Affected tribals say withdrawal is manipulation
[ Tongam Rina & Karyir Riba ]
ITANAGAR, Nov 5: The Itanagar bench of the Gauhati High Court (HC) has dismissed the writ petition challenging payment of land compensation for the Dibang Multipurpose Project (DMP) in Dibang Valley district, at the request of the National Hydroelectric Power Corporation (NHPC) Limited.
The NHPC had filed an application in the HC, seeking withdrawal of the writ petition challenging payment of land compensation for the DMP.
On 22 October, it filed a petition “seeking withdrawal of the writ petition with leave to prefer such a writ petition in future in the event of non-resolution of the event.”
Dismissing the petition on 25 October, the court stated that the “writ petition stands dismissed on withdrawal with a liberty granted to the petitioner to approach this court again, if so advised.”
The NHPC had gone to the Itanagar bench of the HC against the state government, claiming that 1732.45 hectares of land for the project is “a part of unclassed state forest (USF) area that does not belong to any individual as it is not a private land.”
The NHPC refused to award Rs 1601, 39,31,725 as compensation for the acquisition of the 1732.45 hectares of the USF.
While seeking withdrawal of the petition, the NHPC told the court that it believes that the state government is keen on resolving the dispute regarding the payment of compensation.
After the NHPC had filed the petition against the state government regarding the compensation amount, the state government decided to form a committee to suggest appropriate solutions.
Govt’s high-level committee for appropriate solution
After the petition had been filed, Deputy Chief Minister Chowna Mein called a meeting with the deputy commissioners of Lower Dibang Valley and Dibang Valley districts and NHPC officials.
According to the minutes of the meeting, accessed by this daily, during the 28 June meeting, after the petition had been filed, the DCM underlined the necessity of maintaining the crucial balance between the aspirations of the landowners and the economical viability of the project.
In the government’s minutes of the meeting, it is written that the DCs of the two districts expressed the view that “there is a need for reviewing the awards in right earnest in the interest of the state.”
Later it was decided that a high-level committee should be formed to suggest an appropriate solution. The members include the power commissioner, the land management secretary, the MLAs of Roing and Anini, the hydropower CE, and the DCs and DFOs of both the districts.
NHPC dismissal of indigenous people’s right over USF land
In a supplementary affidavit it had filed after one of the project affected people approached the court, the NHPC stated that the indigenous people living in the surrounding areas of the acquired land have only traditional/customary rights over the USF land, which they enjoy collectively on a community basis.
In a letter to the Dibang Valley DC, in September, the NHPC made it amply clear that the indigenous tribal people could not claim unclassified forests as their own.
Several affected people had approached the HC, pleading that they be made defendants in the case as they are directly affected by the position taken by the NHPC.
According to the preliminary notification issued by the state government for land acquisition, the community lands identified for the project are Kano/Akaya, Anaya, Amili, Alili, Eprali, Arzo/Endipo, New Endolin, Gunli, Isuli, Ryanli/Lopo/Inchindo, Amrali Amuli, Apako, Ataya, Mrambo Upper and Kronli in Arzoo circle.
The other villages are Aprunli, Emrali and Angolin in Etalin circle, and Angapo, Aneli/Brito, Ichili/Ginli and Wanli in Anelih circle.
Though there has been no classification of the land ownership pattern, in Arunachal, unclassified state forests, which make up more than 60 percent of the total forest cover, are community-owned lands of the indigenous communities.
Govt’s approval of land acquisition followed by NHPC’s WP
In February 2019, the land management secretary wrote to the Dibang Valley DC, informing about the state government’s approval of land acquisition for the project.
However, even after the approval by the state government, the NHPC filed the writ petition regarding the compensation.
After it had filed the case, the NHPC in a letter to Dibang Valley DC, in June, stated that the fate of the project depended on the outcome of the court verdict.
The NHPC stated that “the entire land illegally acquired by the government of Arunachal Pradesh in a sham proceeding for the Dibang Multipurpose Project is in fact part of the USF land for which the government of India has given its in-principle approval for diversion under the Forest (Conservation) Act, 1980. Under the extant law, the diversion of USF land can only result in loss of traditional or customary right of tribal community living in the surrounding areas, and there is no question of loss of any individual right because USF land does not belong to any individual as it is not a private land.”
The corporation said it might abandon the project because “in principle, it (NHPC) is against paying an unreasonably astronomical amount of compensation for sham acquisition of USF land for the project.”
In the letter, NHPC accused the state government of “illegally acquiring land, acting beyond is jurisdiction, in defiance of all the rules, regulations, policies and agreements.”
The project affected committee’s apprehension
The Dibang Multipurpose Project Affected Area Committee (DMPAAC) has expressed displeasure over the compensation row it is in with the NHPC.
Terming the withdrawal of the petition by the construction giant highly suspicious, the committee alleged that it was ‘politics’ played by the NHPC in order to manipulate the state government into suppressing the poor affected families, and to escape with their motive of not paying the rightful compensation.
On behalf of the DMPAAC, its chairman, Athupi Melo, said the withdrawal of the petition by the NHPC was a welcome gesture. At the same time, he was firm on rejecting the reassessment proposed by the company.
“Reassessment of the entire area will not be allowed. However, any errors or overlapping of bills during the previous assessment can be reassessed and corrected,” Athupi said.
He said that, after the assessment that had been conducted in February 2018, the assessed area was taken under the possession of the NHPC, which meant that the landowners had left the land abandoned.
“Hence, any agricultural or horticultural properties attached to these lands do not exist anymore. Now, if reassessment is done, the landowners will be paid only for their barren lands, whereas the actual assessment has records of all the agri-horti properties of these lands. Therefore, we see no possibility of allowing a new field survey for assessment,” said Melo.
DMPAAC convenor Nogoro Melo said the order, No LM-102/2015/1578, of the office of the land management secretary, is not acceptable.
“The order is a direct imposition on the affected people and we firmly reject it. There are so many things that are very wrong in that order,” he said, adding that they would not settle for any other rate than the circle rate of Dibang Valley.
“They want us to cut down to the rates of LDV, which is almost a 50 percent rate difference,” he said. “The Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, calls for fair maximum compensation to the affected people, but here the NHPC is trying to get away with minimum compensation, if not without paying anything,” Nogoro said.
The DMPAAC has stressed that the intention of the NHPC in withdrawing its petition is not known yet, as it has also, in a way, threatened to go back to court. In such a case, the DMPAAC said it would again challenge the petition but would not stop fighting for the affected people’s right to compensation.
“In the first place, if the NHPC hadn’t turned their back on us and made all those false promises, and if only it had followed all that was previously told to us in the very beginning, all the parties involved would have been happy and content. There would not be any delay in the project and speedy development could have been witnessed,” Nogoro said.
The Idu Mishmi Cultural and Literary Society (IMCLS) had earlier on asked the NHPC to withdraw its petition opposing granting of compensation for community land that comes under USF, pertaining to the 2880 mw DMP.
The IMCLS has said it would have no option other than filing a case against the NHPC if the corporation refuses to pay compensation which is the affected people’s due.