As Congress and BJP spar over poll issues, Adivasi farmers of Bastar fight for land acquired for industrialisation 5 years ago

Deepak Baij believes it was a steel plant which played a crucial role in him entering the Chhattisgarh Assembly in 2013. And he is confident it is the same plant that would ensure he remains there in 2018.

Tata Steel signed a memorandum of understanding with the Raman Singh-led Chhattisgarh government in 2005 to set up a Rs 19,500 crore plant in the tribal district of Bastar. It involved acquiring 5,000 acres of land across 10 villages for the plant that proposed to create 5.5 million tonnes of steel per annum. The state started acquiring land 2008-09 onwards.

It met with severe resistance from the 1,700-odd affected tribal families. In 2009, residents of Bedanji village submitted a letter to the collector of Jadgalpur which said, "We will not move". The same year in June, Maoists shot Vimal Meshram, an influential tribal leader and a vocal supporter of the project, at a busy market in broad daylight. Tata backed out of the project in 2016, citing unfavourable law and order situation.

Bimla Nag, one of the residents of the village in Bastar, said Tata Steel ruined her life. Youth in the 10 affected villages around Tata plant say they would like better opportunities but do not trust the corporations or the state to have their interests in mind. Image/Parth MN

Bimla Nag, one of the residents of the village in Bastar, said Tata Steel ruined her life. Youth in the 10 affected villages around Tata plant say they would like better opportunities but do not trust the corporations or the state to have their interests in mind. Image/Parth MN

Baij, who contested the 2013 Assembly elections on a Congress ticket, says he mobilised the protesters and campaigned against the project democratically. "The voters believed I had their best interests in mind," he adds.

However, even though the project has not taken off, the land acquired from Adivasi farmers have not been returned to them. "I have promised them they will get their land back within months,” says Baij, sitting MLA from the Chitrakoot Assembly constituency in which the land was acquired in the block of Lohandiguda. “According to the rule, if the project does not take off within five years of land acquisition, the land is supposed to be returned to the original owner."

His counterpart from the BJP, Lachchu Ram Kashyap, has taken a pro-industry stand, saying if he were elected, he would bring in industries that would lead to job creation and development. The affected villages do not seem to be buying that currently.

Kuldhar Nag, a farmer belonging to the Madia tribe in the village of Belar, one of the 10 affected villages, says the administration and officials coerced him to forgo his four-acre land. “The companies wanting to set up projects in our forests should leave us alone,” he says, sitting on a two-wheeler in the verandah of his hut in the densely forested village. “They are only here to exploit us. We were offered compensation, but we don’t want money. We want the right over jal, jangal, jameen (water, forest and land)."

Even though the acquired land is still in the possession of farmers, Nag says he loses out on several government schemes because technically he is not the landowner. "I cannot sell my paddy harvest at the cooperative society, because the registration mandates land ownership,” he says. “The bank would not give me loan. It is my land, and I don’t want to be at the mercy of others.”

Rich in resources, the tribal division of Bastar is on the radar of several multinational companies. Constitutionally, they cannot directly procure the land belonging to tribals. It has to be acquired by the state government and handed over to the corporations.

Even though the Forest Rights Act and the PESA Act are in place to protect tribal rights, Lawyer and Activist Sudha Bharadwaj had written earlier this year how the “corporate land grab is legitimised in Chhattisgarh by misusing legal framework”.

Initially, after the state of Chhattisgarh was carved out of Madhya Pradesh in 2000, only the NMDC was involved in those projects. Under the leadership of Raman Singh in the last 15 years, Adivasi land and forests have been opened up for commercial exploitation to the private players, resulting in widespread displacement, measly compensation, and exploitation and pollution of resources. The tribals of Bastar are commonly fighting battles, like the one in Chitrakoot.
Local observers believe it is probably one of the reasons why the BJP’s vote has steadily shrunk in the division of Bastar, which has 12 seats across seven districts, 11 of them are reserved for Scheduled Tribes. In 2008, the BJP had won 11 out of the 12 seats here, which dramatically came down to 4 in 2013 assembly elections. They go to polls in the first phase on 12 November.

The Congress is harping that the state government led by BJP is not concerned about tribals, and is mainly batting for the urban rich. Arvind Netam, a veteran tribal Congress leader and a former union minister, says the BJP has its own definition of development, which does not conform to the tribals. "BJP has their own mindset,” he says. “We do not like big industries. We care deeply about our roots."

Kuldhar Nag, a farmer belonging to the Madia tribe in the village of Belar, one of the 10 affected villages, says the administration and officials coerced him to forgo his four-acre land. Image/Parth MN

Kuldhar Nag, a farmer belonging to the Madia tribe in the village of Belar, one of the 10 affected villages, says the administration and officials coerced him to forgo his four-acre land. Image/Parth MN

Kashyap, however, says there is a generation gap between the tribals. "Tribal youth is longing for better opportunities. Industries would create jobs for them," he says.

Netam disputes the theory of industries bringing in employment opportunities for the youth. "Look at the Nagar Naar plant," he says, giving example of another steal project by NMDC in Bastar. “Everyone that is currently employed is a migrant. Contractors are from outside, the workers are from outside. It has hardly generated local employment.”

Youth in the 10 affected villages around Tata plant say they would like better opportunities but do not trust the corporations or the state to have their interests in mind. Karma Mandavi, 26, from Takraguda village, says the likelihood of the projects worsening their lives is far more than the other way round. “They do not follow the norms of basic rehabilitation or compensation,” he says. “When most of the projects forge consent, how do we trust them? It is better to work hard for ourselves on our lands than to be treated like slaves.”

Bimla Nag, another resident of Belar, who lost 4 acres of land, slams her forehead as a mark of bad fortune at the mention of Tata plant. "This project ruined our lives," she says, clad in blue sari, sitting on the platform outside her one room hut. "My father and uncle both participated in the agitations against the project. They passed away, but our land still belongs to the state government.”

Upon asked who she would vote for, she says, "Whoever that saves our land."


Updated Date: Nov 08, 2018 18:03 PM

Also See