In Sonakhan, all that glitters is gold. But residents of this gold-rich village, a two-hour drive from the capital city of Raipur in Chhattisgarh, have never cared much for it. On a good day, a family here can make a few hundred rupees by sifting the blackish-yellow flecks of gold from the sand in the river Jonk that flows close by.
Villagers say the gold is everywhere — in the ground beneath their homes, in the thickly forested hills in the area, and in the waters of the Jonk.
This sifting of gold, however, happens only in the rains. Sonakhan residents, mostly adivasis, earn their livelihood from the forests (picking its flowers, fruits and leaves), and by working on their own small farms, or those of others.
With the government struggling to decrease its reliance on imports, and augment its production of the yellow metal, the focus is on the reserves in Sonakhan. This February, the country’s first gold mine was auctioned, and the lease was won by mining giant Vedanta.
Vedanta plans to dig about 2,700 kg of gold from the mine, spread over 608 hectares. For now, only two villages are mentioned in the company’s plans — Baghmara and Devpur. But local activists claim that mining activity is bound to affect at least 24 villages that lie in the range of 40-50 km. As news of the auction trickles in, residents of Sonakhan, and neighbouring Baghmara, find themselves confronting the big question: do they want this mine?
Sonakhan has a legacy of protesting the mining of their gold. When the British tried, they were prevented from doing so by adivasi landlord Narayan Singh in the 1800s. Singh was imprisoned by the British, after he advised drought-struck villagers to loot grain stocks from the rich.
In 1857, Singh escaped prison and organised an army of adivasis to resist the British, say villagers. Singh lost, and was executed by the British. His legend was resurrected in the 1970s, when labour union leader Shankar Guha Niyogi travelled to Sonakhan to piece together this story of resistance.
The burden of his legacy, however, rests uneasy on the frail shoulders of those in Sonakhan, as they begin to calculate their stakes in the upcoming project.
Outside a village grocery store, a group of men, sitting idle on a hot afternoon, say the mine will not affect them. However, local activist Rajim Ketwas, who works with the NGO Dalit Adivasi Manch, disagrees. “People don’t have clarity about when they will start digging, how much land will be acquired. Officials from the district administration claim they don’t know much either,” she says.
As she speaks, Rajim begins to get agitated. “Some villagers say that company officials have told them that they will only dig up the hills, not the villages. But people worship the hills, pick flowers and leaves from the forests. If they are gone, what will be left?” she says.
In mineral-rich Chhattisgarh, this is not a new dilemma — rights of tribals (comprising about 31 per cent of the state’s population) who have been traditionally dependent on the forests for their livelihood, are in conflict with the interests of mining companies, both state and privately-owned. The gold mine at Sonakhan is only the latest flashpoint in a state where adivasis have been facing loss of livelihood and a traditional way of life, as mines, steel and power plants replace their forests and fields.
In north Chhattisgarh alone, in several districts such as Korba, Raigarh, Janjgir-Champa — Champa might soon have the highest number of power plants in any one district in the country — villagers lament the loss of trees, land grab by mining companies through local middlemen, the cracks in the walls of their homes caused by blasts in the mines, and the mounds of sand dumped on their fields.
Life is not the same anymore, they say.
The road to Baghmara village, about an hour’s drive from Sonakhan, is lined with sky-high sal trees. Thickly forested hills mark village boundaries. This is where the mining activity is slated to begin.
Despite being in a majority in Baghmara, the adivasis are dominated by the Patels, who own more land, and employ the adivasis on their farms.
At a meeting in his house, influential landowner Ghasi Ram Patel claims that the village doesn’t care about the mine “as long as their lives are not affected”. Rajim, who has been mobilising villagers for anti-mining agitations, claims that the Patels are not supporting the movement as they feel it concerns “only the adivasis.” She says that landowners such as Ghasi Ram want to preserve the status quo in the village, and see the empowerment of adivasis as a threat. The Patels, however, counter her claims, and when Rajim informs them that mining activity will affect everyone — “Outsiders will come to work here, what about the safety of your women then? Where will they dump the sand from the mine? On your fields. Think of the noise and the dust” — they promise their support. But Rajim insists that the Patels play a role in preventing the adivasis from securing land titles.
This power play has implications for what lies at the heart of the debate — ownership and management of forests in a mineral-rich state such as Chhattisgarh, which contributes almost 13 per cent of the total value of minerals produced in India.
The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, recognises adivasi rights and determines the process of diversion of forest land for non-forest purposes.
But unless legal claims over their land and forests are established, the adivasis cannot exercise their rights . Thirty-something Madhai Bai says her family depends on forest produce and her one-acre farm which could be acquired once mining starts. “If we had the papers, we could at least get compensation money. Or we stand to lose everything,” she says.
There are other issues that prevent adivasis from filing their claims — lack of awareness about relevant laws, procedural difficulties and corruption. Local activists claim that the influential and the corrupt in the village are often “bought over” by mining company officials to convince villagers to give their consent and quell any dissent. In Baghmara, for instance, there are whispers about its sarpanch supporting the mining company “for money”. Even consent can be manufactured — according to prevailing laws, the gram sabha’s (village assembly) consent is required before a project begins. But in several villages in the state, mandatory public hearings for consent can be “staged” and documents forged.
Canary in a coal mine
It takes a seven-hour drive from Raipur to the Hasdeo-Arand forest area in North Chhattisgarh’s Surguja district, to find that sometimes, even securing the rights on paper is not enough.
For the first time in a decade after the Forest Rights Act came into force in 2006, community forest rights that were granted in 2013 have been revoked. This January, villagers in Surguja’s Ghatbarra village, were told by the district administration that their rights granted in 2013 had been cancelled, because they were “obstructing mining work”.
The region, it seems, has a history of being caught in legal quagmires. In 2012, forests located in the Parsa East and Kante Basan coal block, were handed over to Rajasthan Vidyut Utpadan Nigam Ltd for coal mining. Mining operations were to be carried out by Parsa Kante Colleries Ltd, a joint venture with Adani Mining Ltd. However, the residents of Ghatbarra and a few neighbouring villages said that they were against the project. Moreover, the diversion of forest land had taken place before the settlement of their rights, a violation of existing laws.
The 2012 approval for mining was rejected by the National Green Tribunal (NGT), citing the biodiversity of the region. This judgement was then challenged in the Supreme Court. The apex court stayed a part of it. In essence, mining was allowed, “until further orders from the environment ministry”. However, the forest advisory committee that was to review the situation in this area, has not done so, says Raipur-based Alok Shukla of Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan. Shukla says that even the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, the nodal agency for implementing the Forest Rights Act, has not taken the matter seriously. “We had sent the ministry a letter on the issue about a month back. But we haven’t heard from them yet,” he says.
Back in Ghatbarra, adivasi activist Jai Nandan Porte says the mine is taking away their water, and their trees.
Another adivasi resident of the village, Rameshwar Lakda, 40, who works as a cook at the coal mine, says villagers only get low-end jobs at the mine that pay no more than Rs 5,000-6,000.
A few villagers, however, are ambiguous about their support to the anti-mining agitations. Dinesh Kumar Yadav, 40, who owns a grocery store and some land in the village, says, “Do they really think that mining will stop? Instead, we should negotiate for a better price for our land when they come to acquire it.”
Yadav has another grouse. Since mining began, the only school in the village has been shifted to another village, he says. The work of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has also stopped. “The poor tribal in this village is surviving on ration rice. We don’t have proper sanitation. I don’t care what happens to the mine, but does the administration think we have stopped living, eating and shitting?”