The cancellation of the lease for 2.7 tonnes of gold mining illegally acquired by Vedanta is a welcome move. Kudos to the continued struggles of Dalit Adivasi Manch and villagers of the Sonakhan region for their continued struggle to recognition, dignity, rights, and livelihood! The state of Chhattisgarh has been witness to large scale coal-mining and extraction of iron ore, thermal power plants and the construction of large highways for the transport of coal and other material.
With a rich forest cover, the state is a natural target of economic and political expansionist programs of large corporate groups, backed by repressive regimes of the state and national governments. The notification of 14 new coal blocks in the Sarguja region and rich Hasdeo Aranya forest regions has already been challenged in the courts for violating environmental and procedural processes. Through the back door, the issues emerging from the Coal-Gate scam have been diverted to ‘auction’ these coal blocks to private players and its subsidiaries.
The changes introduced through the Coal Bearing Act, 2014 allows for diversion of forest land for coal. In January 2019, the newly elected Congress government in the state met representatives of Dalit Adivasi Manch, a Sangathan which has been spearheading the movement against illegal leasing and canceled the lease given to Vedanta to extract gold from the region. There is renewed enthusiasm among the villagers as this announcement comes as a huge win to the long struggle to protect their lands and habitats, as also a recognition of their rights over forests and natural resources. The context of the struggle : The Barnawapara region in northern Chhattisgarh has been facing an unprecedented crisis. Along the eco-sensitive zone of Baghmara – 474 hectares of land in 24 villages were to be affected by gold mining in the Sonakhan region. Earlier, another 133 hectares of rich forest land was to be diverted for mining purposes. In February 2016, national newspapers first reported on the London-based mining giant, Vedanta group winning the bid to mine gold in the Baghmara area. The locals neither had any idea that such a plan was in place, nor the local village councils were consulted to discuss the impact of these mines. With the direct patronage of the state government led by Mr. Raman Singh, many concerns raised by local villagers, activists, environmentalists including the District Forest Officer (DFO) were sidelined. The proposed mining region is home to a large array of wildlife including bison, bear, leopard, tiger, deer and many others; and is also the area of the free movement of elephants. The marked region for gold mining in Sonakhan also has more than 2 lakh trees including many species of bamboo, tendu, mahua, and many other minor forest produce and many varieties of timber. Destruction of these rich, dense forests would cause the destruction of precious wildlife and increase the man-animal conflict many times, already creating havoc across the state. Migration of the elephant and the tiger regularly causes the destruction of homes and agricultural fields, also leading to loss of lives. But the state government did not seem to pay attention. The unity amongst locals :Dalit Adivasi Manch, a local group of activists has been leading the struggle on these issues from the forefront. The notification of the Sonakhan region for gold mining came as a surprise to them as well.Soon after, the village Sonakhan in Kasdol block (of the newly formed Baloda Bazar district) became the symbol of resistance to indiscriminate looting. Gram Sabha resolutions unanimously opposed the attempts to mine the area for gold. The area is home to Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh, the celebrated leader who was murdered publically for participating in the rebellion of 1857 against the British rule. Revered by locals across caste and class, the news of proposed mining brought them together. As the villagers were also aware of what happens to a region after mining takes place, they were in no mood to give up their land, forests and long association with nature for any compensation or to facilitate the greed of a private company. India imports 700 metric tonnes of gold every year. Even if all the 2,700 kg of gold were mined from Sonakhan, it would only account for 0.39 percent of the yearly imports leading to an income for Rs. 820 crores for the state exchequer. The destruction of forest cover and bio-diversity in comparison was beyond comprehension. The struggle in Barnawapara :Many forest regions in the country face a variety of conflicts. Although it is beyond the scope of a singular note to highlight the decades of exploitation people have faced at the hands of the forest department, it is important to say that forest-dwelling communities continue to suffer at the hands of its officials, including the administration and officials who treat them as backward, encroachers and antagonistic to the development needs of the nation. The progressive legislation of ‘The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006’ recorded these experiences as ‘historical injustice’. The provisions of the legislation attempt to correct these injustices, which continue to be conveniently disregarded in a variety of ways – from the lacklustre approach in recognition of community rights, forcing evictions for the formation of wildlife corridors, to illegal plantations on agricultural lands, and the shadows of extortion and violence that these communities live in. The Barnawapara region has 22 villages. Rampur was the first village to be evicted in 2013. However, 9 families did not move out or were offered the compensation package as the laws treated elder sons of the family as a separate family but females were denied their due.
These 9 families continued to live in the village, with regular threats and damages done by the forest department officials who threatened them to move out. From damaging holy sites, water sources and schools, these officials put notices threatening the demolition of their houses using JCB machines. People continued to cultivate their fields and gather firewood, although they had to keep paying small bribes over this time as they were constantly threatened and notices and tolls were extracted from them.On 5th January 2018, a villager named Rajkumar Kondh was abused and beaten mercilessly by a forest range officer, Sanjay Ratauiya and 6 other employees of the forest department after an argument. The local police later joined in and beat him up and his family, including women and children. He was then taken to Baya police station where the police registered a false FIR against him for assaulting the forest officials. When the family along with members of Dalit Adivasi Manch reached the police station, many of them were abused and the Rajkumar was later found to have severe injuries. Thus began a long agitation which united the 71 villages of the Barnawapara region. A sit-in was organized starting 10th January outside the police station demanding the arrest of the range officer and for justice for Rajkumar. Every day about 15 people from 3 villages each sat in protest and they would stay all night. This case also received extensive media coverage. On 25th January, Rajkumar was abducted by the police through force when he was being taken to a hospital in Raipur by Sangathan members. The Sangathan immediately organized a press conference in Raipur and intensified the struggle. By then, support had also poured in from across the state and the country. Leaders of various social movement groups and adivasi ministers and legislators lent their support to the ongoing sit-in. Even villages who were displaced in 2013 said that they had moved out believing in the false promises of the government, and hence they would go back to their villages if needed. Adivasis, many of whom were doing work in the houses of forest officials stopped work and the Sangathan closed down restaurants in the sanctuary. People were upset with the high-handedness of the forest department. There was no respite for them. Illegal tax-collection on collecting stones, confiscation of bicycles for bringing firewood and the heavy taxes on entry and exit in their own jungles frustrated them. In support, Sarpanchs from 14 panchayats announced their resignation in the absence of any action against errant officials. After 34 days, on 28th February 2018, the sit-in ended with the promise of immediate action against the range officer and withdrawal of all illegal taxes for residents in the sanctuary. There was also concessions made to the collection of firewood, minor forest produce like mahua, tendu and the forest department withdrew its control of panchayat funds and planning. Efforts started to recognize individual and community claims under the Forest Rights Act and the decision were made that no eviction would be done without the consent of the Gram Sabhas, in recognition of existing laws and provisions. The villages have since then taken forward their struggle and demanded the implementation of FRA.
They have also given their support to the ongoing struggle in Sonakhan – where proposed mining threatened to uproot rich bio-diversity and bring havoc to human lives and livelihoods at a large scale. Sonakhan: A movement for protection, conservation, and building livelihoods : Baloda Bazar district has recently received community claims for 64 villages after a rigorous process of re-formation of Village Forest Rights Committees (FRCs), following up of claims at the Sub-Divisional Level Committee (SDLC) and the District Level Committee (DLC) as mandated in the Forest Rights Act, 2006. Attempts were made to sideline these demands and continue with plans of forest diversion and plantations under the newly passed Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA, 2016). Along with the lack of information available at the ground and the many processes in which the Forest department continues to deny Adivasis and others the rights recognized under the FRA, there were also many instances of coercion and violations at the ground. In many ways, the recognition of rights in the year 2018 itself was a huge achievement considering not many areas in the country were seeing positive intervention when it came to the recognition of community rights. While there were also attempts to not give these rights in the name of Gram Sabhas, but in the name of Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMs), the sangathans opposed them and got the titles issued for Gram Sabhas. There are attempts now to implement traditional conservation methods, bring together communities to organize for collecting minor forest produce, build support for value addition and formation of cooperatives for the same, and bring women at the forefront for protection of several species of medicinal plants and wildlife. In many ways, the struggle in and around Sonakhan can be seen as a successful instance of positive struggle for recognition of rights, social, cultural and economic. Through democratic organizing and collective bargain, along with successful effort at bringing together stakeholders from across the state, the Sangathan has allowed for constant negotiations with officers, district and state administration and others. The cancellation of mining lease to Vedanta in recognition of these struggles was much-needed and is a positive attempt on part of the state government which is taking initiatives to bridge the gap between the mainstream development discourses and the exploitation of local communities. We support the struggle in Sonakhan and other places in the country in favor of recognition of democratic rights and traditional ownership and control of jal, jangal, zameen by local communities. We thank everyone who supports the SRUTI Fellowship Programme, to encourage individuals and group working at the ground for realizing the goals of social change.