In Birsa's Land: Horomocho (Hazaribagh, Jharkhand)

A coal mine to own and manage • Sustainability not profit as a principle • Revival of an ancient Santhal system of governance

Published: Saturday 31 August 2002

In Birsa's Land: Horomocho (Hazaribagh, Jharkhand)

coalHoromocho is just another sleepy village in the district of Hazaribagh, Jharkhand. There is nothing much that looks very striking in this village of 52 Santhal households. Mud walled houses, mohua and kusum trees, kacchha streets, people lazing around after work -- as in most of India's villages. But few things are compellingly unusual.

The forest and the absence of forest department officials is one of them. However, the surprise is on the bank of the Rohargada river, a small rivulet of the Damodar: a community coal mine. Ask the villagers and they are most nonchalant about it. "Oh that! It has been there. It belongs to the village," they will say with a shrug. The next thing that comes to one's mind is the legal part. All the mineral deposits in India belong to the government and the contractors who take them on lease exploit them. Moreover, any mine cannot be like that of Horomocho. Normally, bulldozers and contractors mob any piece of mineral. How come this coal pit here is devoid of any such thing?

The shadow of government has not touched Horomocho. Not since 1943 when a government team came to survey the village. Ten kilometres to the nearest bus stand, Horomocho has not seen many amenities. But nobody complains. On the contrary, they defy these. "We are rich," says Dhaniram Tutu, the Majhi Haram or head of the village in the traditional Santhali system.The village economy is limited to sustenance. For extra money, they sell forest produce in the nearby market.

Rich they are. They have a coalmine, 200 hectares of sal forest, perennial water sources and the agricultural fields. A two-room dispensary and a three-room school, both under the cool shade of mohua trees, complete the picture. In 1982, the village declared sovereignty over these. And with the Majhi Haram, the Santhal traditional gram sabha, managing these resources with wisdom, there are not too many worries and plenty of time to play football. They have the best football team in the area.

"Our law is equal for everyone," says Charku Soren, the deputy chief of the village. The villagers who work around the traditional Majhi Haram system manage things with an iron hand. "We had to be strong," says Charku, his stern face glowing with the light of a kerosene lamp. He explains why.

The forests of the village were depleted due to massive felling by the forest department as well as the neighbouring villages. "We felt threatened. They (the government) tried to take everything from us instead of giving us anything," says Dhaniram. This was pre-1982 when some like Dhaniram and Charku have seen schools and gained some confidence. The village decided to act. They went to the forest department officials and told them to take their salary from their homes.

With the forest, they also acquired the coal pits on the banks of the small rivulet in the village. Situated on India's rich coal belt, Horomocho could foresee its fate: one day the village would be buried in coal pits. The only way to save the village forest, protected since last two decades, was to keep the mines commercially unexploited. So the logical step was to declare the mines as community property. "This is a property of the village and it will stay in the village. No commercial use will be allowed here," says Churku. The villagers now use the mine, a six metres by three metres pit, about three metres deep, filled with water beside the Rohargada river in the village. "Every year the villagers take out about 20 tractor-loads of coal for the village," says Lambu, a resident. The coal, however, is distributed free of cost and suffices the fuel requirements of the village for most of the year. Remarkably, this has also decreased a lot of pressure on the forest for which the mine was taken over. "It is natural and practical for the village to take control," says Bina Stanis, an activist based in Hazaribagh.

They are still strong. And united. "You never know this money business," says Ganesh Ganju, a resident of Lathia referring to the nexus of government officials and contractors. This village also manages its resources like Horomocho and so do seven other villages. "The government can also come anytime to claim the resources," he adds talking about bitter experiences of the past. However, they all are sure this. Whatever it takes, they are not going to part with their jal, jangal and jameen. Fully aware of the confrontations and the difficulties involved, they are also very confident about winning this war and keeping it that way. Once Birsa Munda did. One cannot see why Horomocho and its allies cannot.

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