.