By Rajiv Singh, ET Bureau | 26 Apr, 2015, 03.05AM IST
The Land Bill will not only kill farmers but will also prove fatal for the BJP. If they pass the bill, they will be seen as pro-corporate and if they don’t, corporates will shun them," says Dayamani Barla, a tribal activist.The Land Bill will not only kill farmers but will also prove fatal for the BJP. If they pass the bill, they will be seen as pro-corporate and if they don’t, corporates will shun them,” says Dayamani Barla, a tribal activist.
As the to-be-tabled Land Bill becomes a hot potato against a backdrop of farmer strife, ET Magazine visits three regions including Jharkhand that has turned into a battleground, with villagers on one side and governments and corporates on the other.

TURUNDU, JHARKHAND: August 14, 2008, 11.30 pm: The mood is upbeat, the occasion historic; and the planning majestic. Over 3,000 people in this sleepy village come together, some shouting slogans, others crooning patriotic songs and still others making feverish preparations for the next day celebrations. Quite a few of them, mostly women, weep intermittently through the night, unable to control their emotions.

For the first time, the villagers of Turundu, some 77 km from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand, is going to celebrate Independence Day. On Friday morning of August 15, 2008, the national flag is unfurled in the village ground. The spirited villagers in the Gumla district of Jharkhand sing the national anthem and congratulate each other.

They also gear up for one final battle, raising the slogan ladai vabu, jithar vabu (will fight, will win). The victory came two years later in 2010. The villagers had succeeded in forcing the world’s largest steelmaker ArcelorMittal out of Khunti-Gumla, where it was planning to put up a 12 million tonne steel factory.

“They had steel, but we had nerves of steel,” says Dayamani Barla, the plucky tribal woman activist who led the agitation against the world’s biggest steel maker. “For us, the year of Independence was not 1947 but 2008 when we resolved to fight against the move to capture our land,” she says.

On October 8, 2005, ArcelorMittal (then Mittal Steel) had inked a memorandum of understanding with the Jharkhand government to invest Rs 40,000 crore in setting up the steel-making unit. The land required for the project was a staggering 12,000 hectares.

(For perspective, 12,000 hectares is roughly the total area on which 30 million kg of tea is produced in the Annamalai hill range between Tamil Nadu and Kerala) A decade later, the Luxembourg-based steel giant is yet to start operations as it is still scouting for elusive land in the state where it has been forced to change its proposed plant site not once but twice due to stiff resistance from the farming tribal community.

In 2010, it decided to relocate from the Khunti-Gumla area to Bokaro. Frustrated with inordinate delays in acquisition of land in Odisha, it scrapped its $12-billion steel plant in 2013. The company had inked an MoU in 2006 to set up a 12-million tonne steel plant in four phases in Keonjhar.

However, the LN Mittalpromoted steel maker is still hanging on to its Jharkhand dream. In February this year, Sanjay Sharma, the company’s chief executive officer for India and China, met Jharkhand chief minister Raghubar Das and renewed ArcelorMittal’s commitment to setting up a greenfield plant in the state. Das told ET Magazine: “Jharkhand needs investment. I will not only support ArcelorMittal but all other national as well as foreign corporates who want to invest in Jharkhand.” (see “I will Support…”).

PROJECT: 12-mtpa greenfield steel project by ArcelorMittal

ABOUT: On October 8, 2005, ArcelorMittal had inked an MoU with the Jharkhand government to invest Rs 40,000 crore in setting up a steel plant. It required 12,000 hectares for the project. A decade later, the steel giant is still scouting for elusive land.

OPPOSITION TO PROJECT: Villagers refused to part with land, their only means of livelihood. They get a paltry sub Rs 200 that the villagers get in the name of minimum wage guarantee. But this too is just for 100 days.

STATUS: MoU was signed in 2005. In 2010, the project site was shifted from Khunti-Gumla area to Petarwar-Kasmar area in Bokaro. Finally, the company zeroed in on Chas in Bokaro. Land has still not been acquired.

High Stakes in Mineral-rich State

“Ek inch zameen bhi nahin denge (we won’t give even an inch of land),” thunders Barla in Turundu village. The villagers, who had gathered to hear didi, as Barla is fondly called by the villagers, loudly chant Ladai vabu, jithar vabu.

Even as the Modi government’s Land Bill appears to be heading towards no man’s land across the country with farmers vehemently protesting against its amended avatar, it’s in the mineral-rich states of Jharkhand, Odisha and Chhattisgarh where its fate would be sealed. In fact, battle lines are being drawn in Jharkhand, India’s richest state in terms of mineral resources. And the fight is being spearheaded by Barla who moves from village to village, mobilising hundreds of tribals, sensitising them about the impending threat and educating them about the bill.

Turundu’s Raju Lohara is one such villager who is ready to sacrifice his life for didi so that she can stop ArcelorMittal. “Unhone 10 saal intazaar kiya hai lekin zameen nahin mila. 100 saal baad bhi kuch nahin milega (they waited for 10 years but couldn’t get land. Even after 100 years they won’t get anything).”

As ET Magazine travels to remote, almost inaccessible, villages of Jharkhand, one gets to see many Loharas gearing up for the big fight. Jabra village, in the Karra tehsil of Khunti district, is no stranger to agitations against land acquisition. Over 100 families in this village were up in arms against the move of the government to acquire land for the construction of a dam in 2010. The villagers thrashed the private contractors and chased them away when they tried to lay the foundation for the dam. Since then, the land has been laying vacant.

“Johar [namaste], didi,” Lodha Munda, the village headman, greets Barla as we enter Jabra, a nondescript village that still swears by its tribal tradition of warmth in greeting friends as well as strangers. A few women get a small vessel of water, dip a bunch of mango leaves and sprinkle it on the visitors. The guests are then made to wash their hands. The traditional welcome is followed by serving a glass of juice made from crushing fruit from different trees in the jungle.

Munda, wearing an Aam Aadmi Party cap, rushes to get a couple of plastic chairs. “Ab Aam Aadmi kahan hai, sirf topi hai [Now there is only a cap but no Aam Aadmi Party],” he quips, referring to the Lok Sabha polls during last May which Barla, contesting from AAP, lost by a heavy margin.

As the word spreads about Barla’s visit, people quickly assemble around a big tree in the centre of the village. “Zameen hamari pehchaan hai (land is our identity),” says Munda, adding that nobody can snatch it from them. The government says development can’t happen without land, but we want to ask why have we been deprived of electricity, drinking water and roads for over so many decades, he says. “Jindal, Mittal ki jaagir nahin, Jharkhand hamara hai [ Jharkhand is not the property of Jindal and Mittal. It belongs to us].”

It’s easy to see why there is widespread anger and resentment in the villages of Jharkhand against the move to acquire land. Hundreds of villages are still living in primitive times. There is no electricity, and places where it miraculously appears, it’s so erratic that it doesn’t make much of a difference to people’s lives. Mosquito-infested wells are by and large the only means of drinking water.

At most places, the water is so dirty that it resembles the polluted-Yamuna water of Delhi. A dispensary, which doesn’t have basic medical equipment, forget doctors and trained nurses, is a cruel joke in the name of healthcare.

The only means of livelihood is the agricultural land, which is now under the radar of the government for development purposes; and a paltry sub Rs 200 that the villagers get in the name of minimum wage guarantee. But this too is just for 100 days or so. “The government can’t provide them basic amenities but talks about hefty compensation for selling land,” says Barla.

Elephant in the Jungle

For tribals, land is a not a commodity to be traded or sold. It’s their soul. “You can’t remove the soul from the body,” says Barla. The ancestral land of the tribals is not just the only source of their livelihood but also an integral part of their culture and identity.

Rajan Topono, the gram pradhan (village head) of Karra Kita Toli, says he was offered Rs 5 crore in 2008 to grant permission to vacate the entire village land for the steel plant. “A dalal [land agent] offered me Rs 5 crore but I refused. Land is my mother. I can’t sell it.” Although there is no official record available about the number of people displaced due to acquisition of land, Barla claims that over 80 lakh tribals have been displaced in the state since 1947. “Over 10 lakh were uprooted during the last decade in Jharkhand,” she contends.

It doesn’t matter to Barla if she is labelled ‘anti-development’ by her detractors. In 2013, the activist led a tribal movement at Nagri, around 15 km from the capital city of Ranchi. At the heart of the issue was 227 acres allotted by the government for the building of campuses for the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) and National University of Study and Research in Law (NUSRL).

Barla fought for the rights of over 150 affected families who claimed to be owners of this fertile stretch of land that the government acquired. The land is still a disputed site.

‘While Barla may be busy galvanising tribals over the Land Bill across the state, Jharkhand Mukti Morcha, the main opposition party, has also hardened its stand and sees it as an opportunity to put the BJP-led state government on the back foot. “We are not against development,” says Hemant Soren, former chief minister of Jharkhand. “But we can’t tolerate destruction in the name of development.”

‘Soren, who was once a coalition partner of the BJP, says over 10 lakh acres have been acquired in Jharkhand since 1947. He says a false notion has been spread across the country that development can’t happen without setting up industries. “ArcelorMittal is like a big elephant trying to enter a narrow lane in Jharkhand,” he says, adding that the consequences of such a move would be disastrous.

“The elephant would not only trample upon millions of people it will also destroy the state.” Looked upon as messiah of the tribals, Soren threatens to launch a violent agitation across the state if the Land Bill is passed.

Meanwhile, Barla finishes her two-day whirlwind tour of villages and returns to her tea shop at Club Road in Ranchi on Thursday evening. “The fight is for jal, jungle, jameen (water, forest and land),” she says. After finishing her tea and two samosas, she gets ready to go to her office, just a few metres from the tea shop.

“Welcome to my grand office,” she says, bursting into laughter. A small, cramped room with heaps of newspapers stacked against one of the walls is Barla’s war zone. A huge portrait of Birsa Munda, the biggest tribal leader of Jharkhand who is revered here, can be seen in the dim light emanating from a 60-watt Philips bulb that hangs from the tin roof of her office. A big picture of her protest march against ArcelorMittal also finds a pride of place on her mud wall.

“This [Land] Bill will not only kill farmers but will also prove fatal for the BJP,” she predicts. “Their future is bleak. If they pass the bill, they will be seen procorporate and if they don’t, corporates will shun them.”

Excerpts from an interview with Jharkhand Chief Minister Raghubar Das:

On the Land Bill

The bill is not meant to grab the land of the tribals and the farmers. There are provisions and amendments that have even further strengthened the rights of the farmers. If we need development, we need this bill.

On industrial development versus agriculture
‘ Both have to go hand in hand. You can’t sacrifice one at the cost of the other. If you want hospitals, you will need land. If you need railways, you again need land. Development can’t happen in the skies, it has to be on land. Similarly, if you need food, agriculture is required. And to provide irrigation facilities, dams are required, which again means land is needed.

On ArcelorMittal’s project

Jharkhand needs investment. I will not only support ArcelorMittal but all other national as well as foreign corporates who want to invest in Jharkhand. I told ArcelorMittal that there is no point in talking about 12,000 hectares of land in one go. Obviously you won’t need that much of land to begin with. Start with a few thousand hectares, talk directly to the farmers, give them four to five times the rate of the land, provide a job to one of their family members. I don’t see any reason why we can’t buy land if we are able to keep farmers happy.

On resistance among tribals

People with vested interests are playing politics over the land acquisition bill. Let’s not play politics with the life of the farmers. Aren’t these so-called champions of tribals ashamed of themselves when they send their kids to private schools and poor tribals are deprived of education? Aren’t they ashamed of paying lip service to the welfare of the tribals over the last 15 years or so? I have spoken to tribals, I have been interacting with them and they don’t have any objection to the Land Bill.