Voices From The Inside Out

The Child Leader of Bhangar

Biswajit Roy

Calcuttans witness multiple protest marches every day. But it's a rare experience to watch an eight-year-old boy leading rally participants in slogan shouting. Shoyeb Aktar, a resident of Machibhanga village in Bhangar came to the city with his parents to join a protest march on 30 January, held in solidarity to the ongoing agitation against construction of power grid sub-station and towers to run high tension wires across agricultural fields in their area and repression by police-ruling party combine that had led to killing of two village youth earlier this month and subsequent arrests of leading activists. The construction is part of a ambitious multi-state project of Power Grid Corporation of India, a central PSU while land procurement has been facilitated by the ruling TMC government.

The slender and small boy was not like the usual coy and curious children of his age who join rally-bound parents for the lure of sightseeing before or after the event. In contrast, the class II student himself insisted to be perched on the shoulder of youth from his village, raised slogans like seasoned sloganeer which elders responded with much enthusiasm. He must have memorized the slogans from everyday campaign at the ground zero and is unexpected to understand their full meaning and context.

Nevertheless, his raised fist and swaying torso that moved in rhythm with his own words occasionally supported by beats of a daaifli-player, attracted many a participant, even onlookers who jostled with media persons to take a snap of the little hero.

The very contrast of his tender age and youthful body language momentarily redeemed age-old pledges of left movements that had lost its resonance on public mind, thanks to prolonged left front rule, which had turned them into empty rhetoric. As the rally snaked its way from College square to Esplanade, his feeble voice was hardly audible at some points. He was offered a microphone aboard a mini truck after the rally reached its destination.

"I have been joining protest marches for last 50 years. Seldom I felt so inspired", one of them said. Shoyeb's rants against the trigger-happy police, law breaker turned law-enforcer activists found more responses from local marchers.

Later this correspondent managed to catch up with the young celebrity who was more in a mood to continue in his leading role rather than confiding his background and intimate feelings to a stranger. He was asked a few simple questions : What do you know about the power grid? How do you come to know about its ill effects? Initially he kept silence and then said, "My father told me that we will all die if the power grid bursts". Do you know the meaning of word 'Shahid'? This time prompt came the reply. "People like Mufijul and Alamgir who were killed by police", the student of Anandatala KG School said. "Where is our own banner? Why did not you bring it today", he asked a youth like a weathered organizer. The whole group of youth around Shoyeb was visibly proud of him. "He is the product of our movement", one of them said.

Clearly, he embodies the energy of the local community and their agitation despite police and ruling party crackdown. Also their collective angst and anger against the power project which has been left unaddressed by the state government and the Power Grid Corporation.

It's not only little Shoyeb but many youth and middle-aged marchers from Bhangar villages had various misgivings about the grid's impact on local agriculture and fisheries, public health and environment. Probably his father mistook the grid for a power transformer which villagers sometimes saw exploding. "The grid sub-station and tower is close to our village. We heard strange whizzing sounds when we walk close to or under the high tension line. Scientists told us it will harm our health and invite diseases. Also the 'earthing' of towers will affect the ground water and local water bodies jeopardizing our agriculture and fisheries," teenagers Samrat Molla of Ghazipur and Nurul Husain said. Asked which scientists have told them about the ill-effects, they said the grid officials 'divulged the truth' when confronted by the worried villagers. "Why did they (officials) ask us not to build wooden structures or small buildings under the grid lines or close to the towers? Clearly, it's dangerous for locals." The class VIII dropouts now work as mason's helper and carpenter's apprentice respectively. Though their family has not lost any land, they have 'sacrificed' their daily wage and came to the rally 'to save their families and village from the future disaster. ' The common refrain they shared with other local participants is that the ruling party men and power grid officials hoodwinked them by assuring construction of low key power house to facilitate power supply for the local cultivation and domestic electrification.

The father of slain Mofijul, Shukur Ali Khan, himself a landless agricultural worker like his son is convinced that high tension wire would harm the agriculture and fisheries. "Didi had opposed takeover of multi-crop land in Singur and Nandigram. She fought against construction of chemical hub in Nayachar and nuclear power station in Haripur to stop environmental degradation. We supported her wholeheartedly and helped her to attain power. Now she is betraying us. She did nothing when Arabul Islam, former MLA and Trinamul satrap forced farmers to give up land for paltry sum. Does not she know that Bhangar is a fertile multi-crop land like Singur? We feed Kolkata and beyond with our vegetables and fish catches. Also it is a densely populated area. All will be ruined if the power grid is not stopped", he said.

He is not opposed to the grid construction per se but only wants its relocation to relatively unpopulated areas. For him and many other villagers the grid was supposed to come up in neighboring Rajarhat but the local MLA and Salt Lake-Rajarhat Mayor Sabyasachi Dutta allegedly pulled the strings to shift it at their doorsteps, ostensibly to save himself from the wrath of more urbane voters in the reshaped assembly constituency. Interestingly, Khan favours industry, even real estate development in lieu of the grid substation and towers on the land procured at the early years of Trinamul regime. "Unlike the grid, industry will bring jobs to locals. Even the apartment buildings will employ us", he reasoned.

That rings a bell. Mainstream media and police reports complained about the role of real estate developers in the anti-grid campaign as some towers had come up or wires would run through the land procured by some promoters. Arabul Islam's henchmen reportedly forced farmers to sell their land at low price but minted money by transferring it to developers at a premium. Khan said promoters got some land but local youth surrounding denied it. Media initially saw a nexus between Islam and the CPI(ML) Red Star activists who are leading the agitation now to explain his tolerance to the 'infiltration' of the Naxalites in his fiefdom. Another media angle was the ruling party infighting between Islam and his bete noire, former CPM leader and land reforms minister turned local Trinamul MLA Razzak Molla. But Khan and local youth surrounding him denied any links with the promoters or Arabul. "My son was killed. Police gunned down our boys. How can we be Arabul's men? I want Arabul to be hanged for the atrocities he had perpetrated on us," he said. In fact, Shoyeb and other marchers shouted slogans lampooning not only Islam and Dutta but also Molla and smaller land sharks like Gaffar.

Khan who had refused to take Rs two lakh as compensation from Trinamul government for his son's death and addressed a citizens meet organized by CPM and Congress leaders , denied being the pawn of the Opposition as the ruling party castigated him. Flashing out a TMC postcard calendar with a smiling chief minister's photograph on it, he said: "I was a Congress supporter but turned to Didi during Singur–Nandigram. Now Didi calls us Maoists like the CPM government did in those days. She has belied our hopes and now more interested in protecting people like Arabul than listening to us. Why she didn't visit us as she used to do during the LF years? She is the chief minister. We will protect her if she comes instead threatening us," the middle-aged daily wager said. He demanded CBI probe into the killing of the two youth and actions against the land-grabbers as well as unconditional release of the arrested activists. "These Naxalites are good people. They stayed with us and shared our concerns. Did not Didi find them useful during Singur-Nandigram and Lalgarh? Now good boys have become bad for her", he said mockingly.

No doubt, there is a difference between Singur-Nandigram and Bhangar as the earlier anti-land grab movements were opposed to huge land acquisition by the government for Tatas and Salims or special economic zones. In contrast, officially only 13 acres have been purchased for the central government PSU project. But the ghosts of earlier movements are now hounding Mamata Banerjee because of the larger land grab by her party musclemen as well as the legitimate life and livelihood worries of communities. It's immaterial whether the environmental and health concerns are far-fetched, ill-informed or misplaced. Neither the power grid corporation nor the state government had addressed those grievances at the ground level.

Although the new land law that has replaced the colonial acquisition act has made these mandatory, Bhangar villagers said no public hearing was organized to explain the pros and cons of the project. Neither any environmental and social impact study report has been put on the public domain for informed debates on the impacts of electromagnetic field created around high-voltage power line and gas insulation technology used in the project. Now it is being said that the Bhangar land has been procured using colonial Telegraph act to bypass the stipulations of the new land law. Journalist friends covering the agitation and power sector could not shed any light. They told this correspondent that the grid high ups in Delhi assured them about their compliance with procedural and scientific assessment norms. Evidently,  they have believed the technocrats. "A central Navaranta PSU can't afford to skip those norms", one of them commented.

However, no such assessment report is available at the Power Grid Corporation site except a general statement on environment and social policy. A smaller statement on 'Rajarhat' project and a newspaper ad in the wake of recent violence in Bhangar was considered enough for public consumption. An effort to elicit online responses to queries is frustrating as it involves a prohibitive process. This technocratic arrogance and veil of secrecy around the high priests of government's scientific hierarchy has been all pervasive across the country. Be it nuclear power corporation or power grid corporation, for that matter any such agency is accountable to the citizens while atomic energy establishment is beyond the purview of the parliament.

In contrast, a quick surfing of the related websites revealed that the debates over the impacts of high-voltage power transmission line or their grids on environment and human health is global and raging fast. Some governments in western countries including Canada and New Zeland as well as global health bodies like WHO have acknowledged the debates as legitimate and welcome.

This transparency and public accountability is missing in the country. Instead, a vengeful state government has named a veteran scientist, Nisha Biswas in the FIR on Bhangar violence following police crackdown and firing that extinguished two young lives. Biswas said she was not at all present in Bhangar on that day. Her only crime is she wrote and spoke about the global scientific papers that had legitimized the fears of Bhangar.

Vol. 49, No.35, Mar 5 - 11, 2017