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.

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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.

Women miners toil over sandstone for export

India has one of the lowest rates of women’s work participation rate at 27%. The government has published a “pink-coloured” Economic Survey while doing on equal wages, equal work and health care.
Women miners in Rajasthan, many from the Dalit and Bhil communities work as a farm labourer for a part of the year, and in the sandstone mines seasonally that are a major source of sandstone exports to Europe and the US.
Interviews with women miners in Rajasthan show they are paid nearly 30 percent less than what men get paid for the same work. They spend long hours with their backs bent, lifting and throwing sandstone blocks and tiles with their bare hands, exposed to serious respiratory illnesses and of lower back and spinal injuries, accidents.

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In Bijolia, a mining town in India’s Rajasthan, sandstone slabs had been erected as a fence around a field to convert it into temporary work-site. In the center, Seema Regar, a tall young woman, her head covered with a black scarf, lifted and arranged grey-brown sandstone cobbles into large wooden crates.

Minestone Exports, a firm in the state capital Jaipur 250 kilometers away, had ordered the delivery of the sandstone cobbles for export to the United Kingdom, where it would be used in laying streets and sea-faces.

Employed through a labour contractor on piece-rate wages, Regar did not know of the firm that employed her. She had reached the worksite at 8 in the morning, after cooking and cleaning for her family. Now, in peak afternoon heat, she was still lifting the stones and filling the crates. Her thumb was bandaged from recurring cuts from the stone slabs and scraping injuries. She would be paid Rs 60 (97 cents) per for each crate she filled.

Regar is from a Scheduled caste, a landless Dalit at the bottom of India’s caste hierarchy, and has worked as a casual labourer in Bijolia’s sandstone mines since she was still in her late teens.

After 11 years of working, Regar possessed no records of employment, no health cover or social security. She is one of thousands of lower caste women labouring on the margins of India’s mining exports industry.

RESTRICTIVE LAWS
Despite enjoying one of the world’s highest growth rates in recent years, India has one of the lowest rates of female work participation in the world. Only 27 percent of its women are in the workforce. This is the lowest ever recorded in Independent India, and is half the levels of women workers in China (64 percent) and Bangladesh (58 percent).

Mining is often viewed as a “masculine” profession, associated with the dominant image of male miners going deep underground into mines and quarries.

But women constitute 8 percent of full-time workers in non-coal mines and quarries as per India’s 2011 census. The actual numbers may be higher, say experts.

Most women miners are concentrated on the margins, in informal and small-scale mining. Over 33 percent of mine workers in the category of “marginal workers”, defined as those who worked less than six months in a year, were women. These are usually landless women labourers, and marginal farmers who seek temporary work in quarries in non-farm months. A large number are concentrated in the stone industry. Both their gender and caste makes them vulnerable, pushing them into precarious work.

India’s mining laws too reinforce gendered notions around work.

The Mines Act of 1952 provides that women cannot be employed in underground mines. It restricts their hours of work above the ground between 6 am and 7 pm. The central government may vary the hours of employment of woman above ground in mines. But no employment of women workers is permitted in night shifts.

These restrictions result in a concentration of women only in lower level, manual, less safe and more insecure jobs.

“Better paid or technical jobs in mines do not usually go to women nor do women receive training in mineral sciences or engineering,” noted academic Kuntala Lahiri-Dutt, an expert on women miners.
Recently, the National Democratic Alliance government proposed various amendments to India’s labour laws to simplify them and improve ease of business. But the proposals ignore the gendered nature of India’s employment crisis.

The new draft “Labour Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions” retains the same restrictions on women’s hours and work-sites. It is silent on extremely low wages, and denial of recognition as workers that women miners face.

Economists say this reveals the indifference to workers’ real conditions.“Despite a great deal of rhetoric regarding ’empowerment’ of women, the super-exploitative conditions of employment that the majority of women workers are located in, is not a matter of public concern or debate in government circles, or the media,” said Indrani Mazumdar, a senior researcher at the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, who has analyzed gender and employment trends.

Mazumdar pointed out that though this year’s Economic Survey, a government report on the state of the economy presented as a budget document, was published pink in colour to show government’s commitment to gender equality https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/economic-survey-2018-pink-theme-emphasise-women-empowerment-gender-inequality/story/269078.html there was “utter indifference” to the enormous hardships women faced in working even where they could take up paid-work.

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Rajasthan’s stone mining sector offers troubling insights into of how women workers continue to be treated as peripheral workers, and denied equal wages and benefits.

UNEQUAL WORKERS
Rajasthan contributes 10 percent of the world’s production of sandstone. Sandstone from here meets the highest international standards and is exported to the UK, the United States of America, Canada, Australia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Bijolia in Rajasthan’s Bhilwara is one of its top three centers of production. Despite the international links of production, the production takes place in rudimentary ways, with low use of technology, and the stone is processed manually using hammers and chisels.

The jobs are segregated by gender. Men are engaged to excavate the sandstone, and in blasting, drilling, processing. Women are assigned to work as casual labourers to transport the material, carrying head-loads, and to sweep and clean debris inside mines, in the lowest paying jobs.

Even where women and men do the same work, they are paid vastly different rates.

Kailashi Bai, had started working as a “hamaal” worker, loading stones for Rs 30 (44 cents) a day when she first came to Bijolia as a child bride. Now 30 years on, she earned Rs 200 ($2.9) a day loading stones, less than the minimum wage.

The amount is a third less than what male helpers and coolies got paid for the same work.

“The labour contractor argues that men pick heavier loads than women,” said Kailashi. “But this is not true.”
She added: “The mine supervisor keeps a watch, even he can see we work with equally heavy loads continuously. They pay us less because they simply do not want to treat us equally.”

Prem Devi Daroga who started working as after her husband, a miner, was diagnosed with silicosis, a fatal respiratory disease, two years back, said that if mixed gender group of men and women worked together, they were paid equally – Rs 300 ($4.4) per trolley they filled, which they split. “But if it is an all-women group doing the loading, then the mine owners slash the payments by one-third or half,” she said.

There are no trade unions active among Bijolia’s mine workers, who fall in India’s vast informal sector sector with extremely low levels of unionization.

Sugna Regar, one of the Dalit miners, explained that in the absence of a union, the women miners tried to negotiate better wage rates, but often found it difficult to get heard. “Usually, three-four of us will go to approach the employers and contractors collectively, asking them to increase wages to at least Rs 200 ($2.9), or close to the minimum wage,” she said. “But they are dismissive, they will tell us: “You are women, and you ought to stay at home then”.

Gendi Bai Bhil, in her mid-50s, who belongs to a Scheduled Tribe, an indigenous community, said the mine owners frequently offered wage advances of up to Rs 5000 ($73) to male miners and stone carvers, which they later deducted from the wages. But they denied loans or wage advances to women.

“Even in case of accidents in the mine, the owners will help only the men financially,” said Bhil. “If women workers get injured if the slab fall on them, or if our fingers bleed from loading stones, the employers do not offer even casual assistance, or any monetary help.”

Govindram Gehlot, an advisor with Gramin and Samajik Vikas Sanstha, a Non Governmental Organisation that works for miners’ rights, who earlier worked as a labour inspection officer in the government, said women workers got paid lower wages and faced greater difficulties. “The mine owners hire only men to process the stone tiles and work as masons, and assign the women to carry head loads, as “helpers”,” he said. “Carrying and loading sandstone in open-cast mines is equally arduous. Under the law, both should be paid same. But the employers believe, or like to portray that women’s work is easy, and get away with paying them less.”

LACK OF WELLNESS
The women workers who spent long hours with their backs bent and lift and throw the sandstone blocks and tiles with their bare hands, were exposed to the risks of lower back and spinal injuries, and accidents.

In interviews, many workers reported living with chronic musculoskeletal pain, and having contracted respiratory illnesses like tuberculosis.

A large number of workers in the stone industry are afflicted with serious respiratory diseases. Between 2013 and August 2017, 9,278 workers in Rajasthan’s mines, largely males, were diagnosed with silicosis – a fatal respiratory illness caused by inhaling fine silica dust through prolonged exposure in the quarries. The government has been organising medical camps to screen patients regularly.

In Bijolia too, medical camps for screening workers have been organised, though the staff said they found it difficult to cope with the large number of patients.

Dinesh Dhakad, a medical official supervising tuberculosis camps at Bijolia health sub center stated that usually over 100 to 200 people often landed up for health screening, when the ambulance had a capacity to do X-Ray exams for only 40 to 50 patients in one day.

In the first instances of work pressure on government staff, women workers were given the short shrift.

Dhakad claimed that women workers landed for the medical camps, even when “they were not at risk of respiratory disease.”

“Women work only as “helpers”, lifting and loading using spades or by hand. They do not work in blasting the stone or processing,” said Dhakad. “But they still land up at the our camps wanting to be tested,” he complained that women workers reaching medical camps added unfairly to the government hospital’s staff work-load.

WORKING IN PAIN
Besides the lack of adequate facilities for respiratory disease, there was also little acknowledgement and no measures to help the women workers cope with frequent injuries, and living in chronic pain.

Regar, who had been lifted and placing the stone cobbles on the Minestone export consignment said the stones frequently scraped her fingers making them bleed. This took almost 7 to 10 days to heal, she said. The recurring injuries made it difficult to work more than 10 or 15 days in a month, Regar added.

Most women workers reported suffering recurring joints pain, and also stomachache, both from enteric infections from the lack of access to clean water and food, and musculoskeletal pain they had developed while lifting and carrying heavy weights regularly. Their long hours at work were compounded as they spent more hours after work in the house, fetching drinking water for their families, and cooking and cleaning.

Kanika Sharma, a research scholar at the Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy, said women workers and women agricultural labourers remained particularly vulnerable to lack of wellness and pain. “Research shows that women in India experience physical pain more severely and for longer duration than men,” she said. “Unequal distribution of labour in homes, undernutrition, and physical violence contribute to this.”

Their health was worsened by the poor access to food and nutrition. All women workers interviewed stated that they had not had egg, or milk even once the previous week. Several workers faced domestic violence.

Seeta Regar, who was in her late 30s, had started accompanying other women workers to the mines when her husband died seven months back. She did not receive a widow pension, that she is eligible for from the state. “My husband worked in the mines and got tuberculosis,” she recounted. “He was an alcoholic and he would hit me. My limbs still hurt from the beatings.”

In case of a disability or on reaching old age, these women are entitled to a measly Rs 500 ($7.4) monthly pension from the government.

Gendi Bai Bhil, a 55-year old worker from a Scheduled Tribe with a frail frame, had recurring pain in her back and her joints after working 32 years as a “helper” cleaning debris in the mines.

In exhaustion, she threw punches at her knees and elbows to express the pain she experienced regularly. Lacking any health cover, Bhil said she visited both the local government health center and an unregistered medical practitioner every two weeks to buy painkillers for relief. “The government health centers often remain shut, or they turn us away,” said Bhil. “Even unregistered medical practitioners charge Rs 170($2.5)on one visit, it is more than my daly wages, and I can barely afford it.”

Delhi-economist Mazumdar said that “without ensuring need-based minimum and equal wages, and without ensuring access to health benefits to women workers”, there was no way India’s female work participation rates could increase.

An edited version of this news story appeared in The Guardian here.

Sly book

“At worst the Africans saw the Indians as illiterate, barefooted, clannish heathens, misers who hoarded coins under their bed, who had strange uncivilized costumes, who spread dung on the walls  and floors of their homes, stunted, thin-limbed and shifty-eyed. At worst, Indians saw the Africans as the condemned: ugly, black of skin, with wide noses and twisted coir for hair, mimics of the white masters, without a language, culture or religion of their own, frivolous, promiscuous, violent, lazy.”  p 120

…”I had thought of chutney as a music without pain, but I had begun to see I was wrong. Reggae was the music of slavery. Its impulse was resistance, confrontation, a homeland severed so absolutely, seized back by the force of imagination or ideology. Chutney was the music of indenture. Its impulse was preservation, then assimilation. There was a pain in this act of attempted preservation— a homeland part remembered and protected, part lost and lingering.” p.212

 

 

Tribals torn apart by religion

The Hindu
Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened

Photo by Manob Chowdhury

Photo by Manob Chowdhury


Two months before polling began in Jharkhand, Ajay Tirkey began dividing his day between campaigning for the Bharatiya Janata Party in Ranchi and attending to his real estate business. Mr. Tirkey, who heads the Central Sarna Committee(CSC), with lakhs of animistic Sarna tribals as members in urban parts of Ranchi, Gumla and Hazaribagh, believes that the BJP’s Narendra Modi will get the community what it has been demanding for decades: the distinction of being a minority religion with all attendant benefits. “We submitted a memorandum to Modi in December to introduce a Sarna code in the census, and [the] BJP’s State leaders agreed,” he says.

Mr. Tirkey — tall, stout, dressed in white shirt and trousers and wearing a golden watch on one wrist and a vermillion thread on the other — speaks softly and smiles often, even while narrating the violence that has broken out following his organisation’s attempt to stop religious conversions in the last decade. The office of his company, Deoshila Development Private Limited, is sparsely furnished, with only a poster of Hanuman for decoration. Mr. Tirkey owns the commercial complex we are sitting in. “This is a century-old fight. I have not let the Christians get away with conversions since I became the head in 2000,” he says. “We broke the walls of a church in Tape in Ormanjhi while it was being constructed. There was a case of conversion of five families in Ghagrajala village in Ranchi; we re-converted three. Then a few families in Gaitalsud, Angada, of whom only one member escaped because he worked somewhere else. He has not come back since; he fears us,” he recounts, beaming.

Mr. Tirkey, the BJP’s mayoral candidate from Ranchi in 2013, describes the “re-conversion” ceremonies as being similar to the ghar-waapsi (homecoming) ceremonies conducted by BJP leader Dilip Singh Judeo in Chhattisgarh, in the mid-2000s. Mr. Judeo used to wash the feet of the converted person with holy water and declare the person Hindu again. Sarnas, Mr. Tirkey says, besides washing feet, made the converted person taste a drop of blood of a freshly sacrificed rooster and sprinkled water on them. A member of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram (VKA) or Dharam Jagran usually accompanied CSC members for this ceremony, he says. Sitting by Mr. Tirkey’s side, Manoj Kumar, a member of the BJP’s Jharkhand Kisan Morcha Pradesh Samiti, nods in agreement.

Conversion politics

In the last century, religious conversions in the Chotanagpur region have led to tensions. The first missionaries to arrive were the German Protestants in 1845, followed by the Catholics. The rift between Christian and non-Christian tribals was visible in 1947-48. Concerned with the growing influence of Christians, Sarna leaders formed a ‘Sudhar Sabha,’ notes academic Dr. Alex Ekka in an essay on the Jharkhand movement.

The former captain of the Indian hockey team, Jaipal Singh Munda, is credited with getting equal rights including reservations for Christian tribals, as a member of the Constituent Assembly. A few Sarna leaders opposed this move then. Congress MP Kartik Oraon introduced a bill in Parliament in 1968 to de-schedule Christian tribals, albeit unsuccessfully.

The Jan Sangh and the RSS began making inroads in the Chotanagpur region in the 1960s, initiating developmental activities in forest villages to counter the growing reach of Christian missionaries. While the VKA already has a strong presence in the Gumla and Latehar districts of West Jharkhand, more recently it has focused on increasing its influence in Sahebganj and Pakur along the State’s border with West Bengal, close to Bangladesh. Both districts feature in a map of areas from Uttar Pradesh to the north-east as “Areas of high Muslim and Christian influence” in a publication by Sankat Mochan Ashram, New Delhi.

“The church was trying to proselytize in Pakur but slowed down after we increased our presence. We recently performed ghar-waapsi for 50 families there. Sarna groups are doing re-conversions themselves now; we prefer it this way. We explain to them that 2000 years ago, we worshipped trees. Sarnas are Hindu too,” says Prakash Kamat, the Bihar-Jharkhand zonal secretary of the VKA.

Tribals constitute 26.3 per cent of Jharkhand’s population. According to the 2001 Census, of the State’s population of 3.29 crore, 68.5 per cent are Hindus and 13.8 per cent are Muslims. Only four per cent follow Christianity. Though Sarnas, who worship their ancestors and nature, are not counted separately, they make up most of the ‘Other’ category, estimated at 11 to 13 per cent of the population. Sarna groups claim that the actual numbers may be higher, given the absence of a separate category for them. A common perception is that despite their small numbers, Christian tribals have better access to higher education and jobs. Whether due to economic disparities or the stoking of enmities by different religious groups, the chasm between Sarna and Christian tribals has widened.

A deep divide

The most stark instance of this was in 2013 when a spate of protests erupted in Ranchi soon after the Cardinal Telesphore Toppo unveiled the statue of a “tribal” Mary — a dark-skinned Mother Mary wearing a white and red saree and bangles, holding an infant Jesus in a sling, as is common among tribal women. Sarna dharamguru Bandhan Tigga, considered more moderate than Ajay Tirkey’s group, gave the Church three months to remove the statue, describing it as a conversion tactic. In August, over 3,000 Sarna tribals marched to the site, a small Catholic church in Singpur on Ranchi’s outskirts, threatening to bring it down. The police imposed Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code in the area to stop the protesters. Three days later, a FIR was registered against members of Sarna groups after they threatened families in Ormanjhi, 50 km from Singpur, who had converted to Protestantism several years ago, to re-convert to Sarna religion within a week, even breaking the gate of the house of one of the families.

Sources close to the Cardinal claim he had not known that the statue was that of a “tribal” Mary before he reached the parish for the inauguration, but have chosen to stay silent, fearing that a step back now may only weaken the church’s position. Before this, in 2008, the church was on the back foot when Sarna groups questioned the ‘Nemha Bible’ published by a Lutheran church in the tribal language, Kuduk, which they said contained portions offensive to animistic worship.

In Singpur, the residents still recount last year’s protests cautiously. “Thousands marched from Dhurva to the parish. While the march had been called by Sarna groups, several Bajrang Dal members wearing saffron bands marched with them. Even tribals from neighbouring Odisha, Chhattisgarh districts reached here,” recalled a member of the community. It was done by evoking Sarnas’ pride, say Dharam Jagran members.

Lok Sabha Khunti: Dayamani’s long fight for the forests, for equality

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Dayamani Barla had made up her mind to fight elections soon after being released from jail. In the winter of 2012, the activist spent 69 days locked in a small cell in Birsa Munda jail in Ranchi. She was accused in a case relating to leading 400 Oraon tribal farmers in Nagri as they questioned why the campuses of elite institutes such as the IIM Ranchi, and a national law university be built on their fertile multi-crop farmland when there was ample barren land nearby.

Nagri’s tribal women farmers carried fruits for Dayamani at every appearance she made at Ranchi courts as the arguments for bail went on. She recounts being able to see only a patch of the sky from her tiny cell’s window. Her sister-in-law passed away while she was in jail. “When I came out I felt vulnerable. I needed a formal alliance to back me in this work. Market forces put a price on every human being and institution, and many are drawn to individualism. But there is still a collective spirit in villages here, even if there is a vacuum in leadership,” she says. It is this void the 48-year old believes she can fill if elected on an Aam Admi Party ticket from Khunti, from where BJP’s sitting MP Kariya Munda has been elected seven times.

Before Nagri, she had led a movement against Koel Karo dam in Torpa in Khunti where she was born in a Munda tribal household. From 1995 onwards, Dayamani, then 29 and working as an independent journalist with Jan Haq Patrika, organized tribal villagers in their struggle against the dam that would displace over 53,000. The resistance continued despite eight villagers dying in police firing in 2000. She received death threats when she travelled across four districts in Jharkhand between 2006-2010, organizing villagers opposed to giving up their farmland for Arcelor Mittal’s steel plant over 11,000 acres. She led them citing the Chotanagpur Tenancy Act, enacted in 1908 after the Birsa movement, which prohibits sale of tribal land to non-tribals in this area. “Why should we settle for “compensation” when we should be co-owners?” she raised the question at the core of crushing disparities in mineral-rich Jharkhand, while addressing farmers in Bokaro who enforced an “economic blockade” against Electrosteel Casting Limited’s steel plant last September. The speech she gave at Bokaro resulted in a FIR against her.

When not traveling in villages, Dayamani can be found in the tea-shop she runs with her husband Nelson near Ranchi’s Sujata Chowk to support her public work. Photographs of Jharkhandi intellectuals such as academic Dr Ram Dayal Munda, and photos she has taken of paddy fields, festivals in villages adorn the walls. Sometimes she uses this space for her work appointments, discussions too. Her full-throated laughter rings in the middle of conversations.

“Dayamani does things at her own pace,” smiles her close friend film-maker Shri Prakash. “She is alert, sincere, and strong; she has achieved which few people could,” says Dr BP Keshri who retired as the Head of Ranchi University’s Tribal and Regional Languages Department. On an impulse Dayamani trails off to pick a jharoo – AAP’s election symbol – from the floor of a hut nearby before beginning her election speech in Ghorpenda village, or makes a piercing comment about how urban Ranchi perceives here, where the bureaucracy is dominated by the lighter-skinned. “When I go to government offices, sometimes peons ask rudely, what do you want, why are you here. There have been instances when I have waited outside offices for long and watched their reactions change when I say my name is Dayamani Barla and this is why I am here,” she says.

There is a lot Dayamani’s childhood taught her to steel up against. She watched her parents lose their land when she was nine to a businessman, after signing on documents they could not read. While they began working as domestic servants in Ranchi, she and her brother studied in their village in Arhara feeding themselves. At 13, she too moved to Ranchi, living in a shed with cattle, cleaning utensils and eating leftovers working at the Ranchi police barracks. She cleaned utensils in a household till her employer tried to sexually assault her one day. “I was 15. I do not know from where I found the strength from to throw that man off and escape. I left the work at the family’s house, and supported myself learning typing in Hindi, English till I enrolled in M.Com. at Ranchi University,” recounts Dayamani. She briefly worked at a NGO but left it when she found the organization made little attempt to account for funds got for public purpose. She soon started contributing articles to the newspaper Prabhat Khabhar. In 1995 she had set up the tea-shop. Her livelihood assured, she immersed herself in the Koel Karo movement. “She know what it is to be poor, and the poor’s problems. She believes if you have been given buddhi, social consciousness, it is meant to be passed on,” says her childhood friend and husband Nelson.
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At Jabra village, Dayamani takes time to slowly build the conversation about her election campaign with the tribal villagers who have brought their own mats to sit on to listen to her speak. “What is it that we are fighting for? How should do we take this campaign forward” she asks the villagers and listens as the group slowly comes to consensus. By the end, more than 60 villagers gathered here have decide to contribute 2 kg rice and Rs 50 each to her campaign. At Ludru, where villagers have erected a megalith to inscribe Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act 1996 rules governing use of community resources in the village, she asks whether these norms are really effective, if the village has reached what its idea of poorna swaraj. “Sometimes I act radical with a reason, at other times I wonder if I am being firm or stubborn,” she muses on her way back to Ranchi, 40 km away.

On the evening before her nomination, Dayamani visits a Birsait village, where Birsa Munda followers, who avoid meat, alcohol and food from outside and wear only white, live. After listening to her, Jagai Aba, an old man in white dhoti and gamcha listens to her speak about her campaign. Then softly, he warns her: “The party (Maoists and Poeple’s Liberation Front of India, a Maoist splinter group) will try to decide whom the village votes for. There is danger and you should stay away from the forest.” In turn, Dayamani invokes an annual rite the Birsait perform in Singhbhum’s forests where they declare the forest to be sacred. “Mango, mahua, sal trees; bears, tigers, scorpions – everything is in its place, is it not,” she says. “Now is the time to save them.”

An edited version appeared in The Hindu.

More mines, fewer schools in former Maoist stronghold

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Deep inside the Saranda sal forest, Thalkobad lies at the core of what was a CPI (Maoist) “liberated zone” in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district along the Odisha border. Thalkobad, along with 24 other villages, was reclaimed by the Indian state after a massive military operation – Operation Anaconda-I in August 2011 to destroy the CPI (Maoist) Eastern Regional Bureau and several training training camps inside Saranda. The village bears scars of conflict – a high machaan used by the then rebel government of the village is intact but the secondary school building the Maoists took cover in to return fire at the CRPF is gone. The rebels blew up the school before escaping.

Saranda is a “laboratory for how to consolidate on security successes,” said Jairam Ramesh, Minister for Rural Development, in a recent interview. Mr Ramesh launched Rs 250-crore Saranda Development Plan (SDP) in 56 villages here in 2011 and has since announced similar plans for rebel-controlled zones in Latehar and Bokaro districts recovered through recent paramilitary operations. Two years on, Saranda villagers are still awaiting schools and health centers, even as mining companies have lined up to invest in the newly secured forests.

In Thalkobad, the adivasi villagers recall the pitched battle that August: most families fled to Karampada 13 kms away for a month, 18-year-old Munna Soya and his father were taken by the Central Reserve Police Force in a helicopter to Ranchi on suspicion, detained and beaten in several police camps and later released, 50-year-old Jarda Honhaga was beaten so severely that he died in the hospital. From the 25 villages, 37 persons were arrested, more than 100 were detained.

The CRPF returned six months later bearing sarees, blankets, and farm implements. In the last few months the villagers have watched the construction of a security camp next to their village, and then a road connecting Karampada to Jaraikela. Some have found temporary work with the road contractor and in MNREGA. Others fear new mines will be opened in the forest. “If mines open our land will be ruined. The river will have only red water. We are not literate. How many of us will find jobs?” said Binodini Purti who cooked meals at the secondary school that was blown up.

Red area to ‘Lal paani’

Almost all the villages in Saranda struggle for drinking water. The forest is the catchment of three large rivers – Koina, Subarnrekha, and Damodar, and several streams flow through it. But there are 12 large mining companies operating in 200 sq kms of this 800 sq km forest which holds one-fourth of India’s iron-ore reserves. The Ho adivasi living in the forest first launched ‘Lal Paani Andolan’ against the pollution of the streams from effluents and surface-run off in 1978 at Noamundi and their resistance has continued. “All 56 villages are in need of potable water. There is a problem of high iron content in the water,” notes the Saranda Plan outline of October 2011.

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Thalkobad, Tirilposi, Baliba lie downstream of Steel Authority of India (SAIL)’s crushing plant at Kiriburu where ore is washed and crushed into uniform pieces. At Kiriburu, SAIL’s Rs 4.23 crore-slime beneficiation machine meant to extract ore from the water that is discharged back into the river does not work. “It has not worked even once since it was inaugurated in 2010. When the inspection teams come, the guesthouses are full and the orchestra comes from Jamshedpur,” says a SAIL official. SAIL’s mines in Saranda accounted for over 80 percent of its 15 million tonne production last year.

Downstream, villagers dig shallow pits, a few inches deep by the river to collect drinking water. Farms in Thalkobad, Karampada, Navgaon, Bandhgaon, Mirchgada, Bahada, Kalaita, Jumbaiburu have been ruined by the ore-laden water. “I cannot say about the beneficiation plant but the Kiriburu plant is being modernized. The river is polluted because private mining companies wash 200-250 dumpers carrying iron, oil and grease everyday in the river. I check them when I spot them,” said Dilip Bhargava SAIL General Manager (Mines).

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More mining leases

Since January, the Cabinet Committee on Infrastructure headed by the Prime Minister has recommended clearance for open-cast mining in Saranda forest in areas that form the Singhbhum Elephant Reserve to three private firms. JSW Steel owned by Sajjan Jindal got lease of 998.7 hectares in Ankua forest divison, Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL) led by Congressman and industrialist Naveen Jindal got 512 hectares in Ghatkuri forest. The approval of 138.8 hectares forestland in Ghatkuri to Rungta Mines Limited was nearly completed last month. There are 155 proposals on the anvil for leases in 500 sq km – nearly two-thirds of the forest.

On paper, the proposals must first be recommended from the state government. “We have little say in the recommendations,” says a senior forest official. “There are over 600 elephants in Saranda. More mining may disturb their migration intensifying their attacks on villages,” says state Principal Chief Conservator of Forests AK Malhotra in Ranchi. A proposal by the department of forest to notify 63199 hectares forest in Saranda as inviolate is pending since 2006.

Ironically, the recent approvals to private firms are riding on the back of clearance given to SAIL in Februray 2011 to mine iron ore in Chiria in Saranda by Jairam Ramesh. Mr Ramesh, then Minister of State for Environment and Forests had overturned the Forest Advisory Committee’s decision to grant approval to SAIL citing the Public Sector Unit (PSU)’s “Rs 18,000 crore IPO on the anvil”. Private mining firms have cited the proximity of Ankua and Ghatkuri to SAIL’s Chiria mines to argue they too be granted permits in the already “broken,” what is no longer pristine, forest. Mr Ramesh in 2011 said that in Saranda, he was in favour of mining only by the PSU but there was no executive order to back this or grant it legal status.

As the government has issued a slew of mining permits, the minister in interviews to the media asked for a 10-year moratorium on mining in Saranda. “A gap of 10 years will allow the situation to stabilize, will allow building trust among the locals, and allow time to train and educate local people to take advantage of the economic opportunities that mining throws up but there seems to be a desire on the part of the government to allow mining in Saranda,” said Mr Ramesh to The Hindu. There has been no public reaction from the UPA to Mr Ramesh’s suggestion.

No new schools, or health centers

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While in Thalkobad where the secondary school building was blown up by Maoists, Surendra Purti, a high school graduate from the village volunteers to teach teenaged children in the primary school building. He is not paid any wages. The teachers stopped coming long back and the nearest high school is in Manoharpur, 45 kms away. At Tirilposi, the next village 17 kms away, there are 90 school-going children but no building. “CRP sahib broke the roof,” explains village munda Budhram Gudiya.

The SDP’s original outline proposed 10 residential schools. Now, that seems all, but abandoned. “There is a plan to build one ashram school at Manoharpur,” says the recently-posted District Collector Abu Bakr. Mr Ramesh explained the conceptual change in the SDP as both the interiority of the villages and the fact that “education and health are different ministries.”

The plan lists building 10 Integrated Development Centers (IDCs) – each will have a hospital, besides an anganwadi, ration shop, banks – only one has been completed at Digha this April. To improve health services, a mobile health unit has deputed since last October to visit all villages. “The ambulance visits regularly,” say villagers in Thalkobad. But it has not yet been spotted in Tirilposi though a motorable village road exists. In January an eye-health camp was held by a private hospital. “More than a third of over 1000 villagers had pterygium – a painful inflammation which may lead to blindness – because of exposure to mine dust,” said Dr Bharti Kashyap.

There is hectic activity in all villages to build new Indira Awas houses. This March as part of the Jharkhand State Livelihood Promotion Society’s efforts to provide long-term livelihood security, a team of trainers of Self-Help Groups from Andhra Pradesh visited Saranda. The team stayed 15 days in Thalkobad but no meetings have been held since it left. Villagers say they are unsure what to make of their visitors. “They said “hum se judiye”(join us). That is what the party (Maoists) used to say too, and look what followed,” said Binodini Purti. At Tirilposi, villagers explain it differently. “Most families earn Rs 60 a day after selling siali leaves in the market in Barsovan in Odisha. What will we save?” asks Budhram Gudiya. Then there are families in debt to pay legal expenses. Guvida Honhaga (60) among those arrested by CRPF got bail last year after his son Bimal, a mine worker, spent Rs 160000 on legal expenses. “I borrowed Rs 40000 each from four people at 20 per cent interest. Now he is required to go Chaibasa court thrice a month and that costs Rs 900 –a fourth of my salary,” said Bimal Honhaga.

Rubber stamp by gram sabhas

At Manoharpur block office, 40 km away, an official waved a sheet of blank paper with 40 signatures. “This is what the mining firms submit as gram sabha’s consent for mining. They call people to football matches and get them to sign anything,” he says.

Bilarman Kandulna, 25, a political science graduate from a Manoharpur college was elected panchayat representative in Digha in 2010. “Some manki-munda (community leaders) now roam in Scorpio SUVs, but a few boycotted the Electrosteel public hearing for Kudalibad mines last year. Last April, we held demonstrations in the villages. The company then shifted its public hearing in Bahihatu, 20 kms away,” says Kandulna. “What is the use of forest pattas when they give mining leases in the same forest?” he asks. Of 812 claims for individual forest rights, 511 were accepted till April, the rest were rejected as they fell in mining lease areas. Though a significant number of community rights – over 1200 – have been granted under SDP.

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At Jamkundiya at the house of Laguda Devgam, the manki of 22 villages, there is no Scorpio car, but there are three solar street light poles towering on three sides of his house – the only streetlights in the otherwise non-electrified villages in Saranda. They are inscribed as gifts from Rungta Mines Limited, Usha Martin Industries, and Tata Steel.

At Sonapi, one of the six villages that boycotted the public hearing, there is anger. “If anyone comes to your courtyard, something will be disturbed,” said Mary Barla. “We asked for a written commitment that the company will provide health, education, jobs but they did not do it. Instead they shifted the public hearing site. Now they are back again with blankets.”

All photos by Manob Chowdhury.