Todgatta Protestors find Support in Community
While a few adivasis take turns sitting at protest site, those back in the villages take care of the livelihood.
In Todagatta in Gadchiroli district’s Etapalli taluka, the adivasis protesting against the proposed mines and a four-lane road going through their villages have found community cooperation to be the key. It is helping them keep the protests going, while still earning a living, as they complete over 150 days of agitation. While a few adivasis from around 70 odd villages take turns sitting in at the protest site, those back in the villages take care of the livelihood activities like Tendupatta collection and paddy farming for those protesting.
“During monsoon, most of the adivasis here cultivate rice. Now that it has been raining, people had to be back in their fields. But at the same time, they could not desert the protest site. Thus, the villagers who were not at the protest site decided to help those who were sitting in with the work in their fields,” Lalsu Nogoti, a well known local activist, says.
On March 11, 2023, the adivasi villagers from 70 villages under the Surajgarh-Todgatta Gram Sabha began protesting six new mining leases proposed in Surjagarh hills. Earlier, Lloyds Metals and Energy Ltd had commenced the operations of their first iron ore mine in the Surjagarh hills nearby in 2021 despite a strong opposition from the locals. Prior to this, the government had been trying to run the mining operations in the area smoothly for a decade, since the clearances were first given to the company in 2007. The company finally succeeded in beginning its operations in 2021.
“They already started mining in Surjagarh. We could not stop them. We are afraid that they are going to come for Damkondwahi next,” says Susheela Narote, an adivasi villager from Besewada village who has been sitting at the protest site continuously since the agitation began.
The protest began with over 5,000 villagers. The protesters have held their ground in the scorching summer heat as well as incessant July rains in the district. However, in the last 150 days, any government or political leaders have barely paid any attention to the protesters. Thus, the protest still continues.
“But all of us cannot sit here at all times, as we have to take care of our homes, our families and earn a living as well. But that does not mean that the number of protesters has dwindled. We now take turns sitting at the protest sites,” says Rakesh Alam from Jharewada, another one of the four protesters who have not moved.
“Most villages have around 10-15 houses, so five-six people from each village are expected to be here at a time. The villages with a larger number of houses send around 10-15 people at once. All but four of us who are here full time keep rotating,” Alam adds.
A similar method is being followed at several of the adivasi protests that are currently going on in different parts of Chhattisgarh as well.
With the beginning of the Monsoon, the protesters have built huts made of tarpaulin sheets to protect themselves from the rainfall.
“Each village has its own dedicated hut. The huts have been built on a platform raised with Bamboo so that rainwater does not enter them. The Gotul (ommunity hall) in the village is used for gatherings, meetings of the protest, etc. Some protesters are also sleeping there,” Nogoti says.
Gadchiroli, Maha | Members of tribal communities of Maharashtra & Chhattisgarh are camping on state border for last 14 days to protest against construction of a bridge across Indravati river. They say, "With no basic facilities here,this will facilitate loot of Jal-Jungle-Zameen" pic.twitter.com/uqzUacbwkK— ANI (@ANI) January 18, 2023
However, the residential arrangement is not the only challenge that the Todgatta protesters had to resolve with the commencement of the monsoon. Monsoon is a very important season for farmers across India. The adivasi farmers in Etapalli primarily grow rice and this is the sowing season. Along with rice, they also cultivate some vegetables like cucumbers and drumsticks, corn, etc. But the villagers decided to make sure none of them would have to give up on the protest or lose their livelihood due to the protest.
“Those who are staying back in the villages are helping us with farming, they are working in our fields so that we do not lose our livelihood during the protest. Not just the four of us, but those back in villages are looking after the fields of everyone who is currently at the protest site,” Alam says.
The protesters used a similar approach during the Tendu Patta collection season as well. Tendu Patta or Tendu leaves are used as wrappers for beedi. The fresh leaves are collected by adivasis during summer, dried under the sun and then sold.
“Our fellow villagers collected Tendu Patta for us while we protested here. We managed everything as we will not let the protest stop because of these issues,” Sushila says.
“At that time, around 200 villagers were at the protest site. The rest of the villagers collected the leaves on our behalf and gave us our share of the remuneration accordingly,” Alam said.
“If the mine comes here, our land, our farms, our forest will all go away. Our ancestors have protected these lands for ages. Now we have to do the same,” says Mangesh Narote, the 50-something spouse of Sushila who has also been sitting at the protest site constantly.
Meanwhile, the protesters say that the State Government has turned a complete blind eye towards the agitation, including the Gadchiroli Guardian Minister Fadnavis, who is also Maharashtra’s Deputy Chief Minister. Fadnavis, along with other Ministers, has in fact attended other events in the district like the new government’s flagship ‘Shasan Aplya Daari’ (government at your doorstep) and yet has not paid a single visit to the protesters. Nationalist Congress Party’s (NCP’s) local MLA Dharmaraj Atram has been the only political leader to visit the protesters so far.
“Atram visited Todgatta on June 11. At the time, he said that while nothing could now be done about the Surjagarh mine that is already operational, he is with the people and he will not let the new six mines start,” Nogoti said.
Atram, who was in the opposition at the time, has switched sides since and along with NCP leader and DyCM Ajit Pawar is now part of the government.
“We hoped that he would raise our issues during the Monsoon session of the Maharashtra Assembly, now that he is a minister. However, we have heard that he has also reiterated the same old narrative that is used to vilify adivasis here - that were are being pressured by the Naxalites,” Alam said.
Constant vilification of protesting adivasis
“I have been protesting against mining in our region since 2014. We attend Gram Sabhas, call meetings and make people aware of the threat to their Jal, Jangal, Jameen (water, forest, land). The police have since been sending us notices to come to the police stations and say that the Naxalites have been instigating us and keeping us deprived of the development,” Mangesh says.
Mangesh and Sushila have both been facing police action like this for the last nine years. “Every year at the end of July, we are both asked to visit the police station and they usually detain us until August 3-4,” Sushila says.
Maoists observe the week starting from July 28 as Martyr’s Week. Thus, several adivasis in the region are held by the police during the time, on the presumption that they will collaborate with the Naxalites. Sushila says that several like her who raise their voice against the police receive the flak.
“But no matter what, we will not stop protesting. Our Jal, Jangal and Jameen are all we have. If we lose this, we will be left with nothing,” Sushila says.
However, one optimistic factor about the protest in Maharashtra, Nogoti points out, is that the work for the mines or the road is not continuing despite the protest, as of now.
“If we see the protests in Chhattisgarh, whether at Silger, Vechaghat or Indrawati, the projects that the adivasis were fighting against began despite the agitation, which is still going on. However, in Todgatta, we saw that the construction of the road stopped and the contractor left soon after the protest began. All the construction material is just lying around. The police stations have also not yet been opened,” he says.
But at the same time, he also adds that this might not be permanent. “If the people stop protesting, the work might resume.”
“And that is why we will not stop. No one is asking us anything. We are educated. We understand what is happening around us. We see tribals getting displaced everywhere in the country. We do not want the same fate to befall us,” Alam concludes.