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Himachal Pradesh: Thousands despair as India Adani plants shut down

“I don’t know what our fault is. What have we done to deserve this?” says a distraught Kanta Sharma, pointing to a shuttered cement plant in the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh.

It’s one of two plants – the other is located around 48km (30 miles) away – in Darlaghat that were shut down in December by their owner, Adani Group, leaving thousands of locals without work.

Since her husband died in 2009, Ms Sharma has depended entirely on the plant to make a living. She took a loan and dipped into her savings to purchase a truck to transport cement and raw material to and from the plant. The little land the family owned was acquired when the plant was built.

The Adani Group – owned by billionaire Gautam Adani, the world’s third richest man – acquired the factories in September, but soon ended up in a dispute with local transport unions over freight charges. The company said operations had become “unviable” because of the losses it was incurring due to “high transportation costs”.

The stand-off has not just affected the 2,000-3,000 people who were directly employed by these plants, but also thousands of others.

“About 10,000-15,000 people are indirectly dependent on these plants, including truck operators, drivers, cleaners, [workers at] roadside eateries and vehicle repair garages,” said RD Nazeem, the state’s industries and transport secretary.

“These are people who became landless and homeless because they gave their lands for these factories.”

Transport business in the area is dominated by local people, many of whom gave up their fertile farmlands when the plants were being constructed in the 1990s.

They charged close to 11 rupees (13 cents; 11 pence) per tonne of cement per kilometre, but the Adani group wants this to be reduced to six rupees. Transporters say the freight charges are fair because of rising fuel prices.

The Adani Group told the BBC that it wants “to continue its operations in both locations if it gets the necessary support from transporters”. It added that it’s “unfortunate” that “local transport unions don’t allow other transporters to operate at competitive rates”.

“The firm should be free to engage trucks wherever they are needed to facilitate transportation, thus ensuring a free market approach to best serve our consumers,” it said.

But locals argue that they should have the first right to operate trucks for these plants since they gave up their “fertile land” for them.

“People living in these areas invested their meagre savings into buying trucks so that they could transport material from this plant,” says Mahesh Kumar, a local resident. “With the plant shut, their future hangs in the balance.”

Land was bought to set up the cement plants in Darlaghat in the early 1990s. 

“Cultivable land was acquired for 62,000 rupees per bigha (a local unit of measurement equalling around 0.2 acres) while non-cultivable lands was acquired for 19,000 rupees,” says Paras Thakur, a local resident. 

At that time, locals hoped that the factories would help their children get jobs so that they didn’t have to travel far in search of jobs.

Mr Thakur says that despite over 1,400 acres of land being acquired from five villages since 1992, members of only 72 families got jobs at the plants. 

The Adani Group said that 143 employees from the two plants are being relocated to the other plants owned by the firm to protect their jobs. 

“We used to grow all kinds of crops. We used to grow corn, wheat and all kinds of pulses. Today, we regret having given this land for the cement plant,” says Prem Lal Thakur, a local resident. 

The state government says it is working on a solution to fix freight rates that are beneficial to the people. 

But residents don’t feel hopeful.

“First, we lost our lands. Then, the promises of employment were not kept. And when we tried earning through transportation, the plants have been shut down over freight rates. Can it get any worse? says Ms Sharma.

This is a question other locals are asking.