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India

Suzlon's Kerala land use is deemed 'trespass'

INDIA: Suzlon Energy will be forced to give illegally acquired land back to the tribal people who lived on it after a ruling by India's state government of Kerala in November.

Report recommends the removal of 31 wind turbines from the Attappady land
Report recommends the removal of 31 wind turbines from the Attappady land

The Indian wind power firm has been operating wind farms on illegally acquired land in Attappady in the southern Indian state of Kerala, says a report ordered by the government. The Attappady Reserve Forest is a protected area, part of a larger international biospheric reserve.

Indian laws explicitly forbid the sale of tribal land to non-tribal people.

A high-level committee headed by Kerala's chief secretary finds that Suzlon indulged in "actions pointing to trespass, conspiracy, fraud and cheating" at Attappady. It says that these are actionable under the Indian Penal Code, the Scheduled Caste/Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act of 1985, and the Kerala Restriction on Transfer by and Restoration of Land to Scheduled Tribes Act of 1999. It also recommends dismantling and removing 31 wind turbines and related accessories at Attappady.

Inquiry

The report has been approved in principle by the cabinet, says Kerala chief minister Velikkakathu Sankaran Achuthanandan. The government states that those who fabricated documents to facilitate the encroachment will be prosecuted, and that it will institute a comprehensive inquiry into the alleged involvement of government officials.

Suzlon has appealed to the high court to restrain the government from initiating action against it. The land was bought by Sarjan Realties, an associate firm of Suzlon, which acquired 152 hectares in violation of land ceiling limits, says the report.

Both firms declined to comment.

Melvettil Sukumaran of the Adivasi Samrakshana Samithi, which works for tribal rights in Attappady, says: "Middlemen bought land from tribal people at very low prices or simply grabbed it by forging papers and then selling to companies."

The loss of land to Suzlon has deprived several thousands of Attappady's 35,000 tribal people of their livelihood, mainly cattle rearing and agriculture, he says. The environment has also suffered - a large number of trees have been cut down and hillocks have been levelled to set up the turbines. Construction debris has been thrown into the Bhavani river, he adds.

While the chief secretary's report and a Palakkad district collector report advised strong action against Suzlon and others, Kerala's Left Democratic Front government did not act immediately. The Communist Party of India, which forms the core of the ruling alliance, believes that Suzlon has not encroached on tribal land.

It does seem that pressure from the opposition congress party in Kerala forced the government to act. Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, a congress member of the legislative assembly, led a delegation of tribal people of Attappady to see prime minister Manmohan Singh, who agreed to investigate. Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi also agreed to take up their issue.

Around 60 million people in India have been displaced or affected by industrial and power projects over the past six decades, according to the North Eastern Social Research Centre. The impact has fallen disproportionately on tribal people, who constitute 8% of India's population but account for 40% of the displaced.

Destruction

This displacement, destruction of cultural identity and devastation of the environment, particularly by mining, has come under media scrutiny in recent years. In mineral-rich areas of central and eastern India, displacement has fuelled a powerful Maoist insurgency, which has forced several global mining firms to reconsider investment.

Displacement by the wind energy sector has been largely unnoticed, partly due to the industry's image as a green power source.

India's wind power sector enjoys substantial tax benefits: 80% in the first year and a ten-year tax holiday. However, land is not easily available.

Heavy population density and an overwhelming majority of India's people engaged in agriculture have made it a land-hungry country. Land is a source of livelihood for entire families, so promises of jobs to one member of a family or small compensation packages do not convince people to sell agricultural land. Acquiring land for projects has therefore become difficult and takes months, if not years, unlike in other countries.

This is not the first time that Suzlon has come under fire over land deals in India. In 2008, farmers protested its land acquisitions in Sangli and Satara, in the western state of Maharashtra, forcing a government probe into the deals. Scores of turbines, involving a third of Suzlon's installed capacity in Sangli, were shut down. In 2009, in the districts of Dhule and Nandurbar, where Suzlon has an installed capacity of 650MW and is constructing more, tribal protests erupted over land acquisition. Activists accused the company of shortchanging them.

Protesters forced Suzlon to switch off over 140 of its turbines in the Dhule-Nandurbar region in May and June last year.

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