PUDR is deeply concerned about the escalating situation in Chauranga, near Raipur, following the adamant insistence of the factory owner, supported by the administration, in starting work at the Raipur Sponge Iron Power Ltd factory there, in blatant disregard of the longstanding opposition of the people of the village and the region.
The protest against the factory has been going on since 2004, and with good reason. Environmental experts have argued that effluent from sponge iron plants contain seriously toxic substances including cadmium, nickel, hexavalent chromium and arsenic. These can lead to higher rates of cancer, affect lungs in human beings and also harm agricultural output. This has been demonstrated in sponge iron plants elsewhere.
Since 2004, the villagers of Chauranga, supported by residents of at least 25 other villages in the region, had been voicing their protest, through occupying the factory site, barricading the village, filing police complaints, submitting memoranda to the District Collector and Police Commissioner and passing resolutions in their gram sabhas against the project. Their perseverance has succeeded in stalling the project work to date. However, Chauranga reveals to us yet again how government and industry conspire to ram ‘development’ down people’s throats. The administration stepped in to help the owner start the factory with the assistance of police. Protesters have repeatedly been beaten by police and faced arrests. In November 2004, when villagers tried to prevent some people starting work on the site, two people were tragically killed in the resultant clash. As many as 33 people have been convicted of murder; 23 of them are undergoing sentences of life imprisonment. These people cannot even challenge the Sessions Court’s verdict in the High Court, as they are unable to afford the legal expenses. The government and factory owner are largely to blame for a situation in which two groups of poor are pitted against each other in what is otherwise a common struggle, one for survival and livelihood.
Throughout 2007, the owner made periodic attempts at starting work. Each time, this was met by peaceful protest by the residents of Chauranga. Following a declaration by the owner, Suresh Agarwal, on 22 December 2007 that the setting up of the plant is eagerly awaited and that work would start soon, hundreds of people gathered in protest at the tehsil headquarters on 4 January 2008. Supported by the Nadi Ghati Morcha, and residents of neighbouring villages, the people of Chauranga have now decided to sit on an indefinite dharna to oppose the reopening of the factory. If the state wants peaceful methods of struggle to gain credibility, it ought to respect the demands of the people's struggles. Responding to them through the dissonant language of repression only lends legitimacy to people taking law into their own hands.
PUDR demands that this sponge iron factory not be allowed in Chauranga, that various industries not be imposed on the people of Chattisgarh contrary to their wishes and due process regarding environment laws and gram sabha consent be followed transparently and without coercion.
Nagraj Adve and Harish Dhawan