MAC: Mines and Communities

Cast out! - by companies and coal in India

Published by MAC on 2018-08-18
Source: BIRSA (2018-08-17)

part two

Between the Pit and the Dump

A report on the life and livelihood of a landless Dalit community in NTPC’s Pakri-Barwadih Coal Project at Barkagaon, Hazaribagh

by Vikas Dubey

for BIRSA (Bindrai Institute for Research, Study & Action)

17 August 2018

Urub, a small village under the Pakri-Barwadih Coal Project area, will not see the bloom of agriculture during this monsoon. This fact reflects two concomitant but catastrophic realities: first, a shift from agrarian economy to non-agrarian one; hence second, now the food of residents of Urub will come from the market. Apart from the initial price - the project-affected communities in the region have already paid with their life in
the October 2016 police-firing - this transformation, an inevitable outcome of the project, has both far-reaching consequences and immediate impacts on the social fabric and economic structure of not only Urub but the entire project-affected area.

To understand this process of unprecedented change which took place over the last one and half years, after the project became functional, and the price the community has been paying in the ‘national interest’ on a daily basis, a fact-finding team from BIRSA visited the village on 18-19 May 2018. Drawing upon the observations made at one mining site - Chirudih unit - and interviews conducted with members of a landless Dalit community
residing in Urub, this report is an attempt to present a micro picture of what happens to a village system when the common-property resources are encroached upon for ‘the greater common good’.

People without land

We reached Urub in the afternoon of 18th May when the sun was shining hazily overhead. One can hear about the cruelty and callousness of the summer sun even in the folk songs of the eastern part of India. But, the sun in Urub seemed to challenge the ageold stereotype of the summer sun. The sun did not lose its sheen due to some climatic factors. In fact, the subdued sun was the optical evidence of human’s capability to take
control of nature.

Hyva and other monster-sized trucks with a carrying capacity of more than 200 tons rattling through the newly constructed four-lane-highway-like roads on either side of the village were emitting a flurry of dust that had enveloped the entire village, causing low visibility in the area.

Some adult males who were busy playing cards in the veranda of a missionary-run primary school joined us as soon as they saw us capturing the visuals of a mining area through a video recorder and cameras. Villagers graphically described their village as a ‘well of death’ (Maut ka kuan), considering the pit at the front and dumping site at the back strapped by roads on the remaining two sides.

Urub is one among 23 villages which fall under the Pakri-Barwadih coal project-affected area. Located near the foothills, the village consists of a total 90 households (handiya). Of these, 70 households are of Bhuinyas, a Dalit caste, and the remaining 20 belong to Bhumihaars, a dominant landlord caste. “Earlier our ancestors were bandhua mazdoor (indentured laborers). Zamindaars (landlords) brought our ancestors and settled here to work on their fields.” said Bhola Ram, a teacher in the mission school.

In those days, serving the Zamindaars, both at the field and at home, ensured Bhuinya families of two meals a day only. With the passage of time, they cleared nearby forest and converted it into a cultivable land where they grew rice, wheat, gram and vegetables for their subsistence.

During the late 1970s, nineteen Bhuinya families managed to secure title over small pieces of land ranging from 0.40 acres to 2 acres maximum under the Bihar Bhoodan Act 1954. Those were arid lands. But, even that tract of land soon became fertile by virtue of labour and rivulets rushing down from the nearby hill range around the year.

Seeing the agricultural productivity, other families too, without a land title, began using the land for agricultural purpose. Such land was officially called the gair-mazura or GM land. Additionally, the forest at the foothills was the source of fuelwood, wild fruits and other valuable forest produces,while nearby sprawling uncultivated land served as pasture for cattle. In a way, the society and economy of the Bhuinyas was essentially dependent on the forest and GM land available within the village boundary.

In 2007, after conducting the Gram Sabha meeting, villagers applied for title over forest land under the Forest Rights Act 2006. The government did not pay any heed to those applications. When years went by and villagers did not receive any official notification in regard to these, they approached some official at the Block Development Office, Barkagaon in 2011. In response to the concern of villagers,the official said that ‘[a]colliery is going to open in your village. So, the government has decided to give away land to the company, not to the public’.

Before the commencement of the project in 2016, NTPC (National Thermal Power Coporation) had acquired 4071 acres of private land under the Coal Bearing Act 1957 for 39 years of the project period. At the same time, the Ministry of Environment and Forests granted clearance for using 2539 acres of forest land and the district administration transferred 665 acres of GM land for the project purpose. This vast amount of forest and GM land included almost the entire land on which the Bhuinya community had been subsisting for the past three-four generations. Thus, Bhuinyas’ past became present - people without land.

Company brings crisis

“With the death of the river, agriculture is destroyed. Now it’s time for people to die,” lamented 24-year-old Veer Bahadur Bhuinya who wore a t-shirt with a logo of Thriveni-Sainik Mining Pvt. Ltd. on the pocket. When the company laid down the road, burying the rivulet underneath, of more than the average width, it created an acute crisis of water for the villagers. The rivulet was not only the source of irrigation for the four crops a year, the same was also used for washing, bathing and almost all the activities which require water.

“Now even the cattle go thirsty, let alone the humans,” Veer Bahadur added. It was quite intriguing not to see the cattle wandering around the village. Here in Urub people sold their cattle at giveaway prices soon after the company extended the mining-related activities over agricultural land.

Villagers informed us that in the Bhumihaar mohalla (village area) almost all the households have their own private well but, being a Dalit caste, Bhuinyas are not allowed to use wells of Bhumihaars even today. To address the water crisis in Bhuinya mohalla, with financial help from a missionary organization, the community constructed a broad-well last year. It was the same missionary organization that runs a primary school in which only children of Bhuinya community study. No Bhuinya family sends their children to the government primary school in the village. The reason behind this was the same as for constructing the well: caste based discrimination.

Now, along with a hand pump, the well helps meet the water requirement of all 70 households. But, it might not sustain for long, as the water level was nearly touching the bottom at the time of our visit. Deepak Kumar, 25, explained, “The water (table) in the well is going down rapidly with the deepening of the mining pit. Within two-three months this well will also go dry.”

Like other mining units under the Pakri-Barwadih coal project, the Chirudih unit is also an opencast mine. A grotesque crater-like mining pit, spread over more than 50 acres of land, is located just at the foothill - this is the watershed area - and to stop rainwater from entering the quarry, the lower topography of the hill has been deformed in order to divert the natural flow of water. The new diversion channels will deprive the village pond of water to store that was earlier mainly used for irrigating Rabi (winter) and Zaid (summer) crops.

Exasperation crossed over Deepak’s face when he said, “This is the first time when we have to buy food items from the market. Earlier we might not have money but never faced the shortage of food at home.” Apart from cultivation of small pieces of forest and GM land, the Bhuinya families also cultivated some lands of the Bhumihaars who owned large landholdings, under sharecropping. Agriculture production from all lands together used to suffice for the year-long family food consumption. Given the fertile soil and a better condition of vegetable crops, the bumper and timely yield of some vegetable crops usually supplemented the family income.

Needless to say, the decimation of agriculture has badly affected the expenditure and saving behaviour of these families. Santosh Kumar, a contemporary of Deepak and who worked in the mines as a security guard, said, “Before the mining started here we used to buy only salt, spices, soap-detergent and clothing items from market. We didn’t (even) buy (cooking) oil. Now after the mines opened we have to buy everything from the
market . . .ration chawal (PDS - Public Distribution System supplies) last for a week only. For the remaining period we depend on market.”

Although all the Bhuinya families are officially in the BPL (Below Povery Line) category, new households, emerged as  nuclear families post-marriage, are yet to be included in the BPL list. Hence, a significant number of households do not avail themselves of the benefits of being such a family. “If a family has five-six members, it costs 1200-1500 rupees a week on food only. Maintenance and education of children would cost extra. And, if someone in the family falls sick, the family sinks into debt . . . and illness of an earning member brings starvation upon the family,” Bhola Ram added. A villager informed us that the number of debtors in the village had dramatically increased during the past six months. The Mahajans (the trader community) at Churchu, the adjacent village, readily lend money at the interest rate of 10 percent per month for three months.  Stored grain at home is the only tangible way of saving, according to the Bhuinyas’ traditional wisdom. “Money is always on the move, it can’t stay in one’s pocket for long. A home without stored grain is a home without saving.” One more thing needs to be added here - grain cannot be stored at home without having access to land.

Impacts on women

The worst affected are women in the village. Mining is a purely masculine work sector, while there is no job for women in the mines. Until the recent past, Bhuinya women mainly worked as farm laborers. Since most of the Bhumihaar households have sold their lands to the company and shifted to Hazaribagh or Ranchi city, even menial work with a low wage is no longer available to Bhuinya women. At present, apart from household chores, women go to the dumping sites to pick up coal pieces for domestic fuel.

As the women workforce is confined to only unpaid jobs, the power relationship within the family has, of course, skewed towards male members. Simultaneously, it has increased the financial burden of the single bread-winner,who is  mostly a male.

Such a change in the economic structure of the family has inevitably resulted in instances of domestic violence and everyday squabbles about trivial issues.

Treacherous transaction

News of the opening up of the colliery in the region was heard for the first time in 2005.

The mining contract for Chirudih unit initially awarded to Thiess Mines India, an Australian mining company, in November 2010. NTPC had not completed the land acquisition process when the contract was awarded. Challenges at the ground caused a conflict of interest between NTPC and Thiess which eventually made the latter withdraw from the contract. In September 2015, Thriveni-Sainik Mining, a joint-venture private mining company, was appointed the mine developer-cum-operator (MDO) for Chirudih unit. Without conducting the Gram Sabha (village group meeting)
and a Social Impact Assessment, the district administration declared the village GM land to be barren, contrary to the villagers’ version, and transferred it to NTPC. Such forcible acquisition of land caused ire among local people.

The plight of local people in Urimari and Piparwar coal projects, that also come under North Karanpura region, steeled the resolution of people from
all 23 project-affected villages to launch a protest movement against the soon-to-be implemented Pakri-Barwadih coal project. This movement is known as Karanpura Bachao Sangharsh Samiti to the outside world. In Urub, the entire raiyati (tenant farmer) land belonged to Bhumihaars, so they were the first ones to be targeted by the company.

“Initially Bhumihaars were at the forefront of the movement, but they also withdrew from the movement first,” said Bhola Ram. The movement started weakening in late 2014 when the government increased the compensation rate for raiyati land from 10 lakh to 15 lakh rupees per acre. Further, in 2017, it became 20 lakh rupees per acre.

Whereas the cultivators of forest and GM land were offered compensation of 3.5 lakh rupees per acre, all the while since it has remained the same.
Instead of taking the Gram Sabha route and following the land acquisition process prescribed in the Coal Bearing Areas Act 1957 and Land Acquisition (LARR) Act 2013, the MDO formed a ‘Village Cooperative Society’ to purchase land and for payment of compensation. The MDO handpicked 2-3 people, especially those who were quite vocal or held sway in the village, from each village in the project-affected area.

The members of this society (villagers call it committee) were paid 8000 rupees a month. When the locals protested against this maneuver to create a rift among thecommunity, the MDO representatives assuaged the protest by saying that mining in this region would be done as per the direction of this committee, ensuring people’s participation in decision making. After the formation of the committee, in line with this assurance, the MDO
representatives stopped coming to the village for the resolution of any conflict or issue regarding acquisition and compensation. Apart from carrying out CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) activities, the committee was assigned a specific duty to deal with village-level issues and expedite the
acquisition process.

“Not being able to involve youths and children in the aandoloan (dalit movement) has been the greatest failure of the aandolan,” opined Illias Ansari, an activist and member of Karanpura Bachao Sangharsh Samiti. “The aandolan started 10-12 years ago, and we didn’t educate the children at that time. Those children have now grown up and taken the side of the company. Had we conducted cadre training programs for children at that time, the shape of the aandolan today would have been different.”

It was brought to our notice that 19 families who got some raiyati land under the bandobasti have not received the compensation yet. When a few among them enquired as to the delay in payment of compensation, the management informed them that the said land did not belong to them because their grandparents had already sold that piece of land to some Bhumihaars. There are several such cases where some Bhumihaars not only got a fraudulent transfer of the raiyati lands of the Bhuinya community in their name, but also furtively took the compensation for forest and GM lands that the Bhuinyas had been cultivating.

Among these 19, some families have bonafide documents declaring their rights over land and have been regularly paying the land tax too. The
management told them they could get the compensation rate of GM land for their land immediately if they wanted. But, to receive the raiyati land
compensation rate, an official investigation has to be done - which government is not paying any heed to. Other families who did not own any land except for small pieces of forest and GM land either have received the partial compensation or are still waiting for the next phase of disbursal.

Villagers reported that the construction of the road has completely ruined fertile lands along the road by filling it up with gravel and wastes.
But, no compensation has been given for that land, as it has not been acquired officially.

It's a similar story with employment. During the land acquisition process, a job in mining was promised to each project-affected family.With the hope that they would get a job in the village itself, several family members, mostly youths, who had migrated to different states in search ofa  job, returned home. So far only 45 people of Bhuinya community have been given the job of security guard - unskilled work. For this they receive only 11,000 rupees a month as a wage. Those above 40 have been denied any job, citing age limit as an eligibility criterion. The question of who would get a job in the family has turned  into a battleground. A brother is beating his brother to grab the crumbs; one is conspiring against another to secure his future.
Dividing up the compensation amount and deciding who will get the job are making the families in Urub fall apart.

Others who have not got the job yet sometimes agitate and raise their voice. But, those voices are easily smothered by the committee members, threatening them with the slapping of a lawsuit for ‘disrupting the mining work’. In such a helpless situation, every day people either go to Hazaribagh and Barkagaon to work as a casual laborer, or in indigenous brick kilns in nearby villages, which fetch them no more than 400 rupees for day-long backbreaking work.

On the state of affairs in the village, Shailendra Kumar, 28, expressed dejectedly, “People who got a job in the mines are somehow managing their families. The rest are making bricks or breaking stone to feed their family . . . If we don’twork, we can’t eat. And, you know, this company job doesn’t make much difference, all of us in Urub are eating dust day and night.”

Cries for life

The company will dump the committee members also like waste, once the final task is done, according to residents of Urub. What is the final task? I asked. “Visthapan! (Displacement),” widening his eyes, said Lallan Ram, the ward member from Urub. With the widening of the pit, more space for dumping will be needed which makes the displacement of village inevitable and imminent. The construction of a resettlement colony in Dhenga, 10 kilometres from Urub, near Barkagaon, is going on at full swing.

This colony will eventually consist of 2,500 two-room houses spread over 200 acres of land. “In 2015 when the first rain of monsoon hit, several houses collapsed. Who will go to die there?” asked Lallan Ram. Now the company says that, after visthapan all the remaining families will get a job. “We won’t hear the company this time. It always cheats . . . If we are here in our village, we can put some pressure on the company. Once we are
displaced, this company won’t give any value to us. Still, there are several who have not got the job. So, we say give us a  job first and don’t talk about visthapan,” said Deepak Kumar.

Displacement would be the final stroke that causes Urub to crumble as a village system. The mining will devour their worship places, Akhra to celebrate festivals, and even their cremation ground. Anxiety and fear of an uncertain future are very much visible on the faces and in the expressions of Bhuinya people.

Where would their children play and elderly spend their free time? Would there be a big, old banyan tree in the colony?

These questions flashed across my mind while roaming around the village. New problems and different challenges would emerge when different socio-religious groups are put up in a confined space. Given the economic conditions of the displaced population, the difference between the communities on identity lines would spark tension among them.

For the past several years, Barkagaon has always been in the news because of communal flareups during the Ramnavami, a Hindu religious festival.
“We were living a very peaceful life here. The air was clean; water was pure. This company has made our life hell . . . Only dust, dust, and dust,” the
voice of Lallan Ram trailed off. After a pause, he looked at me and pleaded, “When you go to Ranchi, tell the Sarkaar (land agent) to shoot down all of us. It’s better to die than live in this hell!”

A middle-aged man sitting next to Lallan Ram broke the long piercing silence, “Sarkaar is interested only in profit. Let the public go to jahannum (hell). Nobody cares for the poor in this world.”

On 19th May, when I was eating daal-bhaat and aaloo bhujia for lunch at Deepak’s, I tried to find out what Deepak’s mother thinks about mining in the region. In her late fifties, she innocently said, “Every day I pray to Bhagwati Mai (a Hindu goddess), May this company get ruined soon!”

When I came out of that well of death, the sun regained its sheen and ferociousness which once again established the age-old stereotype of the summer sun described in the folk songs. Also, I realized what a disastrous human yearning it is to win over nature.

How long will a minuscule minority treat the masses as expendables and exploit nature to fill their coffers? With the hope that eventually the power of
nature will prevail, I boarded a bus for Ranchi.

This Report was submitted to BIRSA (Ranchi) on 15 June this year by Vikas Dubey, a Research Scholar at the Indian Institute of Technology(IIT) in Kanpur

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