Activists in West Bengal are at this point pondering over, debating and discussing the adverse impacts of the much touted mega open-cast coal mining project in Deocha-Pachami in the Birbhum district of West Bengal. While the adivasi villagers in the area are expressing their opposition to the mining project on their ancestral lands, and many activists and groups have started campainging to scrap the environmentally disastrous open cast coal mining project (#দেওচা-পাচামি: পরিবেশ ও জীবন বিরোধী প্রকল্প বন্ধ হোক, #ReisistDeuchaPachamiCoalMineProjet), there are others who are centering the debate on the issues of forceful eviction of the people, their proper rehabilitation and whether the government is following the rules and regulations or not (EIA, permission of Gram Sabha etc.). The major opposition parties in the state are also playing the ‘development’ card, with the CPI(M) even accusing CM Mamata Banerjee for not starting the coal mining project 10 years back.
It is important to look back at peoples’ past experiences with such projects, their struggle to stop them and the brutal response of the State. In this context, it will be apt to remember the date, 16 December 2000, a grim reminder of the infamous Maikanch police firing in Odisha on people’s opposition to bauxite mining. Twenty-one years ago, on this day, three adivasis — Raghunath Jhodia, Damodar Jhodia and Abhilash Jhodia — fell prey to police firing in Maikanch village of Kashipur block in Rayagada district of Odisha.
GroundXero publishes excerpts from Chapter 8 The Song of the Mali in the book Resisting Dispossession: The Odisha Story by Ranjana Padhi and Nigamananda Sadangi.
The winter in Maikanch had ripened. The malis (hills) that wore different colours during the rainy and autumn seasons with the crops of ragi, maize, alsi, kandul had been bare. Crops grown on them had been harvested; so also paddy from the tiny plots nestled with the perennial streams. Villagers had the blessings of Dharni Ma. There was no worry for food for the next six to seven months. The dishari had fixed the days for celebration of Pus Parab marking the end of the harvest and had not dreamt or cautioned any danger to the village. Yet something happened. On 16 December 2000, the police fired upon a gathering of protestors and shot dead three of them and injured a dozen more. They were protesting against the setting up of an Alumina Plant and bauxite mining in their ancestral land. A few bullets pierced the bauxite-pregnant belly of the hillocks and a few hit the streams running out of the hillocks. Tiny fish playing in the streams found themselves dead before they could hide under the pebbles. And three cows grazing in the hillock also fell to the police bullets. Were the hillocks, streams, fishes and cows participating in the protest? Did they feel threatened by the plant and mining?
Nestling on the foothills of Baphlimali, Maikanch with a predominantly Jhodia and Paraja population is in Kashipur Block in Rayagada district. The district was part of the undivided Koraput till 1992. In the same year, Utkal Aluminum International Ltd. (UAIL), a consortium of companies signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with the government of Odisha to set up an Alumina Refinery Plant at Doraguda by extracting bauxite from Baphlimali. Subsequently, more MoUs were signed to mine bauxite from other malis of the area. This was projected as the panacea for one of the most backward regions of Odisha, in journalistic parlance, the Ethiopia of Odisha. But the people of malis — the kandhas, parajas, jhodias and pengos – had different perception. It is their land, the `dumas’ (spirits of the ancestors) are watching over them; it is their life and livelihood however wretched it may be for others; it is in this land that lie buried many dreams and many memories; many dreams are still alive. Out of this soil are born their cultures and practices. So, in the name of development, when their land, streams, forests and malis that they have known to be theirs for centuries are being handed over to companies, they rise and revolt to protect their sources of subsistence.
The river flows by Ramibeda and Doraguda;
Streams murmur along
Bagrijhola and Kucheipadar
Etched in our hearts are these lands, these villages;
These streams, these rivers;
Which we cannot leave, we cannot leave
Indal is here with Tata and Hydro
To wipe us out, to wipe us out
All in the name of Development…Development
To cheat us, to cheat us
All in the name of Employment…Employment
Baphlimali, Kutrumali, Sijidangar
They are all ours, all ours
Do not, do not allow them to be ruined
Do not, do not hand them over to the companies, to the companies!
– A Song of the PSSP (translated)
Company’s trick: All Party Development Committee
Exasperated, the company applied another trick from its bag: The All Party Development Committee. Members of all the major political parties – Congress, BJD and BJP – were part of the Committee. The single point programme of the Committee was to garner support for the project. Incidentally, the members were local traders, contractors and politicians who had an eye on the project to get contracts – small and big. It became a formidable local group in support of the project. It symbolized the unwritten consensus among major political parties of the country about corporate-led development.
This development sprang a surprise on the movement. It also clarified many things for it. Bhagaban Majhi, one of the leaders of the movement says: “People became clear who our enemies are and who are our friends.”
In a showdown of strength, the Committee went to organize a meeting on 15 December, 2000 just when PSSP had given a call for a chakka jaam program at Rapkana square on 20 December. The Committee on its way to the meeting place was stopped at Maikanch by the PSSP activists. This resulted in a scuffle and the Committee went back. It was a sort of defeat for the latter. For they had been ruling the roost in Kashipur, and ordinary adivasis and dalits had dared to challenge them for the first time.
It was a costly challenge too. Next morning around 10 am, three platoons of armed police entered Maikanch.
Kashipur Developed into Martyrdom
Around 10-11 am, sarkari babus and police forces reached the village in two cars and three jeeps. Only we women were around. Most of the men were away. They inquired about five men they were looking for. When we told them that they are not here they asked us to call them from wherever they were. We told them you can talk to us. They refused saying that they want only those five men. They told us to move out and started entering the village. As we refused, they hit us with lathis. Danei fell down. We thought she died. Everyone howled, Danei is dead, Danei is dead. We continued to howl and shout at the police forces. It reached the men. They came rushing down the malis. Then the police started firing. Raghunath Jhodia, Damodar Jhodia and Abhilash Jhodia succumbed. Police carried away their dead bodies and some injured.
As the news of police firing reached villages, people kept coming to Maikanch. PSSP activists, who had gone to different villages to campaign for the Rapkana chakka jaam programme, rushed back to Maikanch. Receiving dead bodies of their beloved comrades from the police, PSSP arranged the funeral pyre in the nearby mali for which they sacrificed their lives. As the pyre was lit, slogans rent the air: Long live Raghunath Jhodia! Long Live Damodar Jhodia! and Long Live Abhilash Jhodia! The malis echoed back.
Bhagaban Majhi reflecting on the situation said:
It was a moment of intense pain and great loss for all of us. But we had to steel our nerves. We assessed the situation that the killing was to check the movement spreading and sent messages accordingly. And, we resolved not to cancel our Rapkana program and let their sacrifices go in vain. Once the funeral work was over, we started preparation. The day after the funeral, people of distant villages began walking with rice, ragi, kandula and other vegetables and stayed overnight in nearby villages. On 20 December, nearly 10,000 people gathered at Rapkana. People mourned and wept, sang and danced and once again resolved not to part with their land for the company.
When someone near and dear dies, people observe certain rituals for the peaceful rest of the soul of the dead. The state has its own rituals too. When it shoots somebody dead, it declares some amount of money as compensation for the living dependent of the dead. It settles the account. Can this process be reversed? Can people kill someone representing the State and declare compensation for it to square the account? After the Maikanch firing, when the government declared compensation, the people of Kashipur asked this question. Perhaps, the question was too unsettling. Perhaps, they found it barbaric. But the government had no answer.
It is surely civilized of the State to kill its people.
More rituals follow. Whenever the state carries out atrocities, it is ready to set up a commission to whitewash its murderous acts. Thus, a Commission of Enquiry was set up. Retired Justice Mishra headed it. Once again people rejected it and declared their non-cooperation.
The Commission of Enquiry
The Commission went on with its enquiry for more than three years and submitted its report on 17 January 2003. It found many things ranging from manipulation of FIRs to overzealousness of police officers to the use of gross excessive use of force. The Commission also raised doubts and questions about the action and attitude of the police. Permit us to quote only a few lines:
There was also no justification for such a large contingent of force to enter inside the village unless, of course, the intention was to teach the protestors a lesson. The Commission further observed: The perception that police force acts under the influence of political masters or for the rich and the influential has gained ground not without justification in many parts of the State and more so, in the comparatively less developed areas. A police officer particularly at the thana level considers himself as the sovereign of all he surveys forgetting that essentially he is a public servant and his primary duty is to serve the interest of the society. (Mishra Commission Report 2003)
But while enquiring about the causes of firing, the Commission also found that the proposed alumina plant would not cause pollution. Was it supposed to assess the environmental impact of the report too? Heaven knows what scientific evidence led the Commission to conclude this.
Of course, it is sacrilegious to cast doubt on the motive of Justice Incarnate.
The report without punishing the culprits added to the woes of the victims by giving a moral credence to the alumina project. It was an exercise in turning the entire issue of life and livelihood of people and loot of natural resources by companies into an environmental issue. All vested interest groups used the report as a hammer to beat down people’s resistance.
After the release of the Commission’s report, the Revenue Divisional Commissioner (RDC), South Range, was entrusted with the duty of collecting people’s opinion on the project. Was there anything to know about people’s opinion after 12 years of resistance and that too, when three people had laid down their lives opposing the project? Had not the people given their opinion opposing the project in Gram Sabha meetings as per the constitutional provisions in the Fifth Schedule area? Does not the Samata Judgment clearly state that the tribal people cannot be alienated from their land even by the State as the State is an alien entity as far as tribal land is concerned? Why are the laws of the land made to bend when the interest of corporate houses are involved?
The RDC went on collecting people’s opinions sitting at the district headquarters, Rayagada. The entire district administration and company agents went on fishing for people who could be persuaded and intimidated into giving a favourable opinion for the project. Collection of opinion, literally, turned into purchase of opinion. The company’s money bag and the district administration’s authority was a deadly bait for some to refuse. Specifically, some local youths fell prey to it. Once again, the compensation money for land was increased into Rs 100,000 per acre from 20, 000 per acre. Even then, resistance to the project continued.
Originally published by Palgrave Macmillan, the Indian print edition is available with Aakar Books, New Delhi. The book is available in Odia; the Hindi version Gaon Chodab Naahin: Odisha ke Jan Andolon ki Gaathayen is going for printing.