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Land Nor Freedom

By Javed Iqbal

28 August, 2010
Moon Chasing Blog

‘Nahi denge zameen!’ (we won’t give our land) – said one villager of Lohandiguda, as over 150 villagers – Sarpanches and ward members with their families, stood up, and walked out of the meeting with government officials on the 12th of May of this year. In 2005, the villagers in Lohandiguda didn’t even know their land was up for acquisition by Tata Steel – they learnt about it after they read the newspapers.

Villagers from Lohandiguda walk out of a meeting held with government officials on the 12th of May, 2010.

It is a known fact that the Adivasis have existed long before there was any idea of India. And there are estimates that there has been more displacement by development projects in India than by the Partition, and a majority of the displaced have been Adivasis.

It’s therefore not surprising that the Maoists don’t believe that India has attained independence. In a school in the liberated-zones of Dantewada, a lone poster of Chandrashekar Azad remains, there’s no sign of Gandhi or Nehru. In the Red Corridor, the Maoist squads go to schools in the middle of their Independence Day celebrations, remove the tricolour, holster up a black flag, distribute sweets or biscuits to the children and leave.

63 years after independence, the history of the tribals in Independent India has been wrought by promises never kept.

In 1955, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had addressed an All India Conference of Tribes in Jagdalpur, Bastar District of Chhattisgarh (Then Madhya Pradesh) and had said: ‘Wherever you live, you should live in your own way. This is what I want you to decide yourselves. How would you like to live? Your old customs and habits are good. We want that they should survive but at the same time we want that you should be educated and should do your part in the welfare of the country.’

Today, Rights guaranteed to the tribals by the constitution, embodied in the PESA are floundered routinely all across the Fifth Schedule areas. The PESA enables the adivasis to govern themselves through Gram Sabhas, and the state has no right to acquire lands, nor dish out mining leases without the permission of the Gram Sabhas. Yet the State of Chhattisgarh, is using a ‘Colonial-era law’, the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, to acquire lands.

‘They asked us to hold a Gram Sabhas and there was police everywhere.’ Said one of the village-leaders of Sirisguda, in a meeting with the Express a few days ago, ‘And yet we said no to Tata!’

Nevertheless, the next day, all the local newspapers were reporting that the villagers of Lohandiguda had accepted Tata’s plan for acquisition. This pattern would repeat itself regularly throughout the years. A public hearing would be held, the villagers would say no, and the local press would print their assent.

‘We always say no! And you write yes!’ they screamed at the press at Lohandiguda.

Today, the discrepancies in numerous Gram Sabha resolutions and public hearings held in Chhattisgarh rarely find any report in the Chhattisgarh press, nor the national press, but only in a citizen-run initiative called CGNet Swara.

CGnet Swara is an innovative audio-based news service. One simply has to call 08041137280 from their mobile phones, and can either press 1 to record news, or 2 to listen to the news. After some cross-checking, the moderators release the recordings, which include reports on public rallies, discrepancies in the PDS, water issues, medical issues, arrests of activists, fake encounters, child labour issues, anti-liquor campaign issues, and every issue governing adivasi and village life.

Yet they have been particularly useful in bypassing a compromised local press and giving grass-root reports about public hearings. For instance, a public hearing held on the 5th of May, this year in Dantewada district, regarding the NMDC in Kirandul, was considered fraudulent as many of the villages who’d be directly affected by the project weren’t even present during the hearing.

‘The public hearing was held 50 kilometres away from the affected villages, and the people at the hearing were contractors and other lackeys of the NMDC.’ Said a news report from CGNet Swara, in Hindi.

Similarly, another public hearing was held in Raigarh district in Chhattisgarh on the 3rd of July organized by Hind Multiservices for a 15,000 TPA Ferro Alloy Plant, where the affected villagers weren’t even informed of the hearing.

‘Only 32 people showed up, mostly activists, and it is safe to say, there are no affected villagers here because they were not informed. This whole hearing was a farce.’ Said another news report from CGnet Swara.

Each report from CGnet Swara explicitly begins to highlight the muted voice of the adivasis in their own fate, whether it is the public hearing or the Gram Sabha. And this brings us to an interesting Censored Chapter.

The Censored Chapter

A recent study by the Institute of Rural Management, commissioned by the Panchayat Raj Ministry, on the functioning of Panchayat Raj highlighted the violations in the Panchayat (Extension to Schedule Areas) act, or PESA. To quote:

‘The central Land Acquisition Act of 1894 has till date not been amended to bring it in line with the provisions of PESA and to recognize the Gram Sabha, while a newer bill meant to replace it is yet to be tabled in parliament. At the moment, this colonial-era law is being widely misused on the ground to forcibly acquire individual and community land for private industry.’

‘In several cases, the practice of the state government is to sign high profile MOUs with corporate houses (Government of Jharkhand 2008 and IANS, 2010), and then proceed to deploy the Acquisition Act to ostensibly acquire the land for the state industrial corporation. This body then simply leases the land to the private corporation – a complete travesty of the term ‘acquisition for a public purpose’, as sanctioned by the act.’

‘In some cases, administrations run through the motions of a PESA consultation, but in no instance has the opposition expressed by tribal communities to acquisition of their land resulted in a plan for industry being halted, suggesting the disempowerment of the Gram Sabha.’

There was no surprise that the chapter, aptly titled, ‘PESA, Left-Wing Extremism and Governance: Concerns and Challenges in India’s Tribal Districts’ was entirely taken out of the final report released by the government, for it is a damning indictment of the state’s pro-industrial policies. The report even goes on to mention, that the growing strength of the Maoist movement in central India is inextricably linked to the government’s ‘exclusionary’ policies:

‘Some analysts read the resurgence and spread of left-wing extremism as a phenomenon of tribal self-assertion. They point to the co-incidence in the rise of economic reforms and the deepening of the Maoist movement in India’s polity, the latter being a retort to the exclusionary nature of these policies. According to one senior politician, ‘If the state is neglectful and oppressive, as it has been, it provides the water in which the guerilla fish swim.’ Another senior politician seconded, ‘PESA has not yet been honestly implemented in a single district yet. If it is, we will solve the Naxal problem.’

Lohandiguda also finds mention in the censored chapter of the PESA report.

‘Resident Mahangu Madiya has Rs 55 lakh in his account, but does not even own a mobile phone. He has no use for most such material possessions. Or even this significant sum of money, which he has not touched since it landed in a bank account this January as ‘compensation’ given by the state, in return for acquiring his 35-acre farm for a proposed steel plant. “I am concerned with farming. My land is important to me. What will I do with this money?” asked the middle-aged farmer’.

Eventually, resistance to the land grab began to accentuate. The Communist Party of India had no influence in Lohandiguda before Tata showed up. They only found footing as they’re openly anti-displacement and anti-corporate land grab. Both the BJP and Congress have supported Tata’s project, but today only CPI party workers, or those explicitly anti-displacement work in Lohandiguda.

‘I remember telling people, that we need to protest first, we need to organize ourselves first, and then only will people come and support us.’ Said Advocate Girju Kashyap, who at some point, was also detained by the police and prevented to appear in court.

Most of his clients are villagers from Lohandiguda with cases slapped against them.

Yet even the CPI has not been able to hold off Tata’s project, and there is a severe sense of frustration with the villagers of Lohandiguda.

The Meeting

Lohandiguda is far from the theatre of war at first sight. Yet there’s a permeable tension that everything shall burn. On the 11th of May, the Naib Tehsildar of Lohandiguda PR Marghya had began a ‘bhoomi puja’ (inauguration ceremony) near the proposed project site for Tata’s steel plant, at Dhuragaon village. A few villagers of Lohandiguda would then beat him up, mistakenly believing, he was commencing with Tata’s project on their land.

The next day the administration decided to talk to ward members and Sarpanches of all the villages of Lohandiguda.

They had asked them to come at three in the afternoon.

On that afternoon, the villagers at Tarkeguda weren’t interesting in attending the meeting. They were busy with a family dispute. A forty-year old lady was being screamed at by her husband and her 20 year old son, as some twenty other villagers sat around them.

Hidmo Ram Mandavi, one of the leaders of Tarkaguda, was almost dismissive of the meeting with the government.

Meanwhile, the story of the family dispute would come to light. The Mother-Wife had apparently gotten drunk and slept with a man half her age.

At some point, her son charged at her in a fit of rage. His mother would scream back at him, asserting her rights. Eventually, she would leave with her young toy boy. Her family screaming at her to never come back.

That’s two more tribals out of Lohandiguda.

Yet eventually the meeting (that the villagers of Tarkeguda didn’t care for) commenced at five in the evening. The Superintendent of Police, the Collectorate and members of the local press arrived to meet villagers who had been waiting for two hours.

Machinegunned policemen spread across the area, surrounding the villagers.

The meeting commenced as the Upper-Collector Fulsingh Netaam stands up and speaks politely to the villagers. He started by speaking about everything the administration has done for the people and how much more they will be doing. The reaction is lukewarm. No one is interested.

‘We will give you land for land,’ he finally said.

‘Where is that land?’ Asked one villager loudly, ‘Show us the land.’

‘It’s there. Don’t worry.’

The meeting only lasted some two minutes after that. One man screams ‘nahi denge zameen’ (we won’t give our land) and the villagers got up raising their fists, screaming at the Collector, the Superintendent of Police and every other official. An old lady with a baby tied to her chest, stood before all the officials, screamed vociferously, gestured violently and then only walked away.

The police videographed every loud protestor, every violent gesture, and eventually they all drove away.

Meanwhile, the local administration claims that out of the 1707 affected families, 1163 families have already accepted compensation. When asked about alternative land, the Upper-Collector responded, ‘we are ready to give land, but they don’t come to us.’

Many villagers still allege deceit and corruption, and the intimidation and arrests of village leaders who opposed Tata, some of whom were all forced to sign blank sheets of paper.

The most effective tactic employed was however, distrust – turning family members against family members, villagers against villagers.

‘Whoever took Tata’s money should be thrown out of the villages.’ Said an elder from Sirisguda.

Yet many people in Lohandiguda, have refused to withdraw the money that was put into their bank accounts. And no one knows who withdrew their money, and who didn’t. Everyone suspects the other village of accepting compensation, and the other home of taking money.

‘Some people went and took Tata’s money, and spent it, and now they’re back.’ Said the village elder, ‘It’s because of them, things are like this. Some people had to get greedy.’

This article appears in The New Indian Express on the 22nd of August, 2010.