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Kalipada Das was 12 years old when his parents slipped into India from Bangladesh (then East Pakistan) after Partition in the early fifties. As violence rocked parts of Bangladesh, Das and his parents sailed across Khulna River to reach a railway station from where they hoped to board a train to India. But a mob struck at the station, abused them and ran away with their tickets. Somehow the family managed to make it to India. After a brief stay in Kolkata, Dass family, along with 665 others from Bangladesh, was shifted to a vast, barren land in Dharamjaigarh tehsil in Chhattisgarhs Raigarh district. For the last six decades, this is where these refugees have been living, spread across nine villages. Now, theyre bracing up for another displacement.
The government didnt know then that the region where it settled the Bangladeshi settlers had rich reserves of black gold coal. Now, a coal block allotted to the Vedanta-controlled Bharat Aluminium Company Limited (Balco) has the 15,000 residents of this area worried about their future.
In the years since they moved here, the settlers have turned the barren land into fertile agricultural fields, producing paddy, watermelon and vegetables through the year. Watermelon and vegetables grown here are sent across the country. Signs of prosperity are evident. The houses they live in are cemented and have power and water connections. Their children go to the local government schools. Over the years, theyve built their temples here. While agriculture is the main source of livelihood, the community is also engaged in trade in the town of Dharamjaigarh. Some of these families own jewellery shops. Some run grocery stores or fruit and vegetable shops. Its a life of security earned the hard way.
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The government had provided seven acres of land to the Bangladeshi migrants who came in the fifties. Another five acres were allotted to those who came after Bangladesh was formed in 1971. For years, the beneficiaries laboured over the barren land and gradually brought in an agricultural revolution of sorts producing 40 quintal of paddy in an acre of land.
Then, about 10 years ago, a bombshell dropped when the authorities informed them that a huge coal reserve had been identified beneath their land. A part of the reserve was allotted to Balco in 2007 to meet the raw material requirement for its power plant in the Korba district 100 kilometres away.
The public hearing for obtaining environment clearance was held on January 31, 2011. People from the settlement villages and nearby places lodged a strong protest, but their objection was not given much importance, says Sajal Madhu, a young social activist leading the movement to save villages.
On May 24, 2012, Balco received the environment clearance for setting up three million tonne per annum (MTPA) of open cast and one MTPA underground coalmine project with captive coal washery in an area of 1,070 hectares in villages Taraimar, Bayasi Basti, Bayasi colony, Dharma colony and Rupunga all housing Bangladeshi settlers.
We are not going to leave the place and hand over our land to Balco, fumes Dilip Haldar who is active in the ongoing movement against land acquisition. The biggest problem that the population faces is that it is not entitled to compensation. For, the people settled here were not granted the ownership right of the land the patta. The villagers have, however, been paying taxes to the government. It was the governments fault that we did not get the land lease despite repeated requests, says Haldar.
District Collector Amit Kataria did not respond to queries regarding compensation for the villagers. And the Balco spokesperson refused to comment on the issue.
When we came to India, the government was very cooperative and incurred all our expenses. That gave us the impression that our life was safe in the country, says Atulchand Madhu who was two when he came to Dharamjaigarh. The villagers are now left in the lurch, he rues.
I experienced the pain of deprivation in my childhood when we were displaced from our native place in Bangladesh, says Das who now owns a grocery shop. Now, after retirement, I am going to feel the same pain. The vast agricultural land, a symbol of success and prosperity for the community, would be destroyed once the government acquires it and hands it over to the company.
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Sajal Madhu says the district administration has proposed to shift the population to the Koilar area tucked away in a forested pocket of the region. The proposed site is six kilometres from Bayasi and has no one living there. For schools and medical facilities, these people will have to travel at least six kilometres. As of now, the area has no road connectivity.
A large number of trees will have to be cut to make room for anyone to settle in this forest, says Sajal Madhu. People, he says, will have to start from scratch to prepare this land for agriculture. It could take three to four decades to bring it at par with Biyasi and the other settlement villages, he rues.
A teacher at a government school in Biyasi fears that this displacement would have a serious impact on the youth of the community. If they are displaced and left without jobs, there is a chance that they will turn to anti-social activities, he says.
Though they left their past behind when they moved from Bangladesh to India, the Bengali settlers here continue to maintain their rich cultural and religious tradition. Now 60 years of our effort would go waste and we will have to start from ground zero in the new settlement, Das says.
Even if they take up the challenge and consider the governments proposal to move bag and baggage to Koilar to start a new inning, there is another question that haunts them: what if they are displaced yet again? For, the Koilar region is also endowed with a coal reserve that is yet to be explored. Once that coal reserve is notified, the Bengali community will have to search for a new address again.