|Union tourism minister Subodh Kant Sahay arrives at Shaheed Maidan in Ranchi on Monday afternoon; (above) trade union workers protest against the BCCL’s anti-encroachment drive during the strike in Dhanbad. Pictures by Prashant Mitra & Gautam Dey
Ranchi/Dhanbad, April 18: A fully equipped demolition brigade was pushed on the backfoot as Union tourism minister Subodh Kant Sahay flew in from Delhi to stall eviction of illegal settlers at HEC Township on a day that saw high drama across the state against the Arjun Munda government’s ongoing anti-encroachment drive.
In the wake of a Jharkhand High Court directive to remove encroachment from PSUs, the HEC authorities had served eviction notices to several hundred illegal settlers and unauthorised occupants of around 600 company quarters. The deadline lapsed on Saturday, prompting the company to make a demolition bid, albeit abortive.
The show of solidarity against the HEC drive began around 10am when two bulldozers and over 100 armed personnel of the Ranchi district police drew battle lines outside Jagannathpur police station. And by noon, 500 people, mostly residents of the 22 unauthorised settlements, had trooped to the police station to vent their ire.
Supporters of Sahay, who has thrown his weight behind settlers on HEC land, sent the Union minister a telephonic SOS. The latter told his men to assemble the disgruntled people to Shaheed Maidan, where a Satyagraha had began yesterday against the drive.
By 1.30pm, over 2,000 people were eagerly waiting for a word from Sahay. The minister reached Birsa Munda Airport from New Delhi at 1.45pm and drove straight to the flashpoint. There was almost a stampede to reach him in person and Sahay managed to climb the dais several minutes after reaching the venue.
In his 30-minute speech, the minister allayed fears saying no one would be evicted from their homes on HEC land. He said he had spoken to heavy industries minister Praful Patel who, in turn, had asked HEC CMD G.K. Pillai to pause the demolition.
“Patel has asked Pillai not to become a party to the Munda government’s plan and think before taking any step against the poor,” Sahay said.
The situation volatile, the HEC authorities decided not to go ahead with the demolition and the bulldozers stood idle outside the police station till 4pm.
While CMD Pillai, who is in Bangalore, could not be contacted, a company spokesperson, unwilling to be named, said they did not have adequate security personnel to conduct the operation.
Jagannathpur OC Rajeev Ranjan Lal confirmed that the bulldozers were not used today. “We had to remove shops from the road, which owners did voluntarily. So, we did not require the vehicles,” he said.
Sahay, meanwhile, gave a 24-hour ultimatum to the government to file an affidavit in the high court, saying it would not raze houses before making arrangements for rehabilitation. “Tomorrow, there will be a hearing on the matter and the government should file the affidavit. Else, we will continue our agitation,” he said.
Tyres burned, shops downed shutters, vehicles were damaged and coal production took a beating as a few hundred protesters enforced a trade union-sponsored bandh against the BCCL’s ongoing anti-encroachment drive in the town this morning.
The daylong strike called by Intuc, Citu, Aituc and others evoked huge response from different quarters, including local traders and residents. It was called off late in the evening.
Movement of vehicles was largely affected throughout the day. Only private vehicles and some auto-rickshaws ferrying matriculation and intermediate examinees plied on the road. Production at BCCL collieries, particularly in Area I in Muraidih and Area IV, was affected as labourers boycotted work. And this despite collieries being kept outside the purview of the bandh.
Citu national vice-president S.K. Baxi termed the strike unprecedented and said both contractual and regular workers had extended full support. “The coal company must learn its lesson now. Else, we will be compelled to intensify our agitation,” he said.
Intuc leader A.K. Jha accused the BCCL management of displacing hapless people in the name of implementing the high court order. “The BCCL in 2008 had filed an affidavit in Supreme Court, promising it would always rehabilitate people before eviction,” Jha said.
He held Munda responsible and said the chief minister had failed to abide by his constitutional duty by not informing the court that the state had no rehabilitation policy.
President of the Janta Mazdoor Sangh Baccha Singh, deputy mayor Niraj Singh and Jharia MLA Kunti Singh later gheraoed the house of BCCL CMD T.K. Lahiry. They were arrested and released later.