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New battle zones in India

Posted by Indian Vanguard on September 13, 2007

in Bastar and Dantewada

Projects and policies unveiled in Chhattisgarh suggest a reorganisation of priorities to favour Big Business.


Tribal people who fled their villages fearing attacks on them in the fight between the naxalites and the Salwa Judum take refuge in a relief camp at Konta in Dantewada district.

FINALLY, it was a scrawl in the cryptic shorthand of a court stenographer that almost ruined Sudaram Nag’s monsoon crop. “Sudaram Nag, 50 yrs, Takraguda, Bastar. Section:107.116(b), 03-08-07,” it said, communicating to the 50-year-old rice farmer in the Bastar district of Chhattisgarh that he was hereby summoned to present himself at the Magistrate’s Court on August 3, 2007, to show cause why proceedings should not be initiated against him for a breach of peace under Section 107.116 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).

Since early this year, more than 60 of Sudaram’s neighbours and other residents of the village have spent more time in the courts in Jagadalpur than in tending to their fields and harvests. Their crime: they protested against the rigging of gram sabha hearings initiated to acquire 2,161 hectares of fertile agricultural land for Tata Steel Limited’s greenfield steel plant in the district.

In an instance of truly Orwellian coincidence, the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the Tata steel plant was signed on June 4, 2005, two days after the formal launch of the controversial Salwa Judum programme in the Bastar and Dantewada districts, and marked, in the eyes of many, the point of coalescence of the administration, industry and the security agencies. The State government also signed an MoU with the Essar group the same day.

Meanwhile, the Tata proposal had kicked off a controversy in Raipur, the State capital, with the issue being raised in the Assembly too. Soon after the deal was signed, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led State government refused to share the details, claiming that disclosure was specifically prohibited by a clause in the MoU. It refused to give copies of the MoU to members of the Opposition in the House. The Member of Parliament for the constituency encompassing Lohandiguda – the area earmarked for the project – went on record stating that he had no detailed information about the project.

Copies of the MoU were leaked over a period of months and by the time the documents became easily available a full-scale protest was under way in the 10 villages earmarked for the project.

While the provisions of the MoU, made available to Frontline, do not seem to have any clauses that are particularly exploitative in the context of a steel plant with a captive iron-ore mine; the protests have centred round acquisiti on of land for the plant.

The documents suggest that the plant will require approximately 2,161 hectares of land, close to 90 per cent of which (1,861 hectares) is Adivasi-owned agricultural land and will directly affect around 225 tribal families. The MoU contains no reference to rehabilitation, and residents of the area say that they had to invoke the Right to Information Act to receive a copy of Tata’s rehabilitation package.

“We are not against the project per se,” says H.R. Mandavi, Sarpanch of Takraguda. “However, we are firmly against the forcible acquisition for our land at paltry compensation rates.” According to Mandavi, th e protests began when the district administration and company officials ratcheted up the pressure on the people.

On May 27, 2006, representatives from the 10 villages, organised under the banner of the Prastavit Tata Steel Punarvasi Samiti, presented the district administration with a charter of 13 demands that set the rates of compensation at Rs.5 lakh an acre for unirrigated land and Rs.10 lakh an acre for irrigated land.

They also insisted on a permanent job for at least one member of each nuclear family; a transparent examination and rectification of the district’s land records; and the provision of free high-quality primary and secondary education for all children from the affected families.

The administration responded after two months. On July 20, 2006, the Bastar administration imposed ban orders under Section 144 of the CrPC, threw a security cordon around the area and convened a gram sabha meeting of the tribal panchayat comprising the villages of Takraguda, Kumli, Dhuragaon, Chindgaon, Bhadeparoda and Dabpal.

At the meeting, the District Collector and officials from the Tatas were said to have appealed to the people to give their “consent” to the project. Ban orders were imposed once more on August 3, 2006, when gram sabhas were organised in Belar and Sirisguda villages.

Through the year, the area saw skirmishes between residents and the police, which invariably culminated in cases being foisted on anti-displacement agitation leaders and their detention for short periods of time. Relations between the residents and the administration hit a nadir on February 24, 2007, when residents of Takraguda, Kumli, Dhuragaon, Chindgaon, Bhadeparoda and Dabpal held a gram sabha meeting independent of the District Collector and recorded in the minutes of the meeting their refusal to hand over “any land at any cost”.

For the next three days, the administration imposed a virtual martial law in the area and residents claimed that hundreds of policemen were posted in the six villages. In this period cases of rape and molestation were reported. A complaint filed to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) from residents of the area has testimonies of victims, each one holding policemen responsible for these horrifying acts. The NHRC’s report is yet to be made public.

The administration’s resorting to such tactics could perhaps be explained by the fact that panchayats in Bastar, a designated tribal area, are governed by the Panchayat (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA). The PESA gives tribal panchayats a fair degree of control over their land and requires that all activity involving minor minerals and development projects have the expressed consent of the panchayat. For major development works and major minerals, however, the terrain is uncertain.

State officials that Frontline spoke to said the PESA required that the gram panchayat merely needed to be “consulted” for major projects. Residents, however, refer to legal precedents that state that tribal land cannot be acquired without the express permission of gram sabhas. Since the incident in February, matters have reached an unstable status quo and Sudaram and his neighbours have to still visit the court every other month to mark their presenc e.

The Tata plant in Lohandiguda is not the only site of conflict. A hundred kilometres to the south, in the Dhurli and Bhansi villages in Dantewada district, a similar battle is being played out between the administration and people protesting against land acquisition for the proposed steel plant of the Essar group.

There are, at present, few reliable sources of information on how many people have been displaced in Chhattisgarh over the past few years. The Salwa Judum itself may have been responsible for the displacement of more than 50,000 people from their homes to government-run “camps”. Rumours, bolstered by a stray paragraph in a Collector’s memo in Dantewada, suggest that these makeshift camps may be converted into permanent colonies, making land acquisition across the State much easier.

While that is still to happen, naxal violence and State legislation to counter it have created a situation where all space for opposition has been stifled. “Legal instruments like the Chhattisgarh Special Public Security Act, 2005, have been systematically used by the State government to silence all voices of dissent,” says Ilina Sen, a human rights activist and Professor of Women’s Studies at Mahamata Gandhi University in Wardha.

Her husband, Binayak Sen, a paediatrician and a human rights activist, has been detained since May under the provisions of this Act on the charges of being a covert naxal courier. Ilina Sen believes that the reasons for his arrest and subsequent detention lie in the fact that he had spoken out against the excesses of the Salwa Judum and the State government’s land-acquisition practices.

Activists say that Binayak Sen is not the only one who has been persecuted for speaking his mind. A number of members of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and cadre of parties such as the Communist Party of India (CPI) spoke of how anyone criticising the State government or its policies was branded a naxal and threatened with arrest. Advocate Inder Deo Nag’s is one such case.

“With the Salwa Judum being extended to all districts, Special Police Officers are organising themselves into paramilitary forces,” says Nag, an Adivasi and worker’s rights lawyer based in Sarguja district in North Chhattisgarh. Nag has been fighting for the rights of displaced families and workers at Hindalco, a flagship company of the Aditya Birla Group.

He said that when Hindalco set up its opencast bauxite mine in Sarguja in 1996, the company and the Madhya Pradesh government arrived at an agreement that promised permanent employment to the 100-odd families displaced by the mine. However, to date only three persons have been offered permanent employment; the rest have been forced to find daily-wage employment with subcontractors at the mine. People who opposed the exploitative practices of contractors found their employment terminated immediately and those who persisted were threatened with violence.

Nag said he himself was attacked several times and illegally detained by people who he believed were goons working for the contractors. The most recent incident was on March 24, 2007, when he was kidnapped at gunpoint by one Dheeraj Jaiswal, who happens to be a Special Police Officer under the Salwa Judum programme, and warned against interfering in the “company’s affairs”.

Nag said that by arming anyone ready to join the Salwa Judum, the State government had actually created vigilante groups that hired themselves out to the highest bidder.

Targeting sezs

A review of naxal attacks in Chhattisgarh over the last few months suggests that the extremist group is also striking out against the industrialisation drive in the State. A series of statements released in March by the central committee of the CPI (Maoist) called upon the “oppressed masses” to “turn every Special Economic Zone (SEZ) into a battle zone”.

On May 16, the 40th anniversary of the Naxalbari uprising, a statement released by the CPI(ML) New Democracy demanded the abandonment of the SEZ Act, 2005, on the grounds that it diverted fertile agricultural lands to large multinational firms. Besides issuing statements the naxals have, in recent months, targeted the mining industry for attacks.

On June 2, they destroyed three high-tension transmission towers in the Bastar district, resulting in an 11-day power blackout that, according to industry insiders, crippled mining activity and movement of iron ore in the Bailadila mines. On June 11, naxals attacked the National Mineral Development Corporation (NMDC) complex in Dantewada and burnt over 100 metres of conveyor belts hampering operations for 10 days.

The summer of attacks culminated in a largely successful economic blockade on June 26 and 27 in Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand, orchestrated to protest against the economic policies of the governments at the Centre and in the States.

Chhattisgarh today perhaps presents a microcosm of the choices that the Indian state shall increasingly have to make. While the economy’s growing thirst for minerals and fuels will push mining companies deeper and into lush, ecologically sensitive tribal-owned land, the lack of rehabilitation policies and state insensitivity to those affected by mines can only lead to impoverishment, alienation and, ultimately, violence.

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