Ho tribals lose hold of Saranda as mining is set to take over the pristine sal forest. A report and photographs by Sayantan Bera
Between Maoists and mines
If only this were a mere coincidence. Last year the Centre intensified its combing operation to flush out Maoists from the dense Saranda forests of Jharkhand. By August, following Operation Anaconda, it claimed to have “sanitised” the forests of insurgents. In October the Union Ministry of Rural Development announced a whopping Rs 263 crore development package for 36,000 tribals who traditionally inhabit the forest. Earlier in February, the Centre had renewed and expanded the lease of the Steel Authority of India Ltd (SAIL) to mine iron ore in the forest. The public sector unit is the only company mining inside the forest. Nineteen more projects to mine iron ore in the heart of Saranda are in different phases of approval.
Activists working with the forest dwellers doubt the intention of the government. “The Rs 263 crore Saranda Development Plan, piggybacking on the anti-naxal operation has a clear mining interest,” says Gladson Dungdung of Jharkhand Human Rights Movement (JHRM) and member of the Assessment and Monitoring Authority of the Planning Commission. “Villages situated next to the proposed mining projects saw fake encounters and rape cases during the anti-Naxal drive. While the government is yet to settle the land titles of the tribals under the Forest Rights Act of 2006, the security forces burnt down whatever land records they had.”
Spread over 80,000 hectares in West Singhbhum district, Saranda is the largest sal forest in Asia. It also stands atop one of the world’s largest single deposit of iron ore—over 2,000 million tonnes. At least 36,000 Ho tribals live inside the forest. Most of them collect minor forest produce like sal leaves and seeds to earn a living or are small farmers.
While announcing the Saranda Development Plan as a model for other Maoist-affected areas, Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh had said, “more mining means more Maoism,” arguing for no private mining in the forests.
But Dungdung’s argument is not unfounded. A copy of Saranda Development Plan, which Down To Earth obtained from the forest department, shows 62 per cent of the Rs 263 crore package will be spent on infrastructure development like roads and offices alone. The government has relaxed the restriction to have only unpaved roads inside reserve forests. A network of 130 km of cement-concrete roads will be laid at an expense of Rs 104 crore. The network will be later extended to 250 km. Sushil Barla, district general secretary of the Congress and member of JHRM, says, the Rs 80-lakh-per-km roads are not meant for forest dwellers or department officials to deliver the development programme. One cannot justify such high costs if not for almost a metre deep cement concrete roads required to transport iron ore. Trucks carrying the ore weigh up to 30 tonnes and require heavy duty roads.
The next major chunk of the package is for integrated development centers (IDCs)—prefabricated structures to house civil and forest officials who will administer the package. IDCs will be a one-stop-development shop that will provide subsidised ration under the public distribution scheme, generate employment under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, and have health centres, forest offices, banks, anganwadi, retail stores, mobile towers and even photo studios. The cost for constructing an IDC is Rs 6 crore. The plan is to set up 10 IDCs to cater to all the 56 Saranda villages.
These leave Rs 99 crore for development works like providing housing facilities for people below poverty line, clean drinking water and sanitation, watershed projects, installing handpumps, solar lanterns and setting up schools.
Xavier Dias, activist and writer who has worked with mine workers of Jharkhand for three decades, says the plan is a two-pronged strategy. “The package, which will receive funds from industries through their corporate social responsibility, will help garner acceptance from the forest dwellers on opening up of new mining areas. Simultaneously, it will deny Maoists the safe refuge of dense forests as it will be cleared for mining, roads and ancillary development.”
For Maoists, it was a safe haven
Located at the trijunction of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, Saranda is strategically crucial for Maoists. By the government’s own reckoning, Saranda is the headquarters of the Maoists’ eastern regional bureau. Strategically, it comes next to the Dandakaranya forests of Chhattisgarh, which the Maoists have declared the liberated zone. The forests are also the prime revenue earner for the banned organisation. Dungdung says Maoists earn at least Rs 500 crore per year from Saranda by imposing levies on mining companies. Some offer them protection money to do business in a Maoist bastion, while those mining illegally beyond their lease area pay hefty sums. In 2007-08, Rungta Mines and Usha Martin reportedly paid Rs 25 lakh each to Maoists. Months after the combing operation, the paramilitary forces in March discovered opium fields inside Saranda as another source of their income.
Besides, in and around Saranda are doco areas where iron ore can be illegally obtained from river beds and fields. Four people can gather as much as 12 tonnes of ore within three hours, which can be transported to crushers dotting the 140 km road from Rourkela to Barbil in Odisha, running almost parallel to Saranda. The crushers then sell it to legal mines. Maoists collect a share of the booty and detonators from them.
Government eyes untapped minerals
According to the Indian Bureau of Mines’ 2010 report, West Singhbhum is the most mined district in Jharkhand, and accounts for almost the entire share of iron ore mined in the state. Already 44 mining leases for iron ore are operational covering an area of 12,374 ha. At present, most mining activity, except in SAIL’s Chiria mine, is concentrated on the periphery of Saranda. Once the 19 mining projects, which are in different stages of approval, are given the go-ahead, an additional 11,000 ha, or more than one-seventh of the Saranda, will be opened up for mining (see: map and table). Besides, the government is setting up 21 paramilitary camps across the forest, 17 of which have received forest clearance. Add to these the concrete roads, IDCs and ancillary developments for mining.
There is no assessment of the gross impact of these developments on Saranda and its dwellers.
“It’s genocide of the adivasis,” says Dias. Saranda is to eastern India what the Amazon rainforests are to the world. Its springs feed rivers like the Karo, the Baitarani and the Sanjay that flow through Odisha. With mining these perennial streams are dying. Wastewater from washaries of iron ore mines on the periphery have already contaminated the groundwater aquifers. Mine workers and residents in the periphery of Saranda are dying due to liver diseases caused by contaminated groundwater, while companies blame it on alcoholism. The average life expectancy has plummeted to 45 years in Noamundi where the Tata Iron and Steel Company Ltd operates its mines, Dias adds.
Since announcing the Saranda Development Plan, Union rural development minister Jairam Ramesh visited the forest twice to oversee its implementation. On December 2, he visited Chotanagra village, one of the gateways to the interiors of Saranda, with truckloads of goodies—bicycles, transistor radios and solar lanterns. “Some of them were distributed and the rest remains locked in the block office,” says Bhimsen Gop, the village postmaster. “Those who got the cycles spent Rs 200 to fix the missing parts. But that is not an issue. The problem is we are never heard by the government or mining companies. What use are development programme or CSR freebies when our land is turning barren and perennial streams are drying up?” he asks.
A visit to Dhobil reveals Gop’s concerns. Dhobil is located next to SAIL’s Chiria mine, one of the country’s oldest iron ore mines operating since 1936, and has borne the maximum brunt of mining. Extending from Chotanagra to Dhobil, Chiria covers almost 3 per cent of Saranda. Every monsoon, the sludge and mining waste flows into the agricultural fields, covering it with red mud. Residents say more than 25 ha in the village are lying barren. One perennial stream has dried up on a five-kilometre stretch. During monsoon it carries water laden with iron ore. The public hearing for expanding the lease area of SAIL was done in Chiria village, some 15 km from Dhobil.
The public hearing for ArcelorMittal’s proposed mining project in Karampada forest was held 22 km away in Kiriburu village. So did the hearings for Rungta Mines and Electrosteel Castings. They successfully held their public hearings in Chotanagra, some 30 km from Ushariya village. The village in the heart of Saranda will be directly affected by the mining of Kudliba hills. Jaunga Banda, a part time labourer at Chiria mine was among the few from from Ushariya who took the pain of attending the public hearing. “I could not comprehend what was going on. I just hope that they leave some forests for our graves,” he says.
Among the Ho it is customary to give burials in a corner of the village under the shade of trees. Traditionally, sasandiris (burial stones) are their land titles. None of the villages surrounding the proposed mines will be displaced but the forests will disappear.
Analysts say the mining leases inside Saranda are in violation of the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution that protects the rights of tribals like the Ho. The Fifth Schedule requires the government to consult and seek the advice of Tribal Advisory Council (TAC) on matters of general welfare and transfer of land, says Stan Swamy of the civil society group Bagaicha. But the government never sought the advice of TAC.
Likewise, under the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Area’s Act (PESA) of 1996, it should have consulted the gram sabha before granting mining leases. But the state government is yet to implement PESA. So far the argument given by the Jharkhand government was that the state did not hold panchayat elections and therefore the Act is not applicable. But the excuse does not hold anymore after the state had its first panchayat elections in 2011, Swamy adds. Devendra Nath Champia, member the state legislative assembly for two decades, a Ho himself, says time is ripe to implement the 1997 Samata Judgement of the Supreme Court, whereby transfer of tribal land to corporations without the consent of the community is deemed null and void.
Who quelled their voice?
The Ho are known for their historic struggles. Following their revolt against the British occupation of their territory, in 1836-37, the British formed the Kolhan estate, now covering the expanse in and around Saranda, and recognised their customary community rights to the forests, rivers, hills and cultivable land. They recognised the traditional Munda-Manki system of the village headman who has policing powers and rights to settle land disputes. In the late 19th century, the Ho joined the struggle led by Birsa Munda against the feudal agrarian system promoted by the British.
Sanjay Basu Mallick, forest rights activist and historian, says in 1978 the Ho fought the forest department as it replaced vast swathes of sal forests with commercial teak plantation and to restore their customary rights to minor forest produce. In 1981 they pleaded before the Commonwealth for complete autonomy from the Indian government. They even resisted for long the panchayat elections arguing their traditional system of governance is superior.
But today, an eerie silence hangs over these villages. To protest would be at the risk of being called a Maoist.
Photogallery: Operation Saranda: from Maoists to Miners
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.