The young rebels of Jhumra hills

Babita Mahto, who has been with this Local Guerrilla Squad of CPI (Maoist) a year, said that joining the party gave her a sense of purpose and immortality.

“So many women in the Mahto community kill themselves due to the stress from dowry, tilak [social ceremonies]. If I die at home, my parents will mourn for some months; we had a daughter who died, they will say. But here, there are so many of us who will remember — there was such and such didi [older sister], our comrade; she died for the people.”

An article based on this and other interviews with Maoist rebels in this area appeared in The Hindu.

Another interview with the Maoist cadre in Singhbhum during parliament elections was published here.

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Men and women working late, stitching night dresses, in one of several “fabricator” units in a basement in Delhi

Particularly vulnerable Adivasi speak of despair, hunger at tech “disruption” of social schemes

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Parhaiya Adivasi families arrived for a public hearing at Manika, Latehar

Jirua Parhaian and Dhaneshwar Parhaiya sat in front of the large crowd that had gathered to take stock of the effectiveness of public schemes in Jharkhand’s Manika block, under which which their village falls. They belong to the Parhaiya Adivasi community, which is classified as a “particularly vulnerable tribal group”. The elderly couple listened quietly while government officials acknowledged the problems that have prevented Parhaiya Adivasis from availing of government schemes meant for them.

Both were frail and walked with difficulty. But they had traveled to Manika, the block centre, 15 km from their village Uchvabal, to attend the meeting because they faced a dire predicament. “There is not enough food at home,” said Jirua Parhaian. She and her husband went to bed hungry at least a few nights every month. “Our ration card was cut without any explanation three years ago,” she said.

The couple had carried with them their Aadhaar card bearing the 12-digit unique identity number attached to their biometric data that the government wants all Indian residents to have. They submitted the number to a kiosk manned by government staff at the public hearing. “What more do we have to do to get our rations of rice started again?” asked Dhaneshwar Parhaiya.

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Jirua Parhaian and her husband Dhaneshwar Parhaiya whose ration cards have been cut off without any explanation, making it harder for them to afford all meals.

The government recognises Adivasis such as the Parhaiya and 70 other communities as particularly vulnerable tribal groups because of their precarious economic condition and dwindling populations.

These communities are also entitled to Antodaya ration cards meant for the “poorest of the poor”, which entitles them to 35 kg of rice at Re 1 per kg every month under the National Food Security Act. But they continue to face dire hunger and malnutrition.

In Jharkhand, which is going through a period of drought, these families are falling through the cracks in the absence of adequate social protection. A survey in November conducted among 324 Parhaiya households living in 15 villages in Latehar district found nearly 43% of the families had missed meals in the last three months because there was no food at home. The survey was carried out by National Rural Employment Guarantee Act Sahayata Kendras and Gram Swaraj Mazdor Sangh activists. The survey also showed that though the government has aggressively pushed Aadhaar as a way of streamlining welfare schemes and improving access to social security by providing everyone with an identity document, ground reality was different.

It found that Aadhaar, in fact, acted as a barrier to accessing social schemes. For instance, the survey found that 42% of Parhaiya families surveyed faced problems due to Aadhaar in the form of data entry errors, network glitches, biometric authentication failures or complications related to their failure to complete Know Your Customer norms for banks far removed from their hamlets.

Left out of social security
Traditionally, Parhaiya Adivasis survived by collecting forest produce such as honey and mahua flowers, roots such as gethia and kanda, and by making bamboo brooms, said Mahavir Parhaiya, an activist in Latehar district, which Manika block is part of. “But the dense forests are now gone,” he said. “The government made forests into plantations, handing them to contractors. Now our people struggle to find the jadi[roots] or saag[vegetables] that we survived on.”

This is one of the reasons why the community is dependent on government support to eat.

At the public hearing, several Adivasi families described corruption in schemes meant for them. Those who had ration cards said they frequently received less grain than they were entitled to despite having Aadhaar, which the government had introduced in the public distribution system in order to end pilferage.

Nearly a dozen Parhaiya women from Uchvabal and Pagar villages said they received only 30 kg or 31 kg of rice every month instead of their 35 kg entitlement. “After the surveyors came to the village, for the first time, yesterday the ration dealer Dinesh Rai gave [me] 35 kg rice,” Sugiya Devi told local officials at the hearing. She said the ration dealer had followed a “tin” system for years. “He fills two tins with ration and says we have got only this much,” she said. The tins were filled with grain and weighed at the meeting, while officials watched. They weighed only 31 kg.

The delivery of rations in tins also violates a system the Jharkhand government has put in place to ensure that families from particularly vulnerable tribal groups got their full entitlements, without any pilferage. Under the dakiya or post system, the ration dealer is required to deliver monthly food rations to such households at their doorsteps in sealed sacks clearly marked for such groups.

Read the full report here.

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Dasiya Kunwar Parhaian said the customer service center kiosk operator meant to connect the residents to government services online demanded a bribe of Rs 2,000 for her pension application.

In December 2017, several Adivasi and Dalit families living in the same district, Latehar, at a public hearing in Manika block had described the problem of how their subsidised food rations had been abruptly stopped. The government in Jharkhand, like in several other states, had in 2017 asked for all ration cards to be linked with Aadhaar and mandated that only card holders whose fingerprints are authenticated online from the Aadhaar database would get subsidised grain.

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Jirmunya Parhaiyan, Sumati Kunwar, Dasiya Kunwar, all Parhaiya PTG Adivasi, from Rankikala and Sedhra who could not access rice rations after Aadhaar linking errors, at the right to food public hearing at Manika in December 2017.

A story from Delhi’s industrial areas

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Workers say they are unsure if this political system works for them, and no governments are directly able to respond to their issues.

At 9 in the morning on Tuesday, instead of starting work at the assembly line, men stood in huddles outside several factories in Delhi’s Okhla industrial area. It was the first day of a two-day general strike called by 10 central trade unions, the largest industrial action planned just months before the Lok Sabha elections.

In the last such action in September 2016, trade unions claimed 15 crore workers had taken part, including in industrial areas in and around the National Capital Region.

But in the newspapers on Tuesday morning in Delhi, there was no news of the strike. Instead, front page headlines focused on the National Democratic Alliance government’s announcement of 10% reservation in educational institutions and state jobs for the economically backward among the upper castes, reversing the principle of affirmative action for Dalits and the historically marginalised.

Santosh Kesri, a migrant from Bihar’s Khagariya district from a low-income rural upper caste family, would be eligible for the 10% reservations, if it became policy. But he was not convinced it would benefit him.

“Just do the math. Of 125 crore, the general castes will be at least ten percent, or 12-15 crore,” he said, standing outside a courier factory closed for the strike. He works as a courier for IT support company in Okhla. “They will be further divided among the professional graduates, simple graduates, and those who did not attend college. The government will open jobs a handful of public jobs, while lakhs will apply. And then, there will be questions of who is well connected, or able to give bribes.”

Kesri’s skepticism is valid: the Indian economy is not generating enough formal jobs. Even the government is hiring workers on short-term contracts rather than as permanent staff.

One of the demands raised in the strike was, in fact, to end of the contractualisation of work. But many doubt the government will act.

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Durga Devi, who has sold biscuits and snacks outside factories in Okhla for more than 20 years, quipped: “When all political parties in government are employing everyone through thekedaari (labour contractual systems), will firms do any different?”

In fact, the strike itself received a tepid response in Okhla. Part of the reason, said union leaders, is the difficulty of mobilising contract workers caught in insecure jobs with long hours.

Neither reservations nor agitations seem to offer such workers any new possibilities.

Low wages and temporary work

India’s Gross Domestic Product has grown by 6%-7% in recent years but this has not created enough secure and remunerative employment.

The State of Working India report, an analysis of labour market trends by Centre for Sustainable Employment led by economist Amit Basole at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, shows that even a 10% increase in GDP now results in less than 1% increase in employment, and estimates the rate of open unemployment at a high 5%.

Even in manufacturing sectors like plastics and leather which generated more employment in last 10 years than before, the rise was in the form of short contracts and temporary jobs that paid lower than regular factory jobs.

Most households work in the unorganised sector and face a low earnings problem. In 2015, 92% women and 82% men earned less than Rs 10,000 a month, far lower than monthly salary recommended by the Seventh Central Pay Commission of Rs 18,000 as a living wage.

Even in organised manufacturing, an analysis by economists CP Chandrasekhar and Jayati Ghosh shows, despite increased profits, workers’ wages accounted for only 10%-11% of value added in 2012, one of the lowest shares anywhere in the world.

“No government is with us”

In Delhi, the Aam Admi Party government had cited this failure of the “trickle down theory” when it had announced a 46% hike in wages in 2016, the only state in the country to announce such a significant wage hike.

After industry associations contested this with prolonged litigation, the Supreme Court on November 1 last year restored the government’s 2017 notification on the increased minimum wages.

Despite the AAP government’s move to correct for stagnant wages, without enforcement, the measure had failed to draw the workers to the government’s side.

Faridabad Majdoor Samachar, a workers’ broadsheet published from the National Capital Region, in its January edition listed industrial firms in Okhla Industrial Estate where workers had successfully negotiated increased wages after the court order. The list was short: only five firms. In 14 others, workers were in advanced stages of negotiations.

But workers said most of the 4,000 factories in Okhla producing plastics, leather, engineering equipment, had not paid the new notified wages even after the Supreme Court order. As per the government notification, an unskilled labour was to get a wage of Rs 14,052, up from Rs 9,568. For semi-skilled labourers, it was revised from Rs 10,582 to Rs 15,471, while skilled workers were to get Rs 16,962, instead of the earlier Rs 11,622.

Arun Singh, a middle aged worker, said he had worked at the same printing press for 11 years hired through a labour contractor who paid Rs 220 a day. He worked all days of the month, without a weekly off. At Rs 6,600 a month, this did not come to even half the minimum wage the AAP government had notified.

Women workers in garment units worked similar long hours for even lower rates at Rs 180 to 200 a day.

The workers saw the wage hike as a partial measure. “Ultimately, the government machinery is not with workers,” said Singh, the printing press worker.

“The department did organize a few raids, but what was the point when they announced in newspapers that they were about to do so? They ought to have conducted surprise raids,” Manu, a young garment worker, derided the AAP government’s public announcement of a 10-day drive of raids which it named “Operation Minimum Wage.”

Mrigank, the vice president of the Delhi unit of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions, also criticised it as a half-hearted measure as it was not accompanied by enforcement.

“There are 74 posts for labour inspectors in Delhi, but only 11 are appointed,” he said. “The government had not even implemented the previous wage grade, when it announced the hike and then failed to get firms to comply.”

“Saare ekta rahe, tab kuch baat banei. Something will be done, only if workers unite,” said Suresh Kahar, a migrant who has worked as a tailor for part of the year in Okhla and rest of the year on a small farm in Jaunpur in Uttar Pradesh since ten years.

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Weakening organisation

While workers were skeptical of the adequacy of government measures, trade unions and traditional workers’ organizations had not made much headway in representing working class interests.

One of the key demands of the 12-point demands laid down by the central trade unions that are affiliated to political parties was that the government take back its proposed amendments to labour laws.

“The government is presenting this move as if it was codifying labour laws from 44 laws to four or five labour codes, but it is systematically undermining working class interests by removing protective measures,” said Tapan Sen, general secretary of Centre of Indian Trade Unions.

Sudhir Katiyar heads the Prayas Centre for Labour and Action that works among brick kiln and construction workers and had organised a protest in Ahmedabad of construction workers, one of the largest economic sectors that employs 10 percent of workers. He said it was difficult to organise workers around such demands.

“Majority of workers are completely out of the purview of these labour laws and codes, and the norms do not apply to them,” said Katiyar. “If we say, these laws are being changed and new norms are coming in, it has no effect on most segments of workers who are working on extremely short temporary work contracts, or without contracts since decades.”

“It is harder to respond to the needs of unorganised sector workers,” added Katiyar.

Mrigank of the Indian Federation of Trade Unions said that on the first day of the strike, 40% units had remained open for production in Okhla. “The temporary nature of jobs, long hours, and workers going from one factory to another in search of contractual work make it difficult to have a regular base of members for the union,” he said.

This story appeared in Scroll.in on the day of a national strike called by trade unions.

Radha Devi: Managing maladies in Bhuiantola

A path winding through paddy fields led to Bhuiantola, a hamlet where Bhuian Dalit families lived, on the outskirts of Tarwadih village in Jharkhand’s Latehar district.

That month, eight individuals in Tarwadih were on treatment for tuberculosis(TB), a serious bacterial infection that most commonly affects the lungs. Four of them lived in Bhuiantola.

The previous night, Radha Devi, the village sahiya or frontline health worker, an Accredited Social Health Activist(ASHA) had finished helping a woman delivery a baby in the hamlet. Now, walking down the paved path, she called out to Ramavtar Ram who was working in the fields. “Nine number” medicine is over for you. You will be on “CP” from now on,” she told Ram, a farmer in his 50s who was afflicted with TB, and had grown leaner from the infection.

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Devi did not train as a doctor or a nurse, and studied till only class IV. As one of over 1,325 health activist appointed under the National Health Mission’s community health programme in Latehar, she had supervised Ram’s TB treatment and infection control for the last six months. “I am not fully literate, but I can recognize the medicines as a number or an alphabet in the drug’s name,” said Devi, explaining how she had memorized the long, complicated names in english, an unfamiliar language, of 13 drugs used in TB treatment.

TB is fully curable by antibiotics taken for six months. Yet, India accounts for a quarter of new cases of TB infection, and a fifth of TB deaths worldwide. In Jharkhand, nearly 40 people die of TB every day.The government recognizes those living in remote tribal districts who get poor nutrition and face difficulty in accessing treatment as a priority group for reducing TB transmission.

Crucial infrastructure is absent in Jharkhand’s Adivasi villages. Dr Rajabau Yole a World Health Organization TB consultant in Jharkhand said that though every community health center was supposed to have a X-ray machine for radiological examinations and a courier system to transport sputum samples that needed to be tested for TB, this was missing in most districts.

There is also a major shortfall of doctors. Dr Raksh Dayal, Jharkhand’s state TB officer, said that the state had only 2,200 of the 3,400 doctors and about half of other contractual health staff it needed, and this affected the TB treatment programme. In Latehar, where Tarwadih lies, for instance, in the district TB hospital, 13 of 23 posts were vacant, including the post of a medical officer for TB, which had not been filled since five years.

In such a situation, health workers like Radha Devi filled a vital gap.
Latehar, where Bhuiantola lies, is one of the poorest Adivasi regions in Jharkhand. The families here are especially vulnerable also because they migrate to work in brick kilns in Varanasi in UP, and Aurangabad in Bihar when the paddy produce is exhausted in a few months. Working in kilns, they are exposed to smoke which damages the lungs, and reduces immunity to infections such as TB.

Sahiya Radha Devi counseling women in Tarwadih in Latehar (1)
“Many migrant workers hide it if they develop TB, and often they take medicines for only 3 to 4 months and do not complete the treatment,” said Ramesh Chaubey, Latehar’s district welfare officer.

Radha Devi, who was chosen as the sahiya in 2007 by the village’s residents while she was in her late 40s, had worked in brick kilns most of her life. The labour contractors offered sums of Rs 10,000-12,000 as “advances”, she said, and this was a big draw, but later did not pay regular wages. “At the kiln sites, away from towns, there are no health facilities,” said Devi. “Many workers develop alcoholism at the kilns. Some do not like the taste of the medicines, and some worry about adverse side effects. All these are the reasons why they do not complete treatment.”

Of the eight TB patients in Tarwadih, whom Devi was administering treatment to, Bartu Oraon, an Oraon Adivasi, was undergoing treatment for a relapsed infection. Mohan Bhuian, a brick kiln worker, had developed Multi Drug Resistant(MDR) TB, a more deadly form of TB infection, that develops if a patient gets incomplete or inadequate treatment. In MDR-TB, two of the most powerful TB drugs stop working. Those with MDR-TB can transmit this deadlier form infection to others in close contact through air droplets in the same way as regular TB. MDR-TB is treated with highly toxic drugs over a protracted two years period.

Devi said to control the spread of infection, she had been trained by the staff at the TB hospital in Latehar to ask ask patients to spit in a pan and cover it with ash. “I ask them to take precautions, to use ash to cover their spit, or cough only into a gamcha and boil it in water to prevent further infection,” said Devi. “If they don’t like the aftertaste of the drugs, I even buy them small packets of namkeen with the drug,” she said, showing a small packet of snacks she had carried for a patient. She had also been counseling Neetu Devi, a young farm workers, who had recently delivered a boy, that while she had TB she had to cover her mouth while breastfeeding to prevent the infection from spreading to her baby.

Seeta Bhuian, whose husband Mohan Bhuian had the most serious infection in the village with MDR-TB, said Mohan had taking TB drugs irregularly for five years while migrating to work at the kilns and over time, he had got so sick that he could no longer stand. After he was diagnosed with MDR-TB last year, Bhuian had to take 13 medicines and an injection daily for six months and since the last three months, he had been on seven drugs daily.

“The sahiya came home to give him the medicines daily,” said Seeta Bhuian, Mohan’s wife. She added that Radha Devi had also traveled with Bhuian twice to Itki, 110 kilometers away. This is where the government ran a TB sanatorium, an indoor facility where Bhuian had been diagnosed with MDR-TB.

After nine months of treatment, Bhuian had recovered enough strength to walk, and had taken the cattle grazing that afternoon. But his family was anxious and concerned because one of the medicines, Kanamycin, had had a severe adverse effect on him making him lose his hearing four months into the treatment.

Radha Devi with Mohan Bhuian who is on treatment for Multi drug resistant TB in Tarwadih in Latehar (1)
Radha Devi had traveled with Bhuian to Itki while he was in the most infectious state, accompanied by his younger relatives. “At the sanatorium, the doctor told us the medicines were so toxic that they could make Mohan depressed, paralyzed, or deaf,” she said. “Sadly, I have seen Mohan go through all of these stages this year.”

After getting Mohan Bhuian admitted, Radha Devi had traveled over a 100 kilometers from her village to Itki a second time to act as his counselor when he started developing side effects. “Mohan called me on the phone and said he felt he was going to go mad,” she said. “I was scared I may get lost while traveling alone from our village, but somehow I managed to get to the city. I felt like he was my son and was worried.” For her travel costs, Mohan Bhuian had later reimbursed her Rs 400, after the government hospital staff did not pay her anything for the trip.

As a sahiya or ASHA worker, Devi is supposed to get Rs 100 as “incentive” for each TB case that she reported, but she said she had not received any payments till now.

Devi added that she had heard that the government had promised to double the honorarium of ASHA workers and other ground health and nutrition staff this year. “I have heard ASHA will get paid high amounts of honorarium totaling Rs 3,500-5,000 a month for the work we do,” said Devi. But in the past 16 months, there had been delays in sanctioning sahiya payments, said Suranjeen Pallipamula, a health activist in Ranchi.

“For more than a year now, I have not got paid anything,” said Devi.

An edited version of the story in The Hindu Sunday Magazine here.

All photographs by Manob Chowdhury.

Reporting series on tuberculosis among workers

Choti Gujjar a farmer had discontinued TB treatment and this has caused her to get multi drug resistant TB She was at the Ajmer TB hospital with her son a mine worker

India has an enormous tuberculosis crisis, but the government still does not have an accurate estimate even of how many Indians suffer from the disease. A million cases are still not notified every year, and people remain undiagnosed, or inadequately diagnosed and struggle for accessing full treatment. While TB can be cured by a drug regimen of six months, the emergence and increase in antibiotics resistant TB is a concern.
These stories trace the effects of economic and health policies in on workers with TB and their experiences with drug resistant TB:

Stone-crushing workers in Ajmer suffer as the government’s ‘active case finding’ drive in the district is poorly managed and block levels hospitals lack basic infrastructure.

The government recognises miners as being occupationally vulnerable to TB. For thousands of miners in Rajasthan, however, an epidemic of silicosis is making that diagnosis even more difficult.

Chotu Ram Bhil a Adivasi migrant miner from Rajsamand was worried he was not better even after finishing TB drugs the previous year

Anti-biotics resistance is growing, and the poorest patients find it difficult to access care and counseling. Diagnosed with multi drug resistant-TB, a tailor in Beawar, Rajasthan narrates how he went through a painful medication regime without counselling support only to have his health worsen and dropped out of treatment despite knowing the risks.

Officials coerce in name of “community-led sanitation”

The rush to show that the Swachh Bharat deadlines have been met has left the most vulnerable low income Dalit households out. Officials have deployed various coercive measures in name of “community-led sanitation.

The panchayat officials in Rajasthan told farmers that if they did not have a red stamp saying “open-defecation free family” on ration cards, they would cut off the ration grains from the government. Those who still did not build by then were marked as households that lacked space to build latrines. This way, the target got reduced and local officials showed compliance.

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Many families that have built latrines don’t use them but government surveys do not reflect any of this. In places where open defecation has not ended, the ministry is relying on statistical tools to show it has.

Full report in HuffPost India here.

In Jharkhand, more militarization following tribal farmers’ pathalgadi assertion

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It was dusk, the time that farmers usually return home after working in the paddy fields. But the hamlet of Uduburu in eastern Indian state of Jharkhand was deserted. The village square was empty and the mud huts had locks on the doors.
It was only after darkness fell that a few women cautiously came out to draw water from a hand pump at the entrance to the village. Lucia Soy, a tall gaunt middle-aged woman, spoke in Mundari, the language spoken by the local Munda tribe, explaining that the villagers had gone into hiding fearing police action.
Thousands of people from across several villages in the area have been accused in criminal cases by the police for agitating against alleged forceful land acquisition of their farm and pasturelands.
“On several successive nights last month, the police came to the village and started beating anyone they could find,” she said. “They did not spare even domestic animals. They thrashed our pigs in anger when they did not find the men.”
Maga Purty, an elderly woman, said the security forces had thrown the rice she had cooked on the floor, and took away her blankets and her farm tools. “They locked me inside my hut while they beat my son outside,” she said.
After the violent police raids on their and neighbouring hamlets, the farmers had fled to the forest, and remained in hiding for nearly a month, the women said, missing the window of sowing paddy in their fields. They are now struggling to resume work.
Several women and men had slowly gathered around the water pump. In the faint light of a torch, they showed injuries and swellings on their feet from the police beatings that had not healed even after weeks.

An assertion
The hamlet of Uduburu in Khunti district lies near the birthplace of Birsa Munda, an Adivasi (indigenous) community leader who had led a guerrilla resistance against the British colonial rulers in the 19th century. Birsa is now a nationalist icon, and many state institutions are named after him, including Jharkhand’s main airport in the capital, Ranchi.
Uduburu is also the home of Joseph Purty, a teacher at the government college, who over the past one year led a movement for a boycott of all government institutions against alleged forceful acquisition of tribal lands for “development work” – an euphemism for industrial or mining projects.
Hundreds of farmers joined in the demand doing “bittdiri”, or “pathalgadi”, which means carving stones, a centuries-old Munda tradition in which the community engraves stone monoliths to mark significant milestones in the village.
The farmers organised ceremonies in which they carved the constitutional provisions on tribal autonomy on large rocks, and erected these at the entrance to the hamlets.
But the assertion by the Munda farmers that the government follow the laws and the constitution’s special provisions granting self governance in predominantly tribal areas such as Khunti has drawn the ire of the state.
Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das has promised to crush the movement, while the police launched crackdown on defiant farmers.

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Criminal cases
Between February and July, more than 3,300 farmers, including the heads of the gram sabha (village assemblies), and unnamed farmers, have been charged under the section 124 (A) of Indian Penal Code or the law of sedition. 
Those found guilty under the colonial era law may face up to three years in prison.
First Information Reports (formal police complaint) was filed in March, invoking charges of sedition and rioting for “wrongly interpreting the constitution”, and for demanding the administration remove police and paramilitary camps from Kevada and other villages.
More than 2,000 paramilitary forces were deployed in the area, stated the district police superintendent. Now, over 300 security personnel are camping in schools in Khunti’s interior villages, forcing students to drop out.
The police have also registered several criminal complaints against Joseph Purty, the college teacher in Uduburu. He was also named along with other youth from pathalgadi movement in a complaint of gangrape filed by five women on June 21. One of the rape victims has since stated in a news interview that she did not name Purty or any other pathalgadi movement leaders in her complaint, but their names were added later by the police, raising questions about the police investigation in the rape case.
Purty, who is in his late forties, and his wife, a teacher in a local government school, are currently on the run.
Khunti Superintendent of Police AK Sinha declined to speak on the rape investigation. But he justified sedition cases against the tribal farmers. “These tribals were not merely installing stone edicts,” he said, adding “they were inciting people” and “insulting officials who visited the villages”. saying that the governor and the chief minister are public servants.” 
“The farmers were demanding that tribal farmers arrested between February and August this year be released from prison, merely on orders of their gram sabha (village assemblies). They were threatening to not allow entry to diku (outsiders) into the village even if they had to use force, and claiming they will raise their own armies.” 

On several of the megaliths, the farmers had engraved added demands that in protected tribal areas, no one from outside the village could reside, or enter the village boundaries without seeking the permission of village assemblies. The tribal farmers denied police allegations that they were raising an army, adding that following pathalgadi ceremonies, they had taken out large public rallies carrying traditional weapons including sticks, axes, bow and arrows, but not assaulted any one.

Inspector P Prasad, who is investigating officer in the rape complaint, also declined to speak on the investigation.
He said the police had filed multiple criminal cases against the farmers because they were “not allowing the administration’s movement in the area”.
“We wanted to acquire land to expand police camps in Khunti’s Saiko and Marangahada villages, but the farmers refused to give land for this. They regularly obstruct developmental work,” he said. 

The police officials accused the residents of siding with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist)’s cadres and of illegally growing opium.

The impoverished forested “tribal belt” in central and eastern India, the region where Jharkhand lies, is conflated with the area of a decades-old Maoist insurgency. Of 30 districts most affected by the violent conflict between the Maoists and Indian security forces, 13 are in Jharkhand, and include Khunti. The Maoists have played no visible role in the pathalgadi movement. The farmers have long-standing grievances, fear being displaced from their farmland, and oppose the steady militarization in Khunti and adjoining districts in the name of snuffing out the Maoist insurgency. They accused the administration of being corrupt, domineering and exploitative, and diluting the land tenancy laws meant to protect indigenous communities’ land rights.

“We want to ask the police administration, why are they raiding and beating us?” said a Munda youth in a village in Murhu block, who did not wish to be identified in the report. “They beat me and my wife from head to toe with fibre lathi (polycarbonate batons used by the police) when we had not even touched any policemen. “We organised pathalgadi ceremonies following our tradition. We were simply stating that all Adivasis in Jharkhand must unite,” he said.

Netram Munda, a village elder in Murhu, told Al Jazeera that they had organized pathalgadi ceremonies as a necessity to save their ancestral farmland.
“In Khutkatti (forest patches first cleared by the Munda indigenous communities), no one outside the community has the rights to buy land, but the Chief Minister Raghubar Das is framing new laws allowing district commissioner to sell our farmland to anyone.” 

What the Constitution promised
A large number of areas predominantly inhabited by the indigenous communities had been declared Excluded/Partially Excluded Areas under the British under the Scheduled Districts Act of 1874.
After India’s Independence in 1947, the government accorded special protections to the tribal areas under the Fifth and Sixth Schedules of the Constitution. The government in free India recognised the historic wrongs the tribal communities had faced, from the British colonial rulers, as well as people from the mainland. 
There are restrictions on sale and transfer of tribal land and property to non-tribals in the Fifth Schedule areas, such as Jharkhand.
the Governor of a state holds special powers to restrict transfer of land and property rights from the tribal communities to non-tribals, and to regulate money-lending, acting on the advice of a Tribes Advisory Council. Tribal communities, or Scheduled Tribes as they are categorized in the constitution, are approximately nine percent of India’s population.

In Jharkhand, tribal communities, or Adivasis, form 28 percent of the population, but suffer from the worst levels of poverty, at 54 percent of the tribal population in Jharkhand’s villages living below poverty line.

In 1996, parliament had enacted the Panchayats Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESA), acknowledging the continued threat to indigenous communities rights and resources, and upholding their rights to self-governance in tribal areas.
PESA acknowledges all adult members of a habitation constitute a gram sabha (village assembly), which can act on its powers to prevent land loss to the community, and are competent to should be consulted on land acquisition and on grant of certain mineral leases.

Besides these national legislations, land cultivated by indigenous communities in Jharkhand are additionally protected under the colonial era tenancy laws.
Though Birsa Munda had died in prison at the age of 25, the British in a concession to the Munda rebellion had enacted the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908, which confers protections to the land of small cultivators.
In the state capital Ranchi, Ratan Tirkey, a member of the state Tribes Advisory Council, a government body appointed in all Fifth Schedule, or protected areas said, “Khunti is on the boil because the government is ignoring Fifth Schedule provisions, and bypassing consulting the gram sabha on acquisition of farmland and pastures.”

Dayamani Barla, a Munda land rights activist in Ranchi, [explained that one of the first steps the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had undertaken after coming to power was to propose changes to dilute the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, the region’s unique land tenure system. 
But the proposed changes could not be passed following deadly agitation launched by the tribals. 

The Governor returned the proposed amendments that allowed use of farmland for non-agricultural purposes in August 2017 after several agitations by the tribal farmers, including a protest in Khunti where an elderly farmer, was shot dead by the police, less than 20 kilometers from Uduburu. The government however, found ways around the tenancy laws, reducing the scope of progressive provisions in land acquisition laws despite questions raised by the Tribes Advisory Council, Tirkey said.
The government has created several categories of projects for which acquisition laws’ rules for the social impact assessment of projects, and of obtaining the consent of affected communities no longer apply, he explained.
“If after all this, people analyse the constitution’s Fifth Schedule provisions themselves and inscribe it on rocks or megaliths, or anywhere in their homes, how is that unconstitutional?” he asked. Ironically, Tirkey pointed out, the first pathalgadi ceremonies inscribing the Constitution’s tribal area provisions had been organized by government officials in 1996 after PESA law was passed. Several of these megaliths are still standing in Khunti. “The only difference now is the language has turned more assertive, reflecting people’s bitter experiences with the administration,” he added.

On the phone, Neelkanth Munda, member of the state legislative assembly from Khunti, and the state’s minister for rural development, declined to comment on the changes made to the land acquisition laws by the government. He said that “normalcy has returned” in Khunti after the whittling down of the pathalgadi movement.

Tirkey compared the ongoing pathalgadi movement as being in continuation of a practice started by BD Sharma, a bureaucrat, one of the architect of the PESA law, who had in 1996 helped organized stone carving of PESA provisions on self governance in villages in Khunti, several of which are still standing today. “The only difference now I perceive now that the language of the engravings has turned more assertive and blunt in rejecting government interventions, perhaps reflecting the experience of the village inhabitants with the administration.”

Increasing militarization
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In Khunti, the Adivasi inhabitants expressed a growing distrust of the government’s ongoing land acquisition projects.
Durgavati Odiya, an activist with the Central Sarna Committee, a Munda religious organisation, who has also been named in several criminal complaints, claimed the police were threatening the village assemblies to “vacate land for projects, or face repercussions”. She said the administration continued to disregard norms for gram sabhas’ consent, and were not transparent on the purpose of land acquisition.
“The officials told us they were acquiring land for a “Knowledge City”, and people thought it was to build a university, but now they have stated that they will be building a military training school and an airstrip on the land,” said Odiya. “In Japud village, 84 of 130 households in the gram sabha opposed diverting 14 acres of pastureland for an electric sub-station, but the administration still went ahead with the construction,” she said.

Khunti Deputy Commissioner Suraj Kumar, the head of the civil administration, confirmed that a training centre for security personnel was going to be built on the land acquired for the “Knowledge City”.  He said that officials had documents to prove that consent of the village assembly had been obtained for a power sub-station in Japud. Kumar accused the village functionaries of working under the influence of the banned Maoist revolutionaries. “We also support traditions such as pathalgadi, but under the Maoists’ influence, the tribal communities are inscribing inflammatory statements and this can turn into a violent movement, which it is our responsibility to prevent.”

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After intensifying raids, the Jharkhand Armed Police and paramilitary now occupy school buildings in remote villages of Kochang, Kurunga, Sinko and Sarda leading to more resentment. In Kurunga and Kochang forest villages, Veronica Soy, an elderly farmer, said the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force had occupied the only government primary school building, with no prior information to the community. Soy questioned how this could be termed as being tribal communities’ “development”.
“The paramilitary met our village head only after occupying the school and said they will remain here until “peace” is established,” Soy recounted. “But even the school principal was not informed.”

She said the security forces had told the residents that their local school had been “merged” with another school in Ruggudi, four kilometers away.
“The younger children cannot walk so far to classes through the forest, they will be forced to drop out of school,” Soy said.

An edited version appeared in Al Jazeera here.