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Enron Does India, Part 2: The Popular Uprising against the Dabhol Power Plant
January 26, 2002
by Jack Rabbit

In the first part of this series, we examined how the Enron Corporation secured an agreement with the state of Maharashtra in India to build a huge power plant on terms that were outrageously one-sided in the favor of the corporation.

Today, we will look at how the local population expressed its opposition to the project and the ruthless methods that were employed to put down the uprising. The history of the popular opposition to the Dabhol project have been the subject of two different inquires by human rights organizations, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. The principal sources for this article are these two reports into the suppression of peaceful popular opposition to the Dabhol project undertaken separately: the Human Rights Watch report issued in January 1999 and the Amnesty International report of July 1997. When the law suit brought by the Center for Indian Trade Unions was dismissed, Enron and its supporters in Maharashtra thought they had won a final victory. Rebecca Mark, then the chairman and CEO of Enron, declared in an interview to Business Week:

"I think what worked was that we never stopped talking. Our contract allowed us to arbitrate through legal international means, so we did, through Indian and international courts. Everyone realized a solution was necessary. Once the project got started, there was a layer of people [in government] who supported it. Our faith was in these decision-makers."

Ms. Mark did not count on having further trouble from those beyond the decision-making process. The local people have more concrete reasons to oppose the Dabhol project than did the politicians or the labor unions. To put in simply, the people made their living from the land and the sea; the power plant was a source of pollution. In addition the plant would need land; that land currently belonged to farmers. The area designated for the construction of the plant consisted of several groups of villages that was home to over 90,000 people, mostly small farmers and fishermen. According to the Center for Holistic Studies, a nongovernmental organization in India, large-scale relocation of farmers would be required for the construction of the Dabhol plant. Enron's own environmental impact report stated that plant construction would impact the entire population of the area in some way. To make matters worse, the government decided to begin acquiring land for the project without consulting the public. Enron did comply with the law in posting a notice in the local newspapers stating that it was constructing a power and would be acquiring land for the purpose and advising any person or concern with an objection to notify DPC within two months of the publication of the notice. The notice was published on September 21, 1993; on November 21, DPC wrote to the government stating that they had complied with the law and received no objections. The statement was false. They had in fact received thirty-four queries from nongovernmental organizations, journalist, local residents and government officials. Rather then responding to these complaints individually, DPC chose to issue a form letter saying that the complaints would be investigated. Land was apparently surveyed for acquisition without notifying the landowners of the intent. In addition to the problem of land acquisition, the local people also found their water supply threatened. The plant would require over 8,000 liters of fresh water per minute. This would cause a serious disruption in the water supply; the company made no firm commitment to restore the water supply. Salt water contamination was a concern to the fishermen of the area. The plan of operation of the plant called for water to circulate through the plant and then be dumped into the sea at a higher temperature perhaps acquiring some toxins in the process. This would be a source of pollution that would endanger fish and prawns. Local people organized into groups to protest the project. Most of these organizations were made up of social activists, lawyers, local political leaders and villagers. Social activists from other areas, concerned about a growing pattern of development carried out without consulting local populations, also viewed with interest the events in the area around the site of the Dabhol plant. Local protest against the plant intensified in 1996. In 1997, human rights violations by local authorities against protesters became a severe problem. According to the Human Rights Watch report:

"With the exception of once incident of stone-throwing and one incident in which a water pipeline was damaged, these protests were peaceful, and at no time did opponents of the project advocate violence. The police response was abusive, however."

On the morning of January 30, 1997, a three simultaneous demonstrations were held: one at a police station, one at the home of a member of the Legislative Assembly and one at a road near the construction site. According to the Human Rights Watch report, the demonstration at the Assemblyman's home was without incident, stones were thrown by protesters at demonstration near the construction site and barricades damaged at the police station. The demonstration at the police station drew 1800 protesters and resulted in 450 arrests. The demonstration by the construction was attended by between 1500 and 2000 protesters. According to witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch, the police attempted to surround the demonstrators, but were so badly outnumbered that they were unable to do so. The demonstrators approached the gates of the plant shouting slogans, the police began pushing the protesters. Without warning, the police, armed with freshly cut tree branches, charged the demonstrators and indiscriminately beat many. Tear gas was fired. Protesters began running and the police pursued them, dragging those they caught into police vans. In all, the police arrested 679 people and charged them under sections 37 and 135 of the Bombay Police Act. The Bombay Police Act, according to Human Rights Watch, is aimed at armed gangs and is intended to prevent violent riots by armed groups. Section 37, often citing as "prohibitory orders", prohibits the carrying of various kinds of weapons, to include the gathering of stones for the purpose of using them as missiles. The act also gives the police the authority to break up any assembly if the police should deem it necessary to the preservation of public order; this provision may be used to prevent a demonstration, but must be renewed after 15 days. Section 135 authorizes the arrest and punishment for anyone violating a prohibitory order; this may involve up to one year imprisonment. These provisions were used by local authorities to criminalize demonstrations against the Dabhol project. Police began using the Bombay Police Act in this manner as early as November 1994, when 105 peaceful demonstrators protesting land acquisition for DPC were arrested and so charged. According to Amnesty International, the Bombay High Court has ruled under article 19 Constitution of India that citizens have the right to demonstrate peacefully. As most of these demonstrations were in fact peaceful, the application of the Bombay Police Act was clearly out of line. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International assert that the act was used suppress peaceful protest. Section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure was also abused, according to both human right organizations. This section provides for the arrest of individuals who may commit a crime if there is no other way to prevent the crime; the one arrested may be held for up to 24 hours or, with the approval of a magistrate, longer. Using this act, the authorities detained those suspected of being protest leaders or simply prohibited protest leaders from entering districts where demonstrations were to take place. Also used (or misused) by the authorities was section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which allows a district official to prevent one from entering the district for up to sixty days if the official feels that is necessary "to prevent . . . obstruction, annoyance, or injury to any person lawfully employed. or danger to human life, health or safety, or a disturbance of the public tranquillity, or a riot or an affray."

According to both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, following the January 30 demonstrations, DPC allegedly contracted with the government of Maharashtra for a battalion of 100 State Reserve Police (SRP) for security at the Dabhol site. DPC paid the state approximately $3.50 per day per man for the use of the reservists. In subsequent demonstrations, members of the SRP battalion were implicated in a number of human rights violations. Often, those arrested would be subjected to threats of worse things that would happen if they did not quit the protest movement. Those who were jailed often were placed in the dirtiest cell available. Such was the treatment received by Sadanand Pawar, an economics professor who was arrested under section 151 of the Code of Criminal Procedure on February 28, possibly to prevent him from voting in upcoming elections. Professor Pawar was placed in a foul cell and told by the police inspector that his detention was directly related to his participation in the protest. Pawar told the story of his detention to Human Rights Watch:

"[The police inspector] asked me, 'How do you feel, will you continue the agitation?' They wanted to see how strong I was mentally, since I had never been in jail. I told them that I would continue agitating, it is my birthright. I was put in a terrible cell with bad smells and filth. [The police inspector] said, 'This is what it is like in jail and if I wanted to agitate, I must face these things.' I refused food and told them [the police] I was not a criminal and would begin a fast in the cell itself. After two or three hours, he assigned a constable to clean up the cell. He wouldn’t put me in a clean cell because he wanted to intimidate me. He would say, 'You are a professor, you earn well, why do you want these headaches?'"

From February through May, there were a number of demonstrations resulting in dozens of arrests under the Bombay Police Act. In March, Medha Patkar, well-known in India as an environmental activist, and B. G. Kolse-Patil, a retired jurist active in demonstrations, were prohibited from entering the district around Dabhol under section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. Ms. Patkar was again placed under a similar restriction on May 29. On the morning of June 3, in the fishing village of Veldur, about 135 SRP personnel and police arrived and forced their way into people's homes. The police administered beatings to the villagers, mostly women as the men had gone fishing by this time. One of those beaten was a 23-year-old woman in the late stages of pregnancy. Another woman, Sygabdga Vasudev Bhalekar was 24 and three months pregnant at the time, told her story to a judicial magistrate:

"at around 5 in the morning when I was in the bathroom, several male police with batons in their hands forcibly entered the house and started beating members of (my) family who were asleep. ..... Being terrified, I told them from inside the bathroom that I was taking a bath and that I would come out after wearing my clothes. I asked them to call for women police in the meantime and to ask them to wait near the door. But without paying any attention to my requests, the policemen forcibly opened the door and dragged me out of the house into the police van parked on the road. (While dragging me) the police kept beating me on my back with batons. The humiliation meted out to the other members of my family was similar to the way I was humiliated. .. ... my one and a half year old daughter held on to me but the police kicked her away."

According to both human rights agencies, it is believed that Mrs. Bhalekar was targeted because she was the wife of a know protest leader. The raid netted 39 arrests. Of the 26 women arrested, all but one were held in a single 150-square foot room with a washing area and toilet at one end and steel mesh at the other. The was neither a light nor a fan. The room smelled terrible. Amnesty International has deemed the conditions "cruel, inhuman and degrading". However, the raid on Veldur may have accomplished Enron's goal. There were few demonstrations afterward.

Human Rights Watch issued a particularly scathing conclusion to its report on the suppression of the demonstration:

"As a result of our research, Human Rights Watch believes that the Dabhol Power Corporation—and its parent companies Enron, General Electric, and Bechtel—are complicit in human rights violations by the Maharashtra state government. Human Rights Watch does not take a position on the persistent and pervasive allegations of corruption that surround Enron’s establishment in Maharashtra and its way of doing business there. But, as described above, Enron’s local entity, the Dabhol Power Corporation, benefited directly from an official policy of suppressing dissent through misuse of the law, harassment of anti-Enron protest leaders and prominent environmental activists, and police practices ranging from arbitrary to brutal."

Enron denied any responsibility. When Human Rights Watch issued its report, a corporation spokesman called it inaccurate:

"The report refers to peaceful protests, when, in fact, the reason the police were positioned near our site is that there have been many acts of violence against our employees and contractors. Dabhol Power Company has worked hard to promote positive relations with the community. Unfortunately, the good relationship we have built with a large percentage of the community was not reflected in the report. Enron is committed to providing energy and communications services while preserving the human rights of citizens and our workers."

However, the Human Rights watch report was the second report on the same series of incidents crititical of Enron. Moreover, the Dabhol project is not the only Enron-related project that has received scrutiny from nongovermental organizations. Other studies have been made from Enron activities in Argentina, Brazil, Mozambique and even within the United States itself which have involved corruption and environmental damage. The US Department of State sidestepped the report. Human Rights Watch compained the US failed to investigate the matter. Frank Wisner, the US Ambassador to India during this period, who, as noted in the first part of this series, is believed to have played a role in saving the project for Enron at a critical time, said that he was unaware of any human rights violations by Enron.

Human Rights Watch also notes "there are no international regulations on transnational corporations (TNCs) that oblige them to respect human rights." That's a major part of the problem. Private corporations are in many ways now as powerful as governments and with that power comes the ability to abuse the rights of individuals. There are no incidents of murder in this tale of the suppression of the Dabhol protests, but that may be fortunate. Indeed, there are cases where other multinational corporations are believed to be complicit in the murder of local indigenous populations who might be sitting inconveniently on some vast mineral wealth that some mining concern or some oil company might wish to develop. The possibility is abuse is great. If we have found out anything about Enron, it is that it is a corporate tyrant for which no trust -- not even of their own employees -- is sacred. The common people of the world will in the coming years need protection from such power and tyranny. We should be wise to appeal to the international community to establish it.

In the next and final installment of this series, we shall examine how the Dabhol project became of of the casualties in this tale of the Enron's greed...

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