Armed With a Toothless Law, the Plight of the Adivasi Worsens


Armed With a Toothless Law, the Plight of the Adivasi Worsens

Since coming into effect 21 years ago, PESA has been grossly misused and underutilised, disenfranchising Adivasi communities all over the country.

Women from the Dongria Kondh tribe gather on top of the Niyamgiri mountain near Lanjigarh in Odisha February 21, 2010. The Kondh, from Odisha are meant to be protected under the PESA Act. Credit: Reinhard Krause/Reuters/Files

In India, tribal communities have had a long history of struggle, including during the colonial rule. In fact, the tribal war for independence has largely been ignored in the popular history of independent India. Today, most of us are not aware that the war of independence started as early as 1789 with Tilka Manjhi, the leader of the Mahal Pahadias. Since 1789, around 80,000 tribals lost their lives fighting for independence. British records of that time state that the tribal people did not have many weapons but they refused to surrender and fought till the end. The British recognised the importance of letting tribal communities govern their own areas. Schedules V and VI of the constitution of independent India reflects this point of view.

Genesis of PESA Act

India had created history in fiscal federalism via the landmark 73rd and 74th amendments to the constitution in 1992. These amendments introduced a three-tier local self government to the federal structure, giving constitutional recognition to rural local self-government institutions and enabling decentralised governance through Panchayati Raj institutions.

Nevertheless, there was not much interest in strengthening participatory democracy by way of making the gram sabha the corner stone of the Panchayati Raj system. While the constitution of gram sabhas was made mandatory in states, the powers and functions of the gram sabhas have been left to the discretion of the state legislatures. As a result, different states have developed powers and functions for this body differently.

Following the amendment, a high-level committee was constituted under the chairmanship of Dileep Singh Bhuria, charged with recommending how scheduled areas should be incorporated under the 73rd Amendment Act. As recommended by this committee, a Bill was introduced in parliament and passed on December 19, 1996. Subsequently, after getting the president’s assent on December 24, 1996, the 73rd Amendment Act was extended the Scheduled Areas mentioned under Clause (2) of Article 244 of the constitution. It became mandatory for the states to amend their existing Panchayat Acts to conform with the Extension Act within a year.

The Panchayatiraj Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996 (PESA) has made it mandatory for states having scheduled areas to make specific provisions for giving wide-ranging powers to tribals on matters relating to decision making and development of their community.

Technically, when the Act refers to extending the provisions of Part IX of the constitution to the schedule V areas, politically, it gives radical governance powers to the tribal communities and recognises its traditional community rights over local natural resources. It not only accepts the validity of “customary law, social and religious practices, and traditional management practices of community resources”, but also directs the state government not to make any law which is inconsistent with these. Accepting a clear-cut role for the community, it gives wide-ranging powers to gram sabhas, which had hitherto been denied to them by the law makers of the country.

PESA has become a myth

As the situation stands at present, no gram sabha can hope to function without going through revenue officers at various levels, and in a majority of cases, required sanctions are denied by inordinate delays or outright refusals. No stretch of common property can in anyway be rightfully owned and controlled by any village, communities, groups, or people. And the gram sabha’s power to accord such ownership is never recognised. This is a direct violation of the PESA Act which clearly states that;

“A state legislation on the panchayats that may be made shall be in consonance with the customary law, social and religious practices and traditional management practices of community resources. Every gram sabha shall be competent to safeguard and preserve the traditions and customs of the people, their cultural identity, community resources and the customary mode of dispute resolution”.

However, deflecting from a gram sabha-centric ethos, PESA has also provided for an “either-or option” between the gram sabha or the panchayat while deciding certain matters. Though the gram sabha remains the common forum of reference, consultation with the gram sabha can be substituted with an appropriate panchayat body prior to land acquisition or, settlement and rehabilitation of displaced people in scheduled areas. Additionally, under Section 4 (i) of the Act, the authority of both the gram sabha and other panchayat bodies have been whittled down by saying that actual planning and implementation shall be coordinated at the state level.

Similarly, under Section 4 (j), the planning and management of minor water bodies in the scheduled areas shall be entrusted to a panchayat at an appropriate level. The amendment also states that prior recommendation of a gram sabha or an appropriate panchayat shall be mandatory to grant concessions for the exploitation of minor minerals by auction. Such an ‘either-or’ approach in these respects has legitimised the centralising drives of most of the state legislatures for divesting the gram sabha of control and authority over certain crucial issues. Srinibash Das, a development professional working with the Adivasi communities of Odisha, points out,

“Ironically, now, tribal communities have been distanced so much that the eminent domain principle put into place by the British Colonial government rules even the tribal mindset, and all land, that is not private land, is ‘Sarkari Land’ (government land) with the local communities also assuming that their possession is temporary and by-default. The tribal communities have taken their default access for granted, but are aware of their high insecurity of tenure, as their very own government often acts against them, overturns their customary rights, whenever it suits the powers that be.”

Adivasis protesting in Bhubaneshwar against land acquisition for Bauxit mining. Credit: PTI/Files

Many questions, few answers

Is there a need to change existing revenue traditions so that they are in consonance with PESA? Can we envisage gram sabhas defining customary rights, usage and traditions over their land, forest, water resources? Can we imagine a revenue set up that would facilitate a ratification and legalisation of these? Can we envisage complete access, control and management of these resources by gram sabhas for its members?

For tribal communities, the answers to all the above questions will be no. Government officials, Panchayati Raj institutions and community members have very little information about PESA, and presently PESA is not truly implemented in schedule V areas. In these areas, the three tier Panchayat Raj system is given more importance. PESA’s importance in protecting traditional customs and a culture of tribal self-governance is ignored. Traditional leaders of the villages are ignored and the panchayat representatives are given more importance. Gram sabhas are convened at the panchayat level, and are not consulted for the planning and implementation of government programmes. The forest department has not adhered to the gram sabha resolution of collecting minor forest produce. Village development plans lack people’s involvement. Traditional practices of conflict resolution by the “village kutumba” have been abolished and people have started going to courts and police.

“Adivasi self-rule will be possible only if there is conscious community mobilisation at the grassroot level in support of this. Macro level policies since independence have led to the decay of the traditional communitarian practices of the Adivasi and so a revival will have to be attempted at a decentralised level by the Adivasis themselves,” emphasises Rahul Banerjee, a development researcher and social activist working with the Bhil Adivasi communities.

In the last two decades, numerous pro-poor acts and schemes have been launched by the Indian government and yet, very little has changed for tribal communities. Land is rarely settled in their favour, whereas, land acquisition is aggressively pursued by the governments in power for myriad projects, to which the tribals can scarcely relate. The right to education hardly makes any impact, as too few teachers are provided, and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) provides employment, but not wages.

State Acts overrides the central PESA Act

In Odisha, as per PESA, the state government has made certain amendments in three panchayat laws – the Odisha Gram Panchayat Act 1964, the Panchayat Samiti Act, 1959, and Odisha Zilla Parisahd Act, 1991 – claiming that all the amendments were in line with the PESA. But in reality, all these acts of the state government are largely circumventing the true spirit of PESA.

“It has been observed that most of the so-called amendments in the Odisha Gram Panchayat Act 1964 and other panchayat related laws were not in conformity to the mandates of the central PESA Act 1996. For instance, in each of Odisha’s three principal panchayat laws, there is as of today, a chapter titled ‘Control’, which endows powers to bureaucrats from the lowest to the highest level to exercise control of various types and in various degrees over the panchayats at each level”, says Sandeep Kumar Pattanaik who works with National Centre for Advocacy Studies based in Bhubaneswar.

According to Basudev Mahapatra, a noted media activist and documentary film maker based in Bhubaneswar, “The PESA experience is just one example that only makes tip of the iceberg. Adamant and ‘different-from-others’ attitude of the bureaucracy are the bottlenecks in effecting decentralisation in Odisha. So, to make decentralised district planning a reality in the state of Odisha, what is primarily required is a change in the attitude of the bureaucracy and the people in power who design polices for the development of people. They must not rule of people but serve people and facilitate decentralised planning and development”. 

Ignored by the government, crushed by industrialisation

The scheduled areas are resource rich, as the Centre for Science and Environment’s report ‘Rich Land: Poor People’ has underlined. Nevertheless, these resources are garnered by the corporates, causing more harm than good to local communities. The overdrive for imposing development from the top has resulted in tremendous discontent among the tribals. There has been a real shrinkage of democratic space, as a consequence of which the tribals are no longer able to resolve their own issues of self-governance.

Felix Padel and Samarendra Das, in their book Out of This Earth, provide a comprehensive analysis of the social and environmental impacts of the mining boom in Odisha. The authors show how companies split tribal communities by bribes and coercion, such that a division emerges between “accepters” and “refusers”. They document the extensive collusion, between politicians and bureaucrats and the private companies, which displaced scores of tribal from the land they inhabited for generations. The autonomous and non-violent resistance of tribals to destructive mining has often been misinterpreted by the state, corporate interests, and even by the media at times to label it as a “Maoist threat”. Then this label is cunningly used “to crush all kinds of spontaneous opposition by tribals to be displaced”, leaving the displaced at the mercy of fate.

“Ignored by the government, crushed by industrialisation, rebellion has become a culture among the deprived and marginalised Adivasi communities in Jharkhand. This is also applicable to other tribal populated states in India where in the name of the development, the government is hijacking lands from the innocent Adivasi communities for industrialisations and various developmental projects. But, this injustice against the Aadivasi will not be accepted silently”, says Neraaj Lakra, an Adivasi activists hailing from Jharkhand.

Jharkhand is a crucial state, where 22 out of 24 districts are under the control of “left-wing-extremists” and the centre is spending huge amounts of money in the name of uprooting “Naxalism”. Interestingly, when the state was separated from Bihar in November 2000, there were only eight Naxal-infested districts.

“There is lacuna in central PESA itself. PESA is known for legally validating the tribal self-rule, but at grassroot, the situation is completely different. For instance, ownership rights on minerals and management of natural resources, etc. The gram sabha is not given decisive role in the land acquisition process.” says Gladson Dundung, a Jharkhand based human rights activist and writer.

A protest meeting by those who will be potentially displaced by the nuclear plant in Chutki. Credit: Baba Mayaram

Chutka and Manda areas of Madhya Pradesh come under PESA, but a nuclear project has been proposed, people are at risk of being displaced. Recently, an RTI revealed that the PESA provisions are being respected, but in reality, the proposed project has been rejected by three gram sabhas. Residents say that the forest department has taken to filing fake cases against tribals in both areas.

Commenting in this regard, Manohar Chauhan, an activist associated with Campaign for Survival and Dignity, Odisha, says that despite the existence of PESA and the Forest Rights Act, the scheduled areas have remained under the thrall of the forest department bureaucracy, against whom, tribal leaders have been able to do little for their communities.

As per the constitution, the governor of a state is the actual protector of the tribals in the scheduled areas for peace and good governance. In contrast, the governors have desisted from getting involved in tribal matters. Tribal activists have constantly complained that there hasn’t been even a single instance where the governors have responded to petitions for interventions. As far as the Tribes Advisory Council is concerned, it never meets on a regular basis and has been of no use to tribals since its inception. 


The state brands every ‘tribal assertion’ as an instigation. In the name of law and order, such assertion has been brutally suppressed. The numbers of cases, the number of prisoners in jail from schedule V areas are indicative of the state’s apathy. The Indian government takes pride in being one of the largest democratic countries in the world but it has failed miserably failed in understanding the relationship that the Adivasis have with land, water and forest.

“Abandoned by government, threatened by corporate goons, suppressed and harassed by police and military platoons, we Adivasi are losing our homes, land, forest, water. We have been protesting this injustice for the last 20 years and in response what have we got? Three innocent Adivasi were shot dead by the police firing in Maikanch during a peaceful dharna against the Bauxite mining at Baphlimali,”says Sumani Jhodia, a renowned tribal leader of Kashipur in Odisha.

It has been 21 years since PESA was enacted in 1996. By now, many consider it to be dead and defunct. It is imperative to revisit its status and its presence for the tribal communities, as a set of constitutionally guaranteed rights. The tribals have had a bitter experience with the violations of PESA. At the same time, they feel that given a chance, PESA can address many injustices in the tribal regions.

Abhijit Mohanty is a development professional currently based in Gurugram, India. He has extensively worked with the indigenous communities of India and Cameroon especially on the issues of land, forest and water.


Deconstructing the State’s Narrative in a Bastar Fake Encounter Case


Deconstructing the State’s Narrative in a Bastar Fake Encounter Case

Over the course of a judicial inquiry into a 2012 incident that left 17 people dead, villagers in Bastar have come together to question the role security forces’ played.

Representative image. Credit: PTI

Over the next few months, security forces in Bastar will be presenting their final arguments before a judicial inquiry commission in an alleged fake encounter case from 2012. Villagers have put across their version of events, despite the fear of facing consequences. During the course of the inquiry, multiple discrepancies have come up that thoroughly weaken the state’s narrative of events. But will those in power be granted impunity once again?

A night of many narratives

On June 29, 2012, several TV channels and newspapers reported that security forces from the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), the Commando Battalion for Resolute Action (CoBRA) and the Chhattisgarh police had ventured into the Silger forests, an “uncharted Maoist zone,” and killed 18 Naxalites in two separate operations at Bijapur and Sukma districts of Bastar, Chhattisgarh.

CNN-IBN (now News18) quoted then home minister P. Chidambaram as saying the operation was “a planned one,” but the Maoists opened fire first. He praised the troops for dealing with the ambush with “great courage and skills”.

A Times of India report, while conceding that among those killed was a 16-year-old, went on to add that “allegations of fake encounter notwithstanding, the two gun battles marked a moment of triumph for police in the battle of attrition against Maoists”.

But the triumph evaporated on July 2, 2012, when Kowasi Lakma, Congress MLA from Chhattisgarh, flatly contradicted Chidambaram and the government’s narrative. Lakma pointed out that in the incident in Bijapur, among those killed were seven minors and women. He upheld the claim made by protesting villagers that those killed were not Naxalites but a group from Sarkeguda, Kottaguda and Rajpeta villages who had been holding a meeting in a clearing to discuss preparations for Beej Padum, a sowing festival.

The villagers said that a little after 10 pm on the night of June 28, they were fired upon even though some of them kept calling out and identifying themselves as villagers. Fifteen of them died that night, including 12-year-old Saraswati Kaka. Another victim, 14-year-old Irpa Suresh, was taken to the hospital where he succumbed to his injuries.

Irpa Ramesh, who had climbed a tree to escape the shooting, was shot and killed the next morning in a space between two houses, allegedly by the forces, and his face bludgeoned with a brick.

The villagers also alleged that the forces beat them using the butt of their guns when they rushed to the site and that some women were molested. Many of the bodies bore evidence of such injuries.

Besides the state Congress fact-finding team that said the incident was most certainly a fake encounter, the Communist Party of India, under Adivasi leader Manish Kunjum, conducted its own inquiry. Another team that met with the villagers consisted of Jayprakash Rao Polsani, Nandini Sundar and Kopa Kunjum. There was also a team sent by the Coordination of Democratic Rights Organisation.

Faced with a barrage of protests, with even then tribal affairs minister K.C. Deo expressing his displeasure, the Chhattisgarh government announced a single-member judicial inquiry commission under Justice V.K. Agrawal, retired judge of the Madhya Pradesh high court.

Holes in the state’s case

The commission’s mandate was to ascertain whether an encounter happened, when and how the incident occurred, how many people died and who they were, and the circumstances under which the security forces opened fire.

On Saturday, March 25, 2017, the commission heard final arguments of the villagers represented by the Jagdalpur Legal Aid group (JagLag) and argued by advocate Yug Choudhary of the Bombay high court.

Choudhary observed how it was significant that while the villagers had spoken in one voice, two radically different versions regarding the incident emerged from the state and the CRPF.

According to the CRPF version, two teams comprising a mix of the three forces were making their way towards Basaguda. One team was under Commander S. Elango and one under Commandant Anand Singh, which left about half an hour earlier and was walking parallel to Elango’s team.

According to Elango’s statement and testimonies from other members, his team suddenly heard voices. Then there were cries of “Police police, kill, kill” and they were ambushed. They came under fire from the right and then left, and fired back in self-defence. The firing went on for some 45 minutes and was so intense they were unable to flank and surround the enemy. Elango, who has 25 years of experience in counter insurgency, served in the UN peacekeeping force and is familiar with standard operating procedure, explained before the commission that Naxal ambushes are planned in advance and executed with care.

But in the state’s version, narrated by “surrendered” Naxals Irpa Ganesh and Punem Mangu, a meeting had been ordered that night by the Naxals to plan for encroaching the land of villagers who had joined the police forces. These witnesses claimed that the village meeting was underway when the Naxals suddenly spotted the police force close to them, took advantage of the opportunity and opened fire. As opposed to the CRPF version, this was a chance meeting, a surprise encounter.

Strengthening their arguments with detailed information on ballistics, forensics and the statements from the CRPF and the police, the legal team for the villagers contested the security force’s claim that provocation had led to controlled firing.

Elango had said parabombs (light flares) are commonly used by the troops for illuminating an area in the dark. But he admitted that even though he was aware that the teams would be passing through the vicinity of certain villages during the route, no parabomb was used when they heard voices in the dark and were fired upon. Parabombs, he said, were used only after the firing to illuminate the area and provide care to the injured.

During cross examination, Elango claimed the reason they did not use parabombs earlier was because they wanted to retain “the advantage of element of surprise”. But this was contradictory to his affidavit, which said that when the ambush occurred it was the troops that were taken by absolute surprise. There were no answers as to why the troops did not use the night vision equipment they possessed to identify the direction of the attack and the attackers.

Asked why they did not resort to mortar when they were under attack, Elango said that mortar cannot be effectively employed in a forest. But his own GPS quadrants show that he was in a clearing, something he too has admitted to. Elango also had no explanation to offer for the fact that the deceased people had bullet injuries on their backs and that injuries on the deceased people show they were in kneeling or supine positions.

Chaudhary asserted that the troops did not bother to use fire bombs, night vision equipment or mortar that night because they were not under fire. Who, then, was the aggressor? The village legal team also pointed to disparities between medico-legal statements and conflicting testimonies by some of the security troops on the nature of injuries suffered by them.

An illustration was provided by Arnav Ghosh’s medical examination, which states that he received a bullet injury wound on the left big toe. He reiterated this when he gave his statement to the police in 2012. But his affidavit to the commission says it was his right big toe that was injured­­­ – a claim he repeated in person during his cross examination. Furthermore, in written documents, he claimed that once he was hit on his toe, he fell down. But before the commission, he made the oral claim that he was lying belly down in order to fire at targets when he was hit. So how did he fall? This also raises the question of how he was shot in the big toe, left or right, if he was lying down facing the target.

Questions were raised about the seizures allegedly made from the site. Among them were three Bharmar guns, found near the dead bodies. The State Forensic Science laboratory reported that two of them were not in working order. Furthermore, Bharmars are muzzle loaders that require rags or paper for wadding. The guns also require rods to pack the ammunition tightly. However, there are no records of this wadding or rods found at the site. It was also pointed out that these guns, normally used to kill prey like rabbits, are of low velocity and need to be reloaded. It was argued that the injuries sustained by the troops could be because of the ricocheting bullets of their own fire or the result of “friendly fire” – cross firing among the troops.

One of the noteworthy issues raised during the commission’s hearings was the way the state arbitrarily uses the label of Naxals.

After the dead were identified at the police station by their relatives, an FIR was filed claiming that the villagers had confirmed that all the dead and injured, barring two dead minors and three injured, were Jan Militia members (locally-armed squads of village defence committees of the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army). But this claim is not supported by any of the villagers’ testimonies.

Irpa Kamala, sarpanch of Kotaguda, in her affidavit states that when she was at the Basaguda thana on June 29, the police were threatening and forcing villagers to write that Naxals had come to the meeting. She adds that several days later, at the collector’s office, she reiterated that there had been no Naxals present at the gathering and that people were being coerced to make false statements.

The police also claimed there were a number of cases pending against those killed but no one was convicted and it is not clear whether the people even knew there were cases against them.

During final arguments, Chaudhary asked how it is that anyone who charges the state with a crime can suddenly be termed a Naxal. He referred to the case of Sarke Pullaiya, a villager who runs a ration shop. Pullaiya was among the injured who initially refused to go to a hospital out of fear, but was later taken by journalists. During his cross examination it was suggested that Pullaiya did not receive any injuries during the shooting incident but was shot later by Naxals. Chaudhary wondered how it was possible for a person to be told he is a Naxal, then told his injury was caused by a Naxal and also receive compensation from the state for injury caused by a Naxal.

He also discredited the claim of police witness Ganesh, said to be a surrendered Naxal, who had a “change of heart” in 2014 because he was influenced by the government’s policies and schemes. During cross examination, Ganesh admitted he did not know the meaning of words like class war and class consciousness. Nor had he heard of the politburo.

The CRPF and then the police are to present their final arguments over the next few months, after which the commission will present its report. But it is evident that one of the most important features of the Sarkheguda incident and the hearings is the spirited manner in which the villagers have been able to successfully challenge and then deconstruct the state’s narrative.

Says Shalini Gera of JagLag, “It was the villagers who took the lead from the very beginning, with protests held at Bijapur on June 30. They have been very vocal and steadfast.” Their resolute stand is especially commendable, notes Gera, because it was these very villagers who had fled because of the repression by the Salwa Judum and had been persuaded to return in 2010. This time around, they have decided to stay on and fight.

Women at the forefront

A salient feature of this fight is the way the women have taken the lead. Kamla Kaka, a mitanin prerak (health trainer) whose nephew Rahul Kaka was killed, and Madkam Ratna, sister of 15-year-old Ram Vilas who aspired to be a lawyer before he was gunned down, went to the sub-divisional magistrate when they learnt a magisterial inquiry was to be held and gave oral statements.

Later, when they learnt that the magistrate had said no one had turned up for the inquiry, they went all the way to Delhi to meet with then home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde. They also met with then chief minister Raman Singh in Raipur. These were women who until then had not ventured out of their region. Rita Kaka, another woman who gave an affidavit, filed a complaint at the NHRC of police harassment even though she was extremely nervous about the consequences.

It is their push that has emboldened others to keep up the momentum in the struggle for justice.

Gera points out how gender roles have been reversed in the increasingly repressive atmosphere of Bastar. The men do not venture into weekly markets or haats, or to gather firewood in the forests for fear of being picked up. Many are fleeing to Andhra and it is not uncommon for villages to be populated largely by women and elderly men. It is the women then who are leading the resistance.

Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist from Mumbai who is interested in human rights and development issues.

Modi’s Student Crackdown


Amid economic failure and a rising student movement, Indian Prime Minister Modi has turned to outright repression.

Students in Mumbai take part in a candlelight march last month to protest the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a well-known activist and scholar. scrolleditorial / Flickr

Students in Mumbai take part in a candlelight march last month to protest the suicide of Rohith Vemula, a well-known activist and scholar. scrolleditorial / Flickr

To celebrate the release of our new issue, “Up From Liberalism,” subscriptions to Jacobin start at just $14.95.

On February 15, the Hindu, a prominent Indian newspaper, featured two headlines above the fold on the front page: “LeT wing backed JNU protest: Rajnath” and “Blaze mars Make in India event.” The headlines are cryptic and need some decoding, particularly for non-Indian audiences, but they speak volumes about the multifaceted crisis facing India today and the contradictions at the heart of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

The latter headline about “Make in India” was in smaller font, and the story it described garnered less attention in the press. But it provides crucial context for understanding the former headline and the current crackdown on Indian college campuses, particularly Jawaharlal Nehru University, by the BJP and its allies.

Tilting Toward Capital

“Make in India” is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to strengthen the manufacturing sector in India. Officially launched in 2014, the campaign (whose brand management is handled by the well-known American advertising firm Wieden+Kennedy) is largely a slick repackaging of the economic liberalization policies that have been pushed in India for decades.

Despite purporting to create jobs, the initiative’s actual mechanisms for doing so have not been explained, except in the vaguest terms.

“Make in India” policies are also tilted strongly in favor of capital, and include steps like deregulating the manufacturing sector, opening up more sectors to foreign direct investment, and reforming the intellectual property regime so that it aligns with global standards (which will likely lead to huge increases in the price of medicines and educational materials).

The anti-labor nature of the initiative is also evident in its prioritization of capital-intensive industries (which rely more on imported technology than local labor) and the simultaneous push by the BJP government to weaken labor laws. In response to these moves, labor unrest has grown, with smaller agitations punctuated by bigger events, including a nationwide strike last September.

On a more general level, the “Make in India” campaign reflects the current government’s neglect of the agricultural sector, even though the sector employs more than 50 percent of India’s workforce. This neglect is, again, a continuance of previous policies and has made agriculture increasingly untenable as a livelihood; the promotion of high-input (and thus high-cost) farming methods has led to deadly agrarian crises and an epidemic of farmers’ suicides, largely attributed to mounting debt.

In a typically callous response, BJP Member of Parliament Gopal Shetty remarked that farmers’ suicides were just a “fashion trend.” Distancing themselves from such statements, top BJP leaders have recently gone into damage control mode, claiming that their government is actually pro-poor and pro-farmer. For instance, the recently announced budget has been touted as a lifeline to farmers. But this has proved to be empty rhetoric.

What’s more, “Make in India” — or Modi’s war on the poor, as one analyst called it — is not working. As scholar Shankar Gopalakrishnan has outlined in convincing detail, Modi’s economic policies not only fail the average Indian — they don’t even live up to the narrow economic benchmarks that the boosters of capital have set for themselves. In fact, by integrating the Indian economy into larger global networks through decades of liberalization, India’s capital class has essentially ceded control of the economy. The stock market in India, for instance, is largely driven by foreign portfolio investors.

The capitalist class initially supported Modi because he seemed the most enthusiastic about their economic agenda, but today big businessmen and their media representatives are getting restless. This anxiety is exacerbated by disasters like the “Make in India” event referenced in the Hindu.

In characteristic Modi fashion, the event was a splashy, media-centered extravaganza meant to hype an initiative that is rapidly losing support, but a massive fire broke out during the event’s cultural program. It was later revealed that the fire department had discovered several safety violations the day before the function, but the organizers of the event did nothing to address them. The blaze was even more embarrassing considering Modi’s “Make in India” slogan “Zero Defect, Zero Effect.”

While the government brushed aside the embarrassment, there are other indications that Modi’s “Make in India” dreams may go up in smoke. A recent Bloomberg report was intensely skeptical about the campaign, and the excitement surrounding a 251 rupee smartphone (about US$4), manufactured by an Indian company called Ringing Bells, was quickly dampened after it was alleged that the government might be subsidizing the phone and the company admitted that the first five million phones would be imported from Taiwan, not made in India.

Such fiascoes, combined with an ongoing agrarian crisis and rising labor unrest, indicate growing, cross-class disillusionment with Modi’s economic performance. After analyzing the Indian economy’s structural faultlines, Gopalakrishnan predicted what would happen when the BJP failed to deliver on its economic promises:

As its unpopularity increases, the obvious way out for this government is to resort to a combination of fearmongering and repression . . . Some trigger event would occur . . . Such triggers might be manufactured, or they might be real, but that distinction will not really matter. Hysteria will be whipped up, along with an intense crackdown on resistance and dissent.”

This prediction was prescient, and it helps explain the other headline on the Hindu’s front page.

Nationalism and Repression

Like many right-wing political parties (the Republican Party in the US and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party come to mind), the BJP relies on an odd coalition of big capital (the main funders) and religious conservatives (the mass base). As the BJP has flailed economically, with the national economy increasingly overwhelmed by international forces, it has put more and more weight on its agenda of cultural, religious nationalism.

Admittedly, BJP leaders like Modi do not see the party’s economic and the religious agendas as distinct. At the “Make in India” event where the fire broke out, the stage was littered with images from “ancient” (read: pre-Muslim) India, which Modi and his party never tire of glorifying.

But there is no doubt that the BJP’s cultural agenda has taken on a decidedly repressive, violent tone in recent days, completely overshadowing its economic troubles. The “JNU protest” mentioned in the Hindu headline refers to a poetry reading and performance art session organized by students at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), a public institution in Delhi known equally for its rigorous academic standards and its history of left-wing activism. What started as a minor scuffle between two student groups on the JNU campus has spiraled into a witch hunt against left-wing students and a violent crackdown on free speech.

The circumstances surrounding the initial scuffle are still disputed, but some facts are clear. The poetry reading at JNU was organized to mark the death anniversary of Afzal Guru, a Kashmiri whom the Supreme Court sentenced to death in 2013 for his alleged role in a 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. The JNU students are hardly the first to raise questions about Afzal Guru and capital punishment, or the first to organize protests on the issue. But Kashmir is politically explosive, as it stands in for India’s existential rivalry with Pakistan.

The Kashmir region has been in dispute ever since the subcontinent was partitioned into India and Pakistan in 1947. India’s claim to Kashmir rests on military force, a forged accession letter, and a refusal to honor its promise of a plebiscite to allow Kashmiris to decide their own fate.

The Indian military has overseen a brutal occupation of Kashmir, fighting a Pakistan-backed insurgency while also suppressing local protests, killing countless civilians, and torturing suspected militants under the cover of the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Despite (or perhaps because of) this contested history, it has long been a badge of nationalism and patriotism to maintain that Kashmir is an integral part of India.

This has certainly been the case with the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyrathi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The RSS is the largest Hindu nationalist organization in India, and it provides the mass base for the BJP, with which it isclosely aligned. (Modi, for instance, entered politics through the RSS.) The ABVP, like other Hindu nationalist organizations, has been emboldened by the BJP’s 2014 election victory and by Modi’s approval (sometimes tacit, sometimes explicit) of its muscular pro-Hindu, anti-Muslim activities.

A group of ABVP activists in JNU took umbrage at the Afzal Guru event and surrounded the participants, shouting slogans that included, allegedly, “Mother India is calling you; be ready with bullets and with blood on your forehead.” In response, other students yelled back increasingly provocative slogans of their own, including, allegedly, “Break India!” At this point, the president of JNU’s student union, Kanhaiya Kumar, arrived and tried to calm both sides down. The ABVP had also called the Delhi Police to the scene.

The BJP quickly used the “anti-national” slogans as an excuse to pounce on left-wing activists at JNU — an institution resented by Hindu nationalists, who view it as a debased bastion of communism. The JNU Student Union, for instance, has long been dominated by the student wings of India’s many Communist parties. The Delhi Police (whose top officers are known for their collusion with the BJP) quickly drew up a list of students to target that seemed based not on who may have been at the Afzal Guru event, but rather on who is most active in student politics.

Kanhaiya Kumar was the first to be arrested. He was charged with sedition under a colonial-era law that had been used by the British to target, among others, Mohandas Gandhi. It soon became obvious that Kumar had been detained based on doctored evidence, namely a video clip run by a rabidly patriotic news channel that had been edited to include the slogan — which, according to reports, was not actually heard at the Afzal Guru event — “Long Live Pakistan.”

In their persecution of JNU students, the BJP has had the support of a wildly irresponsible media, who have whipped up a jingoistic frenzy against the students, playing the doctored videos over and over. Things turned particularly ugly when the media began to target Umar Khalid, an atheist and communist widely known on campus for his rousing speeches. Solely on the basis of his name, with absolutely no evidence, Khalid was suddenly presented in the media as a jihadist, with fabricated ties to terrorist organizations in Pakistan.

But it’s not just the media. Defamation is being spread by the highest rung of government officials. This explains the first Hindu headline: Rajnath Singh is India’s home minister and one of Modi’s closest confidantes. Well known for his allegiance to the RSS and his extreme views, Singh has spearheaded the JNU crackdown, saying, “If anyone raises anti-India slogans and tries to raise question on the nation’s unity and integrity, they will not be spared.”

Singh also claimed that the JNU Afzal Guru event was supported by Hafiz Saeed, a Pakistani religious leader with ties to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the militant organization behind several attacks in India. His corroboration for this assertion was a tweet that, it later emerged, was from a parody Twitter account. Following the characteristic BJP posture of sheer brazenness, Singh has refused to back down from this claim, even though it has been thoroughly debunked.

The travesties of justice keep piling up. When Kumar was brought to a Delhi High Court for his bail hearing, he was beaten up outside the courtroom by a group of right-wing lawyers, while the Delhi Police stood by. The lawyers also targeted journalists who had come to cover the event. The attorneys were joined by a BJP Member of Legislative Assembly named O. P. Sharma, who was caught on camera assaulting a protester.

Several days later, Kumar was beaten up again, this time inside the courtroom, as the police casually let a menacing man wearing dark sunglasses enter the room where Kumar was being kept. Kumar’s bail hearing was repeatedly postponed, and finally, after two weeks he was granted interim bail on the condition he not engage in “anti-national activities.”

The bail order itself was a strange mix of overwrought metaphors and hyper-nationalism; it started by quoting from a patriotic Bollywood song, and then noted that JNU students were suffering from “a kind of infection” that needed to be “cured before it becomes an epidemic.” Two other JNU students are still in jail. Meanwhile, the lawyers and politicians behind the mob violence have openly boasted about their antics and continue to walk the streets of Delhi. After intense public pressure, a few were arrested, but they were quickly given bail.

The Context of the Crackdown

Much media attention, both national and international, has focused on the minutiae of the JNU events (Who really shouted what slogan? When will the bail hearing finally take place?), but the details of the case matter less than the larger context of the crackdown. Economic instability is part of this context, but perhaps even more important is a string of student movements that have, in different ways, pushed back against the BJP agenda.

Two events in particular set the stage for the JNU repression. The first was a student movement called “Occupy UGC,” which received particularly strong support from groups at JNU. UGC is the University Grants Commission, which (among other things) administers a fellowship to graduate students at public universities.

On October 20, 2015, the UGC announced its decision to discontinue the fellowship, with little justification given. Many theorized that the move was linked to the upcoming World Trade Organization meetings in Nairobi.

India has been moving toward opening up higher education to the international market by placing it under the WTO General Agreement of Trade in Services (GATS). This means the government would have to treat national and international educational institutions on par.

By cutting funding for graduate students at national universities, the government preempted the need to fund such students at international universities after the GATS deal was finalized. This was one more move by a supposedly nationalist government to cede control of key sectors to the international market.

Students responded to the cuts with a range of protests, the most dramatic of which was an occupation of the grounds of the UCG office. Although much of the movement’s leadership came from JNU students affiliated with mainstream Left parties, the movement was notable for its ability to bring together students from many universities, in Delhi and beyond. It also drew in students who were wary of mainstream student politics.

The more horizontalist approach of the movement was captured in its name, which took clear inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Delhi Police responded predictably, with water cannons and lathi (baton) charges, but the movement successfully weathered several of these attacks. The outcome remains unknown, though, as the WTO negotiations at Nairobi, which concluded in December, have been cloaked in secrecy.

The other event leading up to the JNU crackdown was more tragic: on January 17, Rohith Vemula, a PhD scholar active in Dalit politics, killed himself after he and his organization were hounded by right-wing groups, university administrators, and politicians for several months.

The term “Dalit” (“downtrodden”) was popularized by Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the revered anti-caste activist and author of the Indian Constitution, to refer to the formerly “Untouchable” castes. Vemula had been part of a Communist student organization, but was disappointed with their lack of engagement with caste issues. He then joined the Ambedkar Students’ Association (ASA) at Hyderabad Central University (HCU).

ASA ran afoul of the ABVP when it organized a memorial on the day that Yakub Memon was executed by the Indian government for his alleged role in the 1993 Bombay bombings. Like Afzal Guru’s case, Memon’s trial and sentencing was the subject of great controversy, with even Indian intelligence officials questioning the fairness of the decision.

The ABVP, supported by the BJP, began a sustained harassment campaign against the ASA that culminated in a top BJP official, Bandaru Dattatreya, accusing the Education Ministry of being “casteist” and “anti-national.” The ministry then applied pressure to HCU administrators, who kicked the students out of their dormitories and forbade them from participating in student politics.

For a group of activists committed to challenging social exclusion, both historic and contemporary, this act of institutional boycotting was a sad irony. Vemula committed suicide soon after, leaving behind a deeply poignant suicide note, that read, in part, “The value of a man was reduced to his immediate identity and nearest possibility. To a vote. To a number. To a thing. Never was a man treated as a mind.”

Solidarity Against Nationalism

It is significant that, in both the HCU and JNU cases, the trouble began with events that sought to question the way the death penalty had been used to mobilize popular sentiment and foment Islamophobia. Such a line of questioning was anathema to the ABVP, which was able to use its political connections — in both cases — to attack the “offending” students.

The HCU case is especially noteworthy because the ABVP’s attack on Dalit students lays bare the false promises of Hindu nationalism. Right-wing Hindu groups have long tried to court Dalits and to pit Dalits against Muslims in their bid to create a single Hindu majoritarian identity. However, due to their deeply entrenched casteism, Hindu nationalists will only let Dalits rise so far in their organizations, and they will never question the caste system as a whole.

As many scholars and activists have noted, then, Hindu nationalism’s most dangerous enemy is the radical Dalit movement, which calls for the annihilation of caste and continues to produce devastating critiques of Hinduism.

The relationship between Dalit movements and left groups has historically been an uneasy one. Dalit activists, including Vemula himself, have rightly criticized the Left’s long tradition of dismissing caste in favor of class analysis, as well as the domination of the mainstream left parties by the upper castes. However, many on the Left, especially outside of the mainstream, have taken this critique to heart.

One hopeful sign in recent days has been the way HCU and JNU students have banded together. One of the suspended HCU students recently attended a rally at JNU and underlined the similarities between the two cases of right-wing repression.

On February 23 in Delhi, many JNU students marched alongside HCU students and Dalit activists to protest against the injustices faced by Vemula and to demand the introduction of a law that would end caste discrimination in educational institutions. In a speech on the JNU campus, Umar Khalid quoted Vemula’s suicide note, saying that he had never considered himself a Muslim until the media reduced him to this identity, and that students would fight together to ensure the tragedy of Vemula’s death would not be repeated.

These are not the only solidarities being forged at the moment. As the JNU saga unfolded, workers at a Honda factory just south of Delhiwent on strike, the latest instance of labor militancy in this restive industrial belt. Several of the striking workers came to the JNU campus and spoke of their movement, their support of the JNU students, and the need to build stronger connections between workers and students.

The process of building broad-based solidarity is just beginning, and there are many signs that it will be a challenging process. Within the Left, some at JNU feel that the more mainstream parties have focused too much on the student union president, Kanhaiya Kumar, and have adopted a nationalist discourse in response to right-wing attacks instead of formulating a more full-throated defense of all those involved, especially Umar Khalid. Meanwhile, some Dalit activists feel the spotlight is wrongly on JNU, and that the history of the Left appropriating anti-caste struggles may be repeated.

And on the streets, the repression continues. On February 24, the Delhi Police detained over one hundred people who were conducting a quiet candlelight vigil to honor Rohith Vermula. Among the people the police picked up was Vermula’s mother. In recent days, in yet another attempt to crack down on dissent, the police have also been questioning journalists who have taken a critical stance on the JNU issue.

The situation in India has gotten so bad that even the New York Timeseditorial board has taken notice. In a February 23 editorial, the boardworried that the “confrontation . . . may further stall any progress in Parliament on economic reforms.” By “economic reforms,” the board means more of the neoliberal shock therapy that faces widespread resistance in India. But the Times puts the cart before the horse. It is precisely because Modi’s economic platform has failed that dangerous “confrontations” have found such purchase in India.

One can only hope that such “reforms” do not “progress” any further. But the real hope is that progressive networks of solidarity can grow and can contest not just Modi’s economic agenda, but his reactionary religious nationalism.

These are frightening times in India, yet they also contain glimmers of hope. Students, socialists, workers, Muslims, and Dalits are all under attack. But they are recognizing their commonalities and forging resistance movements together. India’s fate may hinge on the strength of these movements.


Centre-state collusion


B K Manish  | 

Tuesday 15 April 2014

Why political justice is ignored in countering Naxalism in Chhattisgarh

B K Manish

On March 12, Chhattisgarh was on the front page of all leading national dailies, thanks to yet another Naxal attack. The attack claimed the lives of 16 CRPF jawans the previous day in Sukma. The Union home minister virtually repeated the statements he made last year after a Congress party convoy was ambushed in Darbha Valley: he announced a probe by the National Investigation Agency and threatened retaliation. Most leading dailies took up the issue in their editorials on March 13; they carried regular follows-ups and detailed analyses. Policing stalwarts from K P S Gill to E N Rammohan as usual asserted that governments are not serious in tackling the Naxal issue. But is the formal system really serious about the issue? The legislature, judiciary or even the media?

The Naxal issue in south-central India is no doubt far more complex than the insurgency in the country’s north-east or in Jammu and Kashmir. No one expects quick-fix solutions, but certain amount of empathy and sincere action is expected from all segments of democratic polity. The fact that Indian intelligentsia is predominantly left-leaning narrows the chances of objective discussion on left wing extremism. If major proponents of police reforms in the country are hawkish about Salwa Judum, mainstream academia is largely sympathetic to Naxals for all practical purposes. There are more Naxals in Delhi than in Dandakaranya, Shubhranshu Chaudhary of CGNet, an online platform to discuss issues related to Central Gondwana, remarked in jest two years ago. His statement created quite a controversy, but hardly any major publication bothered to delve deeper. Another opportunity to look at the larger issue of tribal rights was lost. Anyone who tries to count public figures who maintain equal distance from State’s and Naxal’s viewpoints will realise there are just too many fingers on one’s hands.

Ever since the prime minister declared Naxalism the biggest internal security threat, governments have thrown their weight behind the peace-through-development doctrine. No amount of empirical evidence on the inefficacy of schemes like Tribal Sub Plan, Backward Region Grant Fund and Integrated Action Plan convinces governments of their follies. The security-and-development-first approach dominates. Minister for Rural Development Jairam Ramesh does accept that certain other aspects like political participation are crucial but the necessity to amend historical injustices, to attain peace through political justice, is still lost on liberals.

Naxalism in south-central India is more complex than the insurgency in the Northeast or Jammu and Kashmir (Photo: Rana Lok)

In the past few years, the Tribes Advisory Council (TAC) has been held up as an institution to safeguard tribal interests. Tribes Advisory Council, provided for in Fifth Schedule of Constitution, is a review mechanism of regular state action to safeguard tribal interests. Much drama has since taken place on this issue. First, Kishore Chandra Deo started writing his famous series of letters to governors of states with scheduled areas therein. Then, first ever walkouts by TAC members happened in Jharkhand in 2013, over refusal by the Chief Minister to take up Nagdi land acquisition issue for discussion. In between, the Union government supported Chhattisgarh’s claim in the Chhattisgarh High Court that governors don’t have discretionary power under the Fifth Schedule. The court accepted the state government’s stand in its order. Union ministries of tribal affairs and law and justice exchanged letters, and the latter issued a clarification correcting the Centre’s stand. The Centre, though, did not bother to appeal against the court order. The irony is that though Margaret Alva-led group of governors has recommended drafting of uniform Business Rules of TAC, a tribal rights activist is being attacked by the State of Chhattisgarh in Supreme Court—represented by the formidable advocate Harish Salve—for advocating similar rules.

When Chhattisgarh’s last director general of police (DGP) retired in January, the state government tried to bring in an additional director of Intelligence Bureau (IB) as his successor—to deny promotion to the only eligible candidate in the state cadre, known for his brutal honesty. A public interest petition was filed in the High Court highlighting violation of provisions of state police act and guidelines of the Supreme Court regarding the selection of DGP. The petition was dismissed on technical grounds but the Union ministry of home affairs and the department of personnel and training took note of the legal issues in the PIL and delayed the process of relieving the IB officer in question. But the Chhattisgarh government was insistent on not promoting the eligible candidate; it handed over the police headquarters to a relatively junior officer. In February, the Election Commission issued a directive, in response to a formal complaint, to fill the post of director general of police in view of general elections scheduled for April. It was then that the Centre and the State reached a compromise. The home ministry relaxed a 1999 guideline, allowing the state’s chief secretary, an hour before he retired on February 28, to promote the third senior most IPS officer to DG rank. After the March 12 incident, there have been usual accusations of intelligence lapses by the state police and CRPF. The blame game, though, is much subdued this time than in May, 2013, when the outgoing director general of CRPF had shot letters to rein in the intelligence chief of the Chhattisgarh Police. If news reports (The Hindu) are to be relied on, this officer is widely known for his ham-handedness and also for the rare distinction of enjoying extreme confidence of both former chief minister Ajit Jogi and current Chief Minister Raman Singh. Indiscriminate phone tapping and several other complaints against state intelligence bureau, which this officer has supervised for more than four years despite colossal failures and rank promotion, have reached the Election Commission. News reports also suggest that there was a fear that if the honest officer became DGP according to rules, cleansing at police headquarters will ensue, which troubled power corridors no end.

Editorials in major dailies have discussed the need to review the strategy in anti-insurgency but no one has sought accountability for collusion between New Delhi and Raipur in politicising the police force. There are a few references about the tardy action on the requirements of the Constitution’s Fifth Schedule, but again no editor informs that there is utter confusion in Delhi over its interpretation. Two Attorneys General Soli Sorabjee and Goolam Vahanvati have given opposite opinion on the matter. Unless this confusion is adequately highlighted, rhetoric will prevail. It is this hypocrisy that allows mandarins at Raisina Hill to send hawkish security-wallahs as governors to a state that achieved statehood without a drop of blood being shed.

CRPF is not trained for anti-insurgency operations. But no newspaper informs us that an outfit trained for maintaining basic law and order has been thrust into anti-insurgency operations.

Myopic, smug and utterly brahminical managers in North Block continue to stall review of formal approach to tribal rights but are more than willing to collude with Chhattisgarh over Salwa Judum and suchlike to facilitate loot of minerals.

B K Manish is a tribal rights activist. Facts stated in this article are based on reports in the Raipur editions of major dailies or of Chhattisgarh correspondents. Views are that of the author’s.


Chhattisgarh coal mine should not be expanded without genuine consultation

19 February 2015, 03:38PM

A public hearing held on 11th February 2015 in Korba, Chhattisgarh on the nearly four-fold expansion of the Kusmunda coal mine operated by South Eastern Coalfields (SECL) failed to meaningfully consult adivasi and other vulnerable communities who would be affected by the mine’s expansion, Amnesty International India said.

“The public hearing was conducted at an SECL stadium far from many villages that would be affected by the proposed expansion, which led to several people not attending,” said Aruna Chandrasekhar, Business and Human Rights Researcher at Amnesty International India, who was present at the public hearing. “Local communities did not receive adequate information on the project’s potential impacts, undermining their rights to participation and consultation under international law.”

SECL is a subsidiary of the state-owned Coal India Limited, one of the world’s largest coal mining companies. In December 2014, the Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF) gave SECL permission to expand production at its open-cast coal mine in Kusmunda from 18.75 mtpa (million tonnes per annum) to 62.5 mtpa. The expansion is expected to lead to the displacement of 9250 families in 17 villages and affect another 5475 families.

The public hearing was held as part of the project’s environmental clearance process, as required under Indian environmental law, and was intended for authorities to consult local people and address their concerns.

According to the Environment Impact Notification, 2009 issued by the MoEF – which prescribes the procedure for conduct of public hearings – hearings must either be held at project sites or in their close proximity. However the public hearing on 11 February was conducted inside an SECL-owned sports stadium in Kusmunda, located between 5 and 12 kilometres away from many of the 17 affected villages. Authorities did not heed requests from residents of Khodri, Pali, Khairbawna and Amgaon villages for a change in venue to facilitate access for communities and open expression of opinions. A large number of security force personnel were present at the hearing, which locals and activists told Amnesty International had an intimidatory effect.

The hearing was conducted on the same day that recently-elected local village representatives from the region were being sworn into office. Kamlabai, a local government official from Pali village, told Amnesty International India, “Why did the district authorities choose to conduct the hearing on a day that village representatives were being sworn in? Many from my village, including me, were not able to participate in the hearing because of this.”

Limited information was made available to communities about the impact of the project ahead of the hearing, and much of what was provided was not accessible. The Environmental Impact Assessment Report, which contains much technical information, was made available only in English, with a summary in Hindi.

Brajesh Shrivas, a local activist, said, “You write your impact assessments in English and a technical language, only sharing with us brief summaries in Hindi. How do you expect people to understand anything?”

Laxmi Chauhan, a local environmental activist, said, “The EIA report prepared provides no information regarding the rehabilitation and resettlement of families living in Khodri, Churail, Khairbhawna or Amgaon, despite being clearly asked to do so by the MoEF.”

The EIA report also did not mention details about the indigenous communities who could be affected by the expansion, and contained insufficient details on impacts on health, data on health monitoring, and how damage from past evictions, pollution and poor waste management would be remediated.

At the hearing, discussion on the impacts of the project was limited to a few minutes. Authorities did not clarify whether affected communities would be eligible for compensation and rehabilitation under the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition Act, 2013, which a recent central government ordinance made applicable to cases of land acquired for coal mining by the state.

Mahesh Mahant, a resident of Khodri village, told Amnesty International India, “We’ve lived next to this mine for almost 30 years, and watched our wells go dry, forests disappear and fields become unproductive. What is the point of this environmental public hearing, except to tell us that we’re not fit to live here anymore?”

“Authorities have a duty to ensure that people’s concerns on pollution and rehabilitation are addressed, and carry out a full assessment of the project’s human rights impact in genuine consultation with affected communities, before approving the mine expansion,” said Aruna Chandrasekhar.

Background Information

On 19 February 2014, SECL received an environmental clearance for expanding its mine’s production capacity from 15 million tonnes to 18.75 mtpa. India’s Ministry of Environment and Forests exempted the project from conducting an environmental public hearing to inform and consult communities on the impacts of the expansion. On 1 December 2014, the Ministry again cleared the expansion of the mine’s production capacity from 18.75 mtpa to 62.5 mtpa.

The last public hearing for the project was conducted in 2008, regarding the expansion of the mine’s capacity from 10 to 15 MTPA. Local residents, activists and lawyers say the issues raised during this public hearing have still not been adequately addressed.

The Korba district is protected under the Indian Constitution as a ‘scheduled area’, where Adivasi communities have special customary rights over land. Under the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, communities in these areas have the right to be consulted before acquisition of any land or resettlement of people for development projects. To date, state authorities have not conducted such consultations with affected communities. A single meeting of the Rehabilitation and Peripheral Development Advisory Committee in December 2010 did not involve village-level representatives or affected communities.

SECL’s plans to expand the 2,382-hectare Kusmunda mine involves the acquisition of an additional 1,127 hectares of land. The project involves a total of 372 hectares of forest land. However, community consent for diversion of this forest land for non-forest purposes, as mandated by India’s Forest Rights Act, has not yet been obtained.

In 2009, India’s Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) ranked Korba as India’s fifth most critically polluted industrial cluster. The CPCB’s assessment reports, and a subsequent pollution abatement plan developed in 2011, stated that dust from the transportation of coal from SECL’s mines is a major contributor to air pollution and laid out steps for SECL to take by end-2011, including proper reclamation of existing mine sites. It is still unclear whether this has been achieved.

India is obligated under international law to ensure that both the Chhattisgarh state authorities and the central government take all necessary measures to safeguard people from human rights abuses, including by third parties such as companies. This requires enforcing laws against pollution and preventing the contamination of water, air or soil.

All pics: Aruna Chandrasekhar / Amnesty International India


Chhattisgarh govt cancels tribal rights over forest lands


Forest Rights Act allows government to divert forest lands for other purposes only after prior consent of the tribals through gram sabhas

Nitin Sethi  |  New Delhi February 18, 2016 Last Updated at 00:41 IST

Forest rights of over their traditional lands in Ghatbarra village of Surguja district have been taken away by the government to facilitate coal mining of Prasa East and Kete Besan coal block.

The block has been allocated to Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Limited (RVUNL) and Adani Minerals Private Limited. The latter is a 100 per cent subsidiary of Adani Enterprises and RVUNL is a Rajasthan government enterprise.

In an order passed on January 8, the government had cancelled the community land rights of the tribals in the village, given under the (FRA). The government, in the order, stated that the villagers had been using their legal rights over the forest land to stop work of mining in their village, which falls in the Parsa East and Kete Besan coal block. It is the first such order to come to light in India, where community rights of tribals have been cancelled after being granted through the process laid down in the FRA.

Business Standard reviewed the January 8 orders cancelling the land rights of the tribals in the village. The Chhattisgarh government and the district authorities, however, did not respond to the queries.

The does not provide for revocation of either community or individual land rights once granted under the law. The law and the attendant regulations provide only for the government diverting the forest land for some other purpose after prior consent of the tribals through their gram sabha. Under the FRA, tribals are empowered to claim individual and community rights over forestlands they have traditionally hold on. The gram sabha of Bhatbarra did so and in September 3, 2013 they were handed over the lands by the state government.

After that, the village became aware that the coal block could remain susceptible to mining despite the Supreme Court orders cancelling earlier allocations. In October 2014 the gram sabha (village council) of Ghatbarra, along with 19 other villages, took out a formal resolution opposing the mining in their lands. Under the FRA, the gram sabha is the only authority empowered to decide the future of traditional tribal lands.

Also Read: Five in Chhattisgarh might see land conflict

The FRA also requires that the claims and rights of all tribals and other forest-dwellers are settled before the government looks to remove them under section 4(5) of the law and other rules.

But the central government gave the clearance to divert the land for mining in 2012 without settling the rights. Business Standard reviewed the orders of the environment ministry. One set of orders said the land would be diverted only once the rights of the tribals and others had been settled. But then later orders (called stage 2 forest clearance) handed over the land for mining without ascertaining that the rights had actually been settled.

The state government in its order dated January 8 notes (translated from Hindi): “When the administration tries to get diversion of forests done for the Parsa East and Kete Besen open coal block, the villagers, using the context of the land rights given by the collector to them, create barriers and protest to stop work.”

The order notes that this was investigated by the forest department. The conservator of forests of Surguja found that the land rights were given to tribals in 2013 while the forest clearance to RVUNL had been given in 2012. He concluded, therefore, the community forest rights given to the tribals could be cancelled.

The district administration along with the tribal affairs and the forest department based on latter’s conclusions passed an order saying, because the land had been given in 2012 to the company for mining, it no longer classified as forestland in 2013 when it was given to tribals under the FRA. Consequently, the three set of authorities collectively decided that the government order handing over rights to tribals in 2013 is cancelled.

The block has been caught up in a legal fracas over the forest clearance for other reasons as well. In 2014, the Green Tribunal (NGT) had cancelled the forest clearance noting that the environment ministry had not looked at the impact of coal mining on biodiversity in the region, including presence of protected species such as the elephant. It asked the environment ministry to take a look again at the case. But the stay on operations was removed by the Supreme Court even as the NGT orders to relook at the clearance continued to operate. Since then the ministry has not taken a decision on the matter, records show.


The Keonjhar Take Over

How the Odisha Mining Corp, a state PSU, is perpetrating a Rs 79,000-crore gyp in its hunt for iron in the forests

It’s A Steal

  • In 1970, the Gandhamardan Block-B mining lease was awarded to Odisha Mining Coporation
  • In 2013 the Shah Commission pointed out various illegalities in OMC’s activities there, including the mining over 1.2 million tonnes of ore from 2000 to 2006 without required forest clearance. Two forest offence cases are on in the Keonjhar district court.
  • In January 2015, the state government, on behalf of the OMC, applied for forest clearance (1,590 ha) to expand ann­­ual production to a whopping 9.2 million tonnes. This includes over 1,400 hectares of forest across seven adivasi villages.
  • The OMC proposes to mine this area for 302 million tonnes of ore over the next 33 years. It estimates the annual sale value of the ore to be Rs 2,416 crore.
  • The Union ministry of environment and forests is considering the proposal.


Gopinath Naik, a member of the forest rights committee of Urumunda village, is completely flummoxed. He has just seen a signature in English, purported to be his, certifying a gram sabha resolution, purportedly of his village. “I sign like this—in Oriya,” he says, demonstrating. “I’ve never studied English in my life. How would I sign in English?”

The ‘resolution’ records the consent of the adivasi villagers to hand over 853 hectares of forest land to the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC), a public-sector undertaking of the Orissa government which holds mining lease in the region and carries out mining activities. The Urumunda resolution is one of seven identical gram sabha resolutions that the state government and the OMC submitted to the Union ministry of environment, forests and climate change (MoEFCC) in January last year, as part of an application for forest clearance for expanding activities. The OMC, which calls itself “India’s largest public sector mining company”, wants to turn 1,590 hectares around Urumunda and six other villages in Keonjhar district, including 1,409 hectares of forest land (that’s about 45 Lodhi Gardens), into a 300 million-tonne ‘Gandhamardan-B Iron Ore Mine’, which it proposes to run for 33 years. Its documents put the annual sale value of ore from the mine at Rs 2,416 crore. The cum­ulative value of ore from the forest would then be over Rs 79,000 crore.

Gandhamardan, after which the mine is being named, is a biodiverse mountain range. The Gandhamardan area in Keonjhar district, over 250 km north of the state capital Bhubaneshwar, offers a striking landscape of adivasi Munda and Bhuiyan villages, deciduous forests, mountainside farms of corn, millet and sesame irrigated by natural streams. Wildlife, including elephant herds, roam parts of the forest, according to villagers and official documents. A third of India’s hematite iron ore reserves lie here.

From 2005-12, Keonjhar and the adj­oining Sundergarh district witnessed a scramble to dig up the forests and mountains for ore, fuelled especially by lucrative exports to China. The attendant widespread breaking of law and abuse of local adivasi communities created, as the Justice M.B. Shah commisssion into illegal mining, which inv­estigated these areas from 2011-13, put it, “super-normal profits”. The commission had darkly concluded that “there’s no rule of law, but law is what the mighty mining lessees decide, with the connivance of the concerned department”. In 2013, faced with growing questions, the Naveen Patnaik government issued recovery not­ices of Rs 59,203 crore to mining companies—a fourth of Orissa’s annual GDP. To date, miners have paid up not a rupee.

It is 2016 now, and to the adivasis it seems they mattered little then, and they matter little now. In Urumunda, besides Naik, whose name features thrice on the resolution, several villagers point out signatures and repeated names. Baidyanath Sahoo finds his name thrice and says mockingly, “They have sold me three times over.” According to the submission for forest clearance, the gram sabhas of Urumunda and six other villages in the Gandhamardan area of the district­—Uppar Jagara, Donla, Ambadahara, Nitigotha, Uppar Kainsari and Ichinda—convened in November and December 2011. But in village after village, when shown copies of these resolutions, people say they’d neither held such meetings nor passed such resolutions.

In Nitigotha, panchayat samiti member Shakuntala Dehury let out a volley of abuses on reading a copy of the resolution claimed to be that of her village. It says, in language identical to resolutions from the other six villages, that Nitigotha residents held a meeting and said they are not using the forests for cultivation, house-building or any livelihood activities, and have no individual or community claims to it. Each resolution then has the villagers say that opening a mine will give them livelihood and that they are requesting the government to implement the forest clearance/diversion proposal.

As the petite Shakuntala reads out the resolution, the text amuses, then enrages, the villagers gathered around her. “Please bring the haraamzaada officer before me who has written this absurd and false resolution,” she says angrily.

Nitigotha and Ambadahara, like other villages in the area, and an estimated 15,000 villages across Orissa, have a long tradition of community protection of forests, which Union environment minister Prakash Javadekar might consider studying first-hand. Villagers here have drawn up a roster, which puts five of them on duty each day of the week to patrol their village’s section of forest and ensure no trees are felled, no timber smuggled out. “We are protecting the forest. The forest nourishes us,” says Kaviraj Dehury, among those on duty. “How would we ever sit in a gram sabha and say we have no claim to the forest, and that we request the government to give it to OMC?”

2. Triple Entry Baidyanath Sahoo’s name apprears thrice in the resolutions; 3. Why Insult Us? Masuri Behra says, “Why kick us in the stomach?”; 4. Lied About Ex-sarpanch Gopal Munda says he never held the meetings; 5 & 6. Double Entry Gobinda Munda’s name figures twice. (Photograph by Chitrangada Choudhury)

In Uppar Jagara, there are murmurs of “forgery, forgery”, as villagers mill around a copy of the resolution that the OMC and the state government claim was adopted by their village. Gobinda Munda is shocked to see his name feature twice, both times with different and fake signatures. “This is how I actually sign,” he says, and demonstrates how he does. Khageshwar Purti chips in, “Mining by the OMC has spoilt our farms, sapped our streams. We have made many complaints to the district authorities, but who listens to us? If we held a gram sabha to discuss their proposal, would we ever come up with such an absurd resolution?” As the crowd reads the list of names on the resolution, they discover that over half of the names appended to the resolution are of people not from their village.

In Ambadahara, former sarpanch Gopal Munda shakes his head on seeing his name on four resolutions, one for each of the four villages that once fell under him. Each resolution states that the meeting happened under his “presidency”. “Who is lying in my name like this? Take me to a court in Bhubaneshwar or Delhi, and I will hold my head high and say I have called no such meetings in our villages,” says the burly man. And people around him say, “Because of these forests and mountains, we have our water, our crops. They are taking our wealth and becoming big people, while we languish.”

In Donla, Masuri Behra says wearily, “Why do they kick us in the stomach like this? We already have so little.” Villagers here ask, “When did such a meeting with so many people ever take place? Wouldn’t know if it had?”

Sujit Dehury is also said to have ‘signed’ the resolution—when he was in Std IV! (Photograph by Chitrangada Choudhury)

Accounts of villagers aside, the fact that each resolution from seven individual meetings reads exactly the same suggests foul play. The English translations of these Oriya resolutions are also identical to the last word—a fact that seems to have led to no questions in the mind of the Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) of the MoEFCC when it discussed the proposal in its September 2015 meeting. On condition of anonymity, an FAC member said, “There is so much pressure in this regime to give clearance. Earlier, there was some scope to look at these things and ask questions. But now there is no time for this—nor are we expected to.”

But the larger question is: why swindle villagers like this? Because, under the Forest Rights Act (FRA)—described as a landmark law for India’s estimated 150 million forest-dwellers—the consent of over 50 per cent of a village’s adult population is mandatory for “diverting” (bureaucratese for cutting down) their customary forest land for “non-forest” uses, in this case, for taking over 1,409 hectares and mining it for 300 million tonnes of ore.

Enacted in 2006, FRA was a belated legislation providing recognition to the millions of Indians who have traditionally lived near forests but have had no legal right to their homes, lands and livelihoods. The law aimed to rectify the “historical inj­ustice” of colonial-era legislation that turned forest-dwelling communities into encroachers on their own lands.

The resolutions agreeing to hand over forest land of all seven villages are identical. Villagers can’t recall the meeting or their signing the resolution.
Under FRA, industrial takeover can take place only after the rights of the villagers over the forests they have traditionally used has been recognised. The ‘recognition’ is achieved officially by awarding individual forest land titles for families (in the name of the man and the woman), and a community title in the name of the village. This is vital, for it gives the locals a say in the decision-making process whenever the government or other agencies propose diversion—which usually amounts to destruction—of forests they have traditionally used. It also makes locals eligible for proper compensation if they decide to give such forested areas to industry. Without such recognition, locals remain excluded from any share in the lucrative monetisation of their resource. For example, as a senior forest officer asks, the OMC estimates the sale value of ore that it will mine at over Rs 2,400 per year, “but what do local tribals get from this arrangement?”

A January 2016 amendment to the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act strengthens the FRA law, by making the denial of forest rights a punishable offence. But in these seven Keonjhar villages, several people who have filed for forest rights titles have not got them. The few who have were awarded titles for patches of land (25 to 80 decimals), receiving rights for far less than what they had claimed. Further, the district administration has not awarded any title in two of the villages, Donla and Uppar Kainsari. An official involved with the fieldwork and processing of FRA claims said, requesting anonymity, “My seniors have told me that the forest area in Donla village is to go to the OMC for mining. So we should just ignore the villagers’ claims.”

In a further illegality, none of the seven villages in Keonjhar the OMC wants to claim forest from got community titles so far. This despite being adivasis having community forests—which they protect—within their customary boundaries and using minor forest produce such as firewood. Keonjhar’s then district collector Bishnu Sahu did not record the reasons why community claims had not been awarded here, even though the FRA law requires this. Instead, a January 19, 2013 certificate from him, prepared in support of handing over the forest to the OMC, states that all FRA rights have been settled in the seven villages. When contacted, S.C. Mahapatra, the forest and environment secretary in the Orissa government, whose department submitted the clearance appl­ication to the MoEFCC, said, “I don’t know anything about this” and hung up. He wouldn’t take subsequent calls.

In early November 2015, when they came to know of the fraudulent resolutions submitted in their name, two of the seven villages, Nitigotha and Ambadahara, sent letters to the environment and tribal affairs ministries, pointing out the illegalities. They also wrote to the Orissa governor, who has a special responsibility under the Constitution of safeguarding the rights of communities in adivasi areas. Over two months on, none of these authorities has responded to them.

It gets worse. From December 28-30, 2015, a three-member team from the MoEFCC’s FAC visited Keonjhar for a site inspection of the proposed mine. Their terms of reference included looking at the implementation of FRA in the OMC’s proposed mine area. On December 29, this reporter met the team’s head, Anil Kumar, an additional director-general in the MoEFCC, at the Keonjhar hotel where the team was staying. He insisted on speaking in the presence of OMC officials, with whom he was having breakfast. Kumar ref­used to answer any questions about the visit, or how the team intended to examine the implementation of FRA, saying, “The FAC’s work is confidential.” When pressed about how the committee intended to inv­estigate villages’ complaints about the alleged forgeries, and if the members would visit the villages, Kumar said this reporter should inform him about the violations in an e-mail. Days earlier, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, listing his governments achievements to a newspaper, had said, “Environmental clearances are being granted as a rule.”

And on December 30, after three days in the district, the FAC team left Keonjhar, without having visited any of the seven villages or speaking to any of the villagers. The ‘site inspection’—as far as the FAC was concerned—was complete.

By Chitrangada Choudhury in Keonjhar, Orissa

Chitrangada Choudhury is a Fellow with the Open Society Institute. Email: suarukh [AT] gmail [DOT] com