Land of sufferance

  • 14/09/1999

Land of sufferance January 5, 1998. A number police personnel and district officials in several vehicles descend on Kucheipadar, a remote tribal village in Rayagada district, Orissa. They dismantle a roadblock put up by the villagers. As several people including children and women gather, they are teargassed and lathicharged. People sustain injuries on their heads, arms and legs. Subsequently, some of the local leaders are booked in serious cases of offence.

Rayagada is a quiet tribal district in Orissa. Why was the state sending its police forces to control these people? The answer perhaps lies in the roadblock; a sure sign that people were beginning to assert themselves. They were fighting for their right to their land, their livelihood and to protect the environment. These protests hampered the work of three multinational corporations that hoped to mine and process the rich bauxite reserves of the region.

The trouble began more than four years ago, when the people prevented surveys and installation of rigs and other machines of the mining companies in Kashipur block of the district. They petitioned the government demanding to know why these companies were coming to their region and what would be the stakes for them.

The only response to their petitions came in the form of arrests, false cases, and a gunda raj under the patronage of the mining companies. Even then, the people kept up their resistance and the work of the companies was forced to slow down. This perhaps led to mounting pressure on the state, which intervened on behalf of the companies. But even as it came down heavily on the leaders of the movement, anti-socials elements patronised by the companies, were largely left untouched.

Since Independence, dams and industries cover more than 5,00,000 hectares of land in undivided Koraput region, displacing six per cent of the entire population of the region. The people in the present struggle have witnessed the trauma of displacement at close quarters, as their own kith and kin have suffered due to the various projects. Some of them have settled down in Kashipur and are likely to be displaced a second time by the Utkal Alumina International project. In the earlier projects too, there have been expressions of protests, and the people have raised their voice against displacement. What is perhaps different on this occasion is the people's united, sustained and determined resistance to the mining companies.

Despite several petitions and applications, the state has not called the affected people to the negotiating table, nor has it stated clearly what the people will gain from the bargain. Figures of displacement given by the state are belied by the surveys and mapping work taken up, and people do not trust them anymore. Rehabilitation packages drawn up by the companies do not explain how people will be compensated for their commons, and women for the loss of the forests which sustain their food gathering economy. The tribal people are largely landless and depend on shifting cultivation on land where entitlements are not permitted. They will be left with no means of sustenance - once mining activities begin.

The people have received little help in this situation, other than local voluntary organisations who have stepped in with legal aid and networking support to assist the struggle of the people to attract wider public attention. This support, however, has made the state very hostile to these organisations, and it has cracked down on them by serving a show cause notice for de-registration to Agragamee and Lakshman Nayak Society for Rural development. Members of Agragamee have also been arrested and booked in several false cases.

This is the state of democracy in our country, where people's questions will be answered by lathicharges, where peaceful expressions of protest are countered by armed police, where members of law abiding voluntary organisations with the state mandate to implement government schemes for education, people's organisation and human resource development are treated like common criminals, where innocent tribal people are rounded up and imprisoned while known criminals are left untouched? The state, in India is a mighty force. With the people's mandate it can do much and constructively for a community's development, for a country's development. The question remains will it?

( The author is a free lance writer based in Rayagada, Orissa).

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