The government of Uttar Pradesh must hold to account police personnel who used unnecessary force against villagers protesting land acquisition for a dam project in Sonbhadra, said Amnesty International India today.
On 14 April, Uttar Pradesh police personnel baton-charged hundreds of peaceful protestors demonstrating against land acquisition for the Kanhar dam project, seriously injuring at least 15 people. They also fired live ammunition at the protestors, seriously injuring Akkhlu Chero, a local Adivasi activist. District authorities told Amnesty International India that the firing was done in self-defence.
On 18 April, police again baton-charged peaceful protestors and fired rubber bullets to force them away from the dam site and into their villages. A resident of Bheesur village, who did not wish to be named for reasons of safety, told Amnesty International India, “Early in the morning, they surrounded us from all four sides and started attacking us. They went up to Bheesur and started hitting people in their houses. Now we are afraid to even leave our villages. We don’t know who is where, who is in hospital, who has been picked up by the police. People are being asked to take compensation and vacate their houses.”
A civil society fact-finding team said that hundreds of villagers have had fabricated cases filed against them since the protests began on 23 December 2014. Amnesty International India spoke to three families who said that some of their relatives had been detained by police without any explanation being given.
Another fact-finding team said that villagers were being threatened into leaving their homes. “Many people are unable to meet their families, or cannot seek help for their injuries, as they are afraid of being arrested,” said Sudha Bharadwaj, general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Chhattisgarh.
“The right to peaceful protest is guaranteed by India’s Constitution and international law. The Uttar Pradesh government must respect local communities’ rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” said Aruna Chandrasekhar, Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International India.
“It must immediately investigate the use of unnecessary or excessive force against protestors, prosecute suspected perpetrators, and remove any restrictions on speech, assembly or movement.”
Under international human rights standards, the police must always exercise restraint in using force, and ensure that any force used is necessary and proportional. Firearms may be used intentionally only as a last resort and when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.
The Kanhar irrigation project involves the construction of a three kilometre-long earthen dam which will submerge 4151 hectares of land across three states- Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. Eleven villages in Uttar Pradesh will be affected- Sundari, Korchi, Nachantad, Bheesur, Sugwaman, Kasivakhar, Khudri, Bairkhad, Lambi, Kohda and Amwaar. All have large Adivasi and Dalit populations.
Rights groups in Chhattisgarh say that affected indigenous communities have not been adequately consulted or informed about the impacts of the project, in violation of international law and standards. The UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which India has endorsed, says that states must consult and cooperate in good faith with indigenous peoples in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources.
The Kanhar project was approved by authorities in 1976, and land for it was partially acquired between 1978 and 1982. Affected communities claim they received compensation of less than Rs. 3000 per acre (0.4 hectares) in 1983. However the project did not see any construction until 4 December 2014.
On 24 December 2014, the National Green Tribunal – a dedicated environmental court – ordered that construction at the site be paused and no felling of trees must take place if there were no valid environmental and forest clearances. The Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change has since admitted that it has been unable to locate the forest clearance given to the project. The construction has continued.
The state government has stated that it will give an additional amount of Rs. 7,11,000 to each household that was surveyed in 1983. However villagers say this amount does not take into account the amount of land each individual household will lose, or changes in the affected population. Adivasi communities who secured land titles after the enactment of India’s Forest Rights Act in 2006 also do not stand to receive compensation.
Local residents have also challenged in court the validity of land acquisition and impact assessments conducted 30 years ago, and demanded compensation under India’s new land acquisition law.
Forced evictions are prohibited under international law, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which India is a state party. Evictions may only be carried out as a last resort, once all other feasible alternatives have been explored in genuine consultation with affected communities. Adequate alternative housing and compensation must be made available prior to eviction.