United in cause: Gadchiroli tribals taking out a protest against mining operations in the district earlier this week.

Activists claim promise of employment won’t hold as tribals will only get temporary jobs

GADCHIROLI: Sixty-year-old Ratia Gunia Tigga, an Urrao tribal from Bande village in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra, is unsure about the produce from his eight-and-a-half acres of farmland this year.

Mr. Tigga, who looks after a family of five, cultivates paddy. He manages to produce around 50 bags every year.

“But this year, even 20 bags look unlikely, because there is dust all over my farm,” Mr. Tigga said.

His farmland is situated near the road to the Surjagad mining site, where the Lloyd Metals had been extracting iron ore until last month and the trucks carrying the extract spread dust and other particles on his paddy crop.

Mr. Tigga is not the only person who is concerned about mining in the area. Over 70 Gramsabhas (village bodies) from Surjagad have submitted a memorandum to the district authorities, opposing to the mining operation on Surjagad hills.

The main concern of local tribals is the damage to their religious deity Thakurdev’s shrine, which is situated on one of the Surajgad hills.

“We cannot see the displacement of our god. We are also apprehensive about the damage to the forest produce in this area. The mining will also create pollution and our land will be destroyed,” Danu Ichami from Reknar village said.

The local tribals have united under the banner of ‘Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan’ (Agitation against Displacement) to oppose mining, which began in April last year, after a gap of eight years.

The operations were allegedly ceased due to threats by the Maoists, who torched 81 vehicles of the Lloyd Metals last month, leading to suspension of work again.

However, Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has said that the project would be completed “no matter what the situation is”.

Activists speak

A local activist and a central convener committee member the VVJA, Mahesh Raut, said, “The area is a cultural heritage of local tribals. The legalities do not permit mining here. The PESA Act [Panchayats (Extension to Scheduled Areas) Act] says that Gramsabhas have rights over the forest in scheduled areas. The district officials claim that local people have rights on minor forest produce but not on the complete forest land.”

He added that Gramsabhas have to be consulted in connection with land diversion in the area, which has not been done done in this case. “There is confusion over the public hearing about the environment impact assessment of the site. The mining, according to the Lloyd, will provide employment to around 500 local people, but the work is limited to cutting trees and construction of the road. There won’t be any employment to the local tribals in technical jobs. The mine will also destroy three water streams,” he said.

The VVJA organised many public protests in different parts of the district last year to mobilise the local tribals against the mining activities.

During one such public meeting on January 6 in Surjagad, the local activists greeted a local politician, Dharmraobaba Atram, with the slogan “Vidhan Sabha na Lok Sabha, ab Sirf Gramsabha” (No Lok Sabha or Assembly, only Gramsabha now).

Mr. Atram left the spot without participating in the traditional, local celebrations.

Mining to resume’

The district authorities are planning to start the mining operations with full force.

“We are going to have a meeting next week to work out the nitty-gritty of providing security at the site,” Gadchiroli district collector A.S.R. Naik said.

When asked if there are enough resources to put up the security, the collector said, “Security is not an issue. We will work out everything with the company officials. Everyone, including the CM, is keen on this project, even the local people. We will also try to address whatever objections have been raised by the tribals.”

About the PESA and the FRA Act, he said, “These acts cover only minor minerals and not major minerals. I will also have a word with the company about the place of worship in the next meeting. We will try to ensure that their [the tribals’] sentiments are respected and the mining activities also go on.”

Different opinion

Some of the local tribals, like 21-year-old Anil Kodo from Hedri village, think that the mining activities should resume as it would generate employment.

A local shopkeeper from the village, Vitthal Nagulwar, also expressed anger over the suspension of mining.

The representative of Lloyd Metal, Atul Khadilkar, was not available a comment.

However, sources from the company said that the locals want employment, and mining is the only industry that can come to the district.

“The locals never stopped our trucks or opposed us. The Gramsabhas cannot be called as the representative of the entire population of the village. Some village head-men decide on Gramsabha resolution,” an employee of the company said on anonymity.