Bastar: Gravest Displacement… Bravest Resistance

Sudha Bhardwaj

Why this essay?

I don’t live in Bastar, and I am not an adivasi.

But I have been active in the working class movement of Chhattisgarh for the past 22 years, a movement that became legendary under the charismatic leadership of Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi. And I strongly feel that understanding what is happening in Bastar today is of the greatest significance not only to us in Chhattisgarh, but to all those who want to understand the imperialist onslaught and corporate land grab, particularly in the resource-rich adivasi areas; for all those involved nation-wide in the anti-displacement movement which is day on day becoming a fierce life-and-death struggle against all odds; and in fact for all of us in the peoples’ movements who are faced with the abysmally criminal failure of democratic institutions and shrinking democratic spaces on the one hand, and growing repression on the other.

Justice Krishna Iyer, in a speech delivered in the memory of Com. Niyogi said that ‘he tried boldly and bravely to bring the Constitution to life for lakhs of miners and contract labourers’. Com. Niyogi was murdered on 28th September 1991 within a fortnight of his petitioning the highest constitutional authority of this land, the President of India. The industrialists convicted for his murder by the Sessions Court of Durg were acquitted by the High Court and Supreme Court. The thousands of workers of Bhilai, for whose cause he laid down his life, are still out of work, their cases pending in the High Court. The last essay he wrote, with an uncharacteristic urgency, was ‘Rajeev Gandhi Ki Hatya Kyon?’ (‘Why was Rajiv Gandhi murdered?’) in which he forcefully argued that now ‘only those persons will occupy the seats of power, whom the multinationals favour’. At that time, in May 1991, his article seemed to many, to be exaggerated or the usual leftist conspiracy theory. Now we know, it was prophetic.

In the numerous industrial areas across Chhattisgarh today, the very blood of young contract labourers is being sucked as they labour for 12-14 hours, for far less than minimum wages, without weekly holidays, and without safety or medical facility, to generate the enormous wealth of ‘Chhattisgarh Shining!’ Unionising them doesn’t only mean facing the goondas of the industrialists, risking the loss of precarious jobs, sustaining an uncompromising struggle against great odds, and developing a mature and bold leadership that can withstand both carrot and stick – though this is a tall enough order. It also means struggling against the serious imperialist onslaught against the people of Chhattisgarh.

An onslaught where gigantic multinationals like Holcim and Lafarge are gobbling up the cement sector, they have already acquired ACC, Ambuja, and Raymond Cements. Taking advantage of rich limestone deposits, they are manufacturing the cheapest cement in the world, earning super profits and planning to set up new capacities. Between them and the big Indian cement manufacturers like Aditya Birla they have formed the ‘Chhattisgarh Cement Manufacturers’ Association’ a cartel that has its office at a stone’s throw from Chief Minister Raman Singh’s residence – a proximity symbolic of their stranglehold influence over the state administration. These companies are blatantly violating well-established Indian labour standards that prohibit the use of contract labour in cement manufacture, and mandate that contract labour be paid at par with regular workers, i.e. at the rate of the Cement Wage Board. (Holcim, for instance, has appealed against an Award obtained by our union to regularise 573 contract workers whose contracts were held to be sham and bogus.) They are refusing to abide by the State Rehabilitation Policy which prescribes permanent jobs for those displaced by their plants, and are in fact creating an explosive situation in the rural areas by employing outsiders in preference to the affected peasants. Under the leadership of the Pragatisheel Cement Shramik Sangh and the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (CMM) – workers, peasants and particularly women – have been militantly struggling and have had some success in enforcing minimum wages and getting some affected peasants employed in these factories. But we still need to forge a unity of all cement workers in Chhattisgarh, across union lines, to wage a serious struggle demanding that multinationals implement the law of the land.

On the other hand, the local small and medium steel industry of Chhattisgarh is facing a severe crisis, hundreds of units – mini-steel plants, sponge iron units, rolling mills – are closing down, and thousands of workers are facing the threat of retrenchment. This crisis is another facet of the imperialist onslaught. The best-quality iron ore of Chhattisgarh is literally flowing out as slurry, day after day, to be shipped out to Japan costing it a mere Rs. 400 a tonne. The State government is only too keen to sign MOUs with the big corporate houses – Tata, Essar, Mittal, Jindal.... and to practically give away the best deposits of iron ore as captive mines at a measly royalty of less than Rs. 50 a tonne. But the local industry is having to purchase iron ore at open market rates, which had touched upto Rs. 5800 per tonne recently. Along with our union the Jan Adharit Engineering Mazdoor Union, the CMM has been continuously protesting against these pro-imperialist policies in order to save local industry and jobs, and exhorting the local industrialists not to be ‘penny wise and pound foolish’ in trying to make up the lakhs of losses on raw material costs by squeezing a few thousands out of the workers legal wages.

Increasingly it is becoming more clear to us that the factories are not the only battleground against imperialist and monopoly capital, the hardest struggles are in the countryside where these companies are zeroing in on mineral resources, and are engaged in a land grab on an unbelievable scale. Whether for coal blocks in Raigarh, or a power plant in Premnagar, cement plants in Tilda, or a large industrial area in Rajnandgaon, bauxite mining in Sarguja and Jashpur, sponge iron plants in Raipur or diamond mining in Devbhog. Peasants everywhere – particularly adivasis and dalits are facing and resisting displacement – compromising weakly at some places, facing repression determinedly at others. 41 and now 65 more villages near Raipur are to be displaced for a glittering new capital region of Corporate Chhattisgarh; 9 villages for an army camp next to the new High Court premises close to Bilaspur; 7 villages for an air force base in Rajnandgaon. Not to mention displacement for a Tiger Reserve, Elephant Reserve, Wild life Sanctuaries etc. in Bilaspur, Jashpur and Dhamtari districts... The list is endless.

CMM has been active in the anti-displacement movement – in opposing the demolition of urban bastis, particularly in the industrial areas where the lowly paid contract workers live; in organising the already displaced peasants around industrial establishments to demand jobs; and in playing a prominent role along with the Sanyukta Kisan Morcha in stalling the acquisition of 7 villages at Rajnandgaon for a Special Industrial Zone. It has expressed solidarity with the Raigarh Bachao Sangharsh Samiti which has been fighting the total domination of the Jindal group with its ‘private army’. A group notorious for land grabbing, brokering of material inputs for local small industry, rampant exploitation of workers and pollution of the air, soil and water of Raigarh district. A peasant woman Satyabhama had lost her life, ironically on the 26 of January 1998, when being force-fed to break the indefinite fast she had undertaken to save the waters of the Kelo river from pollution by Jindal. (In yet another example of the obscene hypocrisies that we now take for granted like Satyam winning the Golden Peacock Global Award for corporate governance, the Jindal Steel and Power Limited recently received the ‘Srishti Green Cube Award 2007 for Good Green Governance’ from Sheila Dikshit, the Chief Minister of Delhi!) the CMM has also been an active participant in the anti-displacement front Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, which was launched at Ranchi on 23rd March 2007, and which has been attempting to unite the people’s resistance to displacement countrywide.

The struggle to bring the MOUs of Tata and Essar in Bastar and Dantewada into the public domain; the fake gram sabhas in Lohandkjuda and Dhurii blocks conducted at gunpoint to obtain consent for land acquisition, and presided over by the Salwa Judum supremo and District Investment Promotion Board Chairman Mahendra Karma; the arrests of vocal villagers including when they were on their way to keep a scheduled appointment with the Governor; the slapping of cases under the National Security Act on the activists of the Adivasi Mahasabha; the FIRs that were finally lodged, after repeated complaints, against sundry dalals of Tata for the ‘fake compensations’ given to the wrong persons and even in the name of the dead; these are events about which I and the CMM have had personal knowledge, and about which we have continuously raised our voice. CMM had organised torchlight processions in several industrial centres protesting against the arrest of Manish Kunjam and other leaders of the Adivasi Mahasabha on the eve of the gram sabhas organised in Lohandiguda and Bhansi to protest land acquisition.

But I could only grasp the enormity of the information blackout – the silence, half truths and sheer lies – call it the ‘wall of silence’, that exists between Bastar and the rest of Chhattisgarh, when as an active member of the Chhattisgarh People’s Union for Civil Liberties, I joined several fact-finding teams to investigate into fake encounters. When we found out that the shiksha karmis and student killed in Gollapalli allegedly in ‘Naxalite cross fire’ had actually been murdered by the police and SAF even after they had repeatedly asserted their identity; when the ‘dreaded Naxalites encountered’ in Nayapara turned out to be adivasis who had returned to their ancestral village in search of work; when the theory of ‘accidental firing because of hidden Naxalites’ in the Cherpal Salva Judum camp was boldly rubbished by the villagers in the camp who were furious at the killing of a woman and a small baby by a trigger-happy CRPF jawan. In the media we repeatedly saw a total silence about ordinary people on the one hand, and cymbal-clashing war-cries against Maoists, always pictured as AK-47 toting with sinisterly covered faces, on the other. Each time we uncovered the truth, which, mind you, was absolutely self-evident to the local people, and tried to cross the ‘wall’, it was buried again under a heap of papers - false statements, half-hearted enquiries, politically-loaded commentaries and the inevitable conclusions justifying the atrocities. In short, back to square one. This is another attempt to scale that wall.

‘Rich Lands of Poor People’ Scenario of Chhattisgarh

Chandra Bhushan, a researcher on mineral policy writes:

‘India announced a new National Mineral Policy (for non-coal and non-fuel minerals) in early April (2008), after two-and-a-half years of wrangling between mineral-rich states and the central government, between steel-makers, iron ore miners and exporters. The objective of this policy, NMP-2008, is clear it will promote privately-owned, large-scale, mechanised mines if they happen to be controlled by multinationals, still better.... NMP-2008 ignores the fact that mining in India is not only about minerals and a simple ‘dig and sell’ proposition, it is about tribals and backward castes and their land and livelihood alienation. It is about poverty, backwardness and Naxalism. It is also about deforestation and biodiversity impact, water security and pollution.’

Ravi Tiwari, General Secretary of the Chhattisgarh Cement Manufacturers’ Association accidentally blurts out the truth when he states in an article dated 25/9/2007 in Jansatta. ‘This State is as rich under its soil, as those who dwell on it are economically impoverished.’ He tells us that Chhattisgarh has more than 28 precious mineral resources including limestone, dolomite, coal, iron ore, diamond, gold, quartzite, tin ore, tin metal, granite, corrundum, marble, beryl, bauxite, uranium, alexandrite, copper, silica, fluorite and garnet. In September 2008, a road blockade by hundreds of villagers of the ‘Jameen Bachao Sangharsh Samiti’ stalled a proposal for acquiring an area of over 105 square kilometres situated in 30 villages of Kunkuri Tehsil of district Jashpur to the Jindal Power and Steel Limited to prospect for gold, diamond, platinum group of minerals, precious and semi-precious gemstones’.

The way companies are zeroing in on mineral resources is illustrated by the cement sector. There are about 8225 million tonnes of limestone in Chhattisgarh, predominantly in the Raipur, Durg, Janjgir, Bilaspur, Rajnandgaon, Kawardha and Bastar districts, a large proportion of which is cement grade. Today more than 6% of the country’s cement is produced here by 7 large and 4 small cement plants with a total capacity of nearly 10.5 million tonnes. In the past decade the unit of the public sector Cement Corporation of India at Mandhar has closed down and the well-known brands of ACC and Ambuja have been taken over by the Swiss multinational Holcim. Indeed 12.5% of Holcim’s total sales internationally are now from its 24 Indian plants. The French multinational Lafarge has, also taken over two cement plants in Chhattisgarh. In its last term the Raman Singh government has signed MOUs with 11 companies, for setting up new plants as well as expanding old ones. If these new capacities are achieved, it would more than triple the cement production to about 36 million tonnes.

Seven percent of the country’s bauxite, about 198 million tonnes, is available in the Sarguja, Jashpur, Kawardha, Kanker and Bastar districts. It is being mined at present in Sarguja by the now privatised Balco (Sterlite) company in Chhattisgarh and Birla’s Hindalco company of Uttar Pradesh. More than 200 adivasi families have lost their lands to Hindalco so far and the process is still continuing. Although theoretically a lease agreement is executed which states that the company would restore the land to its original condition as far as is practicable, but in reality no rent whatsoever is paid, and in the name of employment one person from the affected family works as lowly-paid contract labour. Discontent is rife among these landless adivasi miners. It is pertinent that Dheeraj Jaiswal, a notorious SPO in erstwhile SP Kalluri’s retinue, and charged of many fake encounters and rapes in the name of fighting Naxals, doubles up as a goonda for Hindalco, patrolling the area in the company jeep to keep its labour in order. Bauxite is processed into aluminium, an important input in the aviation and defence industry. There is a global scarcity of this mineral, so the corporate hawks are always on the lookout for potential deposits.

Sixteen percent of the country’s coal, a whopping 39,545 million tonnes is to be found in the Raigarh, Sarguja, Koriya and Korba districts of northern Chhattisgarh. On 5th January 2007, the adivasis of Village Khamariya, Tehsil Tamnar were subjected to a vicious and brutal lathi charge when in a public hearing ostensibly arranged by the district administration, but clearly dominated by the Jindal company, they raised objections to giving up their lands to the Jindal Mines.

The public hearings for environmental clearances to three more power projects including AES Chhattisgarh Power (a joint venture with the American energy giant) were recently stalled by villagers protesting that they had not been notified and that they apprehended widespread pollution.

The Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative Ltd. (IFFCO) had to withdraw its proposal of setting up a 1000 mw coal-based thermal power plant in Premnagar in Sarguja district in March after strong protests. The villagers organised in the ‘Gram Sabha Parishad’ had attacked IFFCO officials conducting ‘secret surveys’ and had protested the diversion of the Atem river for the plant. When the company persisted and got their leader arrested, over 1,000 people marched to the police station to get him released. The new site subsequently chosen by IFFCO, 10 km. away, also came into serious controversy in November 2008, when villagers who had passed a resolution against the project, found that their Sarpanch was being whisked away secretly to a meeting in a police jeep, disguised as a policeman! All this would have been amusing, had it not been so dead serious.

The very first notification issued by the BJP government of Chhattisgarh after its recent electoral victory was of the splitting up of the Chhattisgarh State Electricity Board (CSEB) into 5 separate companies, a move which had been consistently resisted by the workers’ and engineers’ associations. This move is widely seen as a hidden privatisation, and foreign, particularly American, companies are also reported to be in the bidding. Chhattisgarh produces the cheapest electricity in the country and private players after taking over the CSEB would use cut-throat competition to push other State Electricity Boards out of the running. It would also mean a neglect of rural electrification because it entails greater distribution costs. The workers of CSEB, particularly the independent ‘Vidyut Karmachari Janta Union’ are on strike, and the Essential Services Maintenance Act has been invoked against them.

For the proposed power plant of the CSEB at Bhaiyathan in Sarguja, a private developer – Indiabulls Power Generation Ltd would be the main player, the CSEB basically providing the fig-leaf with a 26% stake, since the coal blocks have been allotted in its name.

Even otherwise, in the coal sector, the presence of the coal mafia is so overpowering that an MP of Dhanbad has alleged in a letter to the concerned Parliamentary Committee that ‘SECL (ed. South Eastern Coalfields Limited) could earn only Rs 800 crore profit in the fiscal year 2006-07 whereas it (the earning) could have been more than Rs 30,000 crore if the government could have reduced the pilferage.’ In particular, it is an open secret that in Chhattisgarh, the Aryan Coal Beneficiaries company (which virtually runs the pro-BJP daily newspaper Haribhoomi) has a monopoly over the washery business and therefore makes a lot of money at SECL’s expense.

With the changes in mining policy permitting foreign companies, the Arrow company has started drilling the first of thirteen wells at the Tatapani-Ramkoia blocks approximately 90 kilometres south of Ambikapur in district Sarguja. The well is being drilled by the Australian drilling company South West Pinnacle Drilling and coal is expected to be touched at a depth of 500-900m.

Remember Dilip Singh Judeo, ‘Raja’ of Jashpur and BJP leader of the aggressive re-conversion movement against the Christian community, being caught taking bribes on camera from a company representative before the last assembly elections? What is rarely revealed is that the company was the Australian mining giant – Broken Hill Properties (BHP).

One-fifth of the country’s iron ore – about 2336 million tones averaging 68% purity is found in the Dantewada. Kanker, Rajnandgaon, Bastar and Durg districts. The Bhilai Steel Plant is one of the world’s most efficient steel plants, yet it is being deliberately tripped up by private players particularly Jindal Steel & Power. The scramble for the best deposits have started between the public sector NMDC and the Tata and Essar groups, with litigation pending in the Delhi High Court. But this is not all. It is claimed that Tata has acquired Corus. And that Essar Steel is to buy the American steel firm Esmark. Last year, Essar bought Minnesota Steel for an undisclosed sum, only days after it also agreed to acquire the Canadian firm Algoma Steel for $1.6 billion. The elite of India choose to regard these events as a coming of age of India Inc. and a mark of our becoming a global superpower. The Esmark chief executive James Bouchard, is more forthright and says ‘Esmark needed a strategic partner as raw material and transport costs rose’. In other words, Essar and Tata are going to be the Indian face of the big foreign mining companies who are facing a raw material crunch today. All these acquisitions have been financed by hefty loans from Foreign Financial Institutions which are going to be a stone around the necks of these companies in the present financial crisis.

On 17th May 2008, about 5,000 tribals from 25 villages took out a two-day ‘padyatra’ under the banner of ‘Adivasi Mahasabha’ from Bhansi, where the proposed steel plant of Essar is to come up, to Faraspal of district Dantewada, to protest mining of iron ore from the Bailadila mountains. They claimed that the government has granted mining leases to 96 industrial houses besides Tata and Essar in the Bailadila area and demanded that the mountains, 40 km. long and 10 km. wide, which contained iron ore deposits to the tune of 300 crore tonnes should not be given on lease to private companies for mining as it could pose a threat to the existence of the mountains as also the culture of local tribals.

As regards the earnings of the state, Praveen Patel of the Tribal Welfare Society reveals some startling details;

There is nothing to take pride in the news that Chhattisgarh has earned Rs. 7 billion in mineral royalty on coal, bauxite and iron ores during the first nine months of the current fiscal year 2007-08.

The government states that over 2 lakh tonnes of iron ore has been excavated in first nine months but what about the rate of Royalty earned in iron ore only? Why are those figures not shared with the public. Let me throw some idea to lift the veil. As per my information, the average royalty of iron ore which the state has collected is about Rs. 27 /- per metric tonne only whereas the current international rates of iron ore are in the range of above US $ 210. It would have been better, if the government would have stated bluntly that they are allowing the daylight robbery of iron ore, the parallel of which is not seen anywhere else in the world.’

The Bastar region is one of the richest in mineral resources – not only in iron ore, but also perhaps a host of other unexplored minerals including limestone, bauxite, and even diamond and uranium. In 2005 it was not only with Tata and Essar and Texas Power Generation that confidential MOUs were signed allotting iron ore deposits, coal blocks, and hectares and hectares of land.

Scores of companies were given prospecting and mining licenses. Some of these MOUs were signed abroad, and rumours were rife about the enrichment of bureaucrats and politicians, and also of course contribution to the party coffers. Unfortunately for the powers that be, however, there happened to be lakhs of adivasis – neglected, exploited and oppressed by the ‘mainstream’ – literally sitting on top of these most precious assets, and even more unfortunately for them, since the early 1980s the Naxal movement had dug deep roots there. The estimate of the then Director-General of Police DGP Rathore was that there were about 50,000 ‘Sangham’ (or members of the peasant committees and women and youth organisations) of the Maoists in the year 2005. And so started the ‘Salwa Judum’ a massive and brutal ground clearing operation that was to affect about 3.5 lakhs of adivasis in 644 villages, the most widespread displacement anywhere in the country. ‘Draining out the water and killing the fish’ was the expression used by Mahendra Karma.

Courtesy: ‘Gravest Displacement… Bravest Resistance…’  pp. 5-16.

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