‘Father Stan stood by me’: A life devoted to Jharkhand’s Adivasi and Moolvasi communities

News Laundry | July 06, 2021

Seventeen years of seeing Father Stan’s tireless work for the downtrodden.

As told to Anumeha Yadav

I am the national coordinator of the Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan, a coalition of anti-displacement movements across the country. I live in Jharkhand. Father Stan Swamy, who passed away on July 5, was one of the founders of this broad coalition of people’s movements.

I was jailed for my activism for nine months. The police charged me with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 in a case in 2008. I was later acquitted by the court. Father Stan fought for my release. I was arrested a second time three years ago.

On February 15, 2018, the Jharkhand police arrested me from the site of a seminar organised in Ranchi on democratic rights. I was being hounded for organising an event four months earlier in Giridih to mark 50 years of Naxalbari and the centenary year of Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. Note that this was no clandestine event, the state authorities had given us permission for the event almost 15 days in advance, which was withdrawn just a day before the event to throw a spanner in the works. The police kept me in solitary confinement for this crime in a cell without a window for over three months. Father Stan stood by me and my family through all of this, and advocated for my civil liberties.

Meeting Father Stan

I was born as one of three children in Jitpur panchayat in Tundi in Dhanbad. My father worked as bandhua mazdoor, a bonded labourer, on the farms of upper caste landowners in Dhanbad, a coal-rich region of Jharkhand. After my father worked as a bonded labourer his whole life, the landowner had provided our family a small homestead plot. My father managed to educate me in a government school in the village and in 2003, I left Dhanbad to enroll myself in college in Ranchi.

I first met Father Stan in 2004. I had come in contact with anti-displacement activists in Ranchi when I moved there for higher studies. Their work resonated with me.

After Jharkhand was carved as a new state out of Bihar in 2001, the promise was that the indigenous tribes and people, the Adivasis, and Moolvasis like me, would be able to govern themselves. We were told the region’s socio-economic development would be aligned to our traditions. The Bharatiya Janata Party formed the first government in the new state in 2001.

Jharkhand accounts for more than 40 percent of India’s mineral wealth. This region is abundant in water resources, forests, and mineral riches. One of the first steps the then government took was to sign Memorandums of Understanding with large corporations to give our resources away to companies.

In the past, as part of Bihar, the Jharkhand region saw vast displacement. Lakhs of Adivasis and the poor living in forests and villages were displaced in the establishment of coal mines, bauxite mines, hydel projects such as Masanjore dam, the Tata factory in Jamshedpur and dam in Chandil. These policies led to lakhs of poor families being forced to leave and labour in tea estates or as domestic workers in metropolitan cities.

With the new government signing these MoUs, we again faced the possibility and a threat of large-scale displacement of the poor and those depending on forest and common lands by these projects.

Working together with Father Stan Swamy, and Ranchi’s other progressives, intellectuals, our coalition got information through Right to Information applications of 74 such MoUs to alienate people’s land without their knowledge and consent. Working with Father Stan on this shaped my understanding of how the government even after the formation of a new state planned to sell mineral resources coal, iron, ores to corporates for quick profits, and how this would make the Scheduled Castes, the Scheduled Tribes, the Moolvasis homeless, forcing them to move away.

This is how we constituted Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan, or VVJA, to wage a struggle against displacement.

A life devoted to the people

From 2004, when Father Stan was 67 years old, until now, I saw that his role and focus remained to save and conserve the forests, land, the community hills, which are the source of our livelihood, and our culture. To take part in this struggle, Father Stan wrote articles regularly; he thought about Jharkhand’s indigenous tribes and communities everyday, and he remained with us in every struggle.

For some years now, in Jharkhand as well as other states, the Adivasis who reside in forests and interior villages where the land holds mineral reserves are being coerced to give up their land or face arrests. Also, successive governments have registered false cases against intellectuals, writers, poets, social activists, to put them in prisons, intensifying the challenges for us.

In 2014, and later in April 2017, the Home Ministry labelled the Visthapan Virodhi Janvikas Andolan as a “Maoist” front in its annual report, but we are neither an NGO, nor any front. We are a broad-based people’s movement against displacement. We advocate against forced displacement. In fact, we have faced state violence in the form of false arrests of our members.

Father Stan Swamy co-founded and lived and worked at Bagaicha, a research and training institute in Namkum on the outskirts of Ranchi since 2006. For the past few years, successive governments in Jharkhand have incarcerated youth who resist land acquisition. They were mostly Dalits, Other Backward Castes, and Scheduled Tribes. Over 16 to 18 months from 2012 to 2014, Father Stan tried to reach out to and investigate the conditions of undertrials, their families, and tried to secure bail for them and I worked with him on this.

We submitted applications to all 26 jails of Jharkhand under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI). The total occupancy in Jharkhand prisons was 128 per cent of the actual prison capacity. Interviewing men and women who were alleged to be “extremists” under Section 17 of the Criminal Law and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, we found that Adivasis and Moolvasi constituted nearly 70 percent, about half were in the age group of 29-40 years, and about 22 present belonged to the 18-28 years age-group. Nearly all of them were landless or simple agriculturists, with 59 percent earning less than Rs 3,000 per month. They struggled to meet bail conditions or legal expenses.

Father Stan Swamy highlighted how in September 2016, the National Human Rights Commission after verifying complaints acknowledged that 514 innocent Adivasi youth had been pressured and cheated by paramilitary and police officials to “surrender” as Naxalites promising them jobs and imprisoning them to apply for awards and promotions.

As part of the coalition, Father Stan pursued both these cases in court. His public interest litigation on the undertrials’ release is pending before the Ranchi High Court. In the case of forced, fake “surrender” of Adivasi youth as “Naxalites”, the administration of Chaibasa, Khunti, Gumla, and Ranchi districts did not submit responses in court and tried to delay and drag the case. There have been no hearings in the case since October 2019.

Jharkhand has special tenancy laws meant to protect the land rights of indigenous communities. Five years back, when the then Jharkhand government announced it will amend two tenancy laws to allow use of agricultural land of tribal people for non-agricultural purposes, Father Stan Swamy wrote articles, published booklets, and organised meetings along with Jharkhandi intellectuals and activists to advocate to save these special Acts.

The Chotanagpur Tenancy Act of 1908 restricts the sale of tribal land to non-tribals in 16 districts of Jharkhand. The Santhal Pargana Tenancy Act of 1876 prohibits sale of tribal land to non-tribals in the Santhal Pargana region. Later, the government had to withdraw these amendments.

Along with this, Father Stan advocated for and worked for the implementation of the Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas Act, 1996, the forests rights laws, and the Supreme Court’s Samata judgement which accord primacy of the gram sabha, the villages assemblies, on decisions on land use. These are all laws and judgements which the government ought to have tried to save, but it did not.

Laws meant for special protections for Dalit, Adivasi and oppressed communities are like a kawach, a protective cover, for these communities. Every time the government tried to break these laws, Father Stan stepped up to write, to protest, to express his dissent, to secure the democratic rights of the oppressed.

In the 17 years that I knew him, I realised Father Stan lived for the Adivasi and Moolvasi communities of Jharkhand – thinking of, speaking and writing for them. He made his life’s mission to not only write and speak up for these communities, but to also experience what people are going through by actually living among them. This was his daily routine for the 17 years that I spent with him.

When the police harassed and arrested social and cultural activist Jiten Marandi, a Santhal Adivasi, and tried to brand him a Naxalite, and later even arrested and imprisoned his wife Aparna Marandi who was attending to him in prison, Father Stan went to their village, their home, and raised questions about their arrests. He asked why, after Birsa Munda’s sentencing by the British, the same was being repeated in independent India, targeting an Adivasi who spoke up like this. He took part in several campaigns, public meetings and demonstrations for their release.

Who are these thousands of Adivasis and poor undertrials in Jharkhand? They are those who speak up to protect the natural resources, the jal jungle zameen in their villages? Who are the advocates to conserve the community’s resources and why do they do so? It is because they know that the state’s so-called “development model” has displaced lakhs and crores of Adivasis. It has captured their resources, and forced them out. They have been forced and coerced out of their homes.

Decades after Independence, the government has failed to create basic services and provisions for roti, kapda, makaan, for education and employment, and on top of it, the government tries to loot our livelihood resources and exclude us from them.

The people understand this and that is when they step forward, and then the governments start trapping them in false cases, charges, imprisoning them under black laws such as Unlawful Activities Prevention Act 1967 which allows prolonged incarceration without bail, to keep them locked up for years. The conviction rate in UAPA cases is extremely low at 2.2 percent between 2016-19 (as stated in the Parliament), showing that these charges are largely without any evidence. It was against all this that Father Stan Swamy spoke up, wrote about, and tried to fight their battle through their legal and democratic protests.

The arrest

The National Investigation Agency arrested 84-year old Swamy from Bagaicha in October 2020 while the country reeled under a pandemic and there were curbs on movement after the lockdown. Despite the Covid crisis raging in the country, the NIA officials took him from his home to a place he had never been to before.

We protested this wrong and struggled against his arrest. Eight months on, the State has killed Father Stan Swamy in judicial custody. The judges who knew of his condition as an elderly, ailing person with Parkinson’s disease, who denied him bail, and then tried to stall his case giving dates upon dates for delaying his hearing too are responsible for this.

In the days to come, more social activists and human rights defenders may face the same. This is a big challenge. But Jharkhand has a 400-year-old history of struggle of Adivasi Moolvasi to save land, water, forests and culture – from Birsa Munda’s movement, to Sidho Kano, Tilka Majhi, who revolted against British to protect our resources and culture, our livelihood. We have faced such challenges before and we are ready.

In days to come we will rise against this injustice, taking inspiration from Birsa, Sidho Kano, Tilka Majhi, Chand Bhairav. This fight will not stop – we will come together for activists like Father Stan, for human rights defenders, those opposing CAA-NRC and arrested in false cases, those whose lives are being destroyed as they are kept in prisons, the movement against all this will intensify.

If we, the Adivasis, the Dalits, do not protest and take part in movements, our jal jangal zameen, our source of livelihood will be looted. We have to advance because there is no place for us to retreat.

Damodar Turi is the national coordinator of Visthapan Virodhi Jan Vikas Andolan, a coalition to resist land alienation and forced displacement of poor and indigenous communities.

5 yrs on, schools fail to deposit labour cess

The Tribune | Karam Prakash | July 05, 2021

Mandatory to pay 1% building cost to govt

Though the Education Department has developed many smart schools in the state, but none of these has deposited labour cess, which is mandatory under the Building and Other Construction Workers’ (BOCW) Cess Act. Consequently, cess worth crores has not been deposited at the labour department, which is used for the welfare of construction workers.

As per the BOCW Cess Act, 1996, 1 per cent of the total cost of any construction facility has to be deposited with the labour department as labour cess. The Education Department, in 2016, had already issued orders to the District Education Officers, stating every school had to deposit 1 per cent cess for any construction work at the school. However, none of the schools, despite the instructions, paid the labour cess.

VK Janjua, Principal Secretary, said, “We will again write to the Education Secretary to issue fresh directions to schools to deposit the labour cess.”

Meanwhile, school heads and principals, who get the construction work done, told The Tribune that they were neither informed by any government agency nor had they received any additional amount for labour cess. Amarjeet Singh, District Education Officer, Patiala said, “It is not my responsibility to deposit the money. School heads have to deposit the amount as they look after the construction in schools.”

Mines auction can trigger Odisha’s trillion-dollar dream

the pioneer | July 05, 2021

Mineral wealth is a blessing if measures are taken to transform it into a sustainable development. Odisha has shown to the rest of the country as to how a transparent auctioning process can not only trigger growth and development but can also herald in huge revenue inflows for the State. The State has already triggered the process of auctioning and in 2020 witnessed aggressive participation by 86 companies resulting in successful auction of 17 mines. Moreover, these auctions witnessed high premiums and have even gone up to 154 per cent of the reserve price which proved to be a bonanza for the State.

The table below illustrates the effect of unlocking this wealth through auctions to the exchequer of the State Government. Arcellor Mittal Nippon Steel and JSW Steel have reported desptach of 21 million tonne with a contribution of about 12,0005 crore to the Government exchequer during July-2020 to June-2021 by way of royalty and premium from auctioned mines despite initial hiccups in fully operationalise the mines. Practically mines were hardly operational for six months in the first year since commencement. On the other hand the non-auctioned mines such as Tata Steel ( three mines), SAIL( four mines), Rungta (two mines), Essel (one mine) contributed6,189 crores to the State exchequer by dispatching 56 million tonnes during the period. This is just the contribution of two corporates and if you extrapolate the figures for the entire State then one can only imagine the quantum of economic growth the State is looking at. Contribution to State Ex-exchequer by auctioned and non-auctioned mines in Odisha: In the first quarter of 2021 the revenue collection would be above 9,049 crore, up from2,735 crore generated in the corresponding period of the previous fiscal. It needs to be underlined here that this spike is achieved despite Covid headwinds and only 16 blocks of auctioned mines starting their production activities.

In future, if approximately 250 MT of iron ore in the State is put to auction with an average price of 3, 000 per tonne and calculation be done with average auction premium of 75per cent, Odisha would generate revenue of around 56,250 crores annually.

About 40% of India’s districts have some form of coal dependency

Mongabay | July 05, 2021

The government had mandated that 60 percent of the DMF contributions collected by each district should be applied in high priority areas including health care, education, skill development, and sanitation.

— India has been under international pressure to rapidly phase out coal and scale up the installation of renewable power systems. However, much work remains for a fair transition of coal-dependent communities.

— A latest study has found that close to 40 percent of India’s 736 districts have some form of coal-dependency whether it is money collected through District Mineral Foundation or the direct and indirect jobs the coal sector provides.

— Experts argue that for a just transition in the coal sector, long-term planning for a period without coal, needs to start now, while keeping in mind the interests of the coal-dependent communities.

As countries around the world are gearing up to attend the crucial 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP 26) in Glasgow this year to deliberate strategies to combat the climate crisis, there is increasing pressure on India to reduce its coal dependency. However, if India takes steps to phase out coal, it has implications for several Indian states and their local districts.

A latest study finds that close to 40 percent of districts in India have some form of coal dependency as they are either home to coal workers or pensioners, collect funds under the District Mineral Foundation (DMF) or are benefitting from coal mining companies spending billions of rupees under the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes.

The study was published by Sandeep Pai, a researcher, as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of British Columbia. He analysed data collected from coal-mining company Coal India Limited (CIL), power utility company NTPC, Coal Controller’s Organisation and India’s Ministry of Coal, among others. The analysis shows that India’s transition away from coal cannot be ‘just’ for people and the environment unless comprehensive interventions are planned and implemented, addressing the concerns of millions of people involved directly or indirectly.

“There are 284 districts (38.5 percent) in India that have some form of coal dependency. They are either home to coal workers or coal pensioners or collect DMF revenues, or benefit from the CSR spending by coal companies. Out of these 284 districts, I found that 33 districts are among the most coal-dependent and would be central for any just transition planning,” Pai told Mongabay-India.

In India, so far, coal mining is largely led by government-owned companies. For instance, in 2018-2019, CIL, Singareni Collieries Company Limited (SCCL), and Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC), the three largest government-owned coal mining companies, produced 93 percent of the total coal produced in India. According to the study, the coal sector provides millions of direct, indirect, and induced jobs. The study states that CIL directly employs 270,000 people but “the number of indirect jobs (such as people working for contractors who repair coal mining equipment) and induced jobs (involving people working in local retail industries in coal towns such as in tea shops or grocery stores) … are common in all coal-producing regions.”

In terms of jobs, the study estimates that 3.6 million people are either directly or indirectly employed in the coal mining and power sectors in 159 districts in India. Of the 3.6 million people, nearly 80 percent of these coal jobs are linked to the coal mining sector located in 51 districts while the rest 20 percent of coal jobs are linked to coal power plant jobs. “This is an important finding as it shows that the coal mining sector’s socio-economic contribution in terms of jobs is much higher than the power sector but that it is more concentrated in a smaller number of districts,” said Pai.

Some of these 159 districts exhibit a heavy coal dependency on account of direct and indirect coal mining and coal power plant jobs. For instance, there are seven districts with over 100,000 direct and indirect coal mining and coal power plant jobs while there are 43 districts (including the seven) that have over 10,000 such jobs and 83 districts have 1,000-10,000 such jobs.

According to the study, the Dhanbad district in Jharkhand is home to the largest number of coal workers at nearly 500,000, the majority of whom are employed in the coal mining sector.

The concept of ‘Just Transition’ from coal to clean energy has gained pace across the world with many governments and international organisations formulating strategies to help fossil fuel workers and their communities navigate such a transition in a fair manner.

For India, the issue is critical as the country is trying to increase its domestic coal production as well as step up the installation of renewable power. Experts have, however, said that the increase in coal mining is not in conformity with India’s climate goals and will increase the coal dependency, making the implementation of just transition harder.

In 2015, India had promised a reduction in the emissions intensity of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 33 to 35 percent; achieving about 40 percent installed power capacity from non-fossil fuel-based energy resources; energy efficiency; and creating an additional carbon sink of 2.5-3 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent through additional forest and tree cover.

“Beyond jobs, policymakers also need to focus on economic, social, regional, demographic, and other aspects of just transition. The study finds that just transition is not only a jobs problem. It requires a holistic understanding of different social, economic, demographic, and other issues. Just transition also requires a spatial, geographic lens. What is required for a just transition may vary at the regional level within a country; different regions may have different just transition considerations,” Pai said.

He said proper implementation of just transition strategies for fossil fuel workers and their communities may help “increase the general acceptability of climate policies among fossil fuel-dependent communities.”

Coal mining contributes heavily to the DMF funds and CSR

In June 2015, through an amendment in India’s central mining law – the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulation) Act (MMDR Amendment Act 2015) – DMFs were introduced in all districts in the country that were affected by mining-related operations. These district mineral foundations were tasked with managing and utilising the funds for the interest and benefit of people and areas affected by mining.

The government had mandated that 60 percent of the DMF contributions collected by each district should be applied in high priority areas including health care, education, skill development, and sanitation.

Pai’s study claims that in at least nine Indian states, the coal mining industry pays considerable taxes and royalties to state and district governments. The royalties paid at the district level are direct contributions to the DMF funds.

For instance, in 2019, the CIL paid approximately Rs. 500 billion (Rs 50,000 crores) in total taxes and royalties to federal, state and district governments – which is about three percent of federal governments’ annual revenue collection. According to the study, the coal industry collectively contributed Rs. 33.46 billion (Rs. 3,346 crore) towards DMF in 52 districts in India. In 2019-2020, coal mining and power companies also spent Rs. 10.11 billion (Rs. 1,011 crores) as CSR spending in sectors such as health, education and infrastructure development.

Of Rs. 10.11 billion, about Rs 6.8 billion (Rs. 680 crore) was spent by companies in 90 districts while the remaining Rs. 3.3 billion (Rs. 330 crore) was spent on national and state projects that were not tied to any particular district, the study said. The study shows that “some districts are more heavily dependent on jobs, while others have large numbers of pensioners or depend more on DMF contributions or CSR spending.”

Pai said that “money collected and spent under the DMF or CSR component is critical for development work in some districts.”

“Take the case of Angul district in Odisha – it has the highest level of CSR spending. In 2019-20, about Rs. 1.31 billion (Rs. 131 crore) were spent. So, if a state in India loses coal royalties and this revenue is not replaced by other sources, overall cuts in state spending may impact coal-dependent districts as well. This might be more severe in states like Jharkhand where there is heavy coal dependency in multiple districts and the state government itself relies on coal royalties,” the study notes.

Srestha Banerjee, who is the Director, Just Transition at the International Forum for Environment, Sustainability and Technology (iForest), a think-tank working on issues related to the environment and ‘Just Transitions’, said the DMF funds are not going to dry up tomorrow but what is needed is proper planning.

“DMF money is not going anywhere for the next 15-20 years (this depends on the district’s mining activities/ mine life) at least. What is required is to plan about its proper usage right now so that there can be a focused endeavour on creating long-term assets, and diversify income opportunities at the local level. Once such provisions are carved out then even if the DMF money is not there tomorrow the villages or towns won’t feel their absence,” Banerjee told Mongabay-India.

She explained that many local officials also explain that the DMF money comes without any conditions attached and they can do wonders with that but what they lack is their capacity to plan with long-term goals.

“Districts should use five percent of the DMF annual budget for proper planning and implementation. There is a need to create dedicated capacity for DMF planning and implementation. Also, our districts should create a future corpus using DMF funds for long-term security. We also need to ensure the participation of the public, specifically from mining-affected communities, in the bodies deciding the usage of the DMF funds. Basically, we need to plan for the future and maximise the resources by ensuring optimum usage today,” she said.

About 500,000 people depend on pensions from the coal sector

According to Pai’s study, there are nearly half a million coal industry pensioners in India living in 199 districts, whose pensions depend on the continuation of the coal mining industry.

The pension fund for coal miners is run by Coal Mines Provident Fund Organisation, a government organisation that collects equal contributions from coal mining companies and workers, then pays pensions to coal mine workers after their retirement. This means that money from existing workers and coal companies is paid out to retired workers and thus any transition away from coal would lead to consequences for coal industry pensioners.

Sanjay Namdeo, who is the head of the Communist Party of India (CPI) in Madhya Pradesh’s Singrauli, a district with high coal dependency, said: “The conversation around energy transition is good but we need to remember that a coal sector worker who spends his or her entire life working in the coal mines should get the pension or health benefits. Taking that right away from them is not right.”

“If that happens their life will be in a disarray. When a politician who is elected can get a pension why not these workers who spend their entire life in this sector. Any plan for the transition of such workers or areas needs to focus on ensuring that the workers get these benefits till they are alive,” Namdeo told Mongabay-India.

Pai said that it is important to understand the socio-economic dimensions of coal transitions in order to create just transition plans for coal-dependent communities that will facilitate justice in transition, and help mitigate potential political resistance these communities may raise against such low carbon policies.

DMF can be used for gauthans: CM Baghel

the pioneer | June 29, 2021

Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel on Monday said the District Mineral Foundation Trust Fund (DMF) should be utilised to upgrade the arrangements in gauthans established under Suraji Gaon Yojana.

Development of grazing area, shed construction for multi-activity centres, construction of Devgudi and ‘Ghotul’ in Bastar region are permitted under the Fund, he said.

Baghel was holding a review meeting of the Mining department here, an official statement stated.

He said the plan is to develop gauthans as Rural Industrial Park. The shed constructed will be utilized for income generation activities by women self help groups.

The CM Haat-Bazaar Clinic Scheme has been effective in remote and rural areas. The vehicles for the scheme will be procured from the DMF.

Baghel said farmers should be provided irrigation facilities by installing pumps to utilize water stored in unused mines. The royalty amount of minor minerals should be disbursed to the Panchayats.

The Chief Minister approved a proposal to explore new areas for minerals mainly diamond, gold, silver, copper, tungsten, base metal, nickel, bauxite and iron ore with assistance from companies having mining technical expertise.

Star Rating standards have been developed for mining lease holders. The rating is based on scientific and systematic mining of mines, environmental protection, conservation of minerals and compliance of mine safety measures.

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