Over 30 Adivasi protests ongoing across Central India
Jal, Jangal, Jameen have been at the centre of Adivasi protests in Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra
Gadchiroli । It has been more than 70 days that the tribals in Todgatta in Maharashtra’s Gadchiroli district have been protesting against the construction of a road that they say is being built to facilitate mining activities in the area. In the last few years, new mining projects are being repeatedly proposed in this tribal-dominated district that shares a border with the neighbouring Chhattisgarh, without seeking consent from the gram sabhas. The residents of over 70 villages under the Surajgarh-Todgatta Gram Sabha have been protesting for over two months, but the activists say that neither the government nor any political party has shown any concern towards them.
Jal, Jangal, Jameen (Water, Forest, Land) have been at the centre of over 30 protests that have been taking place in different parts of central India at present. In each of the places where the protest is taking place, the adivasi villagers emphasise on one factor - the lack of consent from the Gram Sabhas. The adivasis say that all they have been fighting for are their land where their homes are and the right to lead peaceful lives.
“There are two major factors forcing the tribals to protest. One is the increasing mining activity in the region. Secondly,the increasing presence of police force and stations in the tribal-governed area. Police stations and camps are being set within a distance of mere 3 kilometres of each other,” says Adv. Lalsu Nogoti, activist and Gadchiroli Zilla Parishad member.
Surjagarh is just one of 14 sites spread over 40,000 hectares in Etapalli taluka where the state government has given its nod to private firms to mine iron ore. https://t.co/e38MkoYI8B— The Indian Express (@IndianExpress) October 29, 2019
In 2020, tribals in the Surjagarh region in Gadchiroli district’s Etapalli taluka protested against the then proposed Surjagarh Iron Ore Mine in the area. Despite protests, mining still began in the area a year later despite people’s opposition.
“The government did not seek consent from Gram Sabhas in the region before diverting the land towards mining. Moreover, the authorities need to hold a jan sunwai (public hearing) before approvals in the area where the project will come. But instead, the government held these hearings at the district headquarters, around 100 kms away from the project site. The adivasis could not participate in the hearings,” Nogoti added.
There are now talks that six new mines have been approved in the region in Damkondwahi hills. “An 11 metre wide road has been proposed from the sites of these new mines in Surjagarh to Chhattisgarh as they want to take the mined minerals to Bhilai in Chhattisgarh. New mobile towers have been erected in the area. All this is being done without taking consent from the gram sabhas here,” activist Nitin Pada, a resident of Etapalli taluka said.
The Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) - PESA - Act, 1996 gives a great importance to tribal governance and the rights of the Gram Sabha in scheduled areas. It specifies that the administration needs to seek permission from the gram sabha in case of land acquisition for any project, including a police station. However, the protesting adivasis in the Chhattisgarh as well as Maharashtra’s tribal belt have said that no such consent from any Gram Sabha is sought by the authorities before bringing in infrastructure and building police stations. The tribal belts in Chhattisgarh as well as Maharashtra come under the fifth scheduled areas of the Constitution that assure protection of the interests of the tribals.
“But the projects coming here are being brought in complete violation of the fifth schedule as well. The government is also blatantly violating the Community Forest Rights (CFR) by allotting hundreds of hectares for mining, transport related to mining activities and police stations,” Nogoti says.
"We want development in the health sector. We need better educational facilities. But the development that the government is bringing is in favour of the corporates."
While Community Forest Rights allow diversion of forest land for Anganwadi, School, Electricity, Health Centre, Water Tank, for any small establishment that generates local employment - all projects that will benefit the local population - with due process, it does not mention diverting land for mines and police stations.
“The locals here do not need these mobile towers, four-lane roads. But we are not against development. The government is trying to portray as though we are opposing development. We want development in the health sector. We need better educational facilities. But the development that the government is bringing is in favour of the corporates who are here to take away our natural resources, not the locals,” Pada said.
It is to be noted that Todgatta village does not have a single Anganwadi or Health Centre, as per the locals. While the protest has entered its third month, Pada says that no minister, no political party has paid any attention to the agitation.
“Ministers have visited surrounding areas, but they have not taken out time to visit the Todgatta protest. Moreover, while some Ministers have been making statements that the mining will begin soon, whenever we question officials, they say that such leases have been approved yet. They are creating confusion and ambiguity,” he said.
The four-lane road, the villagers have said, is being built to aid the mining activity in the region, which will in turn affect their lives and livelihoods.
Around 150 kms away from Todgatta, in Silger village on the border of Bijapur and Sukma districts in Chhattisgarh, adivasis have been protesting peacefully amid government apathy. For the last two years, since May of 2021, the locals here have been sitting on dharna protesting the new CRPF camp that was established in the village without informing the villagers. Despite CRPF firing and the following stampede that killed the protesting villagers on May 17, 2021, the agitation is still going strong with around 30-40 villagers sitting at the protest site every single day for the last two years.
Adivasi protest in Silger, in Chhatisgarh's Sukma district.
“We have persisted for the last two years and we will continue to do so. The government is bringing mining projects, roads, CRPF camps here without taking permission from us, as is required by law. We are fighting to save our Jal, Jungle, Jameen,” Raghu Madyami, President of Bastar Jansangharsh Samanvay Manch (an umbrella organisation of different groups and platforms protesting in and around Bastar).
The Silger protest triggered several such protests across the Bastar region against increasing police stations and CPF camps in the adivasi areas. Around 32 different protests are taking place in Uttar Bastar and Dakshin Bastar. Such agitations are also going on in the other districts of Bijapur, Narayanpur, etc. The protesters fear an increasing number of such camps will aggravate the conflict between the adivasis and the police forces, who often tag the locals as Naxalites or Naxal supporters. In the neighbouring Jharkhand as well, adivasis in several areas face increased police intereference in their day-to-day lives.
“We have suffered enough when Salwa Judum was active here. Many adivasis were killed in the name of counterinsurgency at the time. We do not want to fall in a similar predicament again,” Madyami said.
Salwa Judum was a militia mobilised as a counter-insurgency force. However, it largely involved arming local youth with backing from the state. Salwa Judum inflicted violence on the adivasis in the region, causing several to die and even more were displaced.
Madyami adds that whenever any villagers protest, they are still deemed naxalites by the police. Pada from Gadchiroli also shares a similar story.
“In our villages, we have our own systems to resolve our conflicts amicably. We do not need police stations. But they keep on building new ones. Branding those who protest as naxalites, arresting people under fake charges are all very common here,” Pada said.
Speaking about the issue, Nogoti said, “These police stations and camps are being brought for the safety of the corporates and the mine owners and their people, not the villagers. Same is with the mobile towers, roads and bridges that are built here.”
Adivasi Protest along Indravati river in Chhattisgarh's Bijapur district.
On the border of Maharashtra and Chhattisgarh, in the month of January, tribal villagers from around 20 villages on both sides began a protest against the construction of a bridge on the Indravati river along the border. Several villagers have been sitting at the protest site since January 15, while the government, on the other hand, has continued the construction of the bridge.
“We do not want the puliya (bridge). They are building it without our consent. Even if they complete the construction, we will not let them build the connecting roads. They are saying that the bridge will benefit the villages. But we know very well that the bridge is being constructed for the mines. It’s not just here, they are building roads and bridges everywhere, right from Jabalpur all the way to the borders. More mines will come, camps will also come,” says Jaggu Bhogami who has been protesting at the Maharashtra-Chhattisgarh border for almost five months.
While the protest began with over a thousand people, at present, around 130 people are sitting on a dharna. “Everyone cannot sit here constantly. But we will not stop the protest. Even if it is just four-five of us in the end, we will not leave,” Bhogami says.
While most of these protests are going on for several months, the government has not paid any heed to them. The projects that the adivasis are fighting against are being continued.
“Government’s apathy towards these protests is quite shocking. Forget about making changes in their decisions, the government is not even holding a dialogue with them,” Nogoti says.
“If we go back home, we will die. If we protest, they will arrest us. We would rather sit here and protest instead of going back home,” Madyami asserted.