Editor's note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Election on the Go, over a course of 100 days.
Sonakhan: Drive 150 kilometres north-east from Raipur, cross the lush, dense forests of Barnavapara Sanctuary, and you reach the aptly named village of Sonakhan. This is the land of tribal leader Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh, who lost his life fighting the British. The entire population of Sonakhan, comprising 18 tola panchayats of Kasdol Block, take pride in two things, said Rajendra Singh Diwan, great-grandson of the freedom fighter: One, that they belong to the land of Shaheed Veer Narayan Singh and two, that their land spews gold.
Till a few years back, during the monsoons, and at other times too, men and women of Sonakhan village could be seen sieving gold flakes from the muddy waters of the Jonk river which flows close to the Baghmada mines. Bhikhari Lal Bariha of Baghmada village said, "people have earned Rs 100-15,000 a day by sieving and selling the gold to the goldsmiths of Mahasamund."
The villagers had always believed that the land and the gold belonged to all the people of the 24 villages of the area. But suddenly a sense of confusion, hopelessness and frustration clouds their expression, as they fear being forcibly evicted from their land by a faceless global conglomerate who wants their gold.
The fear may be real. In 2016, the then Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) government led by Raman Singh awarded 608 hectares of Baghmada mines to Vedanta group to mine around 2.7 tons of gold. Then mining secretary Subodh Kumar Singh had justified the auction saying it would generate royalty payments of over Rs 80 crore and reduce the country’s dependence on gold import.
But to the villagers of Sonakhan and Baghmada, the move depriving them of their traditional lifestyle and parental land, is a cruel joke.
The villagers complain that they were kept in the dark about the government's plans to auction the mines. No notices were served before the auction process started. The affected villagers learnt about the mining lease only when social activist Rajim Tandi, president of Dalit Adiwasi Manch, informed the villagers after reading a media report.
Now, the threat of eviction hangs over the 10,000 plus tribal villagers of the area besides, the potential degradation of the region's diverse flora and fauna, which they have protected and nurtured all their lives.
But they are fighting back.
Since 24 March, 2016, the villagers of all the 24 affected villages have jointly opposed the government's move to lease out the mines. They have organised numerous protests, 100-kilometre-long padayatras and various dharnas to explain their cause. They now want the new Congress government in Raipur to rethink and reverse the previous government's decision.
They have got support from then the Chhattisgarh Congress president Bhupesh Baghel. Tandi, a village resident and Dalit activist who is spearheading the movement, said, "before the elections, Bhupesh Baghel appealed to us to help Congress form the government. We campaigned and supported Congress actively and as a result, the party won a landslide victory." She now hopes that Baghel will return the favour.
A delegation of villagers from Sonakhan also walked to the Chhattisgarh State Secretariat in Raipur on 23 January, 2019, and met the newly sworn in chief minister, demanding cancellation of the lease. But all that Baghel could say was that the decision is being reviewed and it will take time to take a final decision.
Company's activities on the land continue
However, Baghel's claim that the decision is being 'reviewed' rings hollow on the ground. If the government is revisiting its decision, it has zero effect for the residents of Sonakhan because the mining company’s work on the leased land continues unabated, local social activist Devendra Baghel said.
The villagers are still worried that the lease hasn't been cancelled, or even put on hold, and the company's activities in the area are yet to cease. They complain, for instance, about the boundaries of traditional land holdings being redrawn. “A week ago, some men accompanied by forest officials entered my field and without informing me changed the position of pillars," said a woman farmer Rambai Bariha. "I am not going to give them even an inch of my land."
The sentiment is echoed by Chandar Singh Bariha, a priest in Baghmada. "It is our ancestors' land, we have cultivated it for centuries, we will fight for it and die for it but we will not pass it to anyone at any cost," he vowed. He too complained that employees of Balco Vedanta Company had installed a pillar in his field without his consent.
In fact, many said the company's activities were adversely affecting the lives of villagers in the eight village panchayats of Sonakhan. Villagers of Daldali village of Maharaji Panchayat said work under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme has been put on hold. Bhogbai, 50, of Daldali said after five years they were given the job of deepening a pond, but after working on it for two weeks, forest officials suddenly turned up and told them that they were not entitled to work there as the land falls under forest area.
"Ever since Vedanta was leased the land, we see regular intervention from forest and other government officials that you cannot do this or that," said sarpanch Pati (husband) Govardhan. "We have land pattas, yet occasionally we receive threats of eviction. Some months ago some officers told us that the minerals under our lands belong to the government and we have to vacate."
"We are not leaving our lands, we will fight back," the villagers say.
Social activists' views
Social activist Alok Shukla, president, Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, and supporter of Chief Minister Baghel said that as the lease has not been cancelled, the company doing work on the land is not illegal. "But the lease granted to the company is illegal," he said. "The proposed excavation will cause huge destruction and displacement in the area. It will impact wildlife and the Barnavapara sanctuary which is a protected zone."
Social Activist Laxmi Chouhan who works on mining issues in Korba said the issues raised by tribals' are genuine concerns. He also felt that Balco Vedanta rarely delivers on the compensation package as promised. He pointed out how after setting up the Balco Bauxite mines in Korba hills, the Pahadi Korwas were driven out without proper compensation and the whole community is paying the price; it remain under-developed, poor and illiterate.
Both the company and Dinesh Mishra, under secretary, Mineral Resource Department, refused to comment on the ongoing activity in the Sonakhan area. But, the political impact of ignoring the villagers and tribal's sentiment cannot be underestimated. As political reporter Manish Singh argued, the BJP faced a drubbing in the last Assembly election as it had lost its connection with voters in rural areas. "Political parties often have to pay a heavy price for apathy towards public issues," he said. Perhaps there is a lesson here for the new Congress government.
The author is a Raipur-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.