By Rajiv Shah*
The year was 2012, when D Jagatheesa Pandian, a Gujarat cadre IAS bureaucrat, was state energy secretary. Accompanied with two journalist colleagues, I dashed into his room on finding he had no guests to entertain. A seasoned official who became Gujarat chief secretary two years later, Pandian welcomed us with a broad smile. One who had the longest stint at the state-owned Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation (GSPC), almost 10 years, Pandian, to most of us, was synonymous to GSPC’s oil-and-gas exploration. One who can claim to have made Gujarat number 1 in the use of gas by providing most of the over 3,000-km-long gas pipeline network, he was also known to us as Gujarat’s “gas man” for another reason – he took GSPC to the KG Basin off Andhra coast, apart from going “multinational” to Egypt, Australia, Yemen and Indonesia for “exploratory” exploits. It is quite another thing that, not only GSPC’s multinational ventures, even the KG Basin oil-and-gas fields, have been either abandoned or may be put off soon, after they cost the PSU hugely, without few results.
Yet, in 2012, GSPC’s “downturn” wasn’t yet visible, at least on surface. So, we asked Pandian our hackneyed question: Any other success in oil and gas exploration? First Pandian said, blushing, “I am no more GSPC managing director, why don’t you ask Tapan Ray?”, and then told us there was a “possibility” of finding a huge reserve in South Gujarat. “That’s big news, please give details”, I tried inquiring, to know the exact spot where the reserve was located. “Well, it’s too preliminary. It would be premature to write”, he replied. When I persisted, he gave me the location: the industrial town of Ankaleshwar, dubbed by environmentalists as one the most polluted in the country and the world, quoting Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) figures. “Right below it?”, I wondered, and he replied positively, again pleading not to report.
I promptly agreed, but put before him a hypothetical query: What if a huge oil-and-gas reserve is actually found underneath Ankaleshwar? Will the Gujarat government agree to “displace” those who live in the township and demolish all the industries set up there? Pandian didn’t answer the question, but, with pen in his hand, began drawing a map of Ankaleshwar on a blank paper. He drew two lines, connecting each other to make a right angle. One line was supposed to be the vertical pipeline going deep into the surface, outside the township on an agricultural field, and the other, which connected it, was horizontal, taking the pipeline underground towards the spot beneath Ankaleshwar where oil and gas had supposedly been located.
This didn’t impress me, hence I repeated: “Will you displace Ankaleshwar population, and demolish the industries set up atop the oil and gas fields in the name of development?” I didn’t stop here, but continued: “Well, this is what you (I meant Gujarat government) did in Narmada, where thousands of poor tribals were displaced in the name of development for building a dam. If adivasis can be displaced for the sake of development, why spare the city dwellers? If forests, on which adivasis depend on to earn a livelihood, can be destroyed for the sake of the dam, why can’t the same logic be applied to industries for the sake of oil-and-gas exploration?” Pandian smiled in agreement, but wasn’t quite keen to answer. The matter ended, and we moved out of his room.
What the top bureaucrat didn’t want to say, but I think knew well, was this: No state machinery would ever risk displacing middle class city dwellers on a mass scale. And when at stake are industrial units, owned by tycoons, Indian or foreign, the state would never ever agree on a “displacement” plan, as it would for, say, tribals in the hilly regions, or farmers elsewhere in Gujarat. From the officialdom’s angle, the message seemed loud and clear: Those who have meagre means of livelihood have nothing to “lose” – they can be easily displaced and provided with some compensation in the form of cash or land, with a rehabilitation colony to live in. Large number of Narmada dam oustees, who lived in Madhya Pradesh or Maharashtra, have been shifted to Gujarat and are living in resettlement sites, away from the land on which they lived for ages – not out of their own choice. While these colonies are being described as a “model” to be followed for resettling oustees, it’s by now a common knowledge: No section of tribals in Gujarat’s eastern belt – forming about 15 per cent of the state’s population – will benefit from the Narmada project, which is actually situated in a tribal area.
A “reasonable” physical compensation cannot hide the fact that there is a tendency to overlook the psychological scar the communities suffer from after they are displaced from own land. Who is going to compensate for that? And how? One is left wondering: Do we, belonging to middle classes, and those owning industries at places like Ankaleshwar, alone have the right not to be displaced, despite the pollution they create? If it is thought that displacement of tribals and other sections of the rural population by acquiring land – albeit through a “good package” offered by the former UPA government under a land acquisition Act, sought to be “undermined” by the NDA – alone can bring about development, there is reason to ask: Why didn’t the state act to provide health and education before displacement-induced project was thought of? There have been studies on India’s coal belt which say that the condition of tribals has worsened after they were displaced.
Meanwhile, without going into merits of the Narendra Modi government considering to “drop” the idea of doing away with consent and social impact assessment (SIA) clauses of the controversial land acquisition law, the Gujarat government has found a new way to acquire land without even invoking any land acquisition law, old or new. In the south of Ahmedabad, in Dholera special investment region (SIR), the state government has been toying with the idea of applying the town planning Act to take away 50 per cent of the farmers’ rich agricultural land in the name developing a smart city. Farmers of Dholera SIR have received intimations that they must part with their land for development, and they would get 50 per cent of the size of the land they had at a different place for pursuing farming. Not only is there no talk of consent or SIA; the officialdom doesn’t even wish to call it land acquisition!
*Former political editor, The Times of India, Ahmedabad. First published in http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/