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Sudhir k Singh
Mined Out Of Korba
Posted: Monday, 4 Jan 2016 at 7:15 PM
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KORBA (Chhattisgarh)

Think Bastar and what the more adventurous newshound would probably grab is the chance to hitch a motorcycle ride around sundown through the dense forests of Abujhmarh in Narayanpur district with a local guide in tow.

 Glazed eyes of wild animals will come into your vision. Armed groups of Maoists may accost you if only to cross check your antecedents. You have nothing to fear unless you are on a spying mission for an Intelligence agency of the government. One look at those inscrutable faces, half covered with a bandana, guns tightly held, and you know you are in the tribal heartland of Chhattisgarh, better known as the ‘Red zone’. This is the terrain where the Maoists have been waging an insurgency since the 1980s. Tribal land alienation and repressive rural exploitation provided the trigger.

 Not without reason is Chhattisgarh mostly viewed in the mainstream media through the narrow prism of the Maoist menace. The dwindling land rights of forest dwelling tribals comprising 34 per cent of the populace, among others, remains a constant concern, some real, mostly sham, among NGO and human rights activists. Blasé and detached has been the attitude of policy makers sitting in the plush chambers of the forest and environment ministries.

The real story lies elsewhere. It is the bullets pumped from Maoist Kalashnikovs and the strewn corpses of CRPF men that is the stuff of prime time news, and newspaper headlines the next morning. Not the adivasis and their plight! That is largely confined to conferences, research papers, the odd op-ed piece, and a few court appeals. Throw in a few protests here and there, and the circle of faux care is complete.   

Which is why each time I was compelled to rush from Bhopal to the interiors of the mineral rich state during my stint with two national newspapers between 1999 and 2010, the provocation was the periodic Maoist carnage in Bastar or Dantewada.  

Travelling to Korba, the state’s power capital and mecca of mining, from Raipur, an easy four-hour drive, was thus a refreshing experience. Truth to tell, I never visited the town even in the thick of the bust-up at BALCO a decade ago. The turmoil its work force underwent during the throes of privatisation still evokes much pain among locals.

Korba, mercifully, is no Dantewada. The Maoists never made it their operational base. The logistics probably did not favour frequent bloodletting. This is despite the fact that the district is an amalgam of largish forest tracts, mineral riches, adivasis, and manipulative corporates – topography and ground realities they would otherwise have relished. The struggle for forest rights never struck root here. Though many have been living here for generations, few regard it their ancestral home as their counterparts in Bastar.

Korba beckons the moment you sight the sky kissing power generation towers of the NTPC and CSEB. Once the barrage at the river Hasdeo (a Mahanadi tributary) is crossed, you are firmly in town. Ranged on either side is lush greenery with trees standing cheek by jowl on what seems like an undulating valley, for several miles. It is not often you see such verdure in industrial environs. But that is an optical illusion.

Much of the valley in reality is man-made, an ‘overburden’, the mining term for the millions of tonnes of mud gouged out from the bowels of Mother Earth to get to the black gold. Environmental norms make it incumbent on the mining agency, South-Eastern Coalfields Ltd. (SECL), a subsidiary of Coal India Ltd., to plant trees to give the mountains of earth a green cover. These trees are “useless”, informs my guide, Laxmi Chauhan, an environment and RTI activist. A good storm is enough to rip them off their roots. Their nutritional and environmental value is nought.

Korba accounts for about 22 per cent of the nation’s coal demand. That the district derives its identity from the mineral does not become evident till you actually visit a mining site. Which is what my guide had planned. Nothing else, he says, can hammer home the harsh reality of lives gone topsy-turvy from the scourge of mining. The district disgorges nearly 100 million tonnes (mt) of coal annually, the bulk of it from the three major open cast mining projects at Kusmunda, Gevra, and Dipka, the rest from smaller underground projects.

Gevra, in fact, is Asia’s largest open cast mining project with an annual output of 40 mt. Presiding over the fortunes of hundreds of displaced adivasi and other communities are the babus of the SECL. The average displaced villager sees the PSU as a Voldermort and Gabbar Singh rolled in one.

Our first stop is a massive excavation site at Barkuta village situated in the tehsil of Katghora, part of the Kusmunda project. Perched on a narrow cliff, the sight below is straight out of a fantasy film. Gigantic wheeled excavators, backhoe loaders, rigid dumpers are still at work in the setting sun. Behind the declension rise the mountains of earth sucked out from a veritable Hades. It stretches as far as the eye can see. Awful scene!

Half a kilometre behind our perch we walk into the humble four-room mud dwelling of an adivasi clan. The head, 85-year-old Itwar Singh, lies bedridden on a takhat (wooden cot) in an unsunned room. He was paralysed six years ago, and can barely move or speak. From the corner of the courtyard emerges his skeletal wife, Baccha Kanwar. She too is handicapped, and walks awkwardly with a stick. There is none to look after them save Itwar’s nephew, Ram, and his family. Itwar’s three daughters are all married and settled. Of his three brothers, only one survives, but he stays elsewhere. Ram’s father died a couple of years ago.

Coaxed to speak, Itwar says in a barely audible voice that he has been living here for over 50 years. His father had four acres of land but all that he owns after successive family partitions is a solitary acre. This was when the village was notified in 1978 under the Coal Bearing Areas (Acquisition and Development) Act, 1957. It took all of 18 years for the award (read compensation) to come through. A key component of the rehab plan was a job with SECL. This never materialised since possession of the village is still under process. With the result that he has been surviving on a meagre monthly pension of 1200 bucks and 35 kg of free rice handed out by the state government to below poverty line (BPL) families.

Ideally, at least one of Itwar Singh’s daughters should have got a job since he does not have a male issue. But the compensation policy does not extend the facility to women. And though the state high court has vide a recent order directed the CIL subsidiary to accommodate one of the daughters, the response has been a deafening silence.   

Ram says almost the entire village has been cleaned out. Theirs was among the 4-5 dwellings which survived the SECL expropriation on 10th February 2013. Not out of mercy, but pure luck. That day a 200 plus strong eviction force comprising members of the district administration, police, SDM, tehsildar, and SECL henchmen descended on the village at around 11 am without as much as a notice mandatory under the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act (PESB). They pulled out people from their homes, tossed out their belongings, and wrought havoc. First the school was felled, and then homes were smashed to smithereens.

The ransacking squad, says Ram, had just about begun to pull down the corrugated roof when the operation was called off. Reason: dusk had fallen. The uprooting drive would have continued the next day. Only fear of the media and public protests kept them away.

The stories of Kumari Babita (SC), and Jhumarlal, a kewat (boatman) by caste, are more telling. Their houses in Paudhi village, 25 kms from Korba town, come under the Gevra project. Their homes were pulverized, suddenly. They were among the 410 people who lost their livelihood. Dwellings in which their families lived for 60-70 years disappeared in a few hours.

Jhumarlal says that of the quarter acre of farmland he owned, four was dug up by the SECL arbitrarily. “Woh zameen kha gaye bina paisa diye,” he rues; the remainder by subterfuge. He and his family had to spend 12 hours in jail. No one helped. Though he received Rs 2 lakh as compensation, he was denied a job, given an extra lakh instead, and asked to shut up.

Forced out of his ancestral home, he built a house at Noapara, 4-5 km away, on land he purchased at an exorbitantly high price. Farming, even on a small scale, was impossible since the land was rocky. Monthly earnings have since plummeted. He now earns a paltry Rs 2000/ as a labourer. Fortunately since his brother also earns a little, they just about manage to survive.

More harrowing is the narrative of Kumari Babita. I met her at Raliya, a village close to Paudhi. A post-graduate in her early twenties, life had been reasonably good till the demolitions in early 2013. She too was born and bred at Paudhi where her father and his brothers originally owned eight acres. Divisions over the decades left them with 25 decimels before her father’s death a few years ago. She was living with her mother and the youngest of three sisters when all hell was let loose. Two other sisters, both married, were also sufferers since they lived in adjacent homes.

That ominous day the SDM had called a meeting at 4 pm to discuss the modus operandi of getting the land vacated. The dispossessed had been balking at the proposal since the SECL had yet to provide the promised jobs. Even the basahat (settlement) was not in place.

Babita recalls it was not before 8 pm that the SDM turned up. The meeting lasted till 10 pm. By the time they returned the deed had been done. Their home lay in ruins. It was a pile of mess, pulled down, razed. They lost almost all their belongings. Even family heirlooms and jewellery worth a lakh or two lay buried in the rubble. The family ran a minor poultry farm with 35 chickens. Most were killed. Even the mundu (head) of the clan deity (kul devta), a cobra, was severed during the devastation.

She says when they protested at the failure to notify them of the assault, the demolition men bluntly told them a forewarning was not necessary since theirs was an all-women household. To add insult to injury, she was collared and dragged by the mahila police, and detained at the thana for hours. Four days before the crackdown the SDM had requisitioned a meeting. Even then they did not have the slightest inkling of the coming storm. Threats, albeit, were issued by SECL minions once or twice. “But we never imagined it would come to this.”

Babita says she earns a little through private tuitions. It is a lucky month when she is paid for her services. Exodus from Paudhi split the family. She has been separated from both her married sisters since. Tragedy befell the eldest when she lost her husband. Now the sister lives on the fringes of the BALCO township, 60-70 km away, and ekes out a living doing odd jobs.

Such stories of ill-treatment are there dime a dozen. They show that public sector companies are no different to their private sector peers: they can be equally insensitive, oppressive, exploitative, and venal.

Consider the the case of Panchram, an adivasi residing in one of the few houses which survived the demolitions at Jhinghatpur village under the Dipka project. Panchram has since 1992 been carrying a photocopy of a cheque of Rs 17,574/ in his name from the Gramin Bank. This is the first installment he is to have received after the outer walls of his dwelling mere measured to determine his entitlement. The house still stands, but the original cheque was never received, much less the money.

To prevent unity among the ousted, explains Chauhan, the SECL follows a conscious policy of dispersing the residents of notified villages in different settlements. Hundreds of lives have been ruined by dispatching them to diverse locations in small groups with no visible infrastructure. Adivasis, in particular, derive their identity from the land their fathers owned and passed down. Deprived of their homes into which they were born and bred, they are compelled to stay among other castes and communities. Most feel like fish out of water. Adapting to new surroundings takes years, but the sense of deprivation lingers.

Another issue, he points out, is the decades long wait before the cycle of acquisition is complete. This has virtually been left to the SECL’s whims, causing much misery and suffering. Because the moment an area is notified under section 4 of the CBA, sale of land is banned with immediate effect. The khatedar (owner) is prevented from selling any portion of his zameen, howsoever pressing the financial need, be it a daughter’s marriage or a medical emergency. 

It can take 35-40 years to conclude takeover formalities, finalize resettlement plans, and pay compensation. Barkuta village, for instance, was notified in 1978, the award given in 1996, and the first batch of jobs handed out in 2005. But the village is still under “process” as said in local parlance. Which is why Itwar Singh and his family managed to stay on though his neighbours had no such luck.

Legally, the SECL cannot uproot houses or get a village vacated till the conditionalities of the CBA Act have been fully complied. This cannot be deemed to have happened till key rehabilitation facilities are ready. Which include amenities like a health centre, school with playground, water, electricity, meeting hall, marketplace etc. – and, most importantly, jobs for the ousted.

Why notify the land, asks Chauhan, if there is no plan to acquire for three or four decades. Under the Land Acquisition Act, 1894, it was incumbent that acquiring agencies wrap up the modalities within three years, but recent amendments to the Act give no timeframe.

Handing out jobs to everyone, Chauhan admits, is almost impossible given the pace of mechanization at SECL. So their bosses devised a stratagem: evict those in notified villages when compensation can be paid, but keep the full and final settlement in abeyance. This eases the immediate pressure of providing employment.

To slash their employment burden, the company has revised the criteria. While jobs in the past were given to those owning even a small piece of land, the cut-off point has been upped to two acres. Since there are not many who qualify, accepting money in lieu of work thus remains the only option. Those who dig in their heels and refuse the dough sans job are shrugged off and told to collect it from the district treasury whenever they wish.

Adding to the overall sense of insecurity is the SECL’s scant respect for rules. Its officers are dictatorial. Project GMs function like area commanders, says Chauhan. The contours of ‘permissions’ are more violated than complied. Areas earmarked for mining have been brazenly breached.

Mining activity was stepped up at Kusmunda in 1978 after environmental clearances were obtained to expand operations across 1,400 hectares spread over the villages of Gevra, Barkuta, Jatraj, Durpa, Naraibodh and Dullapur. The area they encompass is more than twice that brought under the project’s fold since 1960. Kusmunda’s annual output was to have been confined to 10 mt. Wrenched out instead is a whopping 18 mt in what is a complete violation of sanctions.

The point here is that the increased output should have come from the acquisition of five more villages, viz. Risdi, Parania, Pali, Jatraj and Sonpuri. But they were notified as recently as 3rd June 2015 under the Kusmunda expansion project. Going by past record it will be long years before mining actually commences, morphing the area into another living hell.

The ravages of hyperactivity can be seen at Jhinghatpur. Right behind the extraction site are rows of vacant plots on which once stood homes. Their footprints are still visible. Behind them runs a single lane macadamized road. Locals say more than 900 heavy vehicles ply here today in place of the 100 before the coal mapping. Quite apart from the soot and dust kicked up by the traffic, accidents have risen in geometric progression. Deaths, mostly of labourers brought from other states, are reported almost everyday. Drinking water sources like wells have been polluted due to recurring blasts and explosions.

Chauhan admits that many problems faced by locals are self-inflicted. Adivasis, in particular, can be easily cheated. Many, in fact, have sold their land for a song to clever sharks who kept tabs on the most recent land surveys and coal mappings. Land palmed off for a lakh could have fetched 15 times the sum on actual acquisition by SECL or private players had they only consulted and waited. Several attempts have been made to bring them together under a common umbrella like the Sarva Adivasi Samaj. None of the initiatives worked. The clans remain split by region. They prefer to be identified by their tribe ie. Gond, Baiga, Halba, Kanwar of Bijhwar, not banded together under a generic identity. The idea of tribal indigenousness never really sank in.

Since Korba is a melting pot, the strategy devised to counter the corporates, says Chauhan, has been to build a green movement through a broader alliance. Focusing exclusively on the adivasi condition would have been self-defeating. For non-adivasis are as much the sufferers. Also cultural, economic, and ecological changes have over the years co-opted many adivasis into the Hindu caste structure. Slow but steady de-tribalisation is emerging as a new social reality in all states with a sizeable adivasi presence.

Being part of the anti-mining struggle, he says, has been cathartic. The magnitude of human suffering is indescribable. The moral of the story gleaned is that to be a farmer in mineral rich regions like Korba is unfortunate, but to have coal embedded under your home a curse. The plight of farmers here holds lessons for us. Most have willingly accepted their destiny. Their visages rarely betray traces of anger or agitation. With the Sword of Damocles hanging over their heads, they still laugh a lot. Their homes are clean, and few are their needs. Humility, simplicity, and sincerity still lie ingrained in their hearts. For in the end, that is what counts.  ?

A twinge of sadness fills me. Astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan’s bitter thoughts in "Billions and Billions: Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium", come to mind. It was his swan song. ?

Coal, oil and gas, he wrote, are called fossil fuels, because they are mostly made of the fossil remains of beings from long ago. The chemical energy within them is a kind of stored sunlight originally accumulated by ancient plants. Our civilization runs by burning the remains of humble creatures who inhabited the Earth hundreds of millions of years before the first humans came on the scene. Like some ghastly cannibal cult, we subsist on the dead bodies of our ancestors and distant relatives.?

An edited version of the article appeared in the January-March issue of The Equator Line, a literary magazine, published by Palimpsest publishers

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