Koel-Karo: Jharkhand

Leaders renege, but tribal collectivism holds forth

Published: Thursday 31 July 2003

Koel-Karo: Jharkhand

February 2, 2001, is a date etched in blood in Tapkara. It was the first major incident of violence in about three decades of protest against the proposed Koel-Karo dam in the Torpa block of Ranchi district, Jharkhand. Police opened fire on 2,000 tribal people (or 5,000, depending on the estimate you prefer to trust) who had gathered to protest at Tapkara village. Five people died on the spot and three in the hospital.

Their object of ire: a proposed project to generate 710 megawatts of power by building two dams across the Koel and the Karo rivers and a connecting channel. The project was proposed in 1973, and protests began immediately by people likely to be displaced. The movement against the dam became part of the larger movement for creation of a separate Jharkhand state. It is widely cited as the longest and the most successful anti-dam movement in India, rooted entirely in the highly mobilised Munda society -- a Scheduled Tribe that is indigenous to the Chhotanagpur Plateau. The movement hasn't succeeded in getting the project scrapped, though the National Hydro-Electric Power Corporation has not been able to conduct even the preliminary surveys due to the organised nature of the tribal protest against it.

The top gives in
That the February 2001 incident happened only a few months after the creation of the Jharkhand state is gravely symbolic of the relationship of the tribals with their leadership. "We felt betrayed. This happened when a tribal, Babulal Marandi, was the chief minister," says Soma Munda of Lohajimi village in Torpa block, chairperson of the Koel-Karo Jan Sangathan (KKJS). "We don't trust any political party. Wherever a dam has come up, political parties have done the people in. We know the government is interested as long as we have the land. Once we move out, we will lose everything."

He wasn't always this cynical. There was a time when every political leader trying to gain a foothold in the boiling cauldron of Jharkhand politics was willing to extend support to the protest movement. The public sentiment against the project in the Torpa area has been so strong that even Babulal Marandi, who was hardly a part of the movement for the creation of Jharkhand and still became the state's first chief minister, had declared that the dam won't come up if the people of the area don't want it. Those who supported KKJS in the past include Karia Munda of the BJP, now the Union minister of coal, and Shibu Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, Soren group.

Karia Munda no more supports the movement against the dam, points out Dayamani Barla, who lives in Ranchi and has been at the forefront of the struggle. "In fact, once we raised the issue of unemployment that led young Jharkhandi women to work as housemaids in Delhi and other places. He turned around and said that jobs would come about only when projects like Koel-Karo go ahead. We all know what jobs indigenous people get in these projects, if any at all -- those of fourth class labourers." Shibu Soren, one of the oldest leaders of the Jharkhand movement and the biggest leader of the main opposition party in the state, is also non-committal on the issue. Down To Earth asked him whether he would scrap the project if his party came to power in the state. "We will ensure that the residents benefit from the project," Soren said.

Arjun Munda, Jharkhand's new 35-year-old chief minister, is a leader who came out of the All-Jharkhand Student's Union that led the Jharkhand movement from the front since the mid-1980s. Down To Earth asked him where he stood with regard to the Koel-Karo project. He declined to take a clear stand. "I will find a solution that is acceptable to all parties. I will ensure that the benefits from the project go to the people whose land is taken away, that they are adequately and justly compensated."

Says Soma Munda, "Talk of rehabilitation is irrelevant. In 1987, we asked them to show us how they would resettle two villages as models for rehabilitation. The government couldn't do it. We have two essential markers of a village: the sasandiri stones under which our ancestors lie buried, and our sacred groves called sarna. How will the government relocate them?" He gives a wily smile and explains: "We knew the government cannot relocate these. So we made it a precondition."

The way the leadership here has kept the government from carrying out its intent is quite remarkable. In 1985, the district police officers and an armed contingent laid siege on the village to force the government's presence in the area. The Munda used each and every tribal custom to make life difficult for the police. The police got no firewood or water in the area, and the women started cordoning of the police camp in the morning to ensure that the policemen did not get to go out to defecate. "We told them they can't defecate on our sacred groves. Our women planted crops on their path, knowing that if they damaged the crop they would have to pay compensation. Without any violence, we made their lives so miserable that they ran away in the cover of the night."

How is the tribal society of southern Ranchi district so organised? KKJS general secretary Vijay Gudia, resident of Tapkara, explains: "The people here are predominantly from the Munda tribe, and the customary system of collective decision-making is very much alive here." Anthropologists in Ranchi point out that though these systems may not be as democratic in some areas as they were in the past, they serve the need of the tribal community much better than the modern political system.

The way the Munda leadership here has handled the movement is a story by itself. This leadership is extremely conscious of the long-drawn struggle for land and forest that has marked the history of the Jharkhand region. For them, the difference between the British colonial masters and the governments of independent India is very little.

They are all aware of the laws to protect alienation of their land, which their ancestors (including the legendary Birsa Munda) earned after great sacrifices. The most important one is the Chhotanagpur Tenancy Act (CNTA). Passed in 1903 by the colonial government. It prevents non-tribals from purchasing tribal land in the Chhotanagpur plateau. It is worth noting that KKJS also draws support from non-tribals who have lived with them for long (they are called sadan). The traditional Munda leadership is also well connected with the larger political leadership of the Jharkhand movement. Several members of legislative assembly (MLSs) have supported the KKJS at some stage or the other.

But a gap between the political leadership and the traditional tribal leadership is increasing. The last real living example of this relationship, perhaps, is Niral Enem Horo of the Jharkhand Party. Widely respected as an extremely honest politician and a true leader of his people, Horo has maintained all along that the Koel-Karo project should be scrapped. In fact he told Down to Earth that he was not happy with the present leadership of the KKJS because it was showing signs of giving in to government pressure. Fact however remains that Horo is completely sidelined in the present politics of Jharkhand -- he lost the legislative assembly elections in 2000.

Those who are in power have already made noises about amending CNTA, including former chief minister Babulal Marandi, who claims that the law does not help tribals as it prevents them from getting the market price for their land. Most politicians talk about getting rid of CNTA because it blocks the 'development' of tribal areas. It is quite something to hear so many tribal leaders talk about keeping the 'national interest' in mind.

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