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Socialist Project • E-Bulletin No. 808
April 22, 2013

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The Bastar Land Grab in India

An Interview with Sudha Bharadwaj

Sudha Bharadwaj is a lawyer and a member of the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) and the Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha (Mazdoor Karkyakarta Committee). CMM was founded in 1982 by legendary union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi (assassinated in 1991), to organize beyond union issues alone. Sudha is also part of a legal collective, called Janhit, that works with movement organizations. Justin Podur interviewed her in Raipur on March 5, 2013.

Justin Podur (JP): As a lawyer and an activist, how do you see the relationship between legal work and activism?

Sudha Bharadwaj (SB): I see myself primarily as a trade unionist. I joined the union movement over twenty years ago, and it was the union that made me a lawyer. They felt that workers needed a good lawyer in their fight with the corporations. Our union is one of contract workers and has been striving to overcome divisions in the working-class. Here, workers have a close connection with the peasants. So, we believe that working with the peasants is part of unionism.

When I got to the High Court, I found that all the people's organizations were in a similar situation. The laws that give you rights are poorly implemented. When you fight, the status quo has many legal weapons, launches malicious litigation, etc. So we have a group of lawyers now (Janhit), and we work on group legal aid, not individual legal aid. The idea is that if you help a group, that can bring about some kind of change, create some space. I've also gotten involved with the People's Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL), for which I am the General Secretary in Chhattisgarh.

JP: Can you give examples of some of these struggles?

SB: We organize in the cement industry. One major corporation is Holcim, a Swiss multinational, that has taken over ACC and Ambuja, though these Indian corporations continue to retain their brand names. Holcim has closed down its Spanish and American plants and has come here. Why? If you look at returns on investment in this industry globally, they are 1.3 per cent. In India, they are 13 per cent. These multinationals have come here with deep pockets, and they have gotten a stranglehold over local administration – the ministers, the officers of the forest, labour, mining and pollution departments – they have that capacity.

In the cement industry, there is a Wage Board Agreement that says no contract labour can be employed in the cement industry except in loading/unloading and packing, and even then they have to get paid at the same rate as regular workers. But actually these multinational plants are using contract labour for all processes of cement production and paying paltry minimum wages, ignoring the law. When we take the struggle to the streets, they use the law against our workers. Ambuja in particular has been very vindictive. One of the leaders in the struggle spent 13 months in jail on a trumped-up charge of looting a mobile and Rs. 3500 from a Security Officer.

Look at the level of extraction. Contract workers at Ambuja get 180 Rs per day (less then $4), at ACC 200 Rs per day ($4). A permanent worker would get 700 Rs per day ($14). The Swiss worker gets 2500 Rs ($50), and the CEO gets 2.2 lakhs per day ($4400). The largest share holder Thomas Schmidheinney gets 2 crore per day ($400,000). Even getting basic labour rights is very, very tough and workers realize that the corporations are in an even more intense fight with the peasants and adivasis.

JP: And there are attempts at common struggles between workers and adivasis and peasants?

SB: There are. Our union is a member of a platform called Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan (CBA) which has mass organizations like the Adivasi Mahasabha, Bharat Jan Andolan, Gondwana Gantantra Party etc., and most importantly many small village community organizations which are fighting displacement and trying to enforce the PESA act and Forest Rights Acts because individual struggles are just being crushed. This is an election year, so we might see some gestures from Congress, to cash in on the simmering discontent, but usually the political representatives of all parties have been trying to buy off opposition. The CBA may have critical mass one day. That's what we hoped when it was founded 2-3 years ago.

JP: I've been trying to understand what is happening in the forest, in Bastar.

SB: Take a look at a map of the periphery of Chhattisgarh. If you overlay maps of forests, of adivasi villages, of minerals, you'll find almost perfect overlap. When Chhattisgarh was created in 2000, carved out of Madhya Pradesh, the first Chief Minister coined a phrase, he said it was “rich land, poor people.” In the 12 years since its creation, the people have become poorer, and more riches have been discovered in the land. This state is full of minerals – 19 per cent of India's iron ore, 11 per cent of the coal, bauxite, limestone, all kinds of priceless minerals.

Paradoxically to understand Bastar, that is South Chhattisgarh, the place to start is north Chhattisgarh. In the north, in Raigarh, you will enter Jindal country, you'll see Jindal everywhere. In 12 years, in Raigarh alone, 26,000 acres of agricultural land have gone for mining and plants. Where are the people supposed to go? Inequalities have intensified.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the Maoists came into the northern district of Sarguja and were crushed. They came from Jharkhand. They redistributed some land. There were 20-25 encounter killings of their leaders, and many adivasi people are still in jail. Surguja has bauxite. It is densely forested. The forest ministry said it was pristine jungle, a 'no-go' area for mining. The Chhattisgarh government made it a 'go' zone, with a rail corridor and power plants. In one village, Premnagar, the Gram Sabha (village-level government) voted 12-15 times, saying they didn't want a power plant, they argued it out in a reasoned manner. That is because in a Scheduled Area (tribal dominated) the Gram Sabha has sweeping powers. So the State government, by a notification, changed the Gram Panchayat into a Nagar Panchayat (municipal council) and took away its powers! This is unconstitutional, of course, but the final judgment never seems to happen and there's no interim relief – so the land grab can proceed in the meantime. Every possible protest is thrown to the winds.

JP: What is the role of privatization in this process?

SB: Mining for companies is based on leases with land owners, not by land acquisition. Earlier leases used to only be given to the public sector, and you could not mine unless you built a plant. Now, with Public-Private Partnerships (PPP), private companies can just mine, and even if it is not for captive use. This leads to ‘dig-and-sell,’ a robber-baron kind of situation.

Kosampali village in Raigarh is surrounded by a 150ft deep Jindal mine on two sides. On the third side is the river. The people of the village have only one way out, and that land is scheduled for mining too. They are doomed to become an island.

What does the law say about this? When the mining company applies for the lease, the application asks: does the applicant have surface rights? If not, has the consent of the owner/occupier been obtained? If the answer to these questions is no, then the application should be sent back immediately to obtain those consents. But instead, the mining company writes: “consent will be obtained,” and gets through this giant loophole that says “consent may be given after lease, but before entry.” So the government comes to the rescue of the mining company. The Tehsildar (a revenue official lower in rank to the District Collector) posts notice listing out all the plots in the lease, saying – come and collect your compensation as per the Land Acquisition Act. They don't tell people that they have a choice not to consent. Normally people take it as a fait accompli. They come and take the compensation, and their consent is then assumed. In cases where villagers take the compensation, they try to buy land in other villages, and often the local people there see them as outsiders and don't let them settle. But the people of Kosampalli are saying, “No amount of money can compensate us if you take away these last lands for mining, because we won't be able to live here any more.” Our legal office managed to get a stay on the mining, and it's fixed for final hearing.

If you're in Chhattisgarh, you should visit Jashpur district. It's pristine forest at the moment, but the prospecting licenses cover the whole district. A whole hill and plateau atop it called Pandrapat where the Pahadi Korva primitive tribes reside is covered by bauxite mining leases. After the elections are over, mining will start, and the forest will be devastated.

JP: Talk a bit about the politics of power in this region.

SB: Janjgir-Champa, another district in the north, is a drought-prone area. The government invested in irrigation, and got 78 per cent of the district irrigated. But now there are plans for 34 power plants using that water. There are plans for 70 plants in Chhattisgarh, to produce 60,000 MW. The peak electricity requirement in the state is 2500 MW, and we already have 5000 MW capacity. So are we selling it to our neighbours? Well, Andhra Pradesh is planning for capacity of 45000 MW, Gujarat 45000 MW, Madhya Pradesh the same. So what is going on? I think it is not about power. It is for the mining. There are 200,000 acres of land allocated for these plants, 100,000 acres for mining. The water required for these plants is more than all the surface water we have, so we're going to dig deep into the ground water.

This is a net transfer of land and minerals to the private sector. When the global financial crisis set in, multinationals have begun to come here and continue to make huge profits by collaborating with Indian corporations. So Tata will be the Indian face of Corus (a European steelmaker) when it needs iron ore. Tata has a stake in Canadian New Millennium Iron Corporation and also in Labrador Iron Mines. Foreign mining might face trouble – but if you have a great Indian company mining, no trouble.

Once you understand this pressure for mining, this pressure for land – then you can understand South Chhattisgarh, that is, Bastar.

JP: Bastar, where the Maoists are [see my book review of Maoists in India].

SB: The Naxals came to Bastar in the 1980s. The area was totally neglected. It was considered a “punishment posting” for the government officials who got posted there. Exploitation was blatant and brutal, of the forest peoples and adivasis. Many of the adivasis made their living collecting tendu leaves (used for rolling bidi cigarettes). There were huge movements to get the adivasis better prices for their tendu leaves, and the Naxals built a solid base with these movements.

By 2005, according to the Director General of Police (DGP) at the time, there were 50,000 Sangham members (unarmed members of the front organizations of the Maoists). That might even have been an underestimate. Thus there was this huge area where the Forest Department and police couldn't go, but teachers, doctors, were allowed. It was after Salwa Judum, that violence greatly increased. And the period of Salwa Judum correlates with the MOUs and the land grab some 2200 ha were granted to Tata and a similar amount to Essar, for iron ore prospecting.

So in Bastar the state has this predicament. They want the minerals, they even want the forests a little bit for carbon credits, but they don't want the people. In 2005, Salwa Judum starts. It's typical strategic hamleting, moving people out of the villages and into camps. A similar approach was taken to insurgencies in the Northeast, in Mizoram and Tripura, for example. Here, they emptied 644 villages, by the government's admission, 350,000 people. About 50,000 were brought to the camps, and today these camps still have about 10,000 people. Some fled to neighbouring states particularly Andhra Pradesh. Where are the rest? They seem to have gone even deeper into the forest, probably 200,000 people. They try to cultivate and live in the forest, but they are being treated as outlaws. This displacement has been a very violent process. There are affidavits, evidence in the “Salwa Judum” cases filed in the Supreme Court (Nandini Sundar's case and Kartam Joga's case). In one block alone, the Konta block, there were 500 deaths, 99 rapes, 2000 houses burned. This was a violent, state-backed vigilante movement, and was also essentially pushed back militarily by the Maoists.

The notion of a few Maoists manipulating people is a bit simplistic. Even in the newspapers, when they describe ambushes, they describe 700, or 1000 attackers at times. Getting 700 people to a rally is difficult for us in the democratic movement. If 700 people are going to war, they must be looking upon it like an adivasi or national liberation struggle. And it is the State that has forced them to choose one side or the other.

JP: I'd never heard it characterized that way.

SB: Yes, you could say it's a tribal rebellion, backed by the Maoists, who are ideological. But many ordinary people who join it see it as the only way they can save their land.

Those of us in the democratic movement, in the PUCL, we say to the state: de-escalate the violence. Let people come back to their villages. Let there be civilian administration. Let the teachers go back. The state has moved the schools, the ration shops, even the voting machines, to the Salwa Judum camps. How can you not have rigged voting in that context?

If you, as the State, think of these people in the jungle as outlaws, you're ultimately behaving like an occupying army. The Indian army is also here, they came a year ago. There was a rally, of 700 elected representatives, sarpanches [elected head of a village], panches, who went to the Collector and said, we don't want army bases here, but no action seems to have been taken on their demands.

According to international law, indigenous people have the right to say no to projects on their land. In Indian law, inherited from the British, the tribal dominated areas are called Scheduled Areas. Under the British, they were called Excluded and Partially Excluded areas. They were administered directly by the Union Government, through the Governor, not by the State Legislature. So, it was understood that these areas were a special case. According to the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, the Gram Sabha is supposed to make the decisions, it is to be consulted for all developmental projects. Even under the Forest Rights Area, it is the Gram Sabha which declares and verifies rights both individual and collective. It's supposed to be direct democracy in the tribal areas.

So we say, let it be implemented. If the adivasis, through the Gram Sabhas, say they want a freeze on MOUs, because their experience is terrible, with iron ore going to Japan for 400 Rs/ton ($8) while locals get no benefit, not to mention all the ecological damage, then you have to convince them. If it isn't implemented, this will get worse and worse.

The government, internationally, says there is no internal armed conflict, because it doesn't want any international involvement, no UN, no MSF, no Amnesty International eyes here. But internally, it labels the Maoists as the ‘greatest internal security threat.’

JP: Would international attention on this conflict be positive?

SB: It would be good. The Government would have to then worry about civilian casualties. They ought to have nothing to lose. Why not allow the international community to monitor the situation? If you don't, you are all but admitting that what you really want to do is a massive ground clearing operation. When there is a virtual war going on, recognition that it is going on would be better.

There was this village, Sarkeguda. It was very strong. The villagers refused to leave when the Salwa Judum started. Finally some people were killed by the Salwa Judum, some arrested and houses burnt, so in 2006 they fled to Andhra. NGOs like Himanshu Kumar's Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, and the Agricultural and Social Development Society (ASDS), Khamam tried to rehabilitate some of these villages as had been recommended by the NHRC. They came back in 2009 and look again at what happened on 28-29 June 2012 – another fake encounter, 17 killed, 7 of them children. Eight years after their displacement, Sarkeguda is still trying to get re-established. They are feeling like the state doesn't want them to live there.

Young men and women fear arrest when they go to the ration shop. When they go, their rations are carefully measured so they don't have any extra, supposedly because it would go to the Maoists. There's this total denial of basic human needs. They justify killings with this twisted logic. Earlier 17 people were killed in a faked encounter in Singavaram. The Superintendent of Police, Rahul Sharma, was sure that someone “was or was close to Naxals” because tablets of chloroquine and a bottle of dettol were found on her person!

The government shows no interest in stopping the war through negotiation. A Maoist spokesperson who was coming forward for talks, Azad, was killed. A West Bengal Maoist leader who was in negotiation with the State Government, Kishenji, was killed. The state continues their military buildup and labels all the adivasis as Maoists. There are thousands of adivasis in jail, awaiting trial. When the police go into the jungle, they go in their hundreds, they pick up all those of a village who have not been able to run away, and bring everyone to jail. Most of these people, who speak adivasi languages and don't speak Hindi, have no interpreters, so they lie in jail and wait for acquittal – which will come, because there is no evidence against them. But they are waiting in a Central Jail, their family can't see them, the lawyers don't want to, because they get their photos taken and become known as “Naxal lawyers.”

The government has this Special Public Safety Act (SPSA), which means any “aid” to the Naxals is illegal irrespective of their knowledge, or intention that they are aiding. In Bilaspur, tradespeople who sell olive green cloth are being prosecuted for “supplying Naxal uniform.” There's a military phrase for the action of security forces in that area – “Area domination” which means “Squash them all.” It doesn't work. What happened in Kashmir? They “rooted out the militants,” now they have boys throwing stones. There's huge anger, and the government is not willing to come to terms with it.

In other areas, like the POSCO affected area in Odisha, people are struggling in different ways. The entire adivasi belt from North Bengal to Jharkhand, Odisha, Chhattisgarh extending up to Vidharbha is seeing huge struggles for land and forests, not just Bastar. And, unless the state decides to commit genocide, which is possible, this is not going to go away.

I think it's time to rethink “rich land, poor people.” We allow private parties to dig up the minerals, then what? Smart people don't use up their own resources. The U.S. still has oil, even though it was discovered hundreds of years ago. We in India are going to sell away everything we have and cry afterwards, and we are going to violate all of our principles and the rights of our peoples to do it.

JP: How to resist this?

SB: As Marxists we have a notion of the State, of a system. Today the prospect of people getting their rights within the system – through the executive, judiciary, or legislature – has shrunk. The system is not working. It has to change. Now, the Maoists have a strategy, they believe in the overthrow of that system. But democrats like us, we are confused. Some of us believe that we can transform the system through elections. The Chhattisgarh Mukti Morcha has a flexible approach to elections. We're not against elections and use different methods of contesting or opposing a particular candidate or supporting a particular candidate depending on what strengthens our organization, but we don't believe that they will change the system. In these elections where lakhs of rupees are spent even on village-level elections, and crores on MP or MLA elections, ordinary people trying to get heard among all this money is like giving a philosophy lecture in a disco. It's ridiculous. The media is corporatized. While the media covered Anna Hazare, he had a huge movement. Then they just turned it off.

I watched how they dealt with the Occupy movement in the UK. They were frozen out, shut out of the conversation, isolated, and after some time, their tents were removed. It was a smart strategy. And the Indian state is no less smart. It's very clever. Look in the Northeast, in Kashmir, in Bastar, in Gujarat. People are excluded, compartmentalized. We can't get our act together.

As CMM, we refuse to remain silent on events in Bastar like the fake encounters or the adivasis languishing in jails, just to be in the good books of the State. Some people say, armed movements invite repression. But all movements invite repression. They killed our leader Comrade Shankar Guha Niyogi in 1991, and workers have died in police firings in 1977, 1984 and 1991. Today our activists face the risk of being booked under the Chhattisgarh Special Security Act for this eminently democratic work. Still, we keep trying to work legally, democratically, and do mass mobilization, express solidarities, try to widen the circle. •

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer and professor at York University, currently a visiting professor at Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi. His blog is www.killingtrain.com and twitter is www.twitter.com/justinpodur.

This interview was first published on kafila.org.

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