On the Frontline: Landless and Displaced – The future of Indigenous Tribes in India?

On the Frontline: Landless and Displaced – The future of Indigenous Tribes in India?

Sakshi Rai

In the summer of 2003, Tarika Lakra, a native of Raigarh district in the State of Chhattisgarh, received a notice from the Jindal Steel and Plant Limited, an industrial group, asking for her land. Since then, her land has been under their occupation. It is worth noting that for many communities in Raigarh, the Jindal Power Plant is the main source of income.

After the government officials and police ignored her repeated complaints and her plight, she was forced to file a case in 2005 against the industrial giant, claiming illegal occupation of her land. Today, what used to be a fertile land of 27.5 acres with bountiful orchards is now an engineering college built by the Jindal Group. Lakra, who continues to reject any compensation package offered by the company, spends long arduous hours in court fighting for her land rights.

Unfortunately, Tarika Lakra is not the only one. Similar incidents have occurred with the Baiga Tribe of Orissa, bordering Chhattisgarh, who were barred from resettling on their own lands. Despite the recognition of Forest Rights Act 2006, which protects the rights of tribes to their forestlands, their houses were demolished and were told to move.

In its expansion, the Jindal Power Plant has often been known to violate a host of environmental legislations. Upon investigation, the Chhattisgarh government in 2010 was reprimanded by the Environment Ministry for allowing the Jindal group to build a power plant without obtaining proper clearance for such activities. In addition, a 2014 report outlines a series of dubious land acquisitions using fictitious tribal names in Tamnar by the Jindal group, despite much resistance from the surrounding community.

Chhattisgarh is India’s 10th largest state and it’s the tribal population is almost 31.8% of the state’s entire population. Most of the state’s mineral reserves are in areas inhabited by these state recognized tribes. To safeguard and protect the rights of the tribal communities, the Chhattisgarh Land Revenue Code section 170 (B), clearly mandates that the sale and transfer of tribal lands to non- tribal people be prohibited. In the event of a land acquisition deal, the State government shall negotiate a compensation package to the Tribal community on behalf of the company looking to purchase such a land. In stark contrast, more often than not land deals result in victimizing the tribal community.

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The Bankheta basti in Kondkel village in Tamnar, a Tribal Development Block of the Raigarh district, has over 90.4% of the population identified as tribal. Along with Gond Adivasis, the Birhor Adivasis (literally meaning “forest people”) are classified as “particularly vulnerable” tribes by the government of India.

In 2010, authorities in Chhattisgarh allocated Tribal lands around Tamnar including Bankheta for the expansion of coal mining activities to Jayaswal Neco. However, the Supreme Court of India cancelled the mining lease given to Jayaswal Neco in 2014, thereby allowing for new auctions in the following year. Subsequently, the Mand Raigarh coalfields were allocated to Hindalco industries to continue the coal mining activities in Gare Pelma (IV/4).

Despite this transfer of coalfields to Hindalco industries, there is yet to be a consensus reached on appropriate rehabilitation measures between the authorities and the tribal community.

In a telephone conversation, Rinchin, a tribal rights activist, began by explaining the ‘Rehabilitation and Resettlement policy (2013, a policy that promises better rehabilitation from the 2007 policy)’ of the Indian government in case of a land acquisition deal: “…the R & R policy of the Indian government provides a period of six months prior to any evictions once the compensation package has been decided. When someone is evicted, it is mandatory that either the evictees be provided with alternate housing or a land for land deal along with compensation. Some families belonging to the Birhor Tribe were evicted in 2010 as soon as the coal blocks were allocated. The rehabilitation for Bankheta people who were removed as early as 2010 onwards received irregular compensation and the evictions carried out were not in accordance with the standard R and R policy.”

She adds, “…these people are largely uneducated, a lot of irregularities emerged in the way the compensation was given.” No rehabilitation or alternate housing has been provided to a majority of the displaced community yet, forcing the Birhors to move further into the forests.

In a hostile turn of events on 1st April 2016, the local authorities forcefully evicted three families, which until now had refused to leave their houses, and had their homes demolished. An 80-year-old woman, mother of Gopi Sidar, had contusions on her legs, from being dragged out of her own house and subsequently manhandled. On the same day, in a similarly styled eviction, Madhuri Sirdar was shamelessly dragged out with no regard to her age.

The letters issued on March 22 by Hindalco industries only offered a notice period of seven days to the occupants to leave their houses. However, these notices were not received by the families until very late. In her own words, Rinchin described the assault, “…while their houses were bulldozed, they filed charges against the three women. The other occupants were then forcefully taken out of the house and the houses were then demolished, without the consent of the people.” One of the three women joining in protest belonged to the Birhor community, whose house was demolished earlier. The local police then filed charges against these women for obstruction under sections 147, 186 of the Indian Penal code. When probed, Hindalco maintained that the tribes have received adequate compensation for their lands.

As news spread, over 250 women from around the area joined a two-day demonstration at the Tamnar Police Station, arguing that the charges should be instead filed against the company, the government and the police who bulldozed their houses. The larger demand here was to ensure that all evictions that had been carried out since 2010, be rehabilitated according to the ‘R & R policy’ and to have fresh investigations conducted over unlawful land evictions.

Eventually, the additional collector and the government officials assured that these charges against the women would be dropped with a promise of immediate compensation and rehabilitation of the three aggrieved families in the next 15 days. The government and company were forced into providing rental accommodation for the two families who had nowhere to go.

A couple of months before this incident occurred, the Sub- Divisional Magistrate court had ruled that the land in Bankheta basti in Kondkel village was wrongly acquired by Hindalco industries and shall be returned back to its rightful owners. Moreover, many such cases are pending before the court under the section Chhattisgarh Land Revenue Code 170 (B).

The land however, has already been mined.

The latest amendment proposed by the central government under the Land Acquisition Act in 2015, argues that seeking “consent” from indigenous landholders would cause various bureaucratic delays and thus, slow down development of the region. With this amendment, the “consent” clause will be struck down for projects meant to build rural infrastructure, industrial corridors and Public Private Partnership modeled development plans.

In response to this ordinance, many land rights activists have protested against the pro-industrialization stance of the government, rendering it regressive. Moreover, the false narrative of “bureaucratic delays” does not extend to government officials committing any wrongdoings while allotting these lands. Any misconduct that may lead to the prosecution of the official is required to be sanctioned from the government itself. Inadvertently, the ordinance also ignores the fact that even the lands acquired with the consent of the community, has done far less to improve their social status.

Deep into the discussion, Rinchin emphasizes how corrupt government institutions have allowed the illegal behaviour of corporates and industries. Women like Tarika Lakra, Madhuri Sidar and others have been on the frontline of resistance to this struggle for their rights. The government has been accused of diluting ecological and environmental protections for corporates in the name of development. The nature of these displacements will most likely push these tribes into further marginalization. Speaking on the biased support of local authorities towards businesses and establishment, tribal rights activist Rinchin rightfully questions the legitimacy of these land evictions. As of now, Raigarh authorities have failed to provide any form of rehabilitation to the displaced Tribal people for forcefully evicting them from their own lands.

 

Sakshi Rai is a freelance researcher based in India. She is a Post Graduate in Economic Development from the University of Glasgow. Her focus of research is rehabilitative polices in post conflict societies and minority rights in South Asia. She can be followed on Twitter: @sakshirai92.

Image Credit: The Hindu (2013)

1 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    October 18, 2016

    Thank you for this essay that adds to the evidence that ‘development’ of either a developing country as well in the ‘developed’ world is all based on denying the same to a major proportion of the human population worldwide.

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