Lahbera: How the last Santhal settlement of Dhanbad is fighting for survival

The Santhals of Lahbera are fighting for their identity, ancestral land and survival amid the dust-laden air of coal mines in what used to be their ancestral homeland once  

By Shuchita Jha
Published: Friday 20 May 2022
A Santhal woman waits for water in Lahbera near Dhanbad, Jharkhand. Photo: Shuchita Jha/ CSE

The settlement of Lahbera basti, surrounded by coal mines, has 50 shanties that are home to almost 500 people. It is the last stronghold of the Santhal tribe in Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district. The Santhals are fighting for their identity, ancestral land and survival amid the dust-laden air of the mines in what used to be their ancestral homeland once.

The district of Dhanbad was a part of the region of Manbhum in the province of Bengal during the British Raj and home to the Santhals and Mundas. Today, though, it looks like any other locality, with hardly any traces of Santhal identity as one enters it.

But on going further, a temple dedicated to Marang buru, the Santhal god of forests, appears. The shrine is simple and plain, with just a few percussion instruments hung on the wall and an image of the deity.

The Santhals in the basti are gripped by an identity crisis, which they blame on its close proximity to Dhanbad, the second-largest city in Jharkhand.

Many of them are gradually forgetting their own traditions, torn between ‘mainstream’ culture and their traditional practices.

“We have become a ‘khichidi’, a melange,” Suman Devi, a resident of the area, told Down To Earth.

“We are neither here, nor there. There is a big festival, Sorhae, in January where we worship three Santhal deities — Marang buru, Ashapathi and Banshpahdi. But come October and we celebrate Diwali too. There are many people who have started keeping images of Lakshmi, Ganesha, Durga and Rama in their homes,” she added.

Their food habits, art and dressing style has also undergone major changes in the last 50 years, alienating them from their own culture.

Fighting for rights

The Santhals’ struggle for rights to their ancestral land and their daily survival is, however, their top priority.

Bharat Coking Coal Limited (BCCL), a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd, started mining the area in the 1980s. They employed people from the tribe and changed their means of livelihood forever after acquiring their land.

The new generation of Lahbera Santhals is also now completely dependent on the coal-economy, as they have no more farmland to practice agriculture.

The Vishwakarma Project began here in 2008, converting the underground mines under the Dhansar Project to open cast, giving 37 jobs to local youth in exchange for land.

“Mining in this area began in the 1980s when my father was alive,” a local told DTE on condition of anonymity.

“BCCL started acquiring our ancestral land, displacing our forefathers. My father and his friends raised their voices against the injustice and demanded compensation in return. That is how the company gave jobs as labourers in the mine, in exchange for our ancestral land,” he added.

The local, who himself works with BCCL as a labourer, lives in his two-room house, with his extended family, barely making ends meet.

Since the mines around the locality are active, the temperature in the area soars 8-9 degrees Celsius above the city temperature. The people of the locality face several problems and have to breathe polluted air every day.

“Whenever there is blasting, the houses shake and it gets immensely dusty. It becomes difficult to breathe,” said Suman.

There is a severe water crisis in the area. There is no scope of digging wells or bore-wells for water since the area is surrounded by mines on three sides.

“I have been witnessing this water scarcity since the time I was a kid. The locality is dependent on one municipality tap and the supply is not regular. So, everyone has to fill up containers and store water. If one person fills a lot of containers and then the supply for the day stops and others are unable to fill for themselves, fights erupt,” Rajesh Tudu, a local, said.

“The water is not clean. There is a lot if silt and coal dust in the water. So, after filling our vessels, we strain the water and then fill up the filters to make it fit for drinking,” Geeta Devi, another resident, said.  

Getting a water-pipeline to their homes is a luxury. Only a few people can afford to shell out Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 for it.

“We don’t have so much money. There are some people who have direct water-pipelines to their homes. But they also had to borrow some money from their friends or had to save up for a long time,” Geeta said.

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