Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Barmer: Their land was acquired during 1995-2001 for lignite mining and to build a power plant that, the then chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat had assured, would provide them jobs and bring development to the area. Today, the farmers of Giral village, 40 kilometres north of Barmer, are landless and jobless. Ever since the power plant was shut down in 2015, landowners like Kamal Singh — who runs a tea stall outside the concrete structure that once was humming with activity — barely eke out a living earning Rs 200-300 a day.
“Kya karu sahab, sochta hoon to dar lagta hai,” said Kamal. “Isliye sab bhagwan ke bharose chod diya hai. Jo mujh se ho sakta hai mein kam kar raha..baki jo usko manzoor hoga, wahi hoga (What can I do? It frightens me to think about it so I have left it all to the almighty. I am doing whatever work I can so, the rest is His wish)."
Kamal had given his 270 bighas of land in two installments — 146 bighas in 1995 at Rs 600 per bigha and 124 bighas in 2001 at Rs 2,600 per bigha. All that Kamal has to show for the compensation he got is a three-room home and his tea stall. The rest was spent in taking care of his family. When their land was acquired, "we were assured employment, education, health and other facilities,” recalled Kamal. “We are still waiting for the tall promises made to be fulfilled."
The Rajasthan Rajya Vidhyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNP) had planned two lignite-based thermal power units. Image courtesy: 101Reporters
Now, as another election looms, Giral’s villagers feel let down by both BJP and Congress. Villagers said they had approached leaders of both BJP and Congress many times but nobody helped them. Local villager Laxman Singh said that he had met leaders of both BJP and Congress but nobody took a serious note on their issue. He alleged that even local media has not been paying attention to their pathetic conditions. They expect little to change after these Lok Sabha polls.
Because the harsh truth is while the Centre is making tall claims of employment and Opposition is busy countering it, on the ground, nobody is taking note of thousands of farmers who have been rendered jobless and landless by the state. As usual, the campaign comes down to caste equations.
The state revenue minister Harish Choudhary, who represents Baytoo assembly seat in Barmer, had raised the issue soon after the then BJP government's decision of disinvestment and ahead of state Assembly election. Choudhary, who was the Congress national secretary at that time, said that their government would explore the possibilities to resume the plant's operation. But the newly elected Congress government has so far taken no initiative in this matter. “The BJP government decided on disinvestment of Giral plant to appease private players,” said Choudhary, when contacted. “Our focus would be to resume operations at the plant at the earliest.” Easier said than done, given that the plant has been rusting away for four years in the desert heat.
A short-lived dream
The Rajasthan Rajya Vidhyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RRVUNP) had planned two lignite-based thermal power units of 125 MW each in Giral village in 2000. Fuel (lignite) for the plant came from mines owned by Rajasthan State Mines & Minerals Limited (RSMML) located near the plant.
For lignite mining, RSMML acquired 8,523 bighas land in three phases at a total cost of approximately Rs 77.30 crore. The acquisition cost had gone up from Rs 600 per bigha in 1995 to Rs 2.7 lakh per bigha in 2011.After getting all required clearances, the foundation stone for the two power units was laid on 19 July, 2003.
The power plant started functioning in 2008, employing 800 to 1,000 labourers directly in the plant with a similar number employed indirectly. The plant, while it was operational, also generated employment for others engaged in ancillary activities.
The former farmers thus dared to dream that their lives were getting better. That was until the plant started running into one technical snag after another which finally led to its closure four years ago. As long as the plant was functioning, Kamal’s tea stall provided him with sufficient income. Not any more.
Landowners like Kamal Singh - who runs a tea stall outside the concrete structure that once was humming with activity - barely eke out a living earning Rs 200-300 a day. Image courtesy: 101Reporters
Laxman Singh also sold his 309 bighas, believing in the big dreams they were shown. It seemed to have come true when Laxman got a job with the mechanical team in the plant in 2002. But all dreams were shattered with the plant’s closure. Laxman, and the thousands of others who were dependent on the plant for their livelihood, were suddenly on the street, landless and with no alternate means of income. Laxman is now supporting his wife and two young kids by working on NREGA projects and other daily wage jobs.
Giral village has a primary school but no health centre and villagers have to go to Barmer for medical treatment. And students who complete their primary education have to go to Akalli village, six kilometres away to continue their studies. "All the promises of good healthcare and education were a big bluff," he said, adding the plant closure has affected over 1,000 families.
Designed to fail?
This was the country’s first power plant which used a lime and lignite mixture as fuel to keep the levels of sulphur oxide, a highly corrosive emission from lignite, within prescribed limits. The first power unit was commissioned on 28 February, 2007 and the second on 26 December, 2008 at a total cost of Rs 1,514 crore.
Commercial operations in the two units started in 2011. Initially, power generation was high: 666.17 million units (MUs) in 2009-2010. But then, output started steadily declining. When it came down to 254.03 MUs in 2015-16, the plant was shut down.
BHEL, the manufacturer of the power plants, had designed the units to run on lignite having sulphur limit up to 1 percent. But the lignite provided to the project from the mines located near Giral village had a sulphur content of up to 7.5 percent.
According to plant officials, huge quantities of lime were required to dilute the sulphur content — as much as 30 percent of the lignite used. The boilers, they said, were not designed to handle such huge quantities of lime, leading to frequent breakdowns. Corrosion due to high sulphur content also damaged machinery like the lignite chain feeder.
Running at barely 25 percent of its rated capacity, the plant inevitably incurred huge operational losses — Rs 985.91 crore in 2015-16 and Rs 786.71 crore in 2014-15. Unable to write off the losses, the government suspended its operations in 2015 and in 2016 decided to sell it off, appointing consultancy firm M/s Energo to prepare a valuation report, which estimated the project cost at Rs 1,964 crore.
In September 2016, SBI Market Ltd was chosen as the adviser for the disinvestment process. And global tenders were floated In November 2016, inviting bids for the plant. The government had then claimed it would complete the sale by December 2016 and the new owner would run the plant from January 2017. But the plant is still awaiting a buyer.
Villagers like Laxman Singh alleged that the closure of the plant was due to vested interests in the government who wanted to privatise it. They point to the profitable JSW power plant, also using lignite as fuel and located just 10 kilometres from the Giral plant, to support their allegation.
A senior official in RSMML, who refused to go on record, however, said that JSW was getting coal from Jalipa and Kapuradi mines which have a very low sulphur content of 0.5 percent. These two coal blocks were allocated to JSW for their own operations and they cannot sell or supply it to other users, the official added. HS Charan, deputy chief engineer at the Giral plant, said that they had asked the government to arrange for coal with low sulphur content, but got no response.
As these arguments go on, villagers like Kamal and Laxman continue to suffer. Manoj Gujar, a local businessman working with mining industry said the plant had a boon for the area as it generated jobs. “But it was for a very short period,” said Manoj. “The government should explore other options to run the plant as it can be a big boost to the desert region’s economy.”
(The author is a Barmer-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)