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Tribals up in arms in Jharkhand, India

Published by MAC on 2003-10-02

Tribals up in arms in Jharkhand

By K. Balchand, The Hindu

2 October 2003

Tribal women armed with sickles protesting against the alleged attempts by the Central and Jharkhand Governments to usurp their lands in Pakur on Thursday.

Pakur - The tribals of Pachwara panchayat of Amarapara block of the district are up in arms. They are protesting against the Central Government, the Jharkhand Government and the two companies, which they allege are "illegally"' seeking to usurp their land for coal mining.

In 2001, the Centre issued a licence to the Punjab State Electricity Board for a captive coal mine project for its thermal stations and issued a directive to the Jharkhand Government to acquire land and hand it over to the PSEB.

The land in question measures 13 sq km of nine villages of the Pachwara panchayat, affecting a population of about 50,000, mostly Santhal tribals and the Paharias in favour of whom the law pertaining to their right over the land is strict and brooks no interference. The coal reserves are estimated at 562 million tonnes.

The Governor has already issued a notification for acquisition of the land without specifying the "public purpose" of acquisition under the Land Acquisition Act, a Central law.

The Deputy Commissioner, Sunil Kumar Barnwal, says that the law could overrule the Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act as per which no land could be sold to a non-tribal or acquired by the Centre till it is permitted by the gram sabha. He admitted that the "public purpose" would have to be defined, which has not been done in the present instance so far.

BIRSA, an NGO, says that the Supreme Court through a ruling in 1997 had banned the transfer of land in scheduled areas to non-tribals and for mining purposes.

This is precisely the point the villagers are raising, accusing both the Central and the State Governments of "playing into the hands of private parties". Private parties because the PSEB has roped in a private company, Eastern Minerals and Trading Agency, and has floated a joint venture, PANEM, for the extraction of coal.

The pargana (head) of 31 maujas (villages), Binaj Hembrom, asserts that the Government could not acquire the land for itself let alone a private party, without his consent. Interpreting the SPT Act, he stressed that only the pargana of the Santhals could settle any matter relating to the land belonging to the Santhals.

The SPT Act debars the transfer, sale or mortgage or lease or any agreement relating to `rayati' land and the settlement of vacant holding and wasteland in a Paharia village with a non-Paharia.

The standoff has taken a rather ugly turn. When some officials of the PANEM sought to break the unity through select negotiations, the villagers nabbed them and forced them to sign an agreement that they would not ever return to take possession of the land.

These officials, in turn, lodged a complaint with police that they had been "manhandled" and that led to the arrest of 11 tribals including, a school teacher, who is also a priest in the local church last year. While most others have been released on bail, police have not submitted the case diary relating to the teacher as directed by the Ranchi High Court while hearing his bail petition.

Soon after this incident, the tribals imposed a "ban" on entry of outsiders including the district officials. They have put up checkposts manned by the Santhals wielding bows and arrows. For about a year now no district official has dared to challenge this ban imposed against them.

There was some hope of the ice being broken on Tuesday last when the Deputy Commissioner had promised to hold a 'janata durbar' and listen to their complaints. But he cancelled it at the last moment on apparently learning that the tribals had decided to gather in large numbers and demonstrate before him their unity, strength and determination of purpose.

That, however, did not deter the tribals. They gathered in hundreds. Women were in the forefront displaying sickles and spears. The DC, however, conceded that the relief package offered by PANEM was much below the norms of the Jharkhand Government itself, particularly when the land was worth crores now.

"We want negotiations. But the Government is not only shunning but is reluctant to listen to our grievance and it directly entered into an agreement with the private company. We are not to blame for the impasse. The Government has forced it on us and they think that they can take over our land. That will never happen," asserted Cornelius Hembrom, the pradhan (head) of Pachwara village.

"They are going to make profits in billions and PANEM is not willing to offer more than Rs. 50,000 per acre of land. In any case, we will not give up our lands, rather we will sacrifice our lives."

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