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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Jharkhand Special Police Officers become the target of Maoists

In July 2011, when the Supreme Court asked the Chhattisgarh government to disband the Salwa Judum and to desist from using SPOs in any manner in countering Maoist activities, the recruitment of SPOs in Jharkhand too was paused briefly.

It was resumed in November after a Bench of Justice Altamas Kabir and S.S. Nijjar said the July order applied only to Chhattisgarh. The process of recruitment has since continued. Jharkhand has a sanctioned strength of 6,400 SPOs, though officials put the current number at 3,000.

“Ranchi and Khunti witness high levels of retribution killings because of the presence of Maoists- breakaway factions like People’s Liberation Front of India, Village Republican Guard of India here. Some SPOs begin to play off one group against the other,” said a senior police official.

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Late at night on April 30, worshippers in the Raja Rani temple in Naurhi village in Adki, 40 km from Ranchi, were still singing, chanting celebrating the new temple in their village. At midnight a group of CPI (Maoists) entered the temple and made straight to the Durga temple, where Dilip Acharya, the oldest of the three brothers who built the temple, lay asleep on the floor. They shot Acharya in his sleep and used the prayer-microphone to address the panic-stricken crowd. A few Maoists then went outside the temple and after a short chase, shot Laxmikant Manjhi, Naurhi’s postmaster and Dilip Acharya’s childhood friend.

“It will be the rest of us next,” said Dilip’s younger brother Randeep Acharya a tall man in his early 40s, anxiously pacing the room in his two-storey house on the outskirts of Khunti. “For years we helped the police fight the Maoists but now things seem difficult because the police have abandoned us,” said Randeep who, like Dilip, worked as a Special Police Officer (SPO) for Jharkhand police till 2012.

Read the full report in The Hindu here.

Caste and the Maoists

On March 29, in one of the worst setbacks the Maoists have suffered in Jharkhand in recent months, cadres of the Tritiya Prastuti Committee (TPC), a splinter group of the banned CPI (Maoist), killed 10 Maoists after a gun battle that lasted over 10 hours at Lakarmanda village, 17 km from Kunda, where the Maoists had stopped en route to Gaya. The TPC took 25 Maoists hostage for four days in the Sarengdah and Kunda panchayats in Chatra district and released them after sending off photos to the press of the captured Maoists.

“We kept the hostages in a village school. We have released 12 cadres and some of their families came to take them from Chatra and Bihar. We kept 13 back. This is our area and the Maoists cannot enter it,” said a close aide of TPC founder Brajesh Ganju in Sarengdah. Another member said they had reports that the police had since arrested two of the 12 Maoists released by the TPC on Tuesday. But the police denied the claim.

“The Maoists are ugravaadi [militants]. The TPC has resolved to finish off Maoist militancy here. We have no enmity with the police or paramilitary forces, we will support them against Maoists,” said Mr. Ganju’s aide.

In a statement, the Maoists alleged that the police and their “vigilante group” TPC had cooperated in carrying out the operation. “We resolve to avenge the death of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army martyrs,” Bihar Jharkhand North Chhattisgarh Special Area Committee spokesperson Gopal said, calling a Bihar-Jharkhand bandh for April 6 and 7.

Caste clashes

The TPC was founded in 2001 in Chatra by Brajesh Ganju, a Dalit, who had left the Maoists Communist Centre (MCC), citing the dominance of Yadavs in the party leadership and discrimination against Dalits. The TPC, which has cadres from Dalit communities including Ganju, Turi and Bokta, is active in parts of Chatra, Palamu, Latehar, Ranchi and Hazaribagh districts in Jharkhand and parts of West Bengal.

“Caste is not the main factor anymore. Initially the feeling was that gains and funds were going to one caste group though everyone worked equally hard. But we have cadres from all castes, including Yadavs,” said a supporter in Chatra, a Dalit, who has helped the group with logistics since its inception and now works as a contractor building the panchayat bhavan building in the area.

While officials had denied taking TPC support in the operation against Maoists in Chatra, deep inside the forest at Lakarmanda in Kunda eyewitnesses said they watched TPC men handing bodies of the Maoists to the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) troopers who arrived in their village on Thursday morning.

Read the full story here

‘We were used as human shields in Latehar against Maoists’

Adivasi villagers at Amvatikar have accused the CRPF of beating them and using them as shields as they were forced to search for security personnel’s bodies in the Katiya forest in Latehar district on January 8. Eleven security personnel were killed in an encounter with Maoists on January 7.

Fifteen security personnel – four were yet to gain consciousness – were treated for bullet wounds at Apollo Hospital in Erba on the outskirts of Ranchi.

Vijay Turi, a farmer from Amvatikar village in Latehar district was also being treated at the hospital for injuries in his eyes, on his face and hands. He is the only one among five villagers to have survived when an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) stitched into the abdomen of Baijnath Kisku of CRPF’S 112 Battalion went off on Tuesday when they tried to lift the body as part of the police’s search party. An IED, consisting of gelatin sticks, detonator and battery in a container, found inside the body of a second CRPF jawan from 112 Battalion, Babulal Patel, was defused on Thursday morning when doctors doing an autopsy in Ranchi had noticed fresh stitches on Mr. Patel’s abdomen and alerted the police.

“There were 500-600 policemen all over the area. They came to our village on Tuesday morning and asked us for our help. They did not use any force against us, but it seemed there was no option but to go,” recounted Vijay Turi, speaking with difficulty through the bandages on his face. “Almost 100 of us, including many women and children, went as search party from my village and from Navadi village. In fact, there were more women than men. We took children because we thought we will be safe from the police doing anything to us if we take them with us. Ten of us at the front and got injured the most from the blast,” he said.

Villagers alleged CRPF demolished the house of Babulal Bhuian accusing his son to be a Maoist. (640x480)

At Nawadih and Amvatikar, villagers say the police used force

“The policemen made us walk to the hill and then they held some men in the front by the back of their neck; they held a gun to Ganu, my niece’s son,” said Bimli Devi. Ganu (16) had walked a few steps up the Bhaluwahi hill and was bending over the jawan’s body when the blast took place. Only the lower half of his body was recovered on Tuesday evening. He was the youngest among the four villagers who died.

“On Monday, we heard gunshots all day,” said Rajkumar Bhuian (70). “My older son Jogeshwar asked his wife and five sons to leave for Manika town with my younger son Suneshwar. On Tuesday, I was in the forest grazing cow and found out only in the evening that the police had taken Jogeshwar to search for the bodies. I found only his gamchha (small towel), his chappal, and three ribs.”

‘I found bones, and his scarf’ from Anumeha Yadav on Vimeo.

Nawadih, Amvatikar, Chahal villages became the site of a confrontation between the security personnel and the PLGA in a chase that began near Gaya in Bihar on December 9, when companies of the PLGA’s military commission, led by their leader Arvind ji, started moving south of Gaya for Saranda forest in West Singhbhum in Jharkhand. Senior police officials supervising Operation Saamna say the CRPF intercepted the PLGA on Jharkhand’s border with Bengal and Odisha. The PLGA then headed north-west to reach Latehar in early January.

When the CRPF and the PLGA started exchanging fire a few 100 metres from Amvatikar in the morning on January 7, most villagers were at the bal samagam, where hockey matches and races were organised at the government school in Nawadih for children. “We heard shots all day. Next day, Pramod Sau from our village said I would have to bring my tractor to the police to carry bodies from Nawadih to Heregerha station. Some villagers were asked to sprinkle water on the school playground so that a helicopter could land there, other villagers, including women, were asked to walk to the forest to search for the jawans’ bodies,” said Mithilesh Sau. Five hours later, a blast occurred when villagers tried to lift a jawan’s body, killing four. “After that, the CRPF men abused me and asked me to look for the villagers’ bodies. I was scared to climb the hill. I spotted Pramod Sau lying with his face bleeding and carried him back,” he added.

In a handwritten note signed by Bihar Jharkhand North Chhattisgarh Special Area Military Mission spokesperson Toofan, Maoists said they had sewn a time-bomb inside the trooper’s body to maximize casualty among security forces.

The report from the the hospital in The Hindu. Detailed report from Amvatikar and Nawadih in which villagers alleged they were used as human shields here. Villagers were unable to resume their lives and work days after the encounter. A later, 24 Jan report here.

Alleging assault by CRPF jawans, Jharkhand tribals stage protests

Two separate incidents of alleged assault on village women by Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans have triggered a spate of protests in the adjoining districts of West and East Singhbhum – both districts are, according to the Central Government, among districts worst affected by Left Wing Extremism. In both areas, villagers and tribal leaders have renewed their demand for removal of the CRPF camps. Senior CRPF and police officials said enquiries were on against the accused jawans, but termed the demands politically motivated.

On September 24, Sumati Gop (19) (name changed) accused a jawan of Battalion 174 of attempting to assault her when she had gone to bathe in a stream in Salihatu village in Chaibasa in West Singhbhum. Two days later, a 15-year-old girl in Pathragoda village near Musabani in East Singhbhum accused three CRPF jawans of 193 Battalion of forcing her to strip, after which they took photographs and a video.

The full report appeared on October 8, 2012 here

In Jharkhand, entire hamlets wait for ration cards

Bhojan Adhikaar Yatra, a campaign demanding a comprehensive food security Bill, reached Jamshedpur on Tuesday after traveling through Bihar, Chhattisgarh and West Bengal.

In 2009, the Jharkhand Government reduced the price of rice to Re.1/kg and entitled families with Antyodaya cards to get rice for free. But the distribution of Below Poverty Line (BPL) cards continues to be based on a survey by the Bihar Government 15 years ago, and many poor families are still excluded from PDS. The Government did a fresh survey last year, but the date for issuing fresh ration cards based on this survey had been shifted thrice this year.

In districts adjoining Ranchi, including East Singhbhum and Lohardaga, which are among 35 districts most affected by Left Wing Extremism and have been identified by the Central Government for “focused development,” a majority of villagers still don’t have ration cards.

“Even one family doesn’t have a ration card. They did a survey in our village last year, but none of us got a ration card,” said Kanhu Hembrom, Gram Pradhan of Musabani, a hamlet of 70 households adjoining the CRPF Battalion 193 camp at Ghatshila in East Singhbhum. At Kekrang village in Lohardaga district, parts of which lie in the hills and are accessible only on foot, only 20 out of 110 households have a ration card. Nagesiya says he migrated to work in a brick kiln in Tripura for one year, but returned when he earned only Rs. 6,000 after working for eight months. In a 2011 survey — done by economist Reetika Khera, who supports the RTF campaign and teaches at the Department of Humanities & Social Sciences of IIT-Delhi — in the districts of Dumka and undivided Ranchi, only 25 per cent of households surveyed said they were getting their full PDS entitlement. More than a quarter of the households reported that one family member missed meals in the previous three months, and 12 per cent said that they hadn’t consumed daal even once the previous week.

Read the full report here.