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‘Biggest land grab after Columbus’

This iron ore hub helped make the steel that built your apartment complex. But farmer angst against corporate giants is shaking up India’s mining hub, and Maoists are walking in to handhold villagers, reports Neelesh Misra.

india Updated: Nov 14, 2009 10:35 IST
Neelesh Misra

In the remote rural expanse that could soon be gobbled up by a Rs 19,500 crore steel plant, there is the clang of an iron-cast protest.

“We will not give our land to Tata,” says 60-year-old Sankar Das, the frail dhoti-clad Hindu priest, even as he pokes round in the cloth bag when a passing journalist stops by at a meeting of village elders. Das promptly produces a letter written by residents of his Bedanji village to the district administrator of Jagdalpur in Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region, home to some of the world’s richest iron ore.

Tata Steel, India’s largest private sector steelmaker, plans to invest Rs 19,500 crores in a steel plant across 5,000 acres that will create 5.5 million tones of steel per year. Ten villages have to be emptied out.

“The Kakatiya kings brought and settled us here from Warangal 22 generations ago to worship the goddess and supervise sacrifices on Dussehra,” says the letter handwritten by Bedanji residents in Hindi. “We shall not move.”

The Kakatiyas were medieval kings who ruled what is now Andhra Pradesh. But this is the enduring saga of modern India -- farmers refusing to give their land to big businesses riding the wave of a booming economy, looking to feed the unending hunger of an infrastructure-hungry nation.

It’s a worse crisis for tribals, and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh acknowledged that last week.

"There has been a systematic failure in giving tribals a stake in the modern economic system ... the alienation built over decades is taking a dangerous toll,” Singh said. “The systemic exploitation of our tribal communities…can no longer be tolerated."

This is not a faraway story: these lands help produce the steel that built your apartment complex.

And it seems no coincidence that India’s mining heartland is also the Maoist heartland.

“If you map the forest wealth, the mineral and the poverty of India, it’s a complete match,” said Sunita Narain, head of the Centre of Science and Environment.

The Maoists are gaining support due to the decades-old angst over mining, forest rights, and land acquisition -- to spread their influence, through subtle and drastic measures.

In June, a small group of Maoists walked up to the weekly market in Lohandiguda village 340 kilometres south of state capital Raipur, and at close range shot dead Vimal Meshram, 42, an influential tribal leader and a very vocal supporter of the Tata project. Then, in full public view, they walked away.

Tribal people make up only 9 per cent of the country’s population, but more than 40 per cent of the land used to build development projects has been theirs, according to government estimates.

A just-released government report blames the government and companies like Tata and Essar for a corporate takeover in the hinterland of Chhattisgarh, warning of “the biggest grab of tribal lands after Columbus.”

“This open declared war will go down as the biggest land grab ever, if it plays out as per the script,” said the rural development ministry-commissioned report, chaired by the then-minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh. “The drama being scripted by Tata Steel and Essar Steel who wanted seven villages or thereabouts, each to mine the richest lode of iron ore available in India.”

Both companies dismissed the allegation.

“This is ridiculous … there is a formal Memorandum of Understanding, the land was allocated, the whole process was done in a legal manner. There is no land grab,” Tata Steel spokesman Sanjay Chowdhary told the Hindustan Times.

“It is completely incorrect and baseless,” an unnamed Essar spokesman said in a statement to HT. “Biased and one sided … reports like this only contribute towards vitiating the atmosphere.”

Still, tribal communities in India’s mining hubs have no stake in the wealth beneath their feet.

An Oct 12 public hearing by the Collector of Jagdalpur, to seek villagers’ consent to the Tata project, was held in a small hall fit for 300 people in the collector’s office, upto 30 kilometres away from the villages concerned, citing the Naxalite threat.

Entry was restricted on roads leading up from the villages to the office. Several in the gathering were accused by villagers of being government employees pretending to be village farmers.

Approval for the project was unanimous, said district Collector Manohar Singh Paraste.

Many compensation cheques given away so far have been deliberately given to wrong people, villagers allege.

Paraste denied any wrongdoing. But he saw no need for the public hearing to take place among the public.

“This is how it has been done in the past, and this is how we will do it,” he said.

In Takraguda village, not too far from where Meshram was killed in the market, that is not good enough for Badru Ram Nag, 45, deputy headman of the Takraguda village, sitting wearing a yellow scarf by his field, surrounded by some curious village boys.

“We don’t want the money. We won’t give the land,” he says. “We have nothing but land. If you take that away, we will die.”