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.

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.

Why the land wars won’t end

Most of the acquisitions by the Central government and public sector companies in the country’s resource-rich State are under laws that bypass the new land Bill

Villagers in Tandwa march to the block office to protest land acquisition by Coal India Limited.  The first placard reads "Yeh toh bas jhaanki hai, poori ladai abhi baaki hai". Photo  ByAnumehaY

Villagers in Tandwa march to the block office to protest land acquisition by Coal India Limited. The first placard reads “Yeh toh bas jhaanki hai, poori ladai abhi baaki hai”. Photo by AnumehaY

The UPA has claimed the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement (LARR) Bill 2013 passed by both Houses will reduce forcible acquisition and help tackle Naxalism in mineral-rich areas. But with Coal Bearing Areas Acquisition and Development (CBA) Act 1957, Land Acquisition (Mines) Act 1885, and Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) Act 1948, along with 10 other laws, exempt from the land Bill, the Central government has its own acquisition in mineral-rich areas such as Jharkhand out of the law’s purview.

“Almost 85 to 90 per cent acquisition — over 20,000 acres — is on under these Central laws and for highways and railways, exempt under the land bill. Only around 4,000 acres being acquired for public-private projects and State projects will come under land Bill,” said a senior revenue official.

Jharkhand holds nearly a third of India’s coal, a quarter of its iron-ore, 16 per cent of copper, and is rich in cobalt, bauxite, uranium, manganese, limestone. In a 2009 paper, economist Dr. Ramesh Sharan noted that between 1951 and 1995, industrial and mining projects displaced over 3.34 lakh persons. Massive public resistance against the Koel Karo dam and the army’s field firing range in Netarhat that threatened to displace another three lakh — over 87 per cent of whom were tribal — forced the government to withdraw the projects in the 90s.

The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act enacted in 1908 after the Birsa movement was meant to protect tribal land by restricting sale of Adivasi land to non-Adivasis in 16 of Jharkhand’s 24 districts. But in 1996 it was amended to allow use of tribal land for mining and industry — a provision that will continue under the land Bill. The Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 has provisions allowing the gram sabha to be consulted before acquisition of land in Scheduled Areas for developmental projects. But this was not incorporated in the Jharkhand Panchayat Raj Act 2001, leaving gram sabhas with no effective say in public or private acquisition — a situation that will remain unchanged under the new Bill.

In recent years, several private companies have opted for purchase from farmers and tribals in mineral-rich areas on terms that have sometimes provoked resistance for years afterwards where farmers found themselves cheated by middlemen working for the company. But in instances where the land is purchased and not acquired with the State government’s help, as in the case of public-private projects (PPPs), the provisions of LARR Bill do not apply.

Police firings

Among recent protests against land acquisition, one of the most violent was in Keredari in Hazaribagh, 125 km from Ranchi, where the National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) is acquiring land to mine coal. More than 10,000 families in 23 villages are opposing the acquisition. A section of the villagers have demanded Rs.25 lakh and a job, instead of the Rs.10 lakh and Rs.3,000 annuity offered by NTPC.

On 23 July 2013, when NTPC contractor Pradeep Singh began work on a 0.42-acre plot at Pagar village, over 200 farmers gathered to stop him. Facing hostility, the contractor’s son, Vikas Singh, hit a villager on the head with an axe before calling the police for help. Six policemen arrived and fired eight rounds into the crowd. Fifty-year old farmer Keshar Mahto died on the spot. The bullets injured three others. Villagers surrounded Keshar Mahto’s body at Keredari chowk till midnight, refusing to allow it to be taken away by officials.

Speaking on the land Bill in New Delhi on September 8, Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh referred to the Keredari police firing as an instance of forcible acquisition by PSUs that has worsened conflict in Maoist areas. Ironically, NTPC is acquiring land for mining coal under the CBA Act 1957 and the land Bill will not apply.

According to data submitted by NTPC to the Revenue Department, 82 per cent of the land for NTPC’s coal mining — 5729.36 acres in Keredari, Chattibariatu, North Karanpura, and Pakri Barwadih — is being acquired under the CBA Act, and the rest — 1,255 acres — under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894. Will different rules for consent and rehabilitation then apply in the same project’s affected areas? Will a farmer whose land falls under two projects where different laws apply accept varying compensation?

The Bill sets a base for norms of consent but exempts acquisition by PSUs in its current form. Section 106 (3) of LARR Bill 2013 says that within a year from the commencement of the Act the government may allow LARR’s provisions of rehabilitation to apply even in acquisition under the 13 laws that are currently exempt, though this will be subject to Parliament’s approval. But why has the government decided to wait a year to even consider this?
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“This government hands out Forest Rights with one hand and with the other it orders an industry be built on the same land. It offers 35 kg food grains, and then with the other hand it takes away land which is feeding us,” says Deepak Das (34) a political science graduate who leads the North Karanpura Bachao Samiti and is an accused in four cases related to land acquisition protests in Hazaribagh, including for stealing blankets at a NTPC’s public hearing in 2007.

The Bill has special provisions for land inhabited by SCs, STs; provisions restricting acquisition of land in excess of requirement. It discourages acquisition of multi-crop and irrigated land, and makes consent of 80 per cent of affected persons mandatory. All of these could be especially meaningful in Jharkhand where only 15 per cent of the land supports multi-crop farming but there is no protection to farmers and tribals from such land being acquired.

Intervening in the debate in the Rajya Sabha, Sanjiv Kumar of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Congress’ coalition partner in the State, said if the Bill was implemented in its current form the people of Jharkhand would forgive neither the Congress nor the JMM. He cited how the Steel Authority of India Limited had acquired 34,000 acres for its steel plant in Bokaro — 22,000 acres in excess of its requirement. The land Bill is meant to discourage such imbalances but it will allow PSUs to continue to squat on thousands of acres of land that could be used to resettle displaced persons or to give land to the landless.

Soon after the bill was passed, Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren, speaking at public meetings in Dumka, Ranchi and New Delhi, cited how Coal India Limited (CIL) — the world’s largest coal mining company with revenue of over Rs.62,000 crore — owes Jharkhand government nearly Rs.3,100 crore as rent for 24,372 acres acquired since 1971 in four districts alone.

“These companies have ruined arable land in Jharkhand. They treat it as if it were the bone left after the meat is chewed off. Companies are supposed to fill the land after they have mined ore or coal but they do not do this. That is why land in coal-bearing areas like Dhanbad collapses frequently,” remarked a top official in the State government. Central government subsidiaries such as NTPC and CIL have their own rehabilitation policies but have a poor record inf implementing these. Moreover, such policies are not enforceable in the way that LARR’s provisions will be.

Fresh protests

Villagers in Tandwa in Chatra district protest land acquisition by Coal India Limited and allege that land mafia active in the area are taking over land distributed to them decades ago. Photo AnumehaY

Villagers in Tandwa in Chatra district protest land acquisition by Coal India Limited and allege that land mafia active in the area are taking over land distributed to them decades ago. Photo AnumehaY


One of the massive land acquisitions on in Jharkhand now is by CIL subsidiary Central Coalfields Limited (CCL) for its Magadh-Amrapali-Pachra project in Tandwa in Chatra, central Jharkhand. CCL plans to acquire 17,141 acres of land to triple production from 48 MT annually to 127 MT by 2015.

Tandwa lies by the River Damodar. Land all around the town is pockmarked by coal-mines abandoned by CCL and DVC. On August 26, the Jharkhand High Court directed CCL to remove a causeway it built using coal waste, blocking the river.

On September 19, Adivasi and Mahadalit marginal farmers staged a six-hour protest in Tandwa against CCL’s acquisition. Several of these families cultivate plots of less than one acre in villages around Tandwa on land redistributed after the land ceiling Act. “The neechi jaat [lower castes] are refusing to give up land,” remarked Anita Devi from the trading community in Tandwa as she watched over 500 men and women march to the Block office carrying their traditional weapons and sickles. “This land gives us paddy, corn, gram, vegetables. We will not give it up,” said Birsi Devi, a tribal from Ursoo village.

The land Bill mandates the claims of such marginal and small farmers and tenants be recognised. But as this large-scale acquisition of coal areas too is under CBA, the land Bill will not apply.

This article appeared in The Hindu here. A report on police firing at farmers protesting NTPC’s acquisition in Keredari in Hazaribagh here.

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

Saranda map
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.

Saranda 14(1)

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.

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Tribal farmers detained for protesting land acquistion for Jindal power plant

More than 50 tribal farmers, including women, were detained for over six hours on Tuesday at the Sundarpahari police station in Godda, a kilometre from the venue where President Pranab Mukherjee laid the foundation for a thermal power plant to be set up by Jindal Steel and Power Limited (JSPL).

Farmers from 11 villages in Nimpaniya and Goiarijor blocks said they had gathered in Sundarpahari to oppose land acquisition by the JSPL. At 10 a.m. they were detained by the police and kept in the station premises till evening.

“My family lives in Seemaldhap village in Chota Amarpur. More than 200 of us had gathered at Tiril tola over the last two days because we planned to march to the venue but the police arrested us. I had rice with me for my little daughter but the police kept that away too,” Hopanmai Marandi told this reporter.

“We had already been displaced when the Sunder Dam was built. We will not allow ourselves to be moved from our land again,” said another villager Mary Nisha Hasda.

As part of the JSPL’s expansion plans in Jharkhand, it had announced the setting up of the 1,320-MW captive power plant in Godda at a cost of Rs. 8,500 crore. The plant will use coal from the Jitpur coal black and water from the Sunder Dam and the Gumani and Jalhara rivers.

The JSPL, in a statement, said all land for its projects had been acquired “through the government acquisition route, with consent of the people,” a point the company director and MP Naveen Jindal reiterated at the inauguration ceremony attended by Governor Syed Ahmed, Nishikant Dubey, MP (Godda), and political leaders, including Subodh Kant Sahai, Hemlal Murmu, Devidhan Besra, MP (Rajmahal), senior state officials and pradhans and mukhiyas from seven villages.

None detained: police

Superintendent of Police Ajay Linda denied anyone had been detained. “There was overcrowding at the venue because so many villagers wanted to attend the inauguration function. Then some of them stayed back at the police station which is only a km away,” he said over phone.

Away from the police station, hundreds of policemen and home guards carrying sticks walked around villages. “Only the families in Bangali Tola agreed to sell land to the company, the rest of us have refused. The police have been coming to the village regularly now. All land around this village is my land. Its yield lasts us the whole year; we will not give up this land,” said a woman in Kalhajhar’s Charai Tola.

“My father is in the Nimpaniya panchayat samiti. My family and 30-35 families from my village are ready to sell our land. How else will we move to cities?” said Sujit Kumar, who is home during a break from his training at an industrial training institute.

Tenancy Act

Godda lies in the Santhal Pargana region of Jharkhand. All land transactions are governed by the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act (SPTA) and most of the land is non-transferable and non-saleable, whether owned by tribals or non-tribals. “Because of the Santhal rebellion against the British in 1855 in which 30,000 Santhals died fighting to protect their land, only land classified as Gair Majurwa Khaas (GMK) or land listed as non-agricultural land owned by the government can be transferred. The rest of transfers — except those done as gifts to relatives etc. — are illegal. It is not possible that a power plant will be built only on the GMK land. Despite these norms, officials continue to alienate tribals from land,” said Ramesh Sharan, economist at Ranchi University.

This report appeared in The Hindu here.

Thinking about Baran, December 2010

I got a chance to speak about my experience of reporting on bonded debt among Sahariya tribals in Baran in Rajasthan at May Diwas celebrations organized by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajsamand district in May 2011. MKSS organizes a mela for May Day every year at Bhim in Rajsamand.

285 from Anumeha Yadav on Vimeo.

Roughly translates to: I had first traveled to Kishanganj and Shahbad blocks in Baran in December 2010 after listening to 16 Sahariya agriculture workers at a MKSS dharna in Jaipur for minimum wages in MNREGA. They said they had been in bonded debt since years, in some instances since two to three generations to rich landlords who were charging interests on small loans at rates between 60 to 70 percent. At the time, Rajasthan government ordered that these 16 families be freed of their bonded debt. Two weeks later, the administration handed each of them Rs 1,000 under a centrally-sponsored bonded labour rehabilitation scheme that has not been revised since 1978. But even this instance was not enough to goad the administration into acknowledging the problem. District officials continued to refer to “hali” system as a traditional agriculture practice in Baran and tried to wash their hands off the responsibility for a district-wide survey saying the agriculture workers had migrated from the neighbouring state Madhya Pradesh.

The extent of feudal exploitation in Baran is still unraveling. Since November 2010, more than 165 families have fled landlords’ farms with their families, in some instances walking over 80 kms over two nights to reach Eklera (the village where the first 16 families started work under MNREGA), to demand their bonded debt of years and decades be waived off and they be given their land occupied by the richer farmers. This summer, 40 Sahariya families in Sunda village in Kishanganj set up a community grain bank with assistance from the NGOs Jagrut Mahila Manch and Sankalp pooling the grain they receive under PDS so they do not have to depend on landlords for monthly wheat rations.
(video by my roommate and friend Hannah Pitt:)