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.

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Jharkhand SPOs and their families under attack from Maoists

In response to a Public Interest Litigation, in July 2011, the Supreme Court while asking the State to disband the Salwa Judum, ordered the Chhattisgarh government to desist from using SPOs in countering the Maoists. Following the July order, the recruitment of SPOs in Jharkhand too was briefly paused, but resumed after a Bench of Justices Altamas Kabir and SS Nijjar in November said the July order applied only to Chhattisgarh, not to other States. Jharkhand has a sanctioned strength of 6,400 SPOs, though senior police officials put the current number at 3,000. Police officials cite the State Police Acts to justify use of SPOs.

A squad of CPI(Maoist) on March 21 night opened fire at a social gathering in Khunti, 30 km from Ranchi injuring two villagers and set fire to a jeep. The tribal villagers said they suspected the rebels targeted the family and friends of Raila Dhingra Munda for his work as a Special Police Officer (SPO) gathering intelligence for the Khunti district police. Before this, Mohammad Sajjad, a 30-year old SPO had lost his right leg while assisting Assistant Superintendent of Police (Operations), R.S. Mishra defuse an Improvised Explosive Device in Chatra last week.

Mara Munda, 20, whose older brother Raila is a Special Police Officer (SPO) in Khunti and his father Sande Munda after Mara was treated for a bullet injury at RIMS hospital on Saturday. Photo by Manob Chowdhury.

Mara Munda, 20, whose older brother Raila is a Special Police Officer (SPO) in Khunti and his father Sande Munda after Mara was treated for a bullet injury at RIMS hospital on Saturday. Photo by Manob Chowdhury.

On Saturday, Mara Munda, Raila’s younger brother who had been shot in his right thigh and had fractured his bone lay in Rajendra Institute of Medical Institute, Ranchi’s orthopedic intensive care ward.
“We had invited more than 400 villagers to celebrate the “kaan chhedni” (ear piercing) ceremonies of both my sisters. At 8 30 pm I stepped out of our courtyard and heard a gun-shot. The next moment I had fallen. There was panic as everyone tried to flee, I cried out for my friends to pull my body inside the house or I would have died,” recounted the 20-year old with effort as his father Sande Munda who spoke only in Mundari looked on.

The Maoists had killed his oldest brother Rupu Munda who also worked as a SPO in a market in Adki in 2010, he said. He said the rebels numbered around sixty, and after shooting at him and his neighbour Birsa Munda, 40, in their legs, they had set fire to a Tata Magic jeep that Mara had started been renting to ferry passengers from the village to Khunti town since four months back. “They set fire to the soundbox (speakers) too before they left,” he said.
Mara’s older brother Raila, who works as a SPO, was away in Khunti when the incident happened. The family’s neighbours first brought the injured to Khunti Sadar Hospital, and then to Ranchi in the morning.

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Villagers in Hembrom in Adki block said the police had not even visited the village since Friday night, going no further than a concrete road 500 meters from the village. District police officials said the investigations were on.“Our search operations are on for the Maoists,” said Khunti’s Superintendent of Police Anish Gupta.

Raila Munda, Mara’s brother said he had started working as a SPO in 2008. “I finished matric exams and started working for the police because the Maoists had terrorized our entire village, coercing us. The police officers, the previous Sps Manoj Kaushik, Tamilvanan paid me Rs 3000 or so every three months for information. The Maoists killed my older brother in 2010 and now they did this while searching for me, and the police did nnot even visit my house yet,” said Raila Munda on the phone from Khunti.

Since 2010, Maoists have killed at least 16 persons in Adki and Tamar in Khunti and the adjoining area Bundu in Ranchi targeting them for acting as SPOs for the police.
This report in The Hindu here.

A previous post on Maoists’ violence against SPOs and their families in Khunti here.

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.

Adivasis’ dangerous journey into the urban jungle

Last month two 14-year-old adivasi girls, who had migrated from Khunti district to work in Delhi as domestic help, were found dead in mysterious circumstances, both within two days of each other.

On April 19, Jyoti Mariyam Hora died soon after she was brought to the Madan Mohan Malviya Hospital in Delhi’s Malviya Nagar. Two days later, Dayamani Guriya, who had studied with Jyoti till class VI and had migrated to Delhi with her, died in mysterious circumstances at the Ranchi railway station when she was being sent back to her village in Torpa in Khunti with police’s intervention.

The Delhi Police have arrested one Chandumani, who had brought the two girls to Delhi. “We are waiting for a second autopsy report to verify if Dayamani was poisoned. Jyoti’s family members have left Khunti accompanied by a police team to bring Jyoti’s body back,” said Superintendent of Police, Khunti, M. Tamilvanan.

The two incidents are the tip of the crisis unfolding in several adivasi homes across Jharkhand, where hardly a week goes by without reports of children and youth, especially girls and women, missing or rescued from metropolitan cities.

There are 14 children from villages of Murhu block alone in Khunti. In March, Miti Purti (name changed) of Kotha Toli, Khunti, returned from Delhi with a debilitating skin infection, earning Rs. 27,000 after working seven years in Delhi. Mani Dondray, 15, worked in Delhi for seven months but had to return after she contracted TB and became severely underweight.

Sumi who fled from the house she worked at in Delhi and returned to Jharkhand in November 2012.  Photo by Anumeha Yadav

Sumi who fled from the house she worked at in Delhi and returned to Jharkhand in November 2012. Photo by Anumeha Yadav

Missing children

On a clear evening in March, as dusk fell, Dayakishore Tirkey, a tall farmer in his late 40s, waited patiently for his turn to speak to police officials at the Mahuatarnd police station. Two days back, he had got word for the for the first time since, three years ago, his 15-year-old daughter Supriya had left their home in Guera village in Jharkhand’s Latehar district to find work in Delhi.

“We got information from Delhi about a girl who is from Guera village. Her name is different from her given name but we made her talk to Dayakishore on the phone and they both recognised each other. Now we will arrange for him to go to Delhi to identify and get her back,” said Mahuatarnd Station House Officer (SHO) Anil Kumar Singh.

This is the third instance since January where the SHO has had to act on information from Delhi about adivasi girls reported missing and found or rescued through police raids at placement agencies’ offices in Delhi. “The adivasi girls educated in missionary schools are well-educated, but the poorer families’ children in government schools frequently drop out by class VI or VII and leave to work in cities. These adivasi families do not have the tradition of keeping in touch with or keeping watch over their daughters. The police have to routinely bring them back and try to get them their unpaid wages from placement agencies in Delhi,” he said.

Tirkey, who owns a small plot of land in Guera, says he worked a few years as a tailor in the army. “When Supriya asked me if she could go to Delhi with Dominica Minj, a woman from the nearby village, I had said no. I have worked in Delhi, Rajasthan and U.P. and know what cities are like. But she told her mother and left,” he spoke outside the police station.

The next morning, he left for Latehar, the district headquarters 140 km away, from where he would board a train to Delhi with a change of clothes and Rs. 210 — all the money he could manage.

More mysterious deaths

The same week that Tirkey boarded a train to Delhi, in Chekma, the adjoining village Manju Lakda, in her early 20s, came home to receive her younger sister Shanti’s body sent in an ambulance from Delhi.

“My brother, who is studying in Uttarakhand, youngest sister, who also worked as a domestic help in Delhi, and Sunita the younger sister of Dominica Minj who had first taken my sister to Delhi four years — brought Shanti’s body back. Dominica and Shanti called and tried to mislead me on the phone. At first they told us the wrong hospital’s name and to the police who had come to the hospital after my sister died they said they did not know whose body it is,” she recalled. “It took my brother and sister two days to find Shanti’s body in the mortuary. They saw marks of vomit-like substance on her face,” said Manju who is training to be Auxiliary Nurse Midwife (ANM) in Visakhapatnam. The family is still awaiting the final autopsy report from Maulana Azad Medical College, Delhi, to make sense of Shanti’s mysterious death.

A mobile phone — which the family has put in a plastic bag and hung on a tall stick at their door to be able to receive better phone signal — rings and Manju gets up to answer it. “The phone does not always work but Shanti would call once in three months or so. She said she got Rs. 3,000 as wages but I am not sure if she got the salary or the placement agency. She had left after she finished IX with Dominica from our village. Two years back she called and said she was unwell and we should come to Daltonganj station to receive her. She had contracted TB in Delhi. She stayed home a year. My husband works for the mission here and we got her fully treated. Then she left for Delhi again with her younger sister and worked in a house in Kashmiri Gate,” says Manju’s mother Sabhani Khaka. The family says Dominca Minj has threatened them for pursuing the case legally. “She is close to the parties [splinter Maoist groups active in Latehar] and says she will get our family members abducted,” said Shanti’s kin.

Minj, who was in Chekma to visit her father, denied the allegations. “I had taken seven girls including Shanti once to a placement agency run by Mahendra Singh in Naraina Vihar in Delhi. I got Rs. 6,000 per girl. But the girls get money too and wanted to go on their own,” she said. No complaint or FIR has been registered yet in Latehar.

Read the full report in The Hindu here. In October the same year, a Santhali girl in her late teens was rescued from the house of Vandana Dheer, a MNC employee, in Vasant Kunj in Delhi with evidence of torture and beatings. Two reports from her home in Sahebganj in Jharkhand here and here.

When public health schemes turn anaemic

Since 2010 when the central government discontinued the supply of medical kits containing Iron Folic Acid, vitamin A, zinc tablets and Oral Rehydration Solution packets under National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) to states, village anganwadis and health centers have turned anaemic pregnant women and adoloscent girls away.

These are essential for reducing anaemia and birth defects which affect 69.5 percent women and girls between 15 and 49 and over 70 percent of all children below five in Jharkhand – the highest levels of anaemia according to National Family Health Survey 2 and 3 done in 1999 and 2006.

“There are eight pregnant women and several adolescent girls in the village but we do not have any stocks of tablets,” says Rukmini Devi, the anganwadi sevika in Bhandara. Photo by Manob Chowdhury

“There are eight pregnant women and several adolescent girls in the village but we do not have any stocks of tablets,” says Rukmini Devi, the anganwadi sevika in Bhandara. Photo by Manob Chowdhury

Over six lakhs, or nearly 12 percent, of children below six years of age in Jharkhand suffer from severe malnutrition. Children born underweight due to anaemia among women is a significant factor. Under a central scheme, 100 IFA tablets are to be given all pregnant women and weekly IFA supplements are to be provided to all adolescent girls between 16 and 19 years of age. Recently, adolescent boys have also been included in the scheme.

“District civil surgeons were asked to procure this but some bought expensive non-generic IFA tablets and exhausted funds. A month back the tender process was completed and now those will soon be supplied to all districts,” said Dr Praveen Chandra, Director NRHM in Ranchi. In 2011, former health minister Bhanu Pratap Shahi, former health secretary Pradeep Kumar and other department officers were named as accused in a Rs 130-crore NRHM scam related to purchase of medicines. The CBI is now investigating the case.

The state Social Welfare, Women and Child Development (SWWCD) website shows a budget of Rs 2.53 crores for purchase of “medicine kits” but officials in Ranchi say this meant only for purchase of first-aid. The department launched the Rs 70 crores Jeevan Asha program last month with focus on reducing malnutrition but this too does not have a component especially for IFA tablets.

At Khunti

More than two years after she gave birth to her youngest daughter, Shanti Oraon, an adivasi farmer in Bhandara village in Khunti district has been unable to resume working in the fields. “She has breathing trouble, and could not start walking even after she turned two and a half years old. I must stay at home with her all the time,” she says of her infant daughter lying wrapped in a bedsheet on the floor. Across the road from Shanti Oraon’s house, Pooja Devi watches her one-year-old play with a plastic bangle in her mouth. “She weighed less than three kgs when she was born. She falls ill often even now,” she says.

Bhandara lies a little over 30 kms from Ranchi, the state capital, and is on the outskirts of Khunti’s district center and market. Despite good connectivity with roads and easy accessibility, Bhandara and the adjoining villages Belahatu and Chikor have not received supplies of IFA since 2009.

Shanti Oraon recounts that during her four pregnancies she received IFA tablets, each costs less than 20 paise, only before the birth of her second child more than four years ago but none before the birth of three of her children. “There are eight pregnant women and several adolescent girls in the village but we do not have any stocks of tablets to give them,” said Rukmini Devi, the anganwadi sevika in Bhandara as she prepared a meal of rice and soyabean nuggets for the seven children below six years of age who turned up for lunch that afternoon from among the 89 enrolled as per the anganwadi charts.

“Over 3/4thd of girls between 15 and 19 are not in schools so there must be focus on how to reach them. In our surveys we have found that even when pregnant women get IFA tablets there are beliefs that these tablets can make your child darker – because the iron tablets can make the stool darker. Encouraging women to take tablets will require regular counseling,” said Job Zachariah, Head UNICEF Jharkhand.

Read the full story in The Hindu here.