Madia-Gond tribals in Maharashtra are fighting an oppressive state and high-handed mining companies to save their god and source of livelihood — the forests, reports Prateek Goyal. Laws passed by Parliament seem to have no resonance here

Despite their firm ‘No’ to mining, tribals are uncertain of the future

Despite their firm ‘No’ to mining, tribals are uncertain of the future

The road leading to Surjagadh mountain ranges in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra passes through lush green forests of Dandkaranya. The smooth road winding through wilderness is suddenly broken by barbed wires and concrete camp by on the left side. The presence of police and CRPF is justified by the authorities as preventive mechanism for Naxalism. Scratch the surface a little and villagers tell you that anti-Naxalism is just a garb under which the state is supporting powerful people with deep pockets to take away the tribals’ most sacred treasure, their forest.

Kaun ho aur kidhar jaa rahe ho? Gaadi ka number kya hai?” is the routine question posed by Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans or Maharashtra state policemen to passersby on the road going towards Surjagad mountain range. A person going to or coming out from villages near Surjagad is subjected to mandatory checking by joint fortified camps of CRPF and Maharashtra police in village Hedri of Etapalli tehsil of this Naxal-affected region of Dandakaranya forest.

However, some eight months ago there was no such camp in Hedri.

As per the villagers, Naxalites are not the reason behind establishment of the camps. The reason behind heavy security in the area around Surjagad mountain ranges is allegedly to facilitate iron ore mining in this area, Bande and Damkodwadavi for private companies like Llyods Metal and Energy and JSW Ispat.

Gram Sabha elicits the will of the people but  their voice is ignored in the quest for minerals

Gram Sabha elicits the will of the people but their voice is ignored in the quest for minerals

The miningcompanies have allegedly not taken permission from Gram Sabhas for their project, which is mandatory before starting mining in any area. Madia-Gond tribals in the area are opposingmining projects as theirs is a forest-based community and their livelihoods depend on it. This opposition has invited unnecessary harassment from police, which is trying to coerce them into submission.

It’s around two in the afternoon and more than 150 men and women of Parsalgondi village of Ettapalli tehsil have gathered in the premises of a government primary school to attend a Gram Sabha to decide on the Surjagadmining issue. Sainu Masu Gota, the 55-year-old president of Surjagad Bachao Sangharsh Samiti is addressing the villagers in Gondi language. He starts his address by mentioning the name of Dr Brahma Dev Sharma, who worked for tribal rights throughout his life and who is also responsible for framing Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act which is also called PESA and Forest Rights Act.

“Dr BD Sharma championed for our tribal community and made PESA for our well-being. If somebody is cutting trees in forests or mining, he cannot do it without our permission. Private companies planning to do mining in Surjagad, Bande and Damkondwadavi are going to destroy our jungle. All forest produce will get destroyed, water streams will be affected, and our life will be turned upside down. They are not going to give us anything; even promises of employment are false. Let’s make a collective and wise decision about it,” he says.

Although mining will take place at only three sites, it will affect at least 40 villages in the periphery of Surjagad. Gram Sabhas have not been consulted, as per the law

The villagers listen with rapt attention to his speech, after which the Gram Sabha passes a collective decision against mining in Surjagad mountain ranges.

Gota says, “There are around 70 villages in Surjagad patti (area) and in last two years, 60 Gram Sabhas voted against mining in these mountain ranges. We Madia-Gonds are totally dependent on the forest. We earn money by selling forest produces like bamboo, mahua, tendu patta, lac and in a year our area earns 2-3 crore from thise forest produce.”

“We tribals are the owners of this forest and without consulting us they cannot do anything. If mining is allowed, it will destroy our forest, our culture, and lives of our coming generations,” adds Gota.

Gota also informs TEHELKA that CRPF and police are keeping constant vigil ontribals. He said, “We are monitored by them all the time. They call up the villagers and threaten them. They call young boys to
police stations and ask them to clean drains. They ask villagers to support mining. They tell us that it is going to improve our lives; we will get employment. When villagers reason with them about forest rights, they are beaten up by cops. On 28 July, around 250 people were detained for eight days across various police station of Etapalli tehsil.”

Sacred place
Surjagad is considered to be the most sacred place for the Madia-Gond tribals of the region as it houses the shrine of their god Thakur Dev. When yearly celebrations take place at Thakur Dev shrine, villagers from around 500 villages ofGadchiroli and neighbouring Chhattisgarh come to attend it. That’s why many of the tribals say, “Jaan de denge lekin pahad nahi denge” (We will give up our lives but not the mountain).

Mining sites have been proposed at Surjagad, Bande and Damkodwadavi hills. Although mining will take place only at three sites, it will affect at least 40 villages in the periphery of Surjagad.

This is precisely the site leased by Llyods Metals and Energy Ltd, headquartered in Mumbai. An area of 348.9 hectare (1 hectare=2.47 acres) was allotted to Llyods formining in the year 1990 for a lease of 20 years. However, they couldn’t start the project and their lease was revised in 2007 for next 20 years. Another proposedmining site at Surjagad hill has been recommended to Mumbai- based Gopani Iron and Power (India) Pvt Ltd in 2012. A proposed mine at Bande hill was recommended to Nagpur-based Gadchiroli Metals and Mineral.

In 2012, the Union Ministry of Mines recommended that JSW Ispat be allotted the lease to mine the largest area at Damkodwadavi hill.  A total area of 751.04 hectare for the proposed mining site was given to JSW for 20 years.

 company has cut trees to clear the way for its project; (inset) approach to idyllic village Nender

company has cut trees to clear the way for its project;

It is important to note that PESA clearly mentions that the administration has to seek permission of the Gram Sabha in case of land acquisition. It cannot acquire any piece of land without consulting the Gram Sabha. However, in case of final miningsite and proposedmining sites at Surjagad mountain range, administration and companies have allegedly not taken the permission of respective Gram Sabhas.
The mining lease of Llyods Metals and Energy at Surjagad was revised in 2007 allegedly without taking the permission of the Gram Sabha. Even a public hearing (Jan Sunwai) was not conducted by the authorities (district administration and Maharashtra Pollution Control Board) in this regard, despite knowing that villagers of Surjagad are opposed to mining projects.

In the case of the proposed mining site for JSW Ispat at Damkodwadavi, the Gram Sabha was allegedly not consulted. However, a public hearing was conducted by authorities on 8 May 2013 at Alapalli. Here it is significant that Damkodwadavi comes in Etapalli tehsil whereas public hearing took place at Alapalli, 75 km from the proposed site. Instead of calling villagers of Damkodwadavi, non-tribal villagers of Chamorshi were called for a public hearing to seek consent on proposed mining.

However, before the public hearing at Alapalli on 1 May 2013, a Gram Sabha of 11 villages was called upon by villagers at Gatta village Gram Panchayat of Etapalli tehsil, where villagers voted against the proposed mining in Damkodwadavi.

More than 90 percent area of Gadchiroli district comes under forest cover and there are 17-18 proposed mining sites in the district, starting from Korchi tehsil in the north to Etapalli in the south. According to locals, 70-80 percent Gadchirolihas iron ore deposits and private companies have been eyeing them since 1990.

Mahesh Raut, a former PMRD (Prime Minister Rural Development) fellow and a local activist in Gadchiroli, informs that out of 1,567 villages in Gadchiroli, 1,311 villages come under PESA. Therefore, no one can acquire land in these areas without the permission of tribals. Still, mining sites are being proposed and finalised without their permission.

Raut says, “Companies like JSW and Llyods make claims that mining in Surjagad mountain ranges will improve the socio-economic conditions of villagers in these areas. They claim they will provide employment, health facilities and schools fortribals, but most of these claims turn out to be false. An example of this is the claim made by JSW Ispat of generating 172 jobs at the mining site of Damkodwadavi. If they are only generating 172 jobs, where will the 4,000 people of 17 affected
villages near the mining site go?”

“Llyods and JSW will extract iron ore from Surjagad and Damkodwadavi hills and take it to their respective steel plants at Ghugus in Chandrapur and Dolvi in Raigad. Initially, to create a favourable atmosphere for mining companies among villagers, company officials even talked about starting steel projects in the area. But it should be noted that in order to start a project, the whole forest will be destroyed. These projects are mostly sponge iron projects which will not only highly pollute the area but are also extremely hazardous to health,” said Raut.

Another factor which is of concern is that sponge iron plants are considered to be a red category
industry which represents high pollution and spells hazards to health. India is the largest producer of sponge iron in the world and most of the sponge iron projects are in tribal areas of country.

Naxalism as excuse
Repression of tribals by state forces Gadchiroli is a part of the Left-Wing Extremism (LWE) Red Corridor. The tribals worship nature and hence conserve the forest. Ninety percent population of Etapalli and Bhamragad tehsils is Madia-Gond. Besides Madia-Gond, Kolam and Katkari are the other tribes in Maharashtra who are categorised as Primitive Tribal Groups (PTG). But as compared to Madia-Gonds, the other two tribes have lost their forests and are living in extreme hardship. Kolam tribe in Yawatmal and Katkari tribe in Thane have the maximum number of malnutrition deaths in Maharashtra.

The Ministry of Mines is in favour of expediting the required clearances to miningcompanies without even considering the view of local people, says an earthscientist working in the area

Lalsu Soma Nagoti, a resident of Bhamragad, is the first lawyer to emerge from the Madia-Gond tribe. He completed his law education from renowned India Law Society’s Law College in Pune. He not only works as an advocate at Aheri court but also has been striving for tribal rights in Etapalli and Bhamragad for the last nine years. He told Tehelka, “Madia-Gond is a hunting-gathering community. The socio-economic condition of the tribals of Gadchiroli is pretty sound and that is why one never hears of deaths related to malnutrition here.”

“But once mining starts, the whole forest will be destroyed and then issues such as migration, malnutrition and poverty will become primary concerns of the community. This is why Madia-Gonds are against mining,” adds Lalsu

Police have twice raided Lalsu’s house and also arrested him once, suspecting him to be a Naxalite supporter. Lalsu said, “I advocate about PESA and Forest Rights Act among tribals to create awareness among them, which is why police suspect me of having Naxal links. They raided my house in 2011 and 2016. However, local police later apologised to me, saying they were only following the orders of senior officers. Once I was also arrested during a public meeting at Etapalli and was detained at the police station for a day.”

Ninety percent of Surjagad region has voted against mining in the area. Tribals believe that their opposition to mining has not gone down well with the police, which is why they are subjected to unnecessary harassment and are often called to police stations for ‘inquiry’.

When TEHELKA visited Nender village, the village nearest to Surjagad mountain, it was observed that police is engaged in persuading villagers to accept mining in the area.

Thirty-four-year-old Masa, who is the Bhumiya (person responsible for the revenue of the village in tribal set-up) says, “Police don’t threaten us but they say if companies come here, it is going to help us. But we don’t believe it because we know the forest will be destroyed. We can sacrifice our lives but we will not give up our mountain.”

Fellow villager Sannu Alam, 32, agrees with Masa, adding, “Police says you will become rich and will roam around in cars if you allow mining companies in the area.”

It is important to recall that in 2013, the vice president of Llyods Steel and two other employees were killed by Naxalites in Nender. In order to stop villagers from taking part in anti-mining activities in Surjagad, police have started sending out notices urging them to mark their presence in the police station ‘for extremely important official work’. Notices are sent to gaon patil (village headman), which mention the name of villagers who are supposed to report to the police station. Usually, such villagers end up in
detention for two or three days.

Recently on September 22, a notice was sent to the village headman of Jillenguda village in Etapalli asking five villagers to report to Gatta police station on 24 September. On September 23, the wife of one of the villagers, Vinod Navdi, whose name was mentioned in the notice, was picked up by police from the village market in the morning and was detained till evening. When she was released, she was asked to carry a notice saying that one member from all 68 families of Jillenguda village should report to Gatta police station on September 24.

Villagers protested against the notice and passed a Gram Sabha resolution that they will not go to the police station until police share clear information with the Gram Sabha. They demanded that the Collector instruct the police department to refrain from such tactics and respect Gram Sabha rights under PESA and Forest Rights Act (FRA).

According to the tribals, police has started acting oppressively since a protest march was carried out by them six months ago against the road construction on Surjagad hill for the Lloyds mining site. In February 2016, the company started cutting trees to make the road but stopped the construction after a protest was carried out.

Ramdas Jarathe, an activist who creates awareness about PESA and FRA among thetribals in Gadchiroli says, “After we protested against the construction of road on Surjagad hill, police has started troubling us. Around 1,500 CRPF jawans were posted here. Common camps of CRPF and state police were established at Hedri and Gatta village and new posts are going to be set up at Koti, Burgi, Halewara, Peepli, Kasunsar and some other villages surrounding the Surjagad mountain ranges. Their plan is to cover the mountain from all sides so that mining work cannot be obstructed by locals. Almost 400 villages will come under the surveillance of CRPF.”

“Calling villagers to police stations, beating them and detaining them unnecessarily has created an atmosphere of tension in Gadchiroli. On 28 July, which is observed as Martyrs’ Day by Naxalites, 600 tribals were detained by police for 3-4 days at Etapalli, Bhamragad, Dhanora and Korchi villages. Everyone who talks about tribal rights is branded as a Naxalite or Naxal supporter. State forces are hell-bent on making Gadchiroli into another Bastar, but we will not let this happen,” said Jarathe.

According to Nandu Matani, a student leader of Adivasi Vidyarthi Sanghatan, Llyods is planning to deploy 4,000 personal guards on Surjagad hill. With such heavy security, both public and private, there are bound to be atrocities againsttribals. Chukku Madi Pungati, 32, of Midguvencha village in Bhamragad relates, “On May 18, I along with my brother and other nine people of my village were collecting tendu leaves in the jungle. Later C-60 commandos and police came there; they took us to Kothi police station at 9 in the morning and released us at 5.30 in the evening. I was beaten up with sticks and iron rods for almost 6-7 hours, due to which I fainted in the police station.”

Pungati says the police released everybody except his brother. They charged him for helping and sharing information with Naxalites and lodged him in Chandrapur jail. “A police constable disappeared and police thought that my brother had revealed his whereabouts to Naxalites. After this incident, I have been often called up by cops to  police station. Life has changed — and it’s going to be like this for the rest of my life,” he adds.

Similarly, in February, 15-year-old Ranu Pongati of Rekhnar village was mercilessly beaten up by police. A local of Rekhnar who spoke to this reporter on the condition of anonymity says, “A police constable was killed by Naxalites in Hedri Bazaar. Two days later, C-60 commandos came to our village and started inquiring about Ranu. They forcefully put red chili powder in his mouth and assaulted him with sticks. They took him to Etapalli and released him in the evening. We complained about this incident to senior police officials and asked them to instruct their men to not harass villagers unnecessarily.”

CPI (Maoist) in a press release (available with TEHELKA) claims that from January to June 2016, around 300 tribals were physically tortured by police, C-60 commandos and CRPF. When Gadchiroli District Collector Ranga Nayak was questioned about the mining issue and harassment to tribals opposing it, he said, “We are open to hearing out the grievances of people and will find out a solution acceptable to everybody. We cannot deny the fact that there are no employment opportunities presently available in this area. But yes, we need to discuss it and nobody should be at a loss.”

“Police or state is not pro somebody or against somebody. But if there are incidents of harrassment from police, they should report it to senior officers and sort it out,” adds Nayak.

On the same lines, Gadchiroli Superintendent of Police Abhinav Deshmukh says, “Police officials have the right to detain but they should not detain without any reason. There must be some reason for detention. But still, if somebody has objections against police action, they can come directly to me. I will look into the matter.”

Sreedhar Rammurthy, Managing Trustee, Environics Trust and an earth scientistwho has been working on the issues related to mining for a period over two decades, says, “Companies put pressure on the ministry and after getting clearance from them they are not much concerned about Gram Sabha resolution or PESA or other rules. By repression or by other arm-twisting tactics, they start their mining projects. They threaten people or force people to submit to their demands. Even the Ministry of Mines is in favour of expediting the required clearances to mining companies without even considering the view of local population.

In this context, it is significant that in March 2016, the Ministry of Mines issued a memorandum to form an Inter Ministerial Group, to be called the Post-Auction Mining Clearances and Approvals Facilitator, to facilitate various clearances and approvals required by mining companies after a mineral block is allocated to them. It has been mentioned in the memorandum that in order to make Prime Minister’s ‘Make in India’ initiative successful, it is imperative that auction blocks come to production stage in the shortest time.